Hollywood cannot catch a break. Marvel’s VFX artists have just voted to unionize with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a body that represents 170,000 industry workers.
Hollywood studios are still negotiating with striking actors and writers, so it may take a while before VFX artists can present their case. Nonetheless, this is a monumental development. Unionization gives VFX artists more bargaining power. They can demand better pay, fair healthcare benefits, and friendly working conditions. The VFX crisis has been looming for a while now.
Visual effects are time-consuming, which is fine in an industry that only produces a dozen big-budget VFX- heavy films a year. Unfortunately, the entertainment landscape has changed dramatically over the years. The divide between movies and TV shows is gone.
Did you watch The Rings Of Power? What about House of the Dragon?
Making visual effects for a three-hour fantasy film is one thing; stretching that fantasy film to ten hours (for a 10-episode House of the Dragon season) is something else entirely. VFX artists are working harder than ever (to deliver hour-long movies every week) for the same pay, possibly even less.
Mark Patch reportedly worked 18-hour days, seven days a week for three months to deliver ten episodes of Wanda Vision. Marvel, in particular, has a poor reputation in the industry. Collider highlighted a Reddit thread in 2022 titled ‘I’m quite frankly sick and tired of working on Marvel shows’ in which VFX artists expressed their frustration toward the studio.
One user said, “I am on my third Marvel Project in a row and literally just woke up 5:30am on a Saturday with stress going ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ It’s 6am now, and I’m making a reel to apply someplace with projects other than Marvel because I can’t do this anymore.”
Collider also cited a tweet from Dhruv Govil, who admitted he left the VFX industry because of Marvel shows. This man worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and Spiderman.
These complaints surprise outsiders because they think Marvel is every aspiring VFX artist’s dream job. Yet amateurs and veterans alike would rather jump out a window than work for Hollywood’s biggest studio.
Money is a prominent factor. The Guardian covered a story in 2013 about Rhythm and Hues, which took home the Oscar for their work on Life of Pi, only to declare bankruptcy soon after. The development sparked a protest from VFX artists who congregated outside the Dolby Theater to demand better treatment for a group of people that make Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters possible.
Some people blame VFX studios for the industry’s woes because they tend to overpromise in an effort to outbid the competition. If you tell Marvel that you can do their project for almost no money and in a fraction of the time you actually need, you can’t complain when your employees quit because they can’t handle 18-hour work days.
However, Hollywood studios are not innocent. In the case of Life of Pi, Ang Lee (Director) forced Rhythm and Hues to scrap and redo numerous shots halfway through the process. The VFX studio was forced to carry the extra costs.
Tom Hooper, who directed Cats, would not accept rough approximations while reviewing the visual effects. He wanted the artists to finish and render each shot. In other words, they would pour hundreds of hours into proofs of concept that Hooper either scrapped or tweaked endlessly.
Directors and producers strain VFX artists because they neither understand the process of making visual effects nor appreciate the work it takes to finish and render a shot. But this is why unionization is so essential.
It gives VFX artists the tools to eliminate time crunches and bottlenecks. If they succeed, VFX artists in other studios may follow suit. Everyone in Hollywood is suddenly fighting to increase their share of the pie, which makes sense.