director Taika Waititi makes the interviews look fun. During the long and often tedious press tour filmmakers endure to promote their latest films, Waititi brought his laid-back and laid-back silliness to a scene-smashing video. Only, this time, it backfired. Almost gratuitously, Waititi asked if a character named Korg, the CGI rock creature he also played, looked “real.” “Do I have to be more blonde?” asked.
The comment sparked headlines. Waititi, the director, seems to be making a cruel mockery of his film’s VFX work – work painstakingly toiled away by visual effects artists for hundreds of hours. It got worse. At the same time, several threads appeared on Reddit, showing the harsh experiences of artists who worked on Marvel projects back in 2012.
“Working on Marvel projects ends up being incredibly stressful, and this is a widely known problem throughout the VFX industry, it’s not specific to any one VFX house,” a person who worked on Marvel projects, speaking on condition of anonymity, told CNET by e-mail. Industry standards dictate a strict policy of not talking to the press.
Marvel and Disney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Visual effects artists are more in demand than ever, offering rich production from Marvel, Warner Bros., Sony and more. VFX studios provide work by bidding based on the number of shots the studio requires. Competition can be aggressive. While the low bid might win, the actual workload the punches amount to can vary dramatically.
“You bid on a few shots and hope that on average they’re not too complicated or difficult, or that the client gets too caught up in the minor details and keeps sending shots for more work,” said Peter Allen, animator and VFX artist and former lecturer in film and in Television Production at the University of Melbourne.
The works are contracted with the VFX house at a fixed price. An effects artist may put in grueling hours to meet tough release dates, but they work unpaid overtime. If the final product doesn’t meet the audience’s 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 footage,” Allen said.and are more recent examples.
With an avalanche of new projects lining up in the next phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a seemingly endless stream of content — effects artists are being put under increasing pressure. Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and Thor: Love and Thunder are the latest to be criticized for their overwhelming superpower effects.
But now, 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 may have a problem on its hands.
A notorious client
Even before public reddit threads, insider stories and viral tweets, Marvel had a reputation for pushing VFX artists to the edge. Forget 38-hour weeks. One source described working from 60 to 80. This lasted for “several months at a time”.
The toll was brutal. “I’ve had to comfort people crying at their desks late at night because of the pressure, and my colleagues have routinely called me to say I’m having anxiety attacks,” said the effects artist. “I’ve personally heard from many artists asking to avoid Marvel shows in their future assignments.”
Another VFX artist, who also wished to remain anonymous, described the harsh conditions that spread outside the Marvel machine.
“I’ve worked on several projects for Marvel and other tentpole movies,” the effects artist told CNET. “For many years I worked long hours, mostly unpaid. Not anymore. At no time do I work for free, nor will I work all night for a perceived emergency.”
One effects artist boils down Marvel’s problems to three main issues: the demand to see near-finished work much earlier in the process compared to other clients; high-pressure environments that lead to burnout and low morale; and lower budgets crowding out more experienced, more expensive workers from future Marvel projects.
Even after footage has been exhaustively delivered, Marvel is reportedly “notorious” for asking for “tons of different variations” until one gets the green light. It doesn’t end there. More production changes often come late in the game, potentially weeks after release, resulting in the endemic practice of overtime. Even the most recent Doctor Strange film saw late changes to sequences involving VFX.
“We literally reconciled [VFX for] the entire third act of the movie, a month before release, because the director didn’t know what he wanted,” one source said of Marvel in general. “Even Marvel’s parent Disney is much easier to work with on their feature films. “
Can VFX houses retire? 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 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects — filed for bankruptcy. It was the last major independent VFX studio in Los Angeles. The Moving Picture Company, the effects house that worked on Spider-Man: No Way Home, reportedly announced in July that it would freeze pay raises this year.
Marvel, which provides a seemingly endless source of work, is a lucrative client. “Marvel has multiple blockbusters lined up, and studios that don’t like them risk losing tons of business,” said one effects artist. “So they don’t withdraw as much as they would with other clients.”
Marvel’s size allows it to secure bargain-basement effects, “hook” the studio or move on to the next highest bidder. Still, for some, working on a Marvel project is no different than any other big action movie. It’s about managing expectations.
Not all VFX gigs are overwhelming. Not even with Marvel.
“My experience working on a Marvel movie was pretty much the same as any other movie,” another artist told CNET. They said that while the workload was large, the deadlines “were the same as any other action film”.
Another VFX artist believes the onus is on effects houses to stand up for their workers, “pay overtime” and “manage expectations,” both with clients and artists.
“The fault lies with the VFX studios, not the clients – Marvel or anyone else.”
Still, less established VFX houses may lack the clout to protect artists from the “crazy” schedules that Marvel might impose. One solution to this power dynamic has already begun to develop.
A decade ago, visual effects artists were part of one of the “largest non-union sectors in show business,” according to a Variety report. Since then, VFX unions such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees have been trying to organize VFX artists.
“Unionizing employees would dramatically change the way VFX houses bid for shows because they can’t just blame bad choices on their employees,” said one effects artist. “It ensures that employees can’t be pushed away so easily.”
Animation artists, for example, can unionize at their workplaces with the help of the Animation Association. The organization acts as a representative of its members in disputes about wages and more between employees and employers. Major studios like Dreamworks and Walt Disney Animation Studios — as well as Marvel Animation — employ artists covered by the guild.
It could be a good time to create a union for effects artists, VFX artist Allen said. “There’s a huge demand for staff right now, so there’s an unusual opportunity to organize that staff because production companies really need them.”
But this solution is not as simple as snapping your fingers. Outsourcing, or using non-union 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,” said one effects artist. The studies then leave the employee “hanging”.
Still, the signs could be positive for effects artists. Other production workers, including IT and logistics staff, have been successful in joining the Animators Guild, which “used to be just for artists,” says Allen. For VFX professionals, who are traditionally considered artisans rather than artists, this could be an “interesting development.”
“But individual workplaces have to agree to unionize, it’s not automatic protection for all workers.”
One effects artist believes it’s still up to Marvel to make their changes. It could come down to more training of directors on the VFX process.
“Marvel directors often have no experience with the VFX process, both in the beginning and afterwards,” said the effects artist.
If a director prefers longer takes, that can “dramatically” increase the artist’s workload, Allen said. Not only are there more frames to create effects, but the longer the effect is on screen, the more accurate they need to be. “Shorter shots mean you can cut a few angles.”
An effects artist says that Marvel needs to stop believing that “VFX gives [it] infinite room to change things. They say Marvel has to work with their directors to reduce the number of iterations in the VFX process. “With training — with a clearer, more “decisive” visualization given to principals early in the process — everyone could be on the same page.
Then, perhaps, no one would have experienced his work being criticized during press tours.
Movies coming in 2022 from Marvel, Netflix, DC and more
See all photos