Source: IATSE

While visual effects (VFX) workers make fantasy come to life on screen, their working conditions are some of the most demanding and exploitative in the entertainment industry. Now, in the midst of bitter strikes rocking film and television, VFX workers at Marvel and Disney have entered the labour struggle. 

On September 13, Marvel Studios workers became the first VFX crew in history to unionize, with a unanimous vote in favour of joining the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Meanwhile, a supermajority of the Disney VFX crew signed union authorization cards with IATSE in August and are currently holding their own National Labor Relations Board elections, with results expected on October 2. 

The workers are demanding fair compensation for all hours worked, adequate health care, and retirement benefits, along with other rights and protections afforded to workers already belonging to IATSE. 

While artisans, craftspeople and technicians like camera operators, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe, grips, lighting, etc. have been unionized since Hollywood’s earliest days at the beginning of the last century, visual effects, a newer field that first developed in the 1970s, has never enjoyed union protections. This has left VFX artists subject to some of the most exploitative conditions in the industry. 

Marvel unmasked

It’s not an accident that Marvel (which is owned by Disney) is the first studio to unionize. Marvel is the paragon not only of the modern effects-laden blockbuster film franchise, but also of the abuses of the VFX industry. It has become infamous for how it treats visual effects artists, both those that work in-house (the ones who are unionizing) and at the vendor VFX houses they outsource to.

“Working on Marvel projects ends up being incredibly stressful, and this is a widely known issue throughout the VFX industry,” an anonymous VFX worker told CNET in an interview last year.  

As the studio’s domination has grown, its visual effects have seemingly gotten worse, and artists have started speaking out. When superhero fans complained about Doctor Strange’s weird third eye or Ant-Man’s soupy Quantum Realm, the workers answered: Marvel is setting them up to fail.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, for example, was “severely understaffed” and faced “an unrealistically short deadline” to hit a President’s Day release date. These kinds of pressures are typical for Marvel. Other complaints against the studio include “pixel-fucking” (nit-picking every pixel, whether the audience will notice it or not) and eleventh-hour revisions.

“We’ve literally made up entire third acts of a film, a month before release, because the director didn’t know what they wanted,” another anonymous source for CNET said

In a Reddit thread that blew-up last year, titled “I am quite frankly sick and tired of working on Marvel shows,” one user stated, “Marvel has probably the worst methodology of production and VFX management out there… They can never fix the look for the show before more than half the allocated time for the show is over. The artists working on Marvel shows are definitely not paid equivalent to the amount of work they put in.”

It might seem counterintuitive that a movie studio that relies so heavily on VFX can be so bad at it, but it’s precisely their domination of the industry that allows Marvel the freedom to be sloppy. 

Most VFX work is not done in-house, but is contracted out to independent vendor studios that bid on work for a set price. According to an anonymous worker that spoke to Vulture, Marvel is such an abundant source of work that “effects houses are trying to bend over backward to keep Marvel happy.” When Marvel says jump, the VFX houses ask how high. 

And it’s the workers that shoulder the burden of these impossible promises, with months of overtime and stress. 

“I’m on almost three years straight of Marvel. Welcome to the seventh level of hell,” said one artist in the now infamous Reddit thread. 

Another described Marvel as a “black hole of sleep deprivation and eating bad.” 

Yet another artist said, “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.” 

These horror-stories have proliferated online in the past year or so, illustrating the poisonous effects Marvel has had on its vendors and the wider industry. According to one of the techs on Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, “the entirety of the industry that has been touched by Marvel is permanently seared.”

But the rot starts at the head. Working directly for Marvel Studios isn’t any less of a burden, and it’s this Marvel crew that is unionizing: the data wranglers, production managers, witness camera operators, and assistants.

Mark Patch, who was a visual effects coordinator on WandaVision and is now an IATSE organizer, said he worked 16-hour shifts, skipping breaks and meals. “It was ‘live at work,’” Patch told Rolling Stone. “From the second we woke up in the morning until midnight.” He added, “[T]he employer has unlimited control of our whole lives.”

Another VFX coordinator with Marvel, Bella Huffman, said, “Turnaround times don’t apply to us, protected hours don’t apply to us, and pay equity doesn’t apply to us.”

The tales of long hours, mental breakdowns, and company control over employee lives could just as well be about the Industrial Revolution as 21st century visual effects. The conditions of VFX workers reveal capitalism in its natural state, in all its tight-fisted, exploitative splendour. Without a union to fight for workers rights, studios have been getting away with treating their workers how capitalists would like to treat all of us. 

The race to the bottom

Marvel epitomizes the problems of the VFX industry, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on them. Nor is the industry’s dysfunction a recent development. Overwork, burnout, and a race-to-the-bottom business model have been fixtures of the industry for decades, wreaking havoc in the industry and on workers’ lives. 

In 2013 the fall of VFX house Rhythm & Hues was a high-profile canary in the coal mine. The studio won an Academy Award for its work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi—just days after it filed for bankruptcy. Rhythm & Hues’ fate wasn’t just the result of some bad business decisions, but the outcome of film studios pushing for the cheapest VFX possible.

VFX houses compete with each other to win work from film studios, and will low-ball the budget they need to win a contract, in the hopes that pleasing the studio will mean more work down the line that will in turn save their budget shortfall. Business rarely works out that way, however, and they end up accumulating debt and exhausted workers that tried to do their best with meagre resources. 

When asked about Rhythm & Hues’ bankruptcy, Ang Lee said he would like VFX to be “cheaper.” 

After getting played off stage when he started talking about Rhythm & Hues, Life of Pi’s special effects supervisor, Bill Westenhofer, protested, “Visual effects is not just a commodity that’s being done by people pushing buttons… We’re artists, and if we don’t find a way to fix the business model, we start to lose the artistry.” 

Westenhofer half-identified the problem. Artists suffer for the sake of cutting costs precisely because art (including visual effects) is a commodity under capitalism, and what happened to VFX was what happens to all capitalist industries. When VFX was being pioneered on Star Wars or Jurassic Park, artists had specialized skills that could command respect and high prices. But as computer graphic technology improved, and became more accessible, visual effects became less special. In 1993 Jurassic Park had 63 VFX shots. Today, blockbusters typically have over 2000, and even movies without superheroes or explosions use visual effects to refine shots. Around 90 per cent of all films feature some degree of VFX fine-tuning. The technology has become generalized, and VFX workers may as well be parts of the computers they work on. One prolific Toronto studio is described by employees as a “sweatshop.”

Marx and Engles described this exact process in The Communist Manifesto, “Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race.”

In the decade since Life of Pi, more and more studios have repeated the pattern, working their employees to the bone, only to lay them off when the company goes belly-up.

In 2019 Moving Picture Company (MPC), which worked on The Lion King (2019), Blade Runner 2049, and Guardians of the Galaxy, shuttered its Vancouver studio suddenly after putting its workers through weeks of overtime to pump out two infamously mismanaged movies, Sonic the Hedgehog and CATS. Rumours were the studio closed to take advantage of better government subsidies elsewhere. 

In a now deleted Reddit post an ex-MPC employee said: “We’ve done multiple weeks without a day off, regular 17+ hour shifts to the point that most of us are seriously sleep deprived and are suffering still. We’ve worked really fucking hard to get this work out the door for MPC, and I’m genuinely ashamed that they are happier prioritising their profit margins and tax incentives over the insane talent and commitment of hundreds of dedicated VFX artists in Vancouver. I honestly feel insulted, like I’ve given MPC my all and in return they gave me the finger.” 

Though the MPC story was spectacular, it wasn’t unusual. Halo and Technicolour went under around the same time. 

The story of artists “giving their all” also repeats throughout the industry. Workers go into VFX because they love movies and want to be a part of them—and employers use that passion against them. 

Marvel VFX supervisor Sarah Kazuko’s experience is common: “I grew up dreaming of working on Marvel films, so when I started my first job at Marvel, I felt like I couldn’t complain about the unpaid overtime, the lack of meal breaks, and the incredible pressure put on VFX teams to meet deadlines because I was just supposed to be grateful to be here at all.”

The myth that artists should simply be “grateful” to be making movies is used to dampen their anger—but it can’t work forever. There was no way to “fix the business model” of VFX because the business model is capitalism; workers can’t fix it, only fight against it.

The long trek to a union

Given the long and wide history of exploitation in visual effects, it’s not surprising then that the union drives at Marvel and Disney didn’t fall out of the sky last month. VFX artists have been trying to organize for a decade, kicking off when Rhythm and Hues went bust. Five hundred VFX workers marked the Academy Awards that year with a rally on Hollywood Boulevard to raise awareness about the problems in the industry. But no union took form out of that movement. 

Unionizing any industry is never easy, of course, and VFX has its own challenges. Raising awareness of the benefits of unionizing is difficult with VFX workers physically separated from unionized crew that work on set. Contract work—which is standard—is precarious and workers fear blacklisting. Most discouraging of all were fears that, with developing VFX hubs in Asia and Europe, the studios would just drop North American vendors altogether. Bad work seemed better than none. 

Only a year-and-a-half ago, Inverse’s in-depth diagnosis of the VFX industry was rife with pessimism. They insisted, “everyone Inverse spoke to agrees [unionization] wouldn’t help this industry. The international nature of the business, which includes countries where unionization is difficult or even illegal, would make it impossible to establish and adhere to global standards.”

So what changed?

Every workers’ struggle seems impossible, until it becomes inevitable. VFX workers reached a tipping point where accumulated abuses transformed into action. There is a general sense that workers simply cannot survive in VFX.

“They’re squeezing blood out of stones. And we’re out of blood,” an anonymous worker said about Marvel. 

Visual effects production supervisor Cathy Liu detailed the bleak future for artists: “When we hire young crew, typically they don’t want to remain in visual effects. What’s the incentive?… I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but I don’t have motion picture health and pension. I had to set up my own IRA. I have to pay out of pocket for health care.” 

In a survey released in March, IATSE found that 68 per cent of workers reported feeling that a career in visual effects was not sustainable in the long-term. In other words, they have nothing to lose and everything to win. 

Marx and Engels wrote, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” The big studios have pushed artists into an existential fight.

Unionization efforts picked up in the summer of 2020, at a point when the streaming boom and COVID crunch had caused massive burnout, but also left VFX artists more in-demand than ever. A Slack group dedicated to information sharing about working conditions blew up to hundreds of users and turned to the topic of organizing. According to The Hollywood Reporter, An IATSE organizer got in touch with the group, and in late 2022, worker-activists began drawing up “an actual concrete defined plan.”

The Marvel and soon-to-be Disney unions are just the start of a concerted campaign by IATSE to finally establish an industry-wide VFX union. The crews are small—only 50 and 18 respectively—but they can’t be outsourced like vendors can, and they play a pivotal role in tentpole films. They can serve as a proof-of-concept, and as a foothold to spread the union. IATSE says it anticipates this is the “first of many organizing victories within VFX”.

And this is happening in the midst of an upsurge of the labour struggle in the entertainment industry. The ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are a source of inspiration, but an even greater boost came from a wave of unionizing animation studios. The spread of the IATSE-affiliated Animation Guild has provided experience and a template for VFX organizers. 

“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.” IATSE international president Matthew Loeb said about the timing of the Marvel union. 

A VFX union will in turn strengthen the position of other workers in film and television. Marvel has been using VFX to undercut the unionized trades, removing union jobs from production by replacing sets and costumes with greenscreen. They’ll find that harder to do if the VFX workers are in IATSE with the rest of the crew. And actors’ burgeoning fears about being replaced by AI can’t come to fruition if VFX workers get in the way.

IATSE organizer Ben Speight testifies that, “There has never been a higher level of interest among VFX workers in this country and beyond.” The “beyond” is going to be important. VFX workers are organizing despite fears of outsourcing, but its spectre has by no means disappeared. According to The Hollywood Reporter, activists do recognize that a VFX union, “needs to be a global effort so as not to potentially steer work out of IATSE jurisdiction.” IATSE is international in the sense it covers the U.S.A. and Canada, but moving beyond North America will be the key challenge. India has the third largest VFX sector in the world.

But for now, the next step for the union will be to negotiate with Marvel Studios for a contract that meets the workers’ demands. If the studio’s past dealing with workers is any indication, the fight is just beginning.