VFX Artists Complain of Getting “Pixel-F–ked” by Marvel Studios

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Image: Marvel Studios

VFX artists are growing tired of working on Marvel films, and some are so annoyed that they have begun writing anonymously about their experiences as a way of venting.

The latest comes by way of Vulture, which published a letter from an anonymous VFX artist today that provides alleged insight on how terrible Marvel Studios is to work with. Working on Marvel shows “is really hard” and so bad that it is making some workers cry and have “anxiety attacks on the phone,” but unfortunately, many are helpless due to the power of the studio, which continues to grow in privilege with one lucrative blockbuster after another, according to the author.

The studio has a lot of power over the effects houses, just because it has so many blockbuster movies coming out one after the other. If you upset Marvel in any way, there’s a very high chance you’re not going to get those projects in the future. So the effects houses are trying to bend over backward to keep Marvel happy.

To get work, the houses bid on a project; they are all trying to come in right under one another’s bids. With Marvel, the bids will typically come in quite a bit under, and Marvel is happy with that relationship, because it saves it money. But what ends up happening is that all Marvel projects tend to be understaffed. Where I would usually have a team of ten VFX artists on a non-Marvel movie, on one Marvel movie, I got two including myself. So every person is doing more work than they need to.

The artist goes on to discuss how working with Marvel is a pain because of how often the studio wants to make changes, something that’s complicated by the company’s “inflexible” deadlines. Effects houses that fail to meet the schedules are apparently fired and “blacklisted” from future Marvel projects.

The other thing with Marvel is it’s famous for asking for lots of changes throughout the process. So you’re already overworked, but then Marvel’s asking for regular changes way in excess of what any other client does. And some of those changes are really major. Maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel will have us change the entire third act. It has really tight turnaround times. So yeah, it’s just not a great situation all around. One visual-effects house could not finish the number of shots and reshoots Marvel was asking for in time, so Marvel had to give my studio the work. Ever since, that house has effectively been blacklisted from getting Marvel work.

Part of the problem comes from the MCU itself — just the sheer number of movies it has. It sets dates, and it’s very inflexible on those dates; yet it’s quite willing to do reshoots and big changes very close to the dates without shifting them up or down. This is not a new dynamic.

And here is where the concept of being “pixel-fucked” is introduced, a term that’s used in the industry to describe clients that “nitpick over every little pixel.” Marvel Studios is apparently one of the biggest offenders, and the reason for that seems to lie with its directors, who are supposedly clueless about visual effects despite their extensive use in superhero films.

Even if you never notice it. A client might say, “This is not exactly what I want,” and you keep working at it. But they have no idea what they want. So they’ll be like, “Can you just try this? Can you just try that?” They’ll want you to change an entire setting, an entire environment, pretty late in a movie.

The main problem is most of Marvel’s directors aren’t familiar with working with visual effects. A lot of them have just done little indies at the Sundance Film Festival and have never worked with VFX. They don’t know how to visualize something that’s not there yet, that’s not on set with them. So Marvel often starts asking for what we call “final renders.” As we’re working through a movie, we’ll send work-in-progress images that are not pretty but show where we’re at. Marvel often asks for them to be delivered at a much higher quality very early on, and that takes a lot of time. Marvel does that because its directors don’t know how to look at the rough images early on and make judgment calls. But that is the way the industry has to work. You can’t show something super pretty when the basics are still being fleshed out.

This leads into a possible explanation as to why some CG sequences in Marvel films look very awkward and obviously fake. According to the writer, the effects house doesn’t have a director of photography involved during postproduction, so it’s the artists “coming up with the shots a lot of the time.”

It causes a lot of incongruity. A good example of what happens in these scenarios is the battle scene at the end of Black Panther. The physics are completely off. Suddenly, the characters are jumping around, doing all these crazy moves like action figures in space. Suddenly, the camera is doing these motions that haven’t happened in the rest of the movie. It all looks a bit cartoony. It has broken the visual language of the film.

It’s unclear when (or even if) anything will change in favor of VFX companies, but the author hopes that Marvel will “train its directors on working with visual effects and have a better vision out of the gate.”

Unionization is also brought up, something that would “help make sure that the VFX houses can’t take bids without having to consider what the impacts would be.”

Source: Vulture

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Tsing Mui
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