Unionization: Unprecedented move within the VFX industry

VFX artists at Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios vote to form union.

Karen Moltenbrey

For decades, VFX artists have wrestled with what they see as harsh and unfair working conditions. Yet, they love their craft. Now, they appear to be on the brink of revising these practices that have been a sore subject for decades—at least those at Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios, who have voted to join the IATSE union. This is an unprecedented step in the industry, where artists traditionally have been non-union workers.

What do we think? Without question, many of those working in the VFX industry have been subjected to long hours and grueling schedules. On the one hand, studios like Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios have been on a digital content creation roll, producing continuous hits that are jam-packed with state-of-the-art visual effects (see the JPR DCC report). There is continual work. On the other hand, industry deadlines are getting more aggressive and expectations for bigger, bigger effects are rising. This often means excessively long days, workweeks that extend through weekends, and vacations/holidays that must be cancelled.

VFX Union
(Source: IATSE)

This is not unique to Disney and Marvel. For decades, VFX artists have voiced their frustration in terms of these practices, and the concept of unionization has been tossed about and whispered in the far corners of the room, although nothing has ever come of it. Until now. The complaints are not localized; they are industrywide. With this unprecedented move at these two studios, there is a high expectation this is the spark that will ignite the flame that will burn through other facilities, too. No doubt many others are waiting on the studios’ response to the vote to unionize. The alternative, though, may not be so promising—hiring freelancers and workers from third-party non-union studios to work on the productions, leading to job instability, lack of insurance, and other issues.

In-house VFX artists at Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Studios vote to form union

Many young artists dream of one day working at Disney. For most, it signifies a certain cachet and level of success. Indeed, having your name flash on the screen for that brief 2 seconds as the credits roll on the latest hit evokes a sense of pride—after all, Disney has mastered visual storytelling, and their projects are something to behold. Consider the facility’s impressive slate, including the recent live-action adaptations of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and others.

However, in-house VFX artists at Walt Disney Pictures who worked on those films, like their brethren at Disney-owned Marvel Studios and the plethora of others at studios throughout the industry, do not enjoy certain labor benefits those in other market segments take for granted. It is not unusual for layoffs to occur while projects are ramping down, especially at third-party facilities; the deadline-oriented work schedule is extremely demanding; and pay equity does not exist. Why? Because the artists do not belong to a union that would regulate fair labor conditions and practices.

This has been the albatross around artists’ necks.

Elsewhere, unions representing actors, writers, auto workers, and healthcare employees currently have been flexing their muscle with demands specific to those in their respective industry. Perhaps this has spurred on the VFX artists, or maybe they just reached their breaking point. However, for the first time, this group at Walt Disney Pictures has unanimously voted to form a union with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). And they are not alone. A few weeks ago, VFX artists at Marvel Studios, which is also owned by Disney, took steps toward unionizing as well, also with the IATSE, making history as the first VFX group to do so. At Marvel, the vote covers on-set crew, which includes production managers, witness camera operators, data wranglers, and assistants on film and TV productions.

VFX workers at Marvel Studios also are demanding fair pay for the hours they work, healthcare, a safe and sustainable working environment, and respect for the work they do, according to IATSE.

The unionization efforts for both the Disney and Marvel artists cover those employed in-house; those who work on the studios’ films at outside facilities would not be covered.

The working conditions for VFX artists are hardly secret within the industry but has been long accepted—begrudgingly so—as the nature of the business. However, the unanimous unionization of Walt Disney Pictures’ VFX workers, in addition to the similarly unanimous vote of Marvel Studio’s VFX workers just prior to that, is part of an ongoing wave of organizing throughout the entertainment industry, with workers across several previously unrepresented classifications rallying to unite under IATSE.

In reference to the Disney move to unionize, IATSE VFX organizer Mark Patch stated: “Today’s unanimous victory shows that VFX workers everywhere have a clear path to winning a meaningful say about their working conditions and quality of life. We’ll be continuing our work to win a great contract, but we need to bring every studio and vendor in line to bring those union standards to all VFX workers.” The union anticipates many organizing victories within VFX, he added.

A press release issued by the IATSE points out that while positions like production designers/art directors, camera operators, sound, editors, hair and makeup artists, costumes/wardrobe, script supervisors, grips, lighting, props, and paint, among others, have historically been represented by IATSE in motion picture and television, workers in VFX classifications historically have not. VFX job classifications have largely remained non-union since the field was pioneered during production of the first Star Wars films in the 1970s.

“For so long, we’ve wanted the same protections as everyone else, but there was no hope in sight. Winning this election was a long fight, but I’m proud to say it’s been won by each and every VFX worker wanting a brighter, sustainable future,” said Mack Robinson, Disney VFX senior coordinator, in a statement.

The unionizing workers are demanding fair compensation for all hours worked, adequate healthcare, retirement benefits, and more generally, the same rights and protections afforded to their unionized coworkers who are already represented by IATSE, according to the press statement that was issued. “These workers’ collective action against the status quo represents a seismic shift in this critical moment in our industry. This unanimous vote sends a clear message that the demands of VFX workers for dignity, respect, and fairness must be heard,” stated IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb.

The next step in this unprecedented process is for the union to engage in collective bargaining negotiations with the respective studio to address the concerns of these workers. No statement has been forthcoming from Walt Disney Pictures or Marvel Studios.