Several weeks ago, there was a fair amount of furor kicked up over the fact that Kevin Feige-led Marvel Studios’ VFX artists were getting criticized — by fans and Marvel’s own directors alike, commenting on the quality of CGI in projects like She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022) and Thor: Love and Thunder (2022).
Amidst Marvel Studios’ massive Multiverse Saga, Phase Five and Six announcements at San Diego Comic Con’s Hall H — there have been growing pressures for Marvel VFX workers to unionize. Yet, there was no verifiably direct word from a VFX artist who actually worked with Marvel Studios themselves — until now.
In a recent Vulture article, a Marvel Studios VFX artist finally spoke up on their seemingly horrendous experience working for the CGI-heavy film giant, citing conditions of severe stress and overwork:
When I worked on one movie, it was almost six months of overtime every day. I was working seven days a week, averaging 64 hours a week on a good week. Marvel genuinely works you really hard. I’ve had co-workers sit next to me, break down, and start crying. I’ve had people having anxiety attacks on the phone.
They went in depth when describing the intense amount of power that Marvel Studios has over the VFX industry, explaining how effects houses “bend over backward” to stay in Marvel’s good books — simply because it helps secure future work for the huge industry player (and a paycheck), even if it isn’t really worth all the pain and stress:
The studio has a lot of power over the effects houses, just because it has so many blockbuster movies coming out one after the other. If you upset Marvel in any way, there’s a very high chance you’re not going to get those projects in the future. So the effects houses are trying to bend over backward to keep Marvel happy.
[…] One visual-effects house could not finish the number of shots and reshoots Marvel was asking for in time, so Marvel had to give my studio the work. Ever since, that house has effectively been blacklisted from getting Marvel work.
There was also mention of “underbidding” — where effects houses each present a more “valuable” package to Marvel, by cutting costs and overworking employees, competing to put forward the most lowball offer possible — which Marvel definitely seems “happy” with.
They also detailed the demanding way that Marvel Studios operates while producing its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film franchise:
The other thing with Marvel is it’s famous for asking for lots of changes throughout the process. So you’re already overworked, but then Marvel’s asking for regular changes way in excess of what any other client does. And some of those changes are really major. Maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel will have us change the entire third act. It has really tight turnaround times.
Perhaps most damning, however, is the revelation that Marvel Studios is guilty of something so prevalent in the industry that there is actual vulgar shorthand for this sort of “screwing over”. They call it getting “pixel-f****ed” — which really drives home the severity of the situation and how normalized it all is. The VFX artist recounts further:
I remember going to a presentation by one of the other VFX houses about an early MCU movie, and people were talking about how they were getting ‘pixel-f***ed.’ That’s a term we use in the industry when the client will nitpick over every little pixel. Even if you never notice it. A client might say, ‘This is not exactly what I want,’ and you keep working at it. But they have no idea what they want. So they’ll be like, ‘Can you just try this? Can you just try that?’ They’ll want you to change an entire setting, an entire environment, pretty late in a movie.
This VFX artist continues spilling the internal workings of the industry, speaking on Marvel Studios’ penchant for hiring indie directors and not briefing them adequately:
The main problem is most of Marvel’s directors aren’t familiar with working with visual effects. A lot of them have just done little indies at the Sundance Film Festival and have never worked with VFX. They don’t know how to visualize something that’s not there yet, that’s not on set with them.
[…] The other issue is, when we’re in postproduction, we don’t have a director of photography involved. So we’re coming up with the shots a lot of the time. It causes a lot of incongruity.
So it seems that Marvel’s directors themselves aren’t entirely to blame for these conditions, according to the anonymous VFX worker. They seem to insinuate that the real pressure should be on Marvel Studios for hiring these directors to begin with, and/or not priming these indie directors with the right knowledge to proceed with directing a big budget, CGI-heavy Marvel Cinematic Universe film.
An additional example of this given by the anon VFX artist was the visual effects in Black Panther (2018), where the finale’s “cartoony” effects created almost entirely by the VFX house (not the director), broke the “visual language of the film”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the Multiverse Saga film and Black Panther sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) will be free from this issue, given the introduction of almost entirely-CGI oceanic Namor (Tenoch Huerta) and his world of undersea beings. This upcoming MCU movie will also likely not escape Marvel fan scrutiny, considering calls to boycott the film are already swirling fast around the project.
All of this mismanagement from Marvel is akin to taking a local small-medium business owner and suddenly putting them in charge of running Apple Inc. — unknown directors being out of their depth from this sudden shift is a natural consequence.
This news ought to lift a little of the (somewhat overblown) blame brought upon Thor: Love and Thunder and Thor: Ragnarok (2017) director Taika Waititi, who definitely falls into this category. Waititi came into filming a massive-scale Marvel movie directly off of significantly smaller and New Zealand-local projects such as directorial debut Boy (2010), horror mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows (2014), and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016).
Interestingly, the latter two were exactly “little indies” that actually did debut at the Sundance Film Festival, as the overworked Marvel VFX artist mentioned.
Eventually, the VFX worker summarizes their thoughts, concluding that Marvel Studios and the entire Marvel Entertainment conglomerate need to step up with regards to training their directors to deal with the demands of the effects-heavy films better and refine that entire process. They also mention the importance of calling for underpaid and overworked VFX workers to band together and demand better — to take the step to unionize in light of this clear exploitation.
Overall, this under-acknowledged and often under-appreciated sector of the film industry definitely needs more light shed on some of its practices — especially with the MCU’s no doubt CGI-intense Multiverse Saga making its steady way to screens over the next three (or more) years.
What do you think about Marvel’s VFX workers unionizing? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s dramatic ending to Phase Three, Avengers: Endgame directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, said goodbye to Marvel heavyweights Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America. This led to the beginning of Phase Four with the Disney+ Original WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch) and Paul Bettany (Vision) back in 2021. Marvel went full steam ahead, releasing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) starring Simu Liu (Shang-Chi), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) with Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire all as their own separate, Multiversal version of Peter Parker, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) with Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) and most recently, Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) with Chris Hemsworth (Thor Odinson) and Natalie Portman (Jane Foster/Mighty Thor).
Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wraps things up with Tatiana Maslany as the eponymous She-Hulk: Attorney at Law this August 17, 2022, and Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa send-off Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, November 11, 2022 later this year.
The newly announced MCU Phase Five kicks off with Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania with Scott Lang as Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Janet van Dyne as the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) hitting theatres on February 17, 2023, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)-centric Secret Invasion in Spring that year, before May 5, 2023 brings us the final James Gunn-directed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 with Peter Quill AKA Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and July 28, 2023 takes us to new cosmic heights with The Marvels, a direct sequel to Captain Marvel (2019) starring Brie Larson as Carol Danvers and newcomer Iman Vellani (Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel).
We can expect the Disney+ Original Ironheart featuring Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) Fall 2023, as well as the brand new Blade in November, with 2023 ending in Agatha: Coven of Chaos and 2024 starting with Daredevil: Born Again – both Disney+ exclusives.
Phase Six will surely break new records with Fantastic Four in November 8, 2024, and likely the biggest announcements to date – a return to an Avengers-level threat with the Multiverse Saga’s conclusion in May 2025’s Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and November’s Avengers: Secret Wars.