‘Bullying is a problem’: visual effects artists speak out against Marvel

15 days ago

‘Bullying is a problem’: visual effects artists speak out against Marvel

The Guardian

For superfans it was a superfrenzy. After three long years, Comic-Con last month returned to full-attendance mode in San Diego and made up for lost time by unveiling a new slate of Marvel movies.

There were tantalising glimpses of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and two Avengers films for 2025: Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars.

But while the Disney-owned multibillion-dollar franchise is the gift that keeps on giving for casts, crews and distributors, there is one vital team in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) who appear to be faring less well: visual effects (VFX) artists.

First-hand accounts have recently erupted in media and social media casting Marvel in a deeply unflattering light as an employer: insatiable in its demands, impossible to please, overworking and underpaying the very staff who imbue its content with miracles and wonder

“Working on #Marvel shows is what pushed me to leave the VFX industry,” tweeted Dhruv Govil, a visual effects artist who contributed to movies including Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming. “They’re a horrible client, and I’ve seen way too many colleagues break down after being overworked, while Marvel tightens the purse strings.”

Govil added: “The issue is #Marvel is too big, and can demand whatever they want. It’s a toxic relationship.”

Another visual effects artist, who wished to remain anonymous, told New York magazine’s Vulture website: “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.”

The unnamed artist described Marvel as so successful, dominant and prolific that visual effects houses scramble to undercut each other in the hope of landing the next commission. But they then tend to be understaffed, trying do more with less. And Marvel is perfectionist to a fault, ordering changes late in the process, far in excess of a typical client.

Such testimony comes as little surprise to Joe Pavlo, an Emmy award-winning visual effects artist based in London. He worked on Guardians of the Galaxy – “it was a mess,” he recalls to the Guardian, “it was crazy,” – and points to the structural reasons why VFX artists, typically working for third-party vendors without collective bargaining rights, get the rough end of the stick.

Guardians Of The Galaxy.
Guardians of the Galaxy. Photograph: Courtesy of the National Film and Television School

“The visual effects industry is filled with terrific people with lots of goodwill who really care but, at the end of the day, there’s nothing in place when their backs are up against the wall and Disney is making crazy demands,” Pavlo says by phone.

“All the goodwill in the world just evaporates when everything gets changed and they decide they’re replacing that character with a different actor or changing the entire environment – they’re now in a pizza restaurant instead of a cornfield. It can be that extreme at the very last minute.”

Pavlo, who is from the US but has lived in London since 1984, continues: “It can be characterised as bullying but filtered through multiple layers of management and supervisor and hierarchy.

“It’s not like the executive from Disney is grabbing someone and swearing at them or something like that. It’s more like an atmosphere where everybody feels like this is the most desperately important thing and, if we don’t do it, we’re all fucked.

“The average artist doesn’t even have any contact with the clients. It’s really just the people at the producer and the supervisor level and then they pass it on to their crew. So you could say, oh, the supervisor’s a real bully, but actually it’s a knock-on effect and then the people who are the team leaders, once they can’t handle it, end up being bullies.

“Bullying is a huge problem in our industry because everybody’s so desperate sometimes. It seems like there’s such a high level of stress and pressure on these jobs to complete on time, to change everything at the drop of a hat.”

Many artists fear that making a stand about pay and conditions could see them blacklisted. Bringing visual effects workers together under the umbrella of a trade union could be one solution.

Pavlo, chair of the animation and visual effects branch at the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu), adds: “Disney-Marvel is very famous for wanting multiple versions running parallel so that they can decide what they want. A strong union would be able to reel that in a bit.

“If you imagine you get the art department to design a set, you wouldn’t get them to tear down the set and rebuild a completely different set 35 times. Because it’s digital, people don’t see it as the same thing but it is: it involves work and creativity and long hours. It doesn’t create itself.”

Notably, union organising drives are under way at corporate giants such as Amazon and Starbucks, offering a possible blueprint. Pavlo adds: “If they can do it, all the bosses and clever people in the visual effects industry can figure out how to do it.”

The Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, speaks during the Marvel panel at Comic-Con.
The Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, speaks during the Marvel panel at Comic-Con. Photograph: Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images

Across the Atlantic, there is agreement from Ben Speight, an organiser at the Animation Guild, which represents animation artists, writers and technicians and is part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. He notes that Disney has a long history of negotiating with union-represented animation workers.

Speight says of Disney and Marvel: “These are incredibly profitable entities that certainly can afford to expand collective bargaining to the VFX workers that don’t currently have a seat at the table.

“That’s the structural reality that is leading to people like the Marvel VFX worker who recently anonymously shared their story in New York magazine. It is a testament to something far broader than that isolated story. It’s something that will continue to happen so long as people are at will employees.”

Disney, which also owns Star Wars, has had more than its share of controversies of late. At events like Comic-Con, the on-screen talent tends to grab the crowd’s adulation. But visual effects artists are no less important in constructing this epic 21st-century narrative.

Drexel Heard, a Democratic strategist and film fan based in Los Angeles, comments: “The visual effects team is carrying the biggest load in Marvel movies now that everything is green screen, done on sound stages that require a little bit more visual effects to them and less hardwall and less carpentry.

“Disney is going to have to utilise their visual effects teams more and they need to be compensated for their contribution and working conditions. Ultimately they’re going to get to that point but it takes one person like that article from Vulture to say, hey, it’s time for somebody to step in and protect this side of it, as have all of the other departments been protected as well.”

Heard would like to see Marvel stars such as Mark Ruffalo, a political activist and champion of labour rights, take up the cause of VFX artists.

“It’s going to take a lot of celebrity power, a lot of the Avengers, to come up and say, ‘Hey, the people that have made our movies deserve better working conditions and we want to be able to support those who have made our movies look good.’”

The Walt Disney Company did not respond to a request for comment.