Unsung workers who make movie superheroes fly and lightsabers crackle are turning to labor unions as relentless demand for content turns dream jobs into grueling routines.
A union trend that started at an independent game studio last year is gaining momentum as video streaming services vie for subscribers and video game makers push to keep players engaged.
The latest moves come from visual effects (VFX) crews at Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, according to labor organizers who represent behind-the-scenes workers in entertainment.
The rash of organizing comes as Hollywood is in the throes of shutdown brought on by unionized writers and actors over pay and concerns about the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
Mail-in ballots will be tallied Tuesday by the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether VFX workers at Marvel will be certified as the first union of its kind at a major studio.
Labor organizers at the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) see the effort as a major shift in a job that has been largely non-union since VFX was revolutionized by “Star Wars” in the 1970s.
Visual effects crews at Walt Disney Pictures are voting this month whether to unionize.
“We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of solidarity that’s breaking down old barriers in the industry and proving we’re all in this fight together,” said IATSE International President Matthew Loeb.
“Entertainment workers everywhere are sticking up for each other’s rights, that’s what our movement is all about.”
– ‘Crunch’ time woes –
Competition between streaming television titans Amazon, Apple, and Netflix has ramped up demand for shows, almost all of which involve visual effects these days, IATSE organizer Mark Patch told AFP.
“Without VFX, you wouldn’t have a lightsaber; you wouldn’t have Avengers flying around,” Patch said.
“We love this work, but we need health care; we need to be paid overtime, we need to have meal breaks…”
It is common for VFX workers to put in 15-hour-plus days, even sleeping under desks while facing production deadlines, according to Patch.
Video game industry workers have long complained of similar grueling schedules during crunch times to make release dates.
Employees in studios are increasingly seeking solidarity to improve working conditions, according to IATSE international representative Chrissy Fellmeth.
Video game worker pay and benefits have stagnated in the multi-billion-dollar industry, while the speed of releases has accelerated along with demand for updates, Fellmeth told AFP.
And with games rushed out the door, studio workers have to scramble afterward to fix software bugs.
People working behind the scenes in video games typically last about seven years before changing careers to other tech sectors, according to Fellmeth.
“They tend to leave for greener pastures,” Fellmeth said.
“Even though they love working in games, it turns out to be way too difficult.”
Game studio Workinman Interactive in New York State, which boasts clients including Nintendo and Disney, last month saw the start of a unionizing effort according to the IATSE.
They would join a handful of video game studio unions, including the Game Workers Alliance Union launched early last year by quality assurance workers at Activision Blizzard’s Raven Software.
“I’m so excited to see what the future holds for us now that we have a chance to have our voices heard and respected as equals,” Workinman junior developer Cori Mori said in a release.
– Actors strike spark? –
Interest in union protection among video game workers has heightened as studios curtail remote work, meaning employees are being pressured to live near offices in cities that tend to be expensive, according to Fellmeth.
The ongoing strike by film actors and writers has also been a factor, spotlighting the power of workers uniting.
Writers walked off the job in May, followed by actors in July. Both unions are asking for better pay, and guarantees that AI will not steal their jobs and income, among other demands.
The strikes have halted production on many studio films and television series.
“Writers and the actors being on strike have brought the idea of organizing to a lot of people’s attention,” Fellmeth said.
“And that absolutely includes game workers.”
AI chip crunch: startups vie for Nvidia’s vital component
The artificial intelligence revolution is fully underway, but soaring demand for its most crucial component has startups scratching their heads on how they can deliver on AI’s promise.
Generative AI’s lifeblood is a book-sized semiconductor known as the graphics processing unit (GPU) — built by one company, Nvidia.
Nvidia’s CEO and founder Jensen Huang made a wild bet years ago that the world would soon clamor for a powerful chip usually used for making video games, but that could build AI as well.
No company working with the generative AI models that fuel today’s frenzy can get off the ground without Nvidia’s singular product: the latest model is the H100 and its accompanying software.
That painful reality is one that Amazon, Intel, AMD and others are scrambling to fix with their own alternatives, but those attempts could take years.
– ‘Not a lot of GPUs’ –
And with the biggest tech companies throwing all their financial might into generative AI, the smaller fish must go on the hunt to secure Nvidia’s holy grail.
“Around the world, it is becoming very hard to get thousands of GPUs because all these big companies are putting in billions of dollars, stockpiling GPUs,” said Fangbo Tao, co-founder of Mindverse.AI, a Singapore-based startup.
“There’s not a lot of GPUs around,” he said.
Tao spoke to AFP at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, where AI startups jostled to make their pitches to Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists (VC).
ChatGPT took the world by storm just as Silicon Valley was caught in a nasty hangover from the pandemic when investors threw money at startups, convinced that life had gone irreversibly online.
That turned out to be far-fetched, and the US tech scene entered a downturn with rounds of layoffs and VC money dried up.
Thanks to AI, some of the old mojo is back, and anyone with those two letters on their resume will likely see a red carpet rolled out on the legendary Sand Hill Road, home to Silicon Valley’s most storied investors.
But as the startups walk away with their VC cash, the money in their pockets will be quickly forked out to Nvidia for GPUs either directly or through providers to bring their AI dreams to execution.
“We call on a lot of the big cloud providers (Microsoft, AWS and Google) ), and they all tell us even they are having trouble getting supplies,” said Laurent Daudet, CEO of AI startup LightOn.
The problem is most acute for companies involved in training generative AI models, which requires that power hungry GPUs work at peak capacity to process troves of data ingested from the internet.
The computing needs are so massive that only a few companies can stump up the cash to build one of these state-of-the-art large language models.
– ‘Sucking the oxygen’ –
The ten billion dollars investment by Microsoft into OpenAI is widely understood to be paid out as credits to access purpose-built data centers humming with Nvidia GPUs.
Google has built its own models and now Amazon on Monday said it was pumping four billion dollars into Anthropic AI, another company that trains AI.
Training on that mountain of data “is sucking out almost all the oxygen from the GPU market right now,” said Said Ouissal, CEO of Zededa, a company that works on making AI less power hungry.
“You’re looking at mid-next year, maybe late next year before you’re actually going to get delivery on new orders. The shortage doesn’t seem to be letting up,” added Wes Cummins, CEO Applied Digital, a company that supplies AI infrastructure.
Companies on the AI frontlines also point out that Nvidia’s primordial role makes it the de-facto kingmaker on where the technology is going.
The market is “almost entirely driven by the big players — Googles, Amazons, Metas” that have the “enormous amounts of data and enormous amounts of capital,” former Nvidia engineer Jacopo Pantaleoni told The Information.
“This was not the world I wanted to help build,” he said.
Some veterans of Silicon Valley said that the frenzied days of Nvidia GPUs will not last forever and that other options will inevitably emerge.
Or the cost of entry will prove too high, even for the giants, bringing the current boom down to earth.
Blue Origin to remain grounded for now following crash probe
US aviation regulators said Wednesday that Blue Origin must complete “21 corrective actions” before it can resume launches, closing a probe into an uncrewed crash last year that set back Jeff Bezos’s space company.
The Federal Aviation Administration report into the September 12, 2022 “mishap” said failure of an engine nozzle caused by higher-than-expected engine operating temperatures caused the New Shepard rocket to fall back to the ground shortly after liftoff, even as the capsule carrying research experiments escaped and floated safely back to Earth.
“During the mishap the onboard launch vehicle systems detected the anomaly, triggered an abort and separation of the capsule from the propulsion module as intended and shut down the engine,” said the FAA.
The fact the capsule ejected right away was viewed positively, suggesting that any crew would have been safe if they had been aboard.
But “the closure of the mishap investigation does not signal an immediate resumption of New Shepard launches,” the agency said.
Blue Origin responded with a post on the social media site X, saying “We’ve received the FAA’s letter and plan to fly soon.”
In all, Blue Origin has flown 31 people — some as paying customers and others as guests — since July 2021, when Bezos himself took part in the first flight.
While it has been grounded, rival Virgin Galactic, the company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, has pressed on, flying four spaceflights so far this year.
The two companies compete in the emerging space tourism sector, offering a few minutes of weightlessness in “suborbital” space.
Virgin Galactic tickets were sold for between $200,000-$450,000, while Blue Origin doesn’t disclose its ticket prices publicly.
Meta putting AI in smart glasses, assistants and more
Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday said the tech giant is putting artificial intelligence into digital assistants and smart glasses as it seeks to gain lost ground in the AI race.
Zuckerberg made his announcements at the Connect developers conference at Meta’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, the company’s main annual product event.
“Advances in AI allow us to create different (applications) and personas that help us accomplish different things,” Zuckerberg said as he kicked off the gathering.
“And smart glasses are going to eventually allow us to bring all of this together into a stylish form factor that we can wear.”
Smart glasses are one of the many ways that tech companies have tried to move beyond the smartphone as a user-friendly device, but so far with little success.
The second-generation Meta Ray-Ban smart glasses made in a partnership with EssilorLuxottica will have a starting price of $299 when they hit the market on October 17.
The smart glasses also add the ability for users to stream what they are seeing in real time, Zuckerberg said.
“Smart glasses are the ideal form factor for you to let AI assistants see what you’re seeing and hear what you’re hearing.”
Meta also introduced 28 “AIs” that people can message on WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram with “personalities” based on celebrities including Snoop Dogg, Paris Hilton and YouTube star MrBeast.
Zuckerberg demonstrated an interaction with one such AI from the stage in a type-written chat promising that the new bots would soon be voiced.
“This is our first effort at training a bunch of AI that are a bit more fun,” Zuckerberg said.
“But look, this is early stuff and these still have a lot of limitations, which you will see when you use them.”
The event was the first in-person edition of Connect since 2019, before the pandemic, and announcements on generative AI were widely expected.
Meta has taken a much more cautious approach than its rivals Microsoft, OpenAI and Google to push out AI products, prioritizing small steps and making its in-house models available to developers and researchers.
– ‘Best value’ –
Meta also unveiled the latest version of its Quest virtual reality headset with richer graphics, improved audio, and the ability for a wearer to see what is around them without taking the gear off, a demonstration for AFP showed.
“This is going to be a big game changer and a big capacity improvement for these headsets,” Zuckerberg told developers gathered in a Meta headquarters courtyard.
Quest 3 headsets were priced starting at $499 and will begin shipping on October 10, according to Meta.
This is substanially cheaper than Apple’s Vision Pro, which will cost a hefty $3,499 when it is available early next year in the United States only.
The Quest 3 “is going to be the best value on the market for a long time to come”, said Meta Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth, to laughter from the audience.
New game titles for Quest 3 included “Assassin’s Creed Nexus” from Ubisoft as well as a Roblox game.
“Meta is trying to bring a much upgraded version of (mixed-reality) to the masses,” said Insider Intelligence principal analyst Yory Wurmser.
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