Will Visual Effects Workers Unionize?
A new survey of visual effects workers in the film and television industry paints a picture of rampant labor violations and a demoralized workforce. VFX-IATSE is hoping to change that.
It’s hard to pin down the exact size of the visual effects (VFX) workforce that powers the Marvel cinematic universe and other VFX-heavy productions. Studio Hog, an effects and gaming directory site, estimates that there are 582 VFX houses globally, comprising somewhere between 31,000 and 117,000 workers. The field has expanded exponentially since the 1990s, when it consisted of a few hundred workers.
Yet VFX work is not unionized. That leaves these employees under the same pressures as their unionized counterparts but without the organization to rectify workplace issues.
To take just one example: some VFX workers on Marvel’s recent film, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, say that they worked eighty-hour weeks for months on end because of understaffing and an unrealistic deadline. Others who have worked on Marvel projects attest to similar overwork. A subset of VFX workers, aided by the 160,0000-member International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees (IATSE) that represents other entertainment workers, hopes to do something about it.
VFX-IATSE traces its roots to a Slack channel called “VFX Production Group,” in which around three hundred VFX workers came together to compare salaries across studios. As one Georgia-based member of the group told Vulture, the aim was to discuss salary ranges and grievances. The group posted the results of their poll on Instagram.
Shortly after, Marvel began hiring for a Disney+ show in Atlanta, and some applicants who had seen the poll subsequently asked for salaries above what the studio offered them. As the Georgia-based VFX worker told Vulture, “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.’”
The studio ultimately agreed to the higher rates without retaliating against anyone who had participated in the poll. The workers had scored their first win.
VFX-IATSE has now published the results of a broader survey. The responses from VFX workers paint a picture of a field rife with overwork and disorganization, leaving artists and technicians with little hope for longevity in their careers.
On average, 70 percent of respondents report having worked uncompensated overtime hours, and 75 percent report being forced to work through legally mandated meal breaks and rest periods without compensation. While the entertainment industry’s collective-bargaining agreements mandate meal penalties for employees who are asked to work through their breaks, the vast majority of VFX workers report that they receive no such compensation, nor other training and safety provisions that are standard in film and television union contracts.
Such arrangements amount to wage theft, suggesting that VFX workers are denied basic standards mandated by law. Crunch time, when workdays extend beyond ten or even twelve hours, are a major issue for the respondents. Short-lived film and television productions are notoriously uneven — the set one works on this month may have great working conditions, and the one next month may be outlandishly unsafe or abusive — and the survey suggests this puts VFX workers in a particularly weak position. Only around one in ten respondents to the survey believed that they can individually negotiate solutions to these challenges with their employer.
While most people think of VFX workers as employees of VFX houses that employ them to bid on work being requested by a project, separate from a film’s production and often based outside of the United States as employers chase tax breaks around the world, the VFX-IATSE survey breaks down responses for client-side VFX workers as well as these vendor-side workers. The client-side workers are employed directly on sets, making them often the only nonunion workers present on a production. While the VFX department is often the largest line item on a production’s budget, these workers fare little better than their vendor-side counterparts: only 12 percent have health insurance that carries over from job to job, and only 15 percent report any employer contributions to a retirement fund.
“I can’t fathom any future where I can retire,” writes one of the survey’s respondents. The majority agreed: asked whether or not they felt that VFX work, as it currently exists, was sustainable for them in the long-term, 67 percent of client-side and 68 percent of vendor-side workers said no.
VFX-IATSE now has dedicated organizers like Mark Patch, a visual-effects technician whose credits include Tenet and Nope, and Ben Speight, an organizer for IATSE Local 839 (known as the Animation Guild) and now a special representative with the VFX campaign. As Patch told Vulture of his time on a Marvel production for Disney+, the studio first balked at paying him his going rate, then gave him extensive nondisclosure instructions: “I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t even tell my family where I am? What is this — the Manhattan Project?!”
This isn’t the first time VFX workers have tried to unionize. Ten years ago, some five hundred such workers rallied outside of the 85th Academy Awards to raise awareness of the field’s poor working conditions. But the effort never turned into a union. Among other challenges was the industry’s use of VFX houses abroad, outside a possible union’s jurisdiction — even many of those who work within the United States work off set in postproduction facilities, creating another separation from their unionized coworkers in other departments.
While those obstacles remain, VFX-IATSE is gearing up for a fight. As Speight told the Hollywood Reporter, the plan is to organize studio by studio, asking for voluntary recognition but preparing for National Labor Relations Board elections. Said Speight: “We’re not talking about transforming the industry all at once, but having strategic targeted campaigns.” At issue are not only working conditions, but wages, too: some of the survey’s respondents are paid rates that approximate the minimum wage if one accounts for unpaid overtime.
The timing of the campaign is no fluke. The Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the Directors Guild of America, and the Writers Guild of America all have contracts expiring this spring and summer, and there has been much speculation about whether the Writers Guild, whose contract expires on May 1, will strike for the first time in fifteen years. And while IATSE did not ultimately strike over its own major contracts when they expired in 2021, members, pushed by the pandemic, were more energized than they have been in decades, suggesting the industry’s workers are willing and even eager to take on employers who are demanding more content than ever before.
For VFX workers, the hope is that all of this might add up to a moment in which the studio system concedes on unionization, or at least fails in its efforts to resist it. As Speight put it, “We think it’s possible that this year VFX crews across major studios will successfully gain union recognition. But ultimately it’s going to be up to those workers themselves.”