VFX artists are some of the most infamously overworked and underpaid people in the film industry, which is saying something since this is a field built on mass exploitation of its workers. Marvel, in particular, has been called out multiple times for the ways it mistreats its effects teams. Reports from io9, Vulture, and Defector noted how the systemic abuses of the VFX field had crushed workers. Marvel was criticized for its intense micromanagement, impossible deadlines, and what was described as a ‘race to the bottom’ as VFX studios underbid one another to win these prized contracts. As VFX workers and studios are typically hired on a freelance basis, unionizing efforts have been tough to build. But that seems to be changing, because this week, VFX workers at Marvel voted to unionize.
Mark Patch, the VFX organizer for IATSE, said in a press release (via Variety):
‘A supermajority of Marvel’s more than 50-worker crew had signed authorization cards indicating they wished to be represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). For almost half a century, workers in the visual effects industry have been denied the same protections and benefits their coworkers and crewmates have relied upon since the beginning of the Hollywood film industry. This is a historic first step for VFX workers coming together with a collective voice demanding respect for the work we do.’
This is a huge effing deal. IATSE represents more than 168,000 technicians and craftspersons in film and TV, from camera operators to set designers to grips to prop makers. VFX entering this fold gives them some long-needed community protection. And it makes sense as they’re all fighting for the same basic labour rights: fair pay, sustainable working hours, safe workplaces, and the simple desire to not be run into the ground by capitalistic vultures who cry poverty as they make billions in profits. The summer of strike has proven influential, certainly motivational enough for an industry that has frequently struggled to be listened to.
Marvel’s VFX artists have become something of the canary in the coal mine in recent months, as reports on poor working conditions and the underpaying of studios gained traction. Many of the past year’s worth of Marvel productions — Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, She-Hulk, and Thor: Love and Thunder — have faced criticism for sloppy effects, which drove home how the current system of employee degradation and overwork leads to bad results. With constantly changing deadlines, endless understaffing, and the sheer lack of funds frequently cited as issues, it’s no wonder VFX teams are ready to march for recognition.
The VFX issue also emphasizes a key problem with the current entertainment industry. It’s not that they don’t have the money, even when companies like Netflix and Disney try to pretend they’re strapped for cash amid the current strikes. It’s that the money is never allotted to the vast majority of people doing all the work. If you’re budgeting well over $250 million for a film and nobody below the line is making a fair wage from it, where the hell is the cash going? Either some executive is gobbling it up with some creative accounting or their financial mismanagement is so catastrophic that they shouldn’t be employed.
Here’s hoping this leads to a new wave of unionizing efforts across VFX and the industry as a whole. Your labour rights won’t be given to you. You have to fight for them.