In this edition of Lon Harris’ weekly Passionfruit column, we’re exploring how Marvel VFX artists are pushing to join a union, and what creators can learn from their organizing efforts.
Earlier this week, visual effects crews (aka VFX artists) working for Marvel Studios announced their intention to join the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees or IATSE. That’s the entertainment industry union that represents North American crew members working in film, TV, and live theater, including technicians, artisans, craftspeople, and stagehands.
While it’s the latest significant development in what’s now being called the entertainment industry’s “hot labor summer,” this is not an entirely surprising move. Visual effects artists have faced a number of challenges over the course of the “Peak TV” era when complaints about extremely tight deadlines, smaller-than-expected teams, and chronic underpayment have become the norm.
It’s Hard Out Here for a VFX Artist
The glut of VFX-heavy streaming shows and films produced quickly by ever-shrinking teams has given rise to a new term, “pixel-f*cking,” used to describe entertainment executives making excessive demands despite not fully understanding how VFX work is actually completed.
There have also been numerous reports over the last few years about the increasingly toxic and abusive work environment faced by staffers at VFX studios. Increasingly tight budgets, thin margins, unrealistic deadlines, and a “broken” bidding process drove some companies out of business entirely. Those that remain survived by burning out their staff and working employees into the ground.
To fully understand the state of the VFX industry, let’s briefly discuss the bidding process. Production companies and studios contact VFX companies with vague descriptions of the work they require. The VFX companies then attempt to under-bid one another to produce the completed sequence at the lowest cost, making their profit margins for completing the work even smaller. Then, in many cases, the production companies or studios decide to change the sequence around late in the process, adding to the VFX studio’s cost and the difficulty of completing the job.
So there have been calls to unionize VFX artists for some time, but this is just the first step in a larger process. Marvel’s roughly 50-person team—mostly working out of Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York—signed authorization cards, which indicate that they wish to be represented by the union. Marvel, for its part, has not voluntarily recognized the union, and it remains unclear how they’d actually be integrated into IATSE’s current structure.
Significantly, this union effort only involves VFX artists working directly for Marvel Studios, a small percentage of the total. Most of the individuals who design and produce effects for Marvel Studios’ content work for third-party studios.
<Al Pacino voice> SOLIDARITY!!
Still, the news arrives at a crucial moment in the entertainment industry, with writers and actors already having walked off the job to demand streaming residuals, more transparency around viewership, protections against AI, and more. VFX artists potentially joining a union and the Hollywood labor movement would not only pad the picket lines and add more voices to the chorus calling for change. It would have a real and noticeable impact on the industry and the way shows and films are made.
That’s because, over time, more and more of the actual work being done to produce new films and TV shows are falling on visual effects artists, particularly in TV. Prior to the Peak TV streaming era, many shows didn’t use any computer-generated effects or used them extremely sparingly. Almost all of the work being done was practical, performed by hair and make-up experts, prop and set designers, stunt performers, and so on.
Amid the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes, more and more of this work has moved over to the post-production side, where it’s added in by VFX artists long after the unionized actors and craftspeople have wrapped up their contracts.
Now, certainly, there are reasons that producers have come to rely on visual effects rather than purely practical approaches other than unionization. It gives a production greater flexibility to make changes later on in the process after the actual set has wrapped. When actor salaries are among the costliest items in a show or film’s budget, getting those performers wrapped quickly, and then handling some of the more complicated or intricate visual work, can also be an effective strategy, regardless of union rules.
Still, studios are clearly exploiting a loophole presently by moving work over to non-union employees en masse that was once performed by their unionized counterparts. Unionizing VFX workers would immediately alleviate much of this strain.
So, Will Hollywood’s Labor Movement Trickle Down to Creators?
Of course, VFX union efforts are also just another positive and encouraging sign that the everyday creatives who fuel the entertainment and media industries are having their collective “Network” moment. (That is, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore.)
Billion-dollar platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok can’t prosper without users to generate content. Just as there are no big Disney+ premieres without animators to design Loki’s magic tricks, there are no “Let’s Play” live streams to sell ads against without gamers.
But despite their central place of significance for these companies, both VFX artists and content creators have become something of an afterthought, a reliable resource that doesn’t need to be tended to and cared for as often as other stakeholders. After all, the conventional thinking goes, “These are the jobs that little kids grow up and dream about! Who wouldn’t want to play video games all day for a living, or make Bruce Banner turn into The Hulk before our very eyes?”
From the capitalist business owner’s perspective, there will always be a fresh crop of wannabe digital creators and visual effects artists to exploit, so there’s no need to treat the ones that you’ve already hired well.
Of course, creators face even more heady challenges to fully collectivizing than their VFX artist counterparts. For starters, visual effects experts largely have employers, of whom they can make demands, even if those demands fall on deaf ears. Just as Marvel Studios employees have filed their intent to join the IATSE union, the staff of third-party VFX houses could do the same for their employers.
Digital creators, on the other hand, typically live off of revenue-share agreements with platforms like TikTok or YouTube or Twitch, rather than more conventional employment agreements. They could certainly demand better deals from the platforms, and threaten to walk if their demands are not met, but without greater ability to collectivize, this is a hard sell.
You’re stuck in a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma… Some creators may exit, but others will use their departure as an opportunity to secure a better deal for themselves. There’s not yet solidarity within the ranks—although it’s certainly possible to imagine, considering instances like the Reddit Blackout.
If the VFX artists have finally reached the end of their tether and decided to join a union, despite being a disparate group working for a variety of companies, with no previous experience in on-the-job organizing… Perhaps other kinds of artists and creators will themselves become inspired?
Have any hot tips for Hot Labor Summer, or are you a part of the growing VFX union efforts? Email [email protected] to share your story.