A VFX artist explains what it’s like to work for Marvel

What’s it like working as a visual effects artist for the MCU? “I’ve had co-workers sitting next to me break down and start crying.”
Photo Illustration: Vulture/Disney Plus, Marvel

It’s pretty well known, and even scoffed at by all the visual effects houses, that working on Marvel shows is really hard. When I was working on a film, it was almost six months of overtime every day. I worked seven days a week, an average of 64 hours a week in a good week. Marvel is working really hard on you. I’ve had co-workers sitting next to me break down and start crying. I’ve had people on the phone with anxiety attacks.

The studio has a lot of power over the effects houses just because it has so many blockbuster movies coming out back to back. If you upset Marvel in any way, there is a very high probability that you will not receive these projects in the future. So the effects houses are trying to bend over backwards to keep Marvel happy.

To get work, the houses bid on a project; They’re all trying to get right under each other’s bids. At Marvel, bids will usually be well below that, and Marvel is happy with that relationship because it saves money. But what ends up happening is that all Marvel projects tend to be understaffed. Where I would normally have a team of ten VFX artists on a non-Marvel film, on a Marvel film I got two, myself included. So everyone does more work than necessary.

The other thing with Marvel is that it’s known for asking for a lot of changes throughout the process. So they’re already overhauled, but then Marvel demands regular changes that go well beyond what any other customer does. And some of those changes are really big. Maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel has us change the entire third act. It has really tight turnaround times. So yeah, it’s just not a great situation. A visual effects house couldn’t complete the number of shoots and reshoots that Marvel requested in time, so Marvel had to let my studio do the work. Since then, this house has effectively been blacklisted to get Marvel work.

Part of the problem comes from the MCU itself – just the sheer number of movies it has. It fixes dates and is very inflexible on those dates; Still, it’s ready to make new additions and big changes very close to the data without moving it up or down. This is not a new dynamic.

I remember going to a presentation from one of the other VFX houses about an early MCU film, and people talked about getting pixel-fucked. It’s a term we use in the industry when the customer gets picky about every little pixel. Even if you never notice. A customer might say, “That’s not exactly what I want,” and you keep working on it. But they have no idea what they want. So they’re going to say, “Can you just try that? Can you just try that?” They’re going to want you to change an entire shot, an entire environment, fairly late in a movie.

The main problem is that most Marvel directors are not familiar with working with visual effects. A lot of them just did little indies at the Sundance Film Festival and have never worked with VFX before. They don’t know how to imagine something that isn’t there yet, that isn’t on set with them yet. As such, Marvel often asks for what we call “final renders.” As we work through a movie we send pictures of work in progress which aren’t pretty but show where we are. Marvel often asks very early on that they come in a much higher quality and that takes a lot of time. Marvel is doing this because its directors don’t know how to look at the rough pictures early on and make judgments. But this is how the industry has to work. You can’t show anything super pretty when the basics are still being worked out.

The other problem is when we are in post production we don’t have a cameraman involved. So most of the time we come with the recordings. It causes a lot of incongruity. A good example of what happens in these scenarios is the fight scene at the end of Black Panther. Physics is complete. All of a sudden the characters are jumping around and doing all these crazy moves like action figures in space. Suddenly the camera makes these movements that didn’t happen in the rest of the film. It all looks a bit cartoonish. It broke the imagery of the film.

Things need to change on two ends of the spectrum. Marvel needs to train its directors to work with visual effects and have better vision from the start. The studio needs to keep its directors’ feet on the fire more to commit to what they want. The other thing is unionization. There is a growing movement for this because it would help prevent the VFX houses from accepting bids without having to consider the implications. Because it’s often the case that you work on a Marvel series and work cheaper for it just because it’s cool.

Some of the issues I mentioned are universal to every show and project. But you work less overtime on other shows. In the end you will be able to oppose the directors more. If they say something like, “Hey, I want this,” you can say, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Not every customer has Marvel’s bullying power.

Do you have a story to tell about working as a VFX artist? Let us know at stories@vulture.com.

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