Ex-Meteor Studios workers seek pay

Journey to the Center of the Earth scored US$20.6 million at the box office in its opening weekend in North America, yet dozens who worked on its special effects at Montreal’s Meteor Studios have yet to be paid in full for their handiwork, according to Meteor’s bankruptcy filing document obtained by Playback.

The situation has all the earmarks of a growing industry trend in which post shops desperate for work are underbidding for jobs and then can’t meet payroll. It also calls into question FX artists’ ability to protect themselves in such an instance.

There are 92 Canadian employees named in the bankruptcy suit (filed by trustee RSM Richter Inc. on March 10), which lists $598,176 as owing to employees. That total does not include freelancers or their fees.

The document defines Meteor Studios as ‘a Quebec Corporation formed in 2000 of which Evergreen Digital LLC (50%) and Discovery Trademark Holding Company Inc. (50%) are the shareholders…Its main client was The Discovery Channel.’

Maryland-based Discovery VP and spokesperson Katie Wolfgang tells Playback that Discovery held a ‘passive non-controlling interest’ in Meteor, and that ‘matters related to the management of Meteor Studios, its employees and operations were handled by Meteor Studios’ principals.’

Pierre de Lespinois, an American and former Meteor president and a principal of Evergreen Films LLC, did not return requests for comment.

Discovery’s Wolfgang also made a point of adding that ‘there is no relationship between Discovery Communications and Lumière VFX,’ a new visual effects studio that opened its doors in February 2008 in the same location as the now-defunct Meteor.

Lumière currently employs many former Meteor staffers and is involved with de Lespinois insofar as he is handling the VFX on Lost City Raiders (starring James Brolin), a new $6.4-million series announced in March by Munich-based Tandem Communications and on which Lumière has been contracted.

American-born Aaron Dem is both Lumière’s president of production and the previous VP of production for Meteor who oversaw its FX work on Journey, which was completed and delivered on time.

‘[Meteor] absolutely finished our work on Journey,’ says Dem. ‘I started bidding on the project in October of 2005, we started shooting in June of 2006, and wrapped our work in November of 2007.’

Nonetheless, Meteor closed its doors for good right after Journey was completed in November 2007.

Dem acknowledges that people are owed money for their work on Journey, himself included. He also says there is no connection between Meteor and Lumière.

‘There is no affiliation between Lumière VFX and Meteor Studios nor any of Meteor’s past owners,’ says Dem. ‘[Lumière] is also not linked to Discovery nor are we linked to de Lespinois, aside from the fact that he’s an employee of a production company [Lumière] is doing business with.

‘[Lumière] is a brand new studio being funded by European backers with the point of producing content of its owners and third-party businesses,’ Dem continues. ‘We’re looking to build a successful company in Montreal.

‘The people who liked working for me trusted me, so the majority of people who work for me at Lumière had worked for me at Meteor,’ Dem explains.

‘Unfortunately, we’re in the same building, because when we took over the lease, we walked into a turnkey situation, and we had a show [Lost City Raiders] to start.’

Dem says it was a lack of work that ultimately shuttered Meteor in November 2007, and the bankruptcy suit suggests the Writers Guild of America strike was the culprit.

The bankruptcy filing subsequently names 92 Meteor employees as ‘unsecured ordinary creditors,’ and later in the document it says ‘there will be no funds available to pay any dividend to the preferred or unsecured creditors of Meteor.’

Montrealer Louis Paré, a sequence lead lighter on Journey who worked on the project for a year, says he is still owed roughly $11,000 for his work, stating ‘we worked crazy overtime hours for the whole summer, being told that we were going to get paid when – and only when – we delivered the movie.’

‘We doubt they’ll be paid,’ says an RSM employee who requested anonymity. ‘We recommend all employees register with their Commission des normes du travail du Québec on these kinds of issues,’ in order to seek remuneration.

A Quebec government agency that reports to the minister of labor, the Normes du travail operates in the public interest to promote fair and balanced relations between employers and employees in compliance with the 1980 act respecting labor standards.

The employees who have filed with the Normes remain hopeful that Meteor had insurance on their wages. If so, they could possibly be paid by Christmas. However, it would only compensate employees who show up on payroll, and would not include foreign or local freelancers.

Philip Manel, trustee-administrator for RMS Richter, says that ‘anyone who is a freelancer – whether they are Canadian, U.S. or otherwise international – could be listed as a creditor in the bankruptcy filing. The ‘however’ is that we’re not expecting payment to any creditors in this case.’

Many international freelancers who worked for Meteor on Journey are disillusioned.

Nicolas Dufort, a junior technical director on contract at Meteor during Journey, claims he is owed money for his last month on the job. Born in France, Dufort has lived on and off in the U.S. for 15 years.

‘On top of financial hardship caused by this, it also created quite a mess for all of us non-Canadians who had to pay tax income to Canada and Quebec. We never got any kind of papers from Meteor, making it almost impossible to file tax returns.’

Montreal-based Patrick Comtois worked at Meteor from August 2002 to November 2007, heading up the modeling department and the layout department for the mine ride sequence on Journey when Meteor closed.

‘Meteor owes me a week of regular pay and my vacation pay,’ he alleges. ‘Not a lot of money compared to my former coworkers…I’m one of the lucky ones in this ordeal.’

Canadian freelancer Geoff Marshall says that he too is owed money, but notes that this situation for digital effects artists is part of a disturbing industry trend.

‘The reality is, when you look at declining salaries, lack of benefits, increased overtime demands and the constant insecurity of endless six-week contracts, what was once a very specialized, creative field is becoming increasingly exploitive in order to remain competitive,’ he says.

Many ex-Meteor employees who spoke to Playback for this story requested anonymity, although they claim that they lost wages ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.

Journey’s lead FX artist Dave Rand even issued a news release to draw attention to the situation.

‘We resorted to this method because we’d tried everything else and this is a major motion picture release,’ Rand says. He says he is personally owed US$15,000, but is more concerned that his name as a ‘good supervisor’ remains intact and that the people he supervised eventually get paid.

When asked about why he is going public, Rand responds: ‘First, to stop this trend in our industry of exploiting digital FX artists, and encourage unionization at some level. And second, to get these artists paid and stop this from happening again in bigger special effects houses.’

Rand says such treatment hardly amounts to an isolated incident.

‘It’s the only time in the history of man where artists can deliver a product that actually makes money, and we’re still being treated much like Michelangelo when he painted the Sistine Chapel.’

Internet blogs in a forum on the website for the Society of Digital Artists (cgsociety.org) suggest that artists require organizations to protect them.

‘What is it about artists that they will continue working on mere promises that they will get paid ‘eventually?’ I’ve done it too. This is where unions are valuable things. Animators at studios that are union organized don’t get stiffed like that.’