Mark Patch, a veteran visual effects coordinator (“Tenet”), joined IATSE last fall as a full-time organizer for visual effects workers. However, dating back to his earliest work as a PA, Patch asked his colleagues questions as to why VFX workers didn’t have a union like almost everyone else on the call sheet. He got answers, but never believed them.
Among 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 it couldn’t work. The industry already faced massive layoffs and paycuts. Jobs could just as easily move overseas.
Still, even Eric Roth, former head of the Visual Effects Society, recently lamented: “This cannot be the model to get the most and the best out of such talented artists.” And now, against all odds, VFX workers now have a union.
Marvel’s VFX employees are now represented under The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts after a unanimous vote with the National Labor Relations Board — a ballot required after Marvel declined to voluntary recognize the union. At a date to be determined, IATSE wil negotiate with Marvel to collectively bargain a contract for VFX workers. (A rep 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 form a union.’ A lot of the crafts that we work alongside of were organized decades ago. We had to get over that initial hump of, ‘Is this really going to happen?’”
Now, it’s happening — but supporters say that means the work has only begun. “This is not the finish line,” said Cael Liakos-Gilbert, who was meant to be the lead data wrangler on Marvel’s upcoming “Thunderbolts” before it shut down because of the strike. “This is us leaving the starting gate and launching a massive campaign… If there is skepticism from the rest of the community, your time is coming.”
Under IATSE, VFX workers now have a local branch with national jurisdiction. Today it covers all Marvel VFX employees; by the start of next month, it could include Disney’s internal VFX employees. (Results of their union vote are expected October 2.) One day, Patch said, it could encompass the many third-party vendors like ILM, Weta, and DNEG that 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).
Previous organizing efforts that approached vendors failed. Patch believes that shifting the union focus to studios will create a domino effect: IATSE expects to see VFX talent who have rights, privileges, and workforce protections on one job wonder why they don’t have it on the next gig.
Someone like Liakos-Gilbert is a W2 employee for Marvel, but like most VFX workers he is hired on a project-by-project basis. Like many of his peers, he often registers for three to four different healthcare plans in a year since benefits end with a contract.
“Part of our misclassification fight is the hiring of freelancers who are legally supposed to have control over where they work, the equipment that they use, where they report to work, and being able to work on more than one show at once,” Patch said. “But for us, we’re on the call sheet. We are told we have to be there at 5 AM and be part of the shoot. That very clearly, legally, makes us full-time employees who are deserving of these rights.”
Because it’s part of IATSE, the VFX union’s basic agreement will cover parity among workers, pension contributions, turnaround protections, meal penalties, and more. IATSE will bargain for healthcare and classifying VFX employees under defined union titles.
Patch said Marvel is especially close-knit: Once people like your work, they tend to bring you back for the next show. However, Marvel faced intense criticism for its VFX workplace conditions and Marvel veteran Victoria Alonso, president of physical and postproduction, visual effects and animation production, made an abrupt exit earlier this year.
Alexandra Rebeck, a VFX coordinator on the upcoming second season of “Loki,” told IndieWire that when she first joined Marvel on “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” people worked 75 days in a row and only got time off when you “had a mental breakdown.”
“I don’t know how this is acceptable,” she said. “I don’t know how you can work people like this. It was the first-ever Marvel TV show, it was during COVID, there was a lot of things that didn’t work in our favor. … It didn’t stop me from coming back to other Marvel shows, and those were way better. So I don’t think it’s a Marvel thing, but on a show-to-show basis, things can really go horribly wrong. I don’t want anyone who comes into VFX to end up doing what I had to do on that show, because that is not humane. That is not normal.”
Patch’s effort to rally support from Rebeck, Liakos-Gilbert, and the 30 other people who voted in favor of the union did not happen overnight. Patch said he led underground conversations “for years,” well before IATSE began supporting VFX workers. Rebeck says she noticed real conversation among her peers in March, after IATSE released a survey of visual effects professionals that captured the lack of protections and power.
“We realized there was a huge disparity between how much you got paid versus your experience,” she said. “It seemed more about how much can the studio save money rather than, how much is your experience worth?”
After connecting with Patch, she volunteered to rally support among “Loki” staffers. She said they were doubtful after years of hearing reasons why it wouldn’t work.
“The more that these surveys and articles are coming out, more people felt, ‘This is real. I think we can actually do it,’” Rebeck said. “It was still a pull sometimes to get people to talk, and I think it was more about a fear rather than wanting a change. Everyone wants a change, but it’s the fear of, ‘If I say something, will this put me on Marvel’s poo-poo list and I won’t be able to get a job anymore?’”
Many VFX houses struggle under financial pressures, and the improved terms of a union deal could create greater challenges, if not the impetus to move work overseas.
“Getting a fair wage for their employees needs coordination where all VFX studios agree and one or more don’t undercut themselves and their fellow VFX compatriots and essentially continue this abusive course of their own volition,” one VFX insider told IndieWire via email. “The vendors themselves create the problem with the lack of unity and self-protection of their employees.”
Patch says IATSE is well aware of the offshore threat. “There’s nothing stopping [studios] right now from sending every single job they can overseas,” he said. “They’ve been trying.”
However, VFX workers often need to be on set to do their jobs. “There’s a need and demand for an established, domestic visual effects community of professionals,” Patch said.
Liakos-Gilbert hopes that the unionizing efforts will start an industry dialogue. “We’re not trying to create friction or create division,” he said. “The union is about unity. It is about collective bargaining. Once we get that respect that we’ve already started to achieve, the working conditions and the treatment will come with it.”
Additional reporting by Bill Desowitz