Marvel Studios Takes Action Following VFX Work Controversy

By Matt Roembke Posted:
VFX Artist Conditions MCU Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios' recent Phase 5 and 6 announcements have fans excited about another four years of Marvel Studios blockbusters and streaming series. With success comes demand, and unfortunately, the high demand for the world's largest and most successful movie franchise has taken a toll on the visual effects community. The MCU is not slowing down, and the VFX Houses tasked with bringing this universe to life are having trouble keeping up. 

After 11 years and 23 movies, the MCU turnaround rate has increased exponentially. Due to the four-movie-a-year schedule and the addition of Disney+, Marvel Studios is set to release at least 24 movies and streaming series over the next three-and-a-half years. Not to mention any specials, animated series, or even live-action movies and shows yet to be announced. This type of volume would be a mountainous task for any studio to ask of the VFX Houses of Hollywood.

The fact that this demand is coming from Marvel Studios has VFX artists more than a little upset. Recently, these artists have spoken out on social media about the "toxic relationship" between VFX Houses and Marvel Studios. The issues lie mostly in the number of unexpected hours that the Disney juggernaut demands during pre-production. 

Some VFX artists have now remarked on what can be done to improve the relationship between the world's greatest cinematic universe and the creatives assigned to create that universe. 

Marvel Studios Mending Its VFX Pipeline Issues

Marvel Studios VFX

IGN recently spoke with various sources within the VFX industry who have experience working with Marvel Studios. These artists spoke about the conditions they are put under by Marvel Studios and specifically why it is more difficult than other clients, while also providing some hopeful insight into the steps the studio is taking to address these ongoing issues.

"Famously, the third act in most Marvel movies" seems to give VFX houses the most trouble

“It’s famously the third act in most Marvel movies. If you have the third act, you are in for the most pain. Everything will change in a very drastic way, which means the most amount of work. And if one studio had more than just the third act, you’re in for it."

Marvel Studios seems to be realizing this strain and has now begun to make an effort to lighten the load, according to IGN's sources. Spreading the love to different graphics studios and artists allows them to focus on more precise scenes and sections of a project, which Marvel appears to be allocating more fairly in a "more logical way "going forward:

Now, it seems like they’ve kind of split things up in a more logical way… Divvying up the work that way gives people a better chance to succeed. That’s one thing that’s been positive."

Rather than lumping the third act in with a long list of requests as it has done in the past, Marvel Studios is also now reportedly refraining from giving any additional responsibilities to VFX houses already tasked with the hefty load of the third act.

One source spoke about how one advantage the artists can gain in this relationship is on the financial side of things. The work that is being asked to be done at the beginning is not in line with what ends up being done. It seems like the unionization of these creators "would give the artists more power." 

“If artists were to unionize, that would give the artists more power to say, ‘These are our terms’, and it would force Marvel and the VFX houses to change their bidding practices, change how hard they’re pushing things… It’s just capitalism, right? All these studios want the work, Marvel wants it for as cheap as possible, so I don’t think that will really change.”

This move toward a VFX union would be in the pursuit of raising the floor of costs when Effects Houses bid on these and other blockbuster projects. It is also a goal to have more "recourse when it comes to things like how much overtime they do," giving studios and graphic houses alike the responsibility to strategically plan their budget, accounting for all of the requested overtime. 

“[Unionization] would ideally mean that it allows setting floors on artist compensation, and artists would have more recourse when it comes to things like how much overtime they do. That would mean the VFX houses will also have to take on that floor of costs and bid according to the amount of overtime they can max out with. In turn that means Marvel and other clients would then have to accept more realistic bids, and have more financial incentive to be more judicious with the amount of rework notes, and have to plan out their projects better from the get go.”

These CGI-heavy projects come with a great deal of trial and error, revisions, and starting from scratch. This mental and emotional strain on these artists leads to incredible burnout and a lack of passion for the work being done: 

“You can get your stuff thrown away 50 times just because they are rewriting and re-recording voices and redoing the script and redoing stuff, so it’s tiring in the sense where it feels like you get a lot of your work thrown [in the trash] often, so it can feel like what you’re doing is kind of useless,” one of IGN's sources said. “Or you can get lucky and be on the shot that just goes smoothly.”

The "most important thing" Marvel Studios can do to aid these artists and try to salvage this relationship is to make an effort to plan ahead with the artists in mind. 

“The most important thing for me would be [for Marvel] to figure out their movie more in pre-production,” IGN’s source said. “It would save everyone a ton of money and a ton of time. Because it really feels like they’re writing the movie while we’re making it, which is crazy because we’re really, really post-production… It feels very disrespectful for the artists to throw away stuff, redo stuff, throw away stuff, redo stuff, just because they can’t make up their mind or haven’t thought about it. Sometimes you get notes where it’s like, how did [Marvel] not think about that earlier?”

Exposure Doesn't Pay The Bills

"Exposure doesn't pay the bills" is an expression used in the visual artists' community that references companies and clients who believe being able to say they have done work for their brand is enough of a reward for the artists. And while these graphic artists are not being compensated solely with their name in the credits, the allure of working for Marvel Studios has afforded the client leeway in the past. Not anymore. 

A known aspect of being a graphic artist is that most projects will come back with revisions and notes about how to mirror the client's vision better. Something the best visual artists have to do is be able to receive that feedback and adjust their product to fit the critiques. However, just as important is the ability to communicate with the client exactly how valuable those revisions are, and the more drastic your changes are, the bigger the check will be. 

A sign of improvement is Marvel Studios' willingness to divide and conquer, giving their artists the best chance to succeed. Being able to dial in on more specific elements of a design process enables everyone involved to put in more quality work overall. This improvement to the overall workload of the artists is a step in the right direction. 

Bringing more artists into the equation is a way to minimize the individual strain of a blockbuster movie. It is easier for designers to deliver options for the showrunners to choose from, which should help form a final vision of a scene earlier on in the process. However, work still needs to be done to ensure that the back-end strain these artists go through in the revision stage is improved. 

Once a trailblazer in popcorn visual effects, Marvel Studios seems to be stuck in their idea of what it takes to make these movies happen back when it was 6 projects over the course of 4 years. More movies, more shows, and more characters that need to be brought to life through the use of CGI must mean that the request system needs to adapt. 

Sure, paying these artists what they are due for the number of hours put in seems simple. Beyond that, the physical and emotional stress brought on by the last-second nature of these requests should mean a surge in cost. But beyond the simple financial side of things, the planning needs to be more dialed in on the front end. 

Marvel Studios has been glorified for its planning and execution of the stories being told on the big screen. While adjustments and changes are inevitable, a similar effort to plan their stories needs to be put into planning how these stories will be rendered in a VFX bullpen. Certain creative decisions that are etched in stone need to be made early on. And if that stone needs to be tossed out, the artists need the proper time to make the necessary changes. 

That is just the start to repairing one of the most important relationships Marvel Studios has. 

- About The Author: Matt Roembke