Marvel's VFX Artists Are Suffering -- and Starting to Speak Out
A real secret war is taking place behind the scenes with overworked, underpaid and underappreciated visual effects artists.
Jennifer BissetFormer Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Thor: Love and Thunder director Taika Waititi makes interviews look fun. During the long and often tedious press tour filmmakers endure to promote their latest films, Waititi brought his trademark laid-back goofiness to a video in which he breaks down a scene. Only, this time, it backfired. Almost offhandedly, Waititi questioned whether a character named Korg, a CGI rock creature he also played, looked "real." "Do I need to be more blue?" he asked.
The comment launched headlines. Waititi, the director, appeared to cruelly mock his own film's VFX work -- work painstakingly toiled over across hundreds of hours by visual effects artists. It got worse. At the same time, severalReddit threads surfaced, charting the harsh experiences of effects artists who worked on
projects as far back as 2012.
"Working on Marvel projects ends up being incredibly stressful, and this is a widely known issue throughout the VFX industry, it's not specific to any one VFX house," a person who worked on Marvel projects and wished to remain anonymous, told CNET via email. Industry standards dictate a strict policy of not speaking to the press.
didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Visual effects artists are in more demand than ever, servicing abundant productions from Marvel, Warner Bros.,
and more. VFX studios secure work by placing a bid based on the number of shots a studio requests. Competition can be aggressive. While a low bid might win, the actual workload the shots amount to can vary dramatically.
"You bid on a number of shots and hope that on average they don't end up being too complicated or difficult, or that the client gets too caught up in minor details and keeps sending shots back for more work," said Peter Allen, an animator and VFX artist and former lecturer in film and television production at the University of Melbourne.
The work is contracted to a VFX house at a set price. An effects artist might manage grueling hours to meet hard release dates but work overtime unpaid. If the final product fails to satisfy audience expectations, VFX artists often take the blame.
"As a visual medium, visual effects are among the easiest targets for fans to pick apart, especially if there are leaks or early releases of unfinished shots," Allen said. Cats and Sonic the Hedgehog are recent examples.
With an avalanche of new projects lined up in the next phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- a seemingly never-ending stream of content -- effects artists have been coming under intensifying strain. Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and Thor: Love and Thunder are the latest to weather criticism about underwhelming superpower effects.
But now, the artists vital to Marvel's storytelling are speaking out. Sick of bearing the brunt of visual effects criticism, tired of punishing working conditions, VFX artists are demanding change.
Unless the industry can make fundamental improvements, Marvel could have a problem on its hands.
An infamous client
Even before the public Reddit threads, insider stories and viral tweets, Marvel had a reputation for pushing VFX artists to the brink. Forget 38-hour weeks. One source described working 60 to 80. This lasted "multiple months in a row."
The toll was brutal. "I've had to comfort people crying at their desks late at night from the sheer pressure involved, and routinely had colleagues call me having anxiety attacks," the effects artist said. "I've heard personally from many artists that they ask to avoid Marvel shows in their future assignments."
Another VFX artist, who also wished to remain anonymous, described harsh conditions that extended beyond the Marvel machine.
"I have worked on several projects for Marvel and other tentpole films," the effects artist told CNET. "For many years, I did work long hours, mostly unpaid. No longer. At no time do I work for free, nor will I work an all-nighter for a perceived emergency."
One effects artists boils Marvel's problems down to three major issues: a demand to see near-complete work much earlier in the process compared to other clients; high-pressure environments leading to burnout and low morale; and lower budgets squeezing out more experienced, more expensive workers from future Marvel projects.
Even after shots are exhaustively delivered, Marvel is allegedly "infamous" for requesting "tons of different variations" until one earns the green light. It doesn't end there. More changes to a production often come late in the game, potentially weeks out from release, resulting in an endemic practice of working overtime. The latest Doctor Strange flick, for example, underwent late changes to sequences involving VFX.
"We've literally made up entire third acts of a film, a month before release, because the director didn't know what they wanted," one source said about Marvel in general. "Even Marvel's parent Disney is much easier to work with on their live-action films."
Could VFX houses push back? Not if they want to risk financial loss. In 2013, Rhythm & Hues, the acclaimed VFX house that worked on The Lord of the Rings and Life of Pi -- which won the Oscar for best visual effects -- filed for bankruptcy. It was the last major independent VFX studio in Los Angeles. Moving Picture Company, an effects house that worked on Spider-Man: No Way Home, reportedly announced in July that it would be freezing pay rises this year.
Marvel, providing a seemingly endless source of work, is a lucrative client. "Marvel has multiple blockbusters in a row, and studios that displease them risk losing out on tons of work," said one effects artist. "So they don't push back as much as they would with other clients."
The size of Marvel allows it to secure bargain effects work, to "string along" a studio or move on to the next best bidder. Yet, for some, working on Marvel projects is no different from any other big action film. It's about managing expectations.
Not all VFX gigs are an overwhelming slog. Not even with Marvel.
"My experience working on the one Marvel film was pretty much the same as any other film," another artist told CNET. They said that, while the workload was high, the deadlines "were the same as any other action film."
Another VFX artist believes the onus is on the effects houses to stand up for their workers, to "pay overtime" and "manage expectations," both with clients and artists.
"The blame is on the VFX studios, not the client -- Marvel or otherwise."
Yet less established VFX houses might lack the influence to shield artists from the "crazy" schedules Marvel could impose. One solution to this power dynamic has already started to unfold.
A decade ago, visual effects artists were part of one of the "largest non-unionized sectors in showbiz," according to a Variety report. Since then, VFX unions such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees have attempted to organize visual effects artists.
"Employees unionizing would dramatically change how VFX houses bid shows because they can't simply dump the poor choices onto their employees," one effects artist said. "It makes sure employees can't be pushed around as easily."
Animation artists, for example, can unionize in their respective workplaces with the help of the Animation Guild. The organization acts as an advocate for its members over wage disputes and more between employees and employers. Major studios such as Dreamworks and Walt Disney Animation Studios -- as well as Marvel Animation -- employ artists covered by the guild.
The time could be right for making unionization happen for effects artists, VFX artist Allen said. "Right now, there's high demand for staff so there is an unusual opportunity for those staff to organize since production companies really need them."
But this solution isn't as easy as snapping one's fingers. Outsourcing, or using ununionized workers, is another way for studios to cut costs. "Many studios will bring in people on work visas with the promise of long-term employment," one effects artist said. The studios then leave the employee "dangling."
Still, signs could be positive for effects artists. Other production workers, including staff in IT and logistics, have been successful in joining the Animation Guild, which "used to be for artists only," Allen says. For VFX professionals, traditionally viewed as craftworkers rather than artists, this could be an "interesting development."
"But individual workplaces have to agree to unionize, it's not an automatic protection for all workers."
The Marvel effect
One effects artist believes the onus is still on Marvel to enact its own changes. It could come down to greater training for its directors on the VFX process.
"Marvel's directors are often inexperienced with the VFX process, both on set and after," an effects artist said.
If the director happens to prefer longer takes, it can "dramatically" increase the workload on artists, Allen said. Not only are there more frames to create effects for, but the longer the effect is on screen, the more precise they have to be. "Shorter shots mean you can cut a few corners."
The effects artist said Marvel must stop believing "VFX gives [it] infinite room to change things." They said Marvel must work with its directors to reduce the number of iterations in the VFX process. "With training -- with clearer, more 'decisive' visualization provided to directors early in the process -- everyone could be on the same page."
Then, maybe, no one would have their work come under fire during press tours.
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