Mark Patch, a veteran visual effects coordinator (“Tenet”), joined IATSE last fall as a full-time visual effects staff organizer. But from his earliest work as a PA, Patch asked his colleagues questions about why the VFX workers didn’t have a union like almost everyone else on the union roster. He got answers but never believed them.
One of the excuses: The employer had all the power. Companies like Rhythm and Hues, which went bankrupt after winning the Oscar for “Life of Pi” were proof that it couldn’t work. The industry was already facing massive problems Layoffs and salary cuts. Jobs could just as easily be relocated abroad.
Still, even Eric Roth, former head of the Visual Effects Society, recently lamented: “This cannot be the model to get the best out of such talented artists.” And now, against all odds, VFX workers have a union.
After a unanimous vote with the National Labor Relations Board, Marvel’s VFX employees are now represented on the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts – a vote that was required after Marvel refused to to voluntarily recognize the union. At a date to be determined, IATSE will negotiate with Marvel to jointly negotiate a contract for VFX staff. (A representative for Marvel did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Everyone wants a union,” Patch said. “It’s just that no one goes out and tells you – the studio certainly doesn’t tell you – ‘Hey, this is how you start a union.’ Many of the crafts we work with were founded decades ago. We had to get past the initial question of ‘Is this really going to happen?’”
Now it’s happening — but advocates say that means the work has only begun. “This is not the finish line,” said Cael Liakos-Gilbert, who was set to serve as lead data logger for Marvel’s upcoming “Thunderbolts” before it was canceled because of the strike. “We are leaving the launch pad and launching a massive campaign… When the rest of the community shows skepticism, your time has come.”
Under IATSE, VFX employees now have a local office with national jurisdiction. Today it covers all Marvel VFX staff; By early next month, it could include Disney’s in-house VFX staff. (The results of their union vote are expected Oct. 2.) One day, Patch says, it could include the many third-party companies like ILM, Weta and DNEG, which employ hundreds of VFX artists and technicians nationwide. He added that IATSE is working on organizing efforts at other studios (he wouldn’t say which ones).
Previous organizing efforts that reached out to vendors failed. Patch believes the shift in union focus to studios will create a domino effect: IATSE predicts that VFX talent who have rights, privileges and worker protections at one job will wonder why they don’t have them at the next gig.
Someone like Liakos-Gilbert is a W2 employee for Marvel, but like most VFX employees, he is hired on a project-by-project basis. Like many of his colleagues, he often signs up for three to four different health insurance plans per year because the benefits end with one contract.
“Part of our fight against misclassification is hiring freelancers who are supposed to have legal control over where they work, what equipment they use, where they report for work and are able to work on more than one show at a time work,” Patch said. “But for us, we’re on the call sheet. We are told that we have to be there at 5am and be part of the shoot. Legally, this clearly makes us full-time employees who deserve these rights.”
Since the VFX union is part of the IATSE, the basic agreement includes employee equality, pension contributions, severance pay protection, meal penalties and more. IATSE will negotiate for healthcare and classify VFX employees into defined union designations.
Patch said Marvel is particularly tight-knit: Once people like your work, they tend to bring you back for the next show. However, Marvel was just around the corner severe criticism for its VFX workplace conditions and Marvel veteran Victoria Alonso, president of physical and post-production, visual effects and animation production, made an abrupt exit earlier this year.
Alexandra Rebeck, VFX coordinator for the upcoming second season of “Loki,” told IndieWire that when she first joined Marvel on “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” people would work 75 days in a row and only get time off then , when you “had a nervous breakdown.”
“I don’t know how this is acceptable,” she said. “I don’t know how you can work with people like that. It was the very first Marvel TV show, it was during the COVID-19 period, there were a lot of things that didn’t work in our favor. …It didn’t stop me from going back to other Marvel shows, and these were much better. So I don’t think it’s a Marvel thing, but from show to show it can really go horribly wrong. I don’t want anyone who comes into VFX to end up doing what I had to do on this show because that’s inhumane. That’s not normal.”
Patch’s attempt to win the support of Rebeck, Liakos-Gilbert and the 30 other people who voted for the union didn’t happen overnight. Patch said he had been conducting underground conversations for “years,” long before IATSE began supporting VFX employees. Rebeck says she noticed a real conversation among her colleagues in March after IATSE released a survey of visual effects professionals that noted the lack of protections and power.
“We found that there is a big difference between how much you get paid and your experience,” she said. “It seemed more about how much can the studio save money than how much is your experience worth?”
After connecting with Patch, she volunteered to rally support among the “Loki” staff. She said they had doubts after years of hearing why it wouldn’t work.
“The more these surveys and articles came out, the more people felt, ‘This is real.’ “I think we can actually do it,” Rebeck said. “Sometimes it was still an attraction to get people talking and I think it was more about a fear than a desire for change. Everyone wants change, but it’s the fear: “If I say something, will I end up on Marvel’s crap list and no longer get a job?”
Many VFX houses are struggling under financial pressure, and the improved terms of a union deal could create greater challenges, if not an incentive, to move work overseas.
“In order to get a fair wage for their employees, there needs to be coordination where all VFX studios are on the same page and one or more do not undercut themselves and their VFX colleagues and essentially continue this abusive course of their own accord,” a VFX insider told IndieWire via email. “The providers themselves are creating the problem with the lack of unity and lack of self-protection among their employees.”
Patch says IATSE is well aware of the offshore threat. “There is nothing that stops [studios] “Right now we have to send every single order they can get overseas,” he said. “You tried.”
However, VFX workers often need to be on set to get their work done. “There is a need and demand for an established, domestic community of visual effects professionals,” Patch said.
Liakos-Gilbert hopes the unionization effort will spark an industry dialogue. “We are not trying to create tension or division,” he said. “The union is about unity. It’s about collective bargaining. Once we get the respect that we have already started to achieve, the working conditions and treatment will come with it.”
Additional reporting by Bill Desowitz