the industry

Inside the VFX Union Brewing in Hollywood

Visual-effects technicians have never been more vital to movies and TV. Can studios like Marvel accept what that means for bottom lines? Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Getty

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

The problems were myriad from the start. After Mark Patch (a veteran visual-effects technician with a long list of credits including Tenet, 2016’s Ghostbusters, and Starz’s American Gods) was offered a short-term position working on VFX for a Marvel series on Disney+, he says the studio balked at paying him his going rate — demanding to first see a pay stub from his work on Tenet proving his market value, then undershooting Patch’s quote by several hundred dollars a week. Then came the nondisclosure instructions he says were issued by Marvel’s VFX and postproduction president Victoria Alonso and staff VFX producer Jen Underdahl in a telephone meeting, requiring that Patch keep his employment at the company a secret and avoid any social-media posts that might indicate he was affiliated with a Marvel Cinematic Universe project. “I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t even tell my family where I am?’” he recalls. “What is this — the Manhattan Project?!”

Then there was the job itself. While an average feature-length superhero or sci-fi movie might have 1,600 visual effects, he says this ten-hour show (which he cannot specifically name per a nondisclosure agreement he signed) would require around 3,000 VFX shots to be completed on a much shorter timeline. Nonetheless, feature-quality work was expected, which could include anything from replacing actors’ faces to rendering entire CG sequences from scratch. Confronted with the prospect of what he was told would be 18-hour days, seven days a week, for three months straight, Patch walked away from the contract. “They said, ‘Okay, well, do you want a job on our next show?’ And I said, ‘No.’” (Marvel Studios declined to comment on Patch’s story and declined to make Alonso and Underdahl available to speak.)

Talk to any VFX artist or tech working in modern Hollywood and certain complaints come up over and over: the punishing deadlines, grueling work hours, too few workers charged with too much work, underpayment and systematic “pixel-fucking” — an industry phrase used to describe the behavior of nitpicking clients who lack the VFX knowledge to communicate their needs. Ben Speight, an organizer at the Animation Guild and the VFX-IATSE, a rapidly growing wing of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (of which Patch is a member) that first formed in 2012, says the industry has grown “exponentially” since the late ’90s and early 2000s, when it consisted of several hundred visual-effects workers. According to the effects and gaming directory site Studio Hog, there are now 582 visual-effects houses worldwide and somewhere between 31,000 and 117,000 workers plying their trade at any given time. VFX industry watchdogs estimate that across TV and film, there is currently about three times the amount of work as there are visual-effects professionals to execute it.

In the summer of 2022, a spate of news stories, Reddit threads and tweets laid bare what insiders say is an overall “toxic” environment for VFX workers. And many techs and artists describe working for Marvel as a uniquely burdensome experience. In an era when one studio remains the most dependable blockbuster factory in history, VFX workers specifically lament Marvel’s voracious appetite for visual effects butting up against its apparent unwillingness to invest in the human capital required to implement them. The dozens of workers I spoke with — variously specializing in animation, physical production, and postproduction — claim that while Marvel’s tendency to compensate contractual employees on a weekly basis (no matter how many hours worked) is common practice across the industry, it pays upward of 20 percent less than other studios when doing so. One visual-effects worker currently employed by the studio on a feature project estimates that they are completing approximately four times the amount of work they are being paid for. “The minute I deliver [movie name redacted], I’m never coming back,” this person says. Moreover, while understaffing is already rampant across the entertainment industry, VFX-IATSE estimates that Marvel hires one VFX artist for every three such specialists another studio might for an equivalent job. (Marvel declined to comment on these claims.)

The upshot is a VFX vendor “race to the bottom” that forces down labor standards while placing workers in a professional stranglehold that industry observers say can only be addressed by unionization. VFX-IATSE, in particular, hopes to have at least 1,000 members by the fall of this year, by which time anticipated MCU installments Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and The Marvels will have been released. The campaign’s ultimate goal is the unionization of an entire effects production house or studio and the creation of a collective-bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that could serve as a template for other contract and staff VFX workers across the industry.

“With the right strategy led by VFX workers themselves,” says Speight, “in the next year, there could be an opportunity for a group to move forward, be successful, and establish their first union.”

Industrial Light & Magic’s first film, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Modern VFX was born in 1975 with George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, the company behind postproduction effects for the first Star Wars. That year, a mere five of the highest-grossing movies required VFX — by 2022, that number has ballooned to around 90 percent of all films in release. Yet despite the field’s increased indispensability, visual-effects workers say it has remained a “redheaded stepchild” to Hollywood. The work is complex and beholden to rapid shifts in technological arcana like photogrammetry and real-time compositing, but the fruits of its labor can hide in plain sight. No one misses a wrinkle they never knew was there nor do they appreciate a CG arterial splatter when it’s meant to mimic the real thing. But when it comes to translating comic-book heroes for the screen, VFX goes far beyond digital touch-ups. Within Marvel’s largely computer-generated cinematic universe, VFX artists have an outsize impact on the look and feel of the final product — think Doctor Strange’s tour of the astral realm, the face-bending space-jump sequence in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, or a virtual character like She-Hulk. For certain scenes, effects techs arguably have more creative oversight than the director, stepping in to conjure entire sequences from scratch.

This kind of work requires an immense labor force. It’s not uncommon for more than a dozen VFX vendors — referred to as houses; Digital Domain, Framestore, and Weta Digital are among the more well-known — to work on a single movie. Thirteen different houses worked on Avengers: Endgame, for instance. Superhero genre work tends to yield results that cement careers. “You might do spectacular work on something like The Irishman,” says one retired VFX supervisor with decades of experience. “But the exact same kind of work de-aging Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel gets you more attention, because it’s Marvel.”

Marvel jobs afford VFX workers proximity to some of the industry’s most exciting filmmakers — a result of the studio’s ability to recruit directors like Oscar winners Chloé Zhao (Eternals) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder) and once-indie darlings like Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel). For many of these directors, a Marvel movie constitutes their first nine-figure budget and experience directing scenes that rely heavily or entirely on visual effects. “They just get some guy who made a cheap movie or an indie thing with a positive buzz,” Patch explains. “And they say, ‘Okay, we can guide this person to do what we want.’”

Patch — who most recently worked as an associate visual-effects producer on the Jordan Peele horror-comedy Nope — says he was surprised to discover that Alonso and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige insisted on personally approving shots that require visual-effects work. “You wake up, and the first review would be set for 7:30 on a Sunday, because you’re dealing with Kevin’s schedule, you’re dealing with vendors all over the world: London, Bangalore, Australia, China,” he says. “Then everyone has to adjust based on the needs of whoever’s reviewing the shot: the director, the showrunner, the producers. Everybody’s giving their opinion, and sometimes they’re giving multiple notes on the same frames. You’re like, ‘What direction do I go with this?’” (Marvel declined to comment on Feige’s involvement. An insider close to the company, however, says that Feige does not approve every VFX shot.)

Worse yet, VFX workers say that Marvel’s heads often choose to alter endings during the final stages of postproduction, something that they say can happen at other studio divisions — albeit with less frequency. “It’s kind of like putting the last coat of paint on a car, and while you’re putting on this last coat, you’re trying to decide what color you want,” says a Canada-based VFX animator with extensive Marvel experience. “They don’t figure stuff out early enough. So they rewrite, redo, and fumble in the dark for a long time while we are doing the VFX.” This animator recalled a whole portion of an action sequence that hadn’t been storyboarded before postproduction. “It was just, ‘This hero avoids many things for this amount of time.’ Everything was blank. Basically, the studio said to the VFX artists, ‘Figure it out. Make it look cool.’ They had no idea what they wanted to do. Since the movies work so well, people think, Oh, well that’s the way to do it. That’s the hard part. There’s a better way that’s less stressful on the artist and less expensive for sure.”

Mark Ruffalo and Tatiana Maslany in She Hulk: Attorney at Law. Photo: Marvel Studios

In 2022 alone, Marvel released four series to its parent company’s streaming platform Disney+ (including She Hulk: Attorney at Law and Moon Knight), two stand-alone streaming specials (Werewolf by Night and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special), and no fewer than three major films: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder, which have combined to gross $1.7 billion worldwide, as well as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which clocked a record November opening, taking in $180 million domestically. That staggering output is unrivaled in the Hollywood studio system and, according to VFX workers, allows Marvel to operate as the industry’s biggest “bully,” threatening to cut off consistent work to those who run afoul of its expectations. The workers I spoke with said they fear the existence of a blacklist allegedly perpetuated by Marvel executives. “The blacklist is very talked about,” a Georgia-based VFX worker says. “I don’t know anyone that’s seen it for real. But it’s a common thing that comes up whenever effects people talk together. ‘If you do X, Y, or Z, Marvel will blacklist you and you won’t be working for them again. The biggest way to get on the blacklist is to leave a show early for any reason.”

Joe Pavlo, a VFX artist who has helped organize VFX workers in the U.K., refutes the existence of any blacklist. “It has been my experience that the blacklists visual-effects artists fear so much are nothing more than myth,” he says, noting that studios can’t afford to exclude workers when they have so much VFX work that needs to be fulfilled. But two other technicians with experience working on Marvel projects lay responsibility for the fear of an alleged blacklist at the feet of Alonso. “The main one that everyone’s quite scared of is Victoria Alonso,” says a Vancouver-based tech who has vowed to never work for the studio again. “She is known in the industry as a kingmaker. If she likes you, you are going to get work and move up in the industry. If you have pissed her off in any way, you’re going to get frozen out.”

Alonso heads up Marvel’s dedicated “mini-studio,” Marvel Studios Animation, which is behind such shows as What If …? (which twists MCU plotlines and characters to create, for example, a mash-up story involving Black Panther’s T’Challa and Guardians of the Galaxy ringleader Star Lord) and the summer 2022 series of Vin Diesel–voiced original shorts, I Am Groot. A senior animator there says MSA suffers under its own impossible deadline structure and pixel-fucking style of dysfunction. “We’re in-house. We’re paid well. I do feel like we’re padded by money. But it doesn’t change the fact that they’re asking for things that can’t be done,” says the animator, who has worked on several MSA projects. (Marvel declined to comment on MSA.)

While animators who work at MSA are directly employed by Marvel, contract VFX workers are often employed by the effects production houses that bid against one another to provide services on studio projects. While these houses typically maintain payroll workers, their employment terms can vary widely: contracted from project to project, month to month, sometimes even day to day. Some VFX artists, like Patch, remain entirely freelance, unaffiliated with any one house and employed directly by a studio and its producers. Unlike most of the entertainment industry’s below-the-line workers, these VFX workers are less likely to be represented by IATSE (which currently represents more than 150,000 technicians, artisans, and craftspeople across the entertainment industry).

More than a dozen major VFX houses worldwide, which have worked on at least two Marvel movies (and several on upward of 20), did not respond to a request for comment on Marvel’s reputation among VFX workers, though a co-owner of a Europe-based visual-effects studio agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. The executive disputes characterizations of corporate retaliation and blacklisting, pointing out that Marvel provides “technical ingredients” such as LiDAR 3-D scans, texture photos, lens data, and color reference that other studios typically fail to hand over. He likened the studio’s process of ripping up a film’s ending to the MO at Pixar (also owned by Disney), where wholesale animation revisions are commonplace at later stages of postproduction.

“We turned down work on two of their movies last year, and still, we’re on the next two,” he says. “If you’re not honest and transparent about your abilities, they can probably blacklist you. If you overestimate your own capacity and say, ‘Sure. Wire the money, and we’ll go to work,’ then you can’t get to work, that’s where there’s a problem.”

In January 2022, around 300 VFX production workers — the digital laborers working on set during a movie or show’s principal photography (rather than postproduction) handling things like green screen and motion capture — organized on a Slack channel under the name VFX Production Group and initiated a year-end poll comparing the salaries paid by various studios. It was an exercise in free information flow: an open discussion between a modest number of participants (as high as 42) of salary ranges and grievances, according to the Georgia-based worker who is a member of the group. Their goal was to establish more equitable pay rates and raise awareness of the value of VFX work. The results revealed that a visual-effects coordinator can earn as little as $1,300 a week — $18.57 an hour on the lowest end.

A month after the findings of the poll were posted on Instagram, Marvel began staffing a Disney+ show in Atlanta. Applicants with knowledge of the poll subsequently asked for salaries higher than what Marvel had previously offered them and stuck to their monetary demands as a group. “Marvel just kept saying to applicants, ‘No, no, no, we can’t,’” the Georgia-based VFX worker says. “Eventually, they burned through everyone they could. And Marvel was like, ‘Where are they getting these numbers?’ A producer showed them the rate poll. And almost instantly, there was an email that went out to producers and executives at Marvel that asked, ‘Where is this coming from? How do we stop it? Because we can’t have people talking about rates.’”

A second Georgia-based VFX worker who read the email while employed on a Marvel sequel recalls producers and studio executives “getting all up in arms” about the poll. “My producer told me to find out who from my team was involved and to bring that information to my bosses,” says the VFX worker. “We’ve basically been told to shut up about our rates and not to talk about it to each other — which is illegal. I told them I didn’t know anything.” (Marvel declined to comment on its staffing processes.)

One week after the poll results were revealed, the VFX Production Group issued a statement reminding workers that the sharing of salary information is a protected action. Marvel ultimately agreed to individually pay the applicants higher wages after that and did not retaliate against anyone for participating in the poll.

There is no simple explanation for why visual-effects professionals have not formed their own union yet. Disney’s long history of resistance when it comes to union recognition certainly doesn’t help nor does the fact that most VFX specialists work off set in postproduction facilities, creating what Arun Devasia, organizing official for the VFX wing of Bectu (the U.K. entertainment industry’s equivalent to IATSE), calls a “blind spot in the way unions have devoted their resources,” focusing more on the overwhelming majority of below-the-line workers who are employed on or near a movie’s physical production location. As a result of cutthroat competition between the houses bidding against one another for the same work, the industry-wide cohesion that led to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild in the ’30s (later split into the WGA West and East) has remained elusive. And although entertainment companies like DreamWorks, Netflix, and Nickelodeon are known to keep staffs of visual-effects workers on their internal payrolls, Marvel has yet to create its own proprietary VFX house — as the studio was recently reported to have considered doing.

“I think our No. 1 issue is lack of knowledge,” says Patch, who went on staff as an IATSE organizer for the VFX Union in October. “There’s so much union activity in Hollywood. When you go up to a grip or a camera guy and you’re like, ‘Damn, I wish we could unionize visual effects,’ they’re like, ‘What?! You’re not unionized?’”

In Speight’s estimation, effects workers now find themselves confronted by historical headwinds. They are agitating for higher pay and a seat at the bargaining table at a time when contracts at both the Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America are set to expire and the threat of a writers’ strike looms over Hollywood. They are pushing for guarantees like health care, retirement benefits, and paid overtime just months removed from 440 animation-production workers on shows including The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad!, Rick and Morty, and Solar Opposites banding together to be represented by the Animation Guild, which hashed out a tentative deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The excitement surrounding Avatar: The Way of Water and its billion-dollar-plus box-office triumph (largely attributable to the film’s cutting-edge visual effects) just might have given effects workers the last push they need. In December 2022, the VFX Union launched its own survey to examine pay rates, working conditions, and long-term sustainability in the industry — the first study of its kind with IATSE’s institutional clout behind it. While other attempts at unionizing are trying for top-down pressure on the AMPTP to open the door to collective bargaining, the new survey aims to simultaneously build awareness from the bottom up, creating a supermajority of workers across the industry who can hold studios and vendors to a certain standard, leaving Marvel no choice but to fall in line. Given the “overwhelming” survey response — which has amounted to quadruple the amount of feedback to the VFX Production Group’s poll and with responses still coming in — Speight says VFX has never been closer to organizing its labor force.

“Is this the year we unionize?” Speight asks himself. “There has never been a higher level of interest among VFX workers in this country and beyond.”

Inside the VFX Union Brewing in Hollywood