Last April, Malcolm Angell, a 41-year-old New Zealander who moved to Montreal to work in the city’s famous visual effects industry, was hospitalized after attempting suicide.
According to his brother Ivan, he was back at work at the Montreal-based visual effects studio Mill Film two days later. A month later, shortly after he learned his mother had a brain tumor and didn’t have to live long, Angell tried again to commit suicide. This time he died.
Angell’s former colleagues claim the work environment at Mill Film is toxic. It is said that 80-hour workweek was common and that Angell was regularly humiliated by his superiors. Ivan says he is sure his brother would have resigned – had it not been for a clause in Angell’s contract that he would have to pay a $ 35,000 fine.
The story told by Angell’s colleagues is not uncommon in Canada’s visual effects and animation sector, according to industry experts. Long hours of overtime, often unpaid, are considered normal, they say. And employees in these industries are at risk – especially foreign workers – who sign short-term contracts and are afraid to speak out for fear of not being reinstated.
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For Vanessa Kelly, a former animator and union organizer in Vancouver’s animation industry, Angell’s suicide is a sign that something is completely wrong with visual effects. She said similar problems exist in animation and video game companies across Canada.
“These are films. Why do people die for movies? “said Kelly, director general of the Art Babbitt Appreciation Society, which tries to organize animators in Vancouver.
Angell had nearly 20 years of experience in film and began working on the set during the production of The Lord of the Rings. In August 2019, he moved to Montreal to work in the city’s visual effects industry – one of the largest in the world. Colleagues and friends say it wasn’t long before the job got to him.
The Canadian press spoke to three former Angell colleagues who painted a picture of a workplace where Angell was under extreme pressure and where bosses yelled at him during meetings. Complaints to Human Resources and senior executives went nowhere.
The Canadian press has agreed not to identify these workers for fear of repercussions. All three of the named people in the industry who speak out against working conditions are often blacklisted.
“The work kind of sucks,” Angell wrote in an email to a friend in New York City in early September 2019. By November, he said in an email to the same friend that he was doing two people’s work. A planned trip to New Zealand for a wedding in February 2020 has been canceled, his brother Ivan said in a recent interview because Angell couldn’t get free time.
Ivan Angell said friends had noticed a change in his brother by December. The man who was described in an obituary as a “super friend” who always smiled has become a “shadow of himself,” he said.
Julia Neville, of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said fears of being blacklisted to speak out in the visual effects industry were legitimate. Visual effects artists are precarious workers, Neville said, because their contracts are usually for one project at a time. “There’s always this underlying uncertainty,” she said. Foreign workers like Angell are “particularly at risk”.
“You can’t just cross the street and work for another visual effects house – all of your ability to work in Canada is tied to a specific employer,” said Neville. Much of the film industry is unionized, but the vast majority of visual effects artists are not, she said. Long hours and unpaid overtime “are very common,” she said, adding that unfair labor practices are common in other entertainment sectors such as animation, reality television and advertising.
According to Neville, visual effects companies try to undercut each other for working on projects produced by large film studios.
“This pressure is put down on the worker,” she said.
“What happens in the end is that there is never enough time to accomplish what you need to do.”
Angell’s former colleagues said he is under extreme pressure to end his role in the Tom Hanks film, “Bios”. They said Angell and the team he oversaw had been directed by his supervisors at Mill Film to complete additional work but had not been given more time or money to do it.
Another element that tied Angell to his employer was his contract, a copy of which News Gob has viewed. The contract contained a clause that said he would have to pay Mill Film $ 35,000 in compensation should he leave in the middle of a project.
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The indemnity clause identified Angell as a “key member” of the team and stated that the company would contract Angell’s services for its client. The contract stipulated that the company could decide to waive the indemnification clause for “certain, very exceptional and serious” reasons.
Adelle Blackett, a law professor at McGill University and labor law expert, said the clause was “deeply worrying”. Quebec Labor Standards require employers to create working conditions that “protect the dignity, health and wellbeing of workers,” she wrote in an email. “An employee who works under conditions of freedom must be able to terminate an employment contract with only minimal restrictions.”
Technicolor, Mill Film’s parent company, didn’t provide anyone to speak about the taping. In a statement sent via email, the company said Angel’s death was “a traumatic and tragic event for his family, friends and our team”. We mourn him and continue to express our deepest condolences to his family. “
The company announced that it has launched a new employee mental health support program since Angel’s death – due to the “severity and isolation of the pandemic”. Another program has been launched to encourage employees to “report” inappropriate behavior, the company said.
“Technicolor has a longstanding and solid anti-harassment policy in Canada. This includes, among other things, comprehensive measures against bullying and related measures against retaliation, ”it continues. The company takes complaints seriously and has not received any formal complaints about Angell’s treatment at Mill Film.
Kelly, who gave up animation work in 2017 to graduate with a science degree, said unpaid overtime was common. “There is a huge shortage of talent in animation and (visual effects),” she said, adding that companies often don’t have the budget to hire more people. “We have to fill these gaps with overtime and they don’t want to pay us for it.”
Kelly said she got into union organization after working on a project as a storyboard artist. She said her workload suddenly doubled, but she stayed the same. The work – which required hours of unpaid overtime – damaged her wrist and eyesight, she said.
“My physical body has been injured, my mental performance has been injured, and my relationships have been injured. And I looked around and said what is this for? A PBS show for kids? “
For many animation workers, the job is part of their identity, Kelly said. “People don’t do this because they just want a job, but because they have a skill and passion.
“You eat, live and breathe that.” But behind the scenes she said, “There’s blood on the screen.”