June 18, 2024
#Vfx News

Unionization of Marvel’s VFX Workforce Marks a Major Milestone for Hollywood

One of the numerous consequential outcomes of Marvel incorporating post-credit scenes into the fabric of the studio’s cinematic universe is the exposure it provides to the extensive team of “below-the-line” professionals required to conjure the magic of superhero movies. This roster encompasses production designers, makeup and hair artists, camera operators, and many others, with the list seeming endless. Nestled among them, typically towards the conclusion of the credits, as eager moviegoers await a glimpse of the next installment in the MCU, are mentions of visual effects studios—establishments bearing names like Framestore, The Third Floor, and Cinesite, responsible for crafting all the cosmic vistas and Wakanda visuals. However, in contrast to most other names in those credits, the professionals in the realm of VFX artists have never been affiliated with a professional union.

On Monday, a significant development took place within Marvel Studios, as a supermajority of their VFX crew signed cards expressing their desire to be represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

To clarify, the Marvel team constitutes only a fraction of the vast entertainment industry and doesn’t encompass all the VFX professionals working on MCU films. Nevertheless, their decision marks a profound transformation in Hollywood, especially considering ongoing strikes within other industry unions such as the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) aimed at securing more favorable agreements with major studios. VFX workers have been discussing unionization for over a decade, as noted by Bilali Mack, a VFX supervisor with a portfolio spanning from “The Whale” to “The Flash.” The fact that one group, albeit a relatively small one, has taken concrete steps toward unionizing is a monumental step.

This pivotal moment can be traced back to 2013 when “Life of Pi” won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, coinciding with the struggles faced by the company responsible for those effects, Rhythm & Hues, which was on the brink of bankruptcy. During his acceptance speech, the movie’s VFX supervisor, Bill Westenhofer, expressed his gratitude and then went on to highlight Rhythm & Hues’ financial difficulties. However, his microphone was abruptly cut off, and the theme from “Jaws” began playing.

Rhythm & Hues was not the only VFX studio encountering financial woes. Between 2003 and 2013, around 21 similar companies ceased operations due to factors like production delays and the migration of many jobs to companies based outside the United States, where tax subsidies and incentives provided VFX houses with a better chance of survival. Efforts to organize have been simmering for years, and this week, they reached a tipping point. As IATSE president Matthew Loeb stated, “We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of solidarity that’s breaking down old barriers in the industry. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Loeb’s remarks, of course, referred to the context in which the unionization initiative within Marvel coincides with the ongoing strikes in the SAG and WGA, possibly inspiring individuals in other facets of the Hollywood industry. Upon hearing the news about Marvel, I reached out to Dave Rand. He had been involved in the production of “Life of Pi” at Rhythm & Hues and had played a part in organizing a protest outside the Oscars on the evening the film secured its victory. He acknowledged that the current strikes have influenced the situation, yet he also noted that VFX workers who find themselves unemployed or on a work hiatus during these strikes may be cautious about taking the step to organize, given concerns about securing their next job. Nonetheless, he added, “it’s a positive move forward, and it has the potential to serve as a precedent.”

Considering artificial intelligence has been a major point of contention in the Hollywood strikes so far, I asked Rand and Mack if it might be on VFX artists’ minds as well. Both agreed that it was, adding that AI can be a tool for VFX artists, but it will still always require a human to guide it. Is it possible, I asked Mack, that studios would try to create shots with AI and then have human VFX artists clean them up?

“A hundred percent,” Mack replied. “That’s a legitimate worry. Because there’s a saying in visual effects, and I think in a lot of other industries, which is that the first 90 percent takes 10 percent of your time, the last 10 percent takes 90 percent. They’re gonna spit it out, it’s gonna be a piece of crap. Then they’re just gonna be like, ‘We just want it to look perfect and feature film quality,’” and then a VFX company will get called in to spend 90 percent of their time to get paid for 10 percent of the work.

Whether that scenario plays out remains to be seen. The National Labor Relations Board still needs to do due diligence on the Marvel VFX team’s request. Only after that’s complete will all members of the eligible Marvel team be able to vote on whether they want to join the union. And only then, presumably, will it be known whether the other visual effects studios in the MCU credit sequences follow in their footsteps.

Unionization of Marvel’s VFX Workforce Marks a Major Milestone for Hollywood

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