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Persistence of Vision: The Ethics of Artistic Labor in the Visual Effects Industry

Thet Shein Win (Stanford University)

Within a few years of conducting field research with artists working in the visual effects (VFX) industry in the California Bay Area, several informants had transitioned out of the industry. This was in part due to the various individual life trajectories, but also influenced by where the industry was headed in 2009. The motion picture industry has for the most part transitioned to digital practices. Visual effects artists generate much of the digital illusions in contemporary feature films. These workers consider themselves to be artists and understand what they do as requiring aesthetic and artistic skills. Some directors and producers, on the other hand, have not acknowledged the complexity of VFX labor and so they have outsourced it and tried to reduce costs as much as possible. Compounding the problem, various governments have provided subsidy incentives that put small firms at odds with each other, competing for lower wages and shorter time frames. During the 2013 Academy Awards, and again in 2014, VFX workers protested outside the ceremonies, and efforts were being made to form a labor union. Within this setting, multiple layers of ethical complexity emerge regarding visual effects artists and their artistic labor. An ecosystem of microethics that range from everyday practices and individual small acts, to global markets and institutional structures, make it nearly impossible to point fingers in any single direction–or more importantly, to generate any simple solution. For instance, do we focus on the teenager downloading a pirated movie before its release? The production companies that conduct backroom deals to keep artists’ wages down? The potential inequity between the production costs of a film and the ultimate revenue if it becomes a blockbuster? The art schools that churn out aspiring and debt-laden visual effects artists when there are few jobs available to them? The affective cultural fantasy of a career in the film and game industries that lures young people into thinking they will be playing instead of working? The artists who voluntarily work overtime because their egos have become enmeshed in their artistic production? The acceptance of a normative 100-hour work-week that precludes most working parents? This discussion aims to be a launching pad for some of these interrelated questions regarding the ethics of artistic labor in the visual effects industry.

View Thet’s discussion online. Tune in from 2.30pm-2.45pm EST Saturday 6 December for the live-stream.

View Thet’s recent article, ‘Marketing the Entrepreneurial Artist in the Innovation Age: Aesthetic Labor, Artistic Subjectivity, and the Creative Industries‘, in the journal Anthropology of Work Review.

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 Mitali Thakor Sabra Thorner Migual Diaz Barriga Thet Win Brent Luvaas el-Sayed el-Aswad Barbara Hoffman Jessika Tremblay Kendall Roark Aaron Thornburg 

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