Marvel Studios’ visual effects (VFX) creators are set to revolutionize their portion of the industry, following news that they are have filed for a unionization election.

With the plethora of big-budget blockbusters released every year by major studios, VFX have become a staple in Hollywood movies. However, the teams behind them have operated without any form of union representation since their craft was pioneered in the first Star Wars films back in the 1970s.

Hoping to change this, a large majority of the more than 50 Marvel visual effects workers have filed authorization cards stating that they wish to be represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).

“For almost half a century, workers in the visual effects industry have been denied the same protections and benefits their coworkers and crewmates have relied upon since the beginning of the Hollywood film industry,” said IATSE VFX organizer Mark Patch in a statement. “This is a historic first step for VFX workers coming together with a collective voice demanding respect for the work we do.”

A selection of characters set to appear in Marvel TV shows in the next few months and years. Marvel VFX workers have started the process to form a union to protect their employment rights.
Marvel

While the workers across several strands in filmmaking—including editors, costumes, hair and makeup, camera operators, props, and art directors—have been represented by IATSE, this has not been extended to VFX classifications.

The importance of unions in Hollywood has dominated headlines in recent weeks. In July, after negotiations broke down over pay structures, the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) decided its 160,000 members would go on strike.

The move meant the actors would join members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) who have been on the picket lines for the past two months. This has essentially shut down Hollywood, marking the first time in more than 60 years that both groups have staged a walkout.

Both unions have locked horns with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over contractual terms, including pay. The studios’ refusal to rule out artificial intelligence one day replacing human workers escalated tensions. The AMPTP comprises the major studios: Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Warner Bros., NBC Universal, Sony and Paramount.

There have also been issues with actors and screenwriters’ compensation not correlating with the billions of streams that shows and films now often draw.

For Emmy-award winning VFX artist, Joe Pavlo, even though his industry is “late to the party” when it comes to unionizing it can’t come soon enough, and is more important than ever given Hollywood’s reliance on their craft.

He recalled to Newsweek working on the Hollywood hit, Bridget Jones’ Baby, which despite not being a film one would typically expect to have special effects, actually had more than 800 VFX shots.

“There’s simply no film industry without visual effects,” Pavlo explained. “I don’t mean to belittle any other departments… but something like 90 percent of films today have a significant amount of visual effects.

“Everybody’s using it for everything, even low budget things because it’s cheaper.”

Pavlo called for better working conditions for VFX artists, who he admitted were “our own worst enemies” when they first started working in Hollywood more than 30 years ago.

“We were all just a bunch of nerds that had some cool ideas… and it was completely untested. And we were, in many ways, our own worst enemies with regards to today’s working environment, because we would just stay all night and work on stuff,” Pavlo told Newsweek.

“We promised everything, whatever was needed, we would do it, whatever it took, we would do it and everybody was just so excited about this new frontier opening up in film and television, that I think we just kind of painted ourselves into this corner of putting ourselves up for exploitation,” he said. “In a way the visual effects were and still are today very much all about, like a race to the bottom.”

The artist described how VFX studios or contractors would “underbid and overpromise” to score work, thereby diminishing their labor’s value, but were also working themselves to the bone because of the unrealistic expectations placed on them.

“One of the biggest problems in visual effects is unlimited, unpaid overtime,” Pavlo explained. “A union is [for] improving working conditions, giving people a better social life, better health, both physical and mental.

“Working endless hours has broken up relationships, it has given people strokes and heart attacks. It has left people burnt out. The simple truth is that if you want a profitable company that is very productive and makes a lot of money for you, having a happy healthy workforce is essential.”

Pavlo relocated to the U.K. in the mid-1990s and has lived in London ever since, where he has been at the forefront of trying to protect VFX workers and has even been the chair of the creative industries union, BECTU’s animation and visual effects branch for about nine years.

The artist has seen firsthand intimidation by some studio bosses aimed at discouraging individuals from unionizing and understands many people are afraid of losing their careers if they try to do so.

But he believes that the SAG-ATFRA and WGA strikes, along with action of the Marvel employees will “embolden other people” to speak out.

Perhaps more critically, Pavlo has advice for any VFX workers “deathly afraid of blacklisting” if they join a union or stand up for their rights.

“I’ve never been one of the anonymous people and never been afraid to talk about the union,” he said. “And I’m living proof that blacklisting is a myth… because if any human being working in visual effects is going to be blacklisted it would have been me.

“I’ve never been busier or more well paid or happier in my work.”

Pavlo concluded: “My message to visual effects artists out there is there’s no such thing as blacklists. Join the union. Get your friends to join and everybody can be healthier and happier.”