It’s Way Past Time for VFX Workers to Unionize

The Big Picture

  • VFX artists are overworked and underappreciated in the film industry, with their work often going unrecognized or used to disparage the art form.
  • Marvel Studios is one of the worst offenders, relying heavily on VFX teams and pushing them beyond reasonable limits to meet expectations.
  • A strong VFX union would benefit everyone in the film industry, preventing abuse, burnout, and subpar work, leading to better planning and better movies overall.

With the American entertainment system currently brought to a standstill by historic strikes from two of its largest unions, it appears there’s a growing sea change in our modern media landscape: a greater appreciation towards collective action and unionisation. As the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) simultaneously strike against unfair compensation and working conditions, it should be no surprise that other departments within the film industry want in on this unity, with recent news that many prominent visual effects artists behind the MCU have joined together to prepare to form a union. Some might assume that the movement is simply a response to the writers’ and actors’ strikes, but in truth, this action has been a long time coming.

VFX Workers Are Both Overworked And Underappreciated

Miguel pins down Miles as he tries to escape the Spiderverse in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Image via Sony

VFX has become such a cornerstone of modern cinema that most people might not even recognize just how prevalent it’s become. Sure, big-budget blockbuster movies like those in the MCU and Star Wars obviously rely quite heavily on the skill of VFX artists, but that’s just a fraction of the bigger picture — most movies that some might think are completely absent of CGI still rely on it. Christopher Nolan has been making a big deal about how his new blockbuster hit Oppenheimer was created using virtually no CGI and instead used almost completely practical effects. However, while Oppenheimer does have its fair share of practical effects, it’s also supported heavily by the same VFX team that has worked with Nolan for eight movies, most of whom didn’t even appear in the credits. The same is true for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie as well; the reward for great work in VFX is not only are you not given proper credit, but your work might even be used to disparage your art form. This is the ground that most modern VFX works in: bad work is immediately identified and seen as “poor craftsmanship,” while good work is rarely noticed as CGI and is only occasionally given proper credit.

One of the worst recent cases is undoubtedly Tom Hooper’s widely reviled adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. The movie’s effects were considered to be not only extremely uncanny and unsettling to look at from a design standpoint, but the movie’s effects were entirely unfinished in various places as well, exacerbating the issue. When the 2020 Oscars came around, Rebel Wilson and James Corden entered the stage to present the Academy Award for Outstanding Visual Effects dressed in cat costumes to deliver jokes stressing the importance of “good visual effects,” implicitly throwing the production staff under the bus concerning the look of the film. However, the truth is far more horrific than anything any uncanny cat could evoke. The animation teams faced 90-hour weeks of non-stop working, some not even going home for two or three days and instead sleeping under their desks. Hooper, unfamiliar with the process of making an animated movie, demanded that the VFX artists show him fully finished shots before denying or approving them. For context, that outlandish request would essentially be the same as a director refusing to look at the concept art for a set, forcing the builders to complete it, and then tearing it down anyway because they didn’t like it. This, unfortunately, isn’t even a unique practice, and it can’t be waved away as only occurring in “bad” movies. Spider-Man: Across The Spiderverse producer Phil Lord allegedly threw out finalized scenes that had gone through months of work on a whim. Spiderverse’s animation team at least got proper credit for their absolutely stellar work, but don’t be mistaken into thinking that abuse was anywhere necessary to get that project out the way it is.

Of course, all of these abuses are nothing new to the industry, and there have been movements for greater VFX unionization in the past. One of the most notable pushes was after the infamous shuttering of Rhythm & Hues Studios shortly before their Oscar win for the revolutionary VFX work on The Life of Pi — an awards show that ended with the tearful animation team having their acceptance speech celebrating their now-unemployed coworkers cut short to have them shuffled offstage. So why is there an increased groundswell of support for the union yet again? Well, the fault of that can be laid at the feet of one of the biggest studios in the world.

Marvel Is One Of The Worst Offenders

thor-love-and-thunder-chris-hemsworth
Image via Marvel Studios

The MCU has become so synonymous with the blockbuster season that in any given year, you can anticipate the release of around three major new films, not even mentioning any spin-off material such as TV shows like Secret Invasion. Warner Brothers have had some success in rehabilitating their DC brand with successful projects like Peacemaker and The Suicide Squad, but if one is measuring sheer success and influence, Disney’s superhero stable is still leagues ahead. However, when you become such a powerhouse that you have no direct competitors, studios begin to rely on your projects. A relationship like this is ripe for abuse, and unfortunately, Disney has not been shy about exercising that abuse.

The MCU has become so reliant on its VFX teams that they’ve been forced to adapt to parts of the job that have never been expected of them before. CGI is a tool like any other part of the process, it works in tandem with the rest, like makeup, costuming, props, etc. However, in the MCU, CGI has started replacing other departments. In The Eternals, certain actors never had actual costumes to wear; instead, their outfits were made entirely in the VFX studio. It’s already difficult enough to composite someone in a costume into a digital landscape without it looking deeply uncanny to the human eye, but having to now also convincingly composite an actor’s head onto a fully digital body doubles or even triples that existing workload. The reason that the CGI in Black Panther‘s final fight is so poor is because of a sudden developmental change that required bringing on an entirely new studio to desperately attempt to finish the sudden increased workload: it’s not unskilled work, it’s out-of-control direction and expectations.

If you watch a scene in Thor: Love and Thunder and see a bad, clearly CGI scene, you might immediately jump to the simplest answer that Disney is simply using cheaper and unskilled VFX departments to save money. The truth, however, is far more dire; these are highly skilled studios that are producing these effects, but they’re being pushed past their reasonable limits and not given time to produce work of their own high standards. The way that CGI is traditionally integrated into a scene is that when the VFX artists begin their part of the process, the scene has been finalized. Good VFX work and proper compositing take a long time to do right; a sudden change on set on the day might be annoying, but a change when VFX has begun might mean completely throwing out weeks or even months of work. These artists will have already gone through the lengthy process of ensuring the lighting, compositing, and overall effects of a scene are perfect, only for the director and/or producers to suddenly demand a complete change of scenery, a new camera angle, or an entire digital stand-in that was never present in the original footage. None of these changes shift the release date though, so artists are forced to complete work that should (and in many cases did) take months in a matter of weeks, and the only way to do that is to crunch your employees. As mentioned before with Hopper, this isn’t exactly new abuse, but it appears that with the MCU, it’s the standard.

A Strong VFX Union Is Good For Everyone In Film

Jake Sully on rock in ocean
Image courtesy of Fox

A good, connected VFX union would not only be extremely beneficial to avoid underhanded studio tactics and prevent burnout in young artists, but it would also be advantageous to filmmakers and film viewers as a whole.

Right now, studios like Disney are treating VFX like a crutch that they can use in every single scenario. Costuming? Replace it with VFX. Set Design? Replace it with VFX. This isn’t because VFX can do all these things better than the other departments, but rather they can do it for cheaper, and you can get away with a lot more. Demand the kind of hours and endless changes that are expected in VFX toward any of the other union-protected groups in filmmaking, and you won’t get anywhere. The more abuse and overwork the studios can shift onto the struggling VFX department, the better for their bottom line, and the worse for both the industry employees and the finished film. Long hours and crunch don’t mean better-finished products; how well can you function on only a few hours of sleep? More changes mean less time to perfect work, which leads to more hours which means less energy, which inevitably leads to subpar work, burnout, and department closures.

Now, imagine if studios couldn’t get away with those abuses. If they couldn’t always underbid a project or demand extended hours and crunch of their workers. VFX wouldn’t just disappear from our movies, it’s become an essential part of the medium. If you can’t force a worker to do long hours, you might have to ensure that multiple departments are working in tandem on the same project. Less ability to make sudden changes requires more in-depth planning, and better planning leads to better movies. Maybe it might lead to a slight drop-off in the rapid output of studios like Marvel, but that might not entirely be a bad thing. A few great big-budget films (and maybe a few great mid-budget projects) are worth a lot more than dozens of ‘okay’ productions marred with employee abuse and bad business practice.

When you live with something terrible for long enough, you might start to think that it’s an essential part of the process, a part of the industry that just can’t (or, even worse, shouldn’t) be changed. The truth of the matter is the current treatment of VFX artists is unacceptable, especially with how much studios now rely on their skills to make their movies at all. Good work should be rewarded, not ignored. A better future awaits everybody in film once this is recognized.

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