« Iterations - Editorial friend or foe? | Main | Call Me a Hole - Music is Formula »

Why MY icon isn't green - Negotiating

Scott McQuaid, a technical director that I used to work with long ago once said to me, “If you can’t say ‘no’ then you aren’t really negotiating.”

The VFX community is all up in arms right now because of the movie “Life of Pi” which won best cinematography. The film was filled with visual effects. Apparently the guy who accepted the award didn’t thank the VFX people, but then again… I think the film won best VFX?  I don’t know, I don’t care about the movie. 

On Oscar Sunday there was a bunch of whiney VFX people protesting and picketing the Oscars because they didn’t feel they were recognized enough.

So then it turns out Rhythm and Hues, the lead VFX company filed for bankruptcy right before the Oscars, and they somehow want to blame the…. Oh my god… I couldn’t care less about these people. 

Here is the problem. You don’t do a job if you don’t feel you are being paid enough. 


The flip side of that coin is this. You always do your very best work. You do work that is above the competition. You give your clients your undivided attention. You bend over backward to meet their needs. What you DON’T do, is bend over forward.

Now, this goes for the guy sitting at a workstation doing wire removal, the lead compositors, the animators, the texture people, the guys who do the virtual lighting of a virtual set, the people that help the actors into those little suits with all the yellow ping pong balls. 

If you feel you aren’t being paid enough, then DON’T go into work the next day.  What is the result of this. All of a sudden the studio starts seeing a bunch of wires in their final shots and they don’t understand why. They call the VFX people and they say, yea, we can’t afford wire removal anymore on the budgets you give us, so thats the way its gonna be. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete tool. I DO realize that they will probably just get another guy to come in and do the job at the same rate that you refused to do it. And if that is the case then one of two things is true, either A. you over valued your worth to the situation or B. the guy that replaced you is more of a bitch then you were and CLEARLY doesn’t value HIS time.

So then, what ends up happening is that the VFX studios have these big facilities with a bunch of workstations and hard drives and servers, they have tons of fancy desks and chairs but they have no asses to put in them. Why? Because the VFX people started to say, “wow, this job sucks for THIS MUCH MONEY”. 

I know what you are thinking, you’re saying, yea Chris, thats called a union and thats what we are fighting for. No. Thats called respecting yourself and KEEPING all your money and not giving dues to some union mob goon.

I have two stories to tell you before you tell me I’m a complete idiot. After you read the stories you are MORE then welcome to tell me I’m a complete idiot. 

Story Number 1

 My first broadcast job was at a PBS facility that was part of a community college. The way the “pay” worked was that they used students who were seeking credit in their classes to work on various jobs that the station would take on. So the first 4 hours a week you worked it went to credit in your broadcasting classes and after that you could make a few bucks, and I DO mean a FEW bucks. I think back then we got paid about 6 or 7 bucks an hour. But hey, I was 23 years old and I got to sit behind a big giant production switcher with a ton of buttons, so that was pretty cool. 

I did this for a few years, and met many great directors from the outside that would come in with various clients who were renting the studio and crew. On several occasions I was being asked to go and work on the outside at other facilities and this opened my eyes. You see, back then in the mid 80’s a technical director doing live television could easily make 200 a day, or 20 an hour for a standard 10 hour day, a far cry from the 6 bucks an hour I was making at the station. 

Eventually I got fed up. 

One day I went to the station and walked into the General Managers office and I said, “We need to talk”. 

I explained to him the disparity between what he paid me and what the rest of the production community paid and I told him that I thought I brought expert level abilities to my desk and that both he and his clients benefited from that and I wanted to be compensated for it. Fairly!

He sat back in his chair and hemmed and hawed and told me that there was no way that the college could pay me 20 dollars an hour and that there was no “mechanism” for that in his books. I told him that I didn’t care about that. It was not my problem and that he would have to figure that out because that was HIS job. I then told him that I would not set foot back in his building until this was resolved. I also explained to him that my next shifts was 3 days away and it was a live show that I was supposed to switch. 

For the next 3 days I called his office to try to get an update from him. He dodged my calls. I won’t go into all the details but he was there. His secretary lied for him and he dodged my calls. 

On the evening of the live show, I got a call from the production manager asking where I was and I told him that he needed to walk down the hall and talk to the General Manager. I soon got a call from the General Manager and he was “shocked” I hadn’t come in to work. I reminded him very emphatically that I had said I was not setting foot in the building until our dispute was resolved. He told me to come in the next morning and we’d work out a deal. 

The next morning I went to his office, we sat down, we agreed to a method so that I could paid my $20.00 an hour I was asking and then he said, “So, are we ok now?”, to which I responded, “Well there is just one more thing.” If you are going to pay me that amount then you have to pay Phil the same amount. Phil was my friend who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes there and there was no way I was going to leave him behind or get paid more then he was. 

Rick sat back in his chair and very uncharacteristically let out a few choice curse words and then said, “FINE”.

I then walked down the hall and pulled Phil out of a pre-light for an upcoming production and let him know he just got a raise tripling his current pay. That was one of the best negotiating sessions of my career. 

Story number 2, (thanks for hanging in there). 

The next place I worked was KQED in San Francisco. This was my first experience with a union shop and in order to do any work there I had to join NABET. They required something like 2 weeks or 2 months of your salary to join, and they took a big cut out of every pay check too. 

One of the directors I had worked with was doing a cooking show there and she dragged me along as her Assistant Director. Eventually that job led to doing some live technical directing during the aftermath of the 1989 earthquake and I had been given the chance to prove myself as competent behind a production switcher. Eventually a strip show came up that the station was going to produce. A nightly variety show that I was very qualified to do, not only cutting the show but also creating all the elements on the spot that would be used during the show.

Now, its important to know, that I was a temp there but the Assistant Director of the show was advocating me as the best candidate for the show, the Director of the show wanted me at her side and even the Producer of the show was requesting me by name to the station as the guy they wanted working on their show. As a card carrying, dues paying, member of the union, I could have walked in, day one and nailed that show! No training, not warm up period. Just nailed it.

However, the station had a “better” idea. 

They thought it was a better idea bring in a freelance TD for two weeks to sit with one of their AUDIO guys and TRAIN him to be a technical director on the show that I was being REQUESTED to work on. And yet, here was a guy who had paid the union the same dues he was paying who could ACTUALLY DO THE JOB but I didn’t get the show. 

Oh, and to make matters worse, on the first night of the show, the idiot audio engineer turned TD, COULD NOT FADT TO BLACK! When it came time to fade to black at the end of the show he couldn’t do it. He dissolved to the un used camera 1 which was pointed at the wall and had some sort of indicator light like off of a phone or something that was hanging on the wall. Nice!!! Good job!

I vowed to never work for another union again. I let my membership expire and I have NEVER EVER looked back once. 

And one more thing, today, I make WAY more then I EVER would have made working for the union. WAY more.

So here is my point. 

At KCSM I was uniquely qualified to do my job. I was very good at it and no one around me could replace me. When I didn’t show up that night, the live show crashed and burned and they wanted me back the next week. After my taking a stand the station went thru a bit of a revival and changed the way all the student assistants were paid and then began and era of using part-time temporary craftsmen and artists serving their outside clients.

KQED is still there, still doing their union thing and producing ALMOST NO programming because it is too expensive to work there. Last I heard, the audio mook turned TD was still there too.

So whats my point?

Do your job, excel, be excellent and don’t take crap from people. If you don’t like the situation you are in. MOVE ON. 

It may very well be that movies like “Life of Pi” will never be made again. But my guess is that some kid will look at the crap wages that the next VFX house that replaces Rhythm and Hues  is offering and think its REALLY COOL that he gets to work in Show business.

Perhaps it was best said by Hunter S. Thompson.

“The television  (and film) business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long, plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and where weak men die like dogs, but you can get free cookies.”

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (3)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (1)

Hey Chris, I just discovered the Digital Convergence podcast and have been listening on my daily commute. Invaluable conversations there. Really enjoy your input in the discussions.

I totally agree with you 100% about standing up for what you're worth. I'm in the process of making a hard decision with my current employer. Where I live, there aren't a ton of production houses to work for, and I've been fairly isolated, so not a lot of good contacts. I live in a fairly large city, but not much competition in the realm of production, so my main consideration is starting up my own shop. I'm really nervous about going from a steady paycheck to who-knows-what. Any advice?

A side note about Rhythm & Hues: they apparently paid their staff extremely well, which is part of the reason they went under. Apparently several very large projects had major delays, and during the delays most of the staff was retained, and apparently R&H was squeezed dry. It's an interesting lesson - maybe there should be fees charged for large project delays to help cover the retention of workers (you can't expect to let a bunch of freelancers go, and then have them available again to pick back up right where they left off - they'll go on to other jobs, I'd imagine).

Here's the best article I've seen as to what actually happened for anyone interested
April 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTristan

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.