For super fans it was a super rush. After three long years, Comic-Con returned to full-attendance mode in San Diego last month, making up for lost time by revealing a new series of Marvel movies.
There were tantalizing glimpses of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and two Avengers movies for 2025: Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret Wars.
But while Disney’s multi-billion dollar franchise is the gift that keeps on giving to cast, crew and distributors, there’s one key team in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that seems to be less fortunate: visual effects (VFX) . Artist.
First-hand accounts have recently surfaced in the media and social media, casting Marvel as an employer in a deeply unflattering light: voracious in its demands, impossible to please, overusing and underpaying the very people who infuse its content with wonder and wonder
“Working on #Marvel shows made me leave the VFX industry.” tweeted Dhruv Govil, a visual effects artist who has contributed to films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming. “You’re a terrible customer, and I’ve seen far too many colleagues collapse from overwork while Marvel tightens their wallets.”
Govil added, “The problem is that #Marvel is too big and can charge 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 was working on a film, I worked overtime every day for almost six months. 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 unnamed artist described Marvel as so successful, dominant, and prolific that the visual effects houses undercut each other in hopes of landing the next contract. But then they are often understaffed and try to do more with less. And Marvel is a perfectionist, ordering changes late in the process, far more so than a typical customer.
Such a statement comes as no surprise Joe Pavlo, an Emmy-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, who typically work for third-party non-collective agencies, fetch the rough end of the stick.
“The visual effects industry is full of great people with a lot of goodwill who really care, but at the end of the day there’s nothing wrong with your back to the wall and making crazy demands to Disney,” Pavlo says over the phone .
“All the goodwill in the world just evaporates when everything changes and they decide to replace that character with another actor or change the whole setting – they’re in a pizzeria now instead of a cornfield. It can be that extreme at the last minute.”
Pavlo, who is originally from the US but has lived in London since 1984, continues: “It can be characterized as bullying but is filtered through multiple levels of management, supervisors and hierarchy.
“It’s not like the Disney exec grabs someone and curses them or anything. It’s more of an atmosphere where everyone feels like this is the most important thing and if we don’t we’re all screwed.
“The average artist doesn’t even have contact with the customers. It’s really just the people at the producer and supervisor level and then they pass it down to their crew. So you could say, oh, the manager is a real bully, but actually it’s a knock-on effect and then the people who are the team leaders, if they can’t handle it, become the bullies.
“Bullying is a big problem in our industry because everyone gets so desperate at times. It seems like these jobs have such a high level of stress and pressure to finish on time, to change everything on the fly.”
Many artists fear they could be blacklisted for commenting on wages and conditions. Bringing visual effects workers together under a union could be a solution.
Pavlo, Chair of Animation and Visual Effects at the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theater Union (Bectu), adds, “Disney-Marvel is well known for wanting multiple releases to run in parallel so they can decide what they want want. A strong union would be able to catch up a bit.
“If you imagine getting 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.”
At corporate giants like Amazon and Starbucks in particular, union organizing campaigns are underway that offer a possible blueprint. Pavlo adds, “If they can do it, all the bosses and smart people in the visual effects industry can figure out how to do it.”
Across the Atlantic, there’s an endorsement from Ben Speight, an organizer of 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 unionized animation workers.
Speight says of Disney and Marvel, “These are incredibly profitable companies that can certainly afford to extend collective bargaining to the VFX workers who currently do not have a seat at the bargaining table.
“That’s the structural reality that leads to the likes of the Marvel VFX contributor who recently anonymously shared his story in New York Magazine. It’s evidence of something much broader than this isolated story. That will happen as long as people are employees at will.”
Disney, which also owns Star Wars, has had its share of controversies lately. At events like Comic-Con, the screen talent tends to earn the admiration of the crowd. But visual effects artists are no less important in the construction of this epic 21st century narrative.
Drexel Heard, a Los Angeles Democratic strategist and film buff, comments, “The visual effects team carries the heaviest burden in Marvel movies now that everything is green screen and done on sound stages that require a bit more visual effects and… less hardwall and less carpentry.
“Disney will need to make more use of its visual effects teams and they need to be compensated for their contribution and working conditions. Eventually they will get to that point, but it takes a person like this article from Vulture to say, hey, it’s time for someone to step in and protect that side of it like all the other departments have been protected too.”
Heard would like to see Marvel stars like Mark Ruffalo, a political activist and labor rights advocate, take up the cause of VFX artists.
“It’s going to take a lot of celebrity power, a lot of the Avengers, to come out and say, ‘Hey, the people who made our films deserve better working conditions, and we want to be able to support those who the films we made look good.’”
The Walt Disney Company did not respond to a request for comment.