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VFX Unionism

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Hollywood is mostly a union town but when new sides of the industry develop, they have to be organized too and they often aren’t. You saw that with the video effects workers. Now that is changing because conditions for these workers are not good.

The problems were myriad from the start. After Mark Patch (a veteran visual-effects technician with a long list of credits including Tenet, 2016’s Ghostbusters, and Starz’s American Gods) was offered a short-term position working on VFX for a Marvel series on Disney+, he says the studio balked at paying him his going rate — demanding to first see a pay stub from his work on Tenet proving his market value, then undershooting Patch’s quote by several hundred dollars a week. Then came the nondisclosure instructions he says were issued by Marvel’s VFX and postproduction president Victoria Alonso and staff VFX producer Jen Underdahl in a telephone meeting, requiring that Patch keep his employment at the company a secret and avoid any social-media posts that might indicate he was affiliated with a Marvel Cinematic Universe project. “I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t even tell my family where I am?’” he recalls. “What is this — the Manhattan Project?!”

Then there was the job itself. While an average feature-length superhero or sci-fi movie might have 1,600 visual effects, he says this ten-hour show (which he cannot specifically name per a nondisclosure agreement he signed) would require around 3,000 VFX shots to be completed on a much shorter timeline. Nonetheless, feature-quality work was expected, which could include anything from replacing actors’ faces to rendering entire CG sequences from scratch. Confronted with the prospect of what he was told would be 18-hour days, seven days a week, for three months straight, Patch walked awayfrom the contract. “They said, ‘Okay, well, do you want a job on our next show?’ And I said, ‘No.’” (Marvel Studios declined to comment on Patch’s story and declined to make Alonso and Underdahl available to speak.)

In January 2022, around 300 VFX production workers — the digital laborers working on set during a movie or show’s principal photography (rather than postproduction) handling things like green screen and motion capture— organized on a Slack channel under the name VFX Production Group and initiated a year-end poll comparing the salaries paid by various studios. It was an exercise in free information flow: an open discussion between a modest number of participants (as high as 42)of salary ranges and grievances, according to the Georgia-based worker who is a member of the group. Their goal was to establish more equitable pay rates and raise awareness of the value of VFX work. The results revealed that a visual-effects coordinator can earn as little as $1,300 a week — $18.57 an hour on the lowest end.

A month after the findings of the poll were posted on Instagram, Marvel began staffing a Disney+ show in Atlanta. Applicants with knowledge of the poll subsequently asked for salaries higher than what Marvel had previously offered them and stuck to their monetary demands as a group. “Marvel just kept saying to applicants, ‘No, no, no, we can’t,’” the Georgia-based VFX worker says. “Eventually, they burned through everyone they could. And Marvel was like, ‘Where are they getting these numbers?’ A producer showed them the rate poll. And almost instantly, there was an email that went out to producers and executives at Marvel that asked, ‘Where is this coming from? How do we stop it? Because we can’t have people talking about rates.’”

A second Georgia-based VFX worker who read the email while employed on a Marvel sequel recalls producers and studio executives “getting all up in arms” about the poll. “My producer told me to find out who from my team was involved and to bring that information to my bosses,” says the VFX worker. “We’ve basically been told to shut up about our rates and not to talk about it to each other — which is illegal. I told them I didn’t know anything.” (Marvel declined to comment on its staffing processes.)

One week after the poll results were revealed, the VFX Production Group issued a statement reminding workers that the sharing of salary information is a protected action. Marvel ultimately agreed to individually pay the applicants higher wages after that and did not retaliate against anyone for participating in the poll.

It’s a long piece and well worth your time given the number of readers around here who are into these kinds of movies and TV, not to mention who believe in labor justice.

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