For months, rumors and stories have been circulating in official and non-official capacities about the VFX industry and Marvel. For one, it’s well-known and publicly established— if you’re reading the trades with any regularity— that the movie business is experiencing what is known as a “VFX pipeline crisis” affecting the entire film, TV, and VFX industry. What does that mean? Well, COVID helped accelerate the problem, but in short, too many projects, too many tight deadlines, and not enough time to properly create, render and polish the complicated, expensive VFX necessary for the movie business, especially big blockbusters and superhero movies.
An anonymous Reddit thread circulated earlier this summer, titled, “I am quite frankly sick and tired of working on Marvel shows!” by an unnamed VFX artist—plus plenty of other artists chiming in—alleged that Marvel is one of the worst culprits of the current crisis. Adding to the tight, stressful, over-worked schedule, the artist claimed Marvel adds to the pressure, with lots of last-minute changes, lots of demands, and unfair expectations about quality even when they haven’t given the VFX companies they hire enough time to get things up to snuff. None of it has gotten easier since Marvel doubled their input. It used to be just four movies a year. Now, it’s four movies a year, and up to five or six shows that all demand movie-quality VFX.
You’ll see this crisis practically today—see the original trailer for “She-Hulk” with fairly poor VFX, vs. the most recent trailer that looks much better because artists have had more time to work on it. But the widespread consensus in the industry is that VFX artists are being worked to the bone, working 24-7, and, of course, Marvel is also being accused of not paying these companies very well.
It all feels like it’s been reaching a breaking point this summer. And to exacerbate it all, a new report by Vulture, who spoke to yet another anonymous VFX artist— who had many similar things to say as the aforementioned Reddit thread—is super damning of Marvel and their practices. “Marvel genuinely works you really hard,” the artist said in their opening statement, “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 artist lists what’s wrong with the MCU model: “the sheer number of movies” they make, how “inflexible” Marvel Studios is about their release schedule, and their willingness “to do reshoots and big changes very close to [those] dates.” They then cited a presentation by a VFX house that described “how they were getting “pixel-f*cked”” by an early MCU movie. The phrase alludes to how nit-picky Marvel directors are about work-in-progress images they see of VFX and how they demand “final renders,” even when “they have no idea what they want” the finished product to look like.
“Marvel often asks for them to be delivered at a much higher quality very early on, and that takes a lot of time,” continued the artist. “Marvel does that because its directors don’t know how to look at the rough images early on and make judgment calls. But that is the way the industry has to work. You can’t show something super pretty when the basics are still being fleshed out.” The artist then explained that’s why sometimes sequences in Marvel films move drastically different than the rest of the movie, citing the climax of “Black Panther” as an example.
The artist sees potential solutions to the Marvel problem on both sides. For one, “Marvel needs to train its directors on working with visual effects and have a better vision out of the gate.” In other words, Marvel needs their directors to know what they want before production begins and commit to that vision. “The other thing is unionization,” concluded the artist. So, instead of taking less money and working more overtime because it’s a cool project like a Marvel show, a VFX house wouldn’t take the bid if it negatively affected the quality of their work. In addition, VFX workers could push back against a director’s demands if necessary. “Not every client has the bullying power of Marvel,” said the artist. And a Marvel project shouldn’t throw the standard ways VFX work out of whack simply because they’re Marvel.
Will these comments make any difference in Hollywood’s VFX pipeline crisis? At Comic-Con last weekend, Kevin Feige unveiled the MCU’s calendar Phase 5, so that juggernaut keeps rolling. But will backlash from worn-out VFX houses slow that release schedule, or will Marvel’s exploitative practices continue?