Pixelf*cking: The Latest Labor Malpractice

Pixelf*cking: The Latest Labor Malpractice


Now that finals are looming, one of my favorite vices after a long day of arduously typing or staring into the soul of a pixelated limelight digital screen is to sit back, relax, and enjoy a mindless movie. Certainly, the movie doesn’t have to be “without substance,” just anything with a predictable plotline, something to ease my nerves. Typically my go-to’s are my favorite repeats of romcoms, period pieces, and Marvel movies. While all Marvel movies aren’t “mindless,” the phase four saga of Marvel Studios’ hypercapitalism certainly comes with repeat subplots and hero arcs. The abundance of shows and endless narrative repetition has certainly exasperated the “Marvel fatigue” that recently seems to be plaguing fans. 

Directors across the industry are also complaining about Marvel. Bong Joon-Ho, director of the Oscar-winning film, Parasite, said he would never direct a superhero film because he can’t stand tight clothes.1 Lucrecia Martel, who directed films The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman, said the soundtracks to Marvel movies were “quite horrendous” and once asked Marvel Studios if they could change the special effects because “there’s so many laser lights,” which she found “horrible.” 2 While most backhanded criticisms are subjective and surface-level at best, none are as personal and hard-hitting as Martin Scorsese’s comment: “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema,” he told Empire Magazine.3 He compared the acting in the film to the likes of acting in theme parks. Ouch. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Scorsese then expressed sympathy for the actors and their creatively stiffening circumstances. Francis Ford Coppola backed Scorsese’s criticism of the studio, saying, “I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”4

Marvel Studios is despicable, horrendous, and horrible –– but not for their creative misdirection or never-ending hyper-capitalistic Iliad of the MCU. Rather,  for their treatment of VFX workers. Lucrecia Martel’s subjective criticisms might allude to a phenomenon most casual cinema audiences have been recently experiencing: shit VFX. Now, I don’t mean to sound too harsh; I am also a casual cinema audience member; I just watched Black Panther: Wakanda Forever over Thanksgiving break. But the VFX quality of Marvel films, specifically, has decreased tremendously. How can it be that Tron: Legacy, released in 2010, has better VFX than She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, which debuted this year? Daniel Chin, a frequent Marvel project reporter, described some of the most evident moments when VFX crossed the uncanny valley:

“un-lifelike Egyptian jackal rising out of the ground in Moon Knight, villains crumbling into cartoonish skeletons in Ms. Marvel, Doctor Strange growing a third eye in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or pretty much the entire She-Hulk: Attorney at Law trailer.”5

Other devoted fans, like Chin, notice the difference; in a video essay titled “Why Marvel CGI Sucks,”6 user JulienCFDurand notes the rapid decline in VFX quality in phase four of the MCU. In 2009 Avatar debuted with exceptional, jaw-dropping virtual effects that made audiences believe that Pandora was a space ride away. JulienCFDurand points out that the virtual effects in the trailer of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, released in 2022, were shameful and, for lack of a better word, sucked. This quality shift is so visibly harsh to fans and viewers because, according to JulienCFDurand and Chin, virtual effects are the foundation of most “awesome Marvel movies.” Without VFX, most Marvel sets look like abstract paintings of phosphorescent green and blue panels, with actors in the midst of it all looking seemingly ridiculous in their simple, silly, un-rendered costumes. While flying, telekinesis, super strength, and bending the space-time continuum are all well and cool, they wouldn’t be possible without the labor of VFX artists. 

Entertainment news sources and anonymous testimonials by VFX workers see the on-screen CGI quality decline as a residual consequence of an even larger issue at hand: getting pixel-fucked from behind by Marvel. What exactly is pixel-fucking? An anonymous VFX artist explained to Chris Lee at Vulture, “That’s a term we use in the industry when the client will nitpick every little pixel.”7 This term has been in the industry since Marvel’s earliest projects. The artist describes when they first heard the term used as a verb, “I remember going to a presentation by one of the other VFX houses about an early MCU movie, and people were talking about how they were getting ‘pixel-fucked.’” The issue isn’t just about naive, CGI-inexperienced directors over criticizing these artists’ work. Pixel-fucking is the latest and trendiest labor malpractice resulting from economic profit-maximizing and advantageous price gouging of un-unionized, vulnerable VFX studios. Marvel and its parent company Disney continue to commit labor crimes; only this time, casual audiences suffer the consequences and lay as witnesses. 

The quality of VFX in our favorite blockbuster films is deteriorating right in front of our eyes, and as audience members, we’ve paid an overpriced ticket to witness the show. Uncanny faces, incomplete shots, copypasted heroes with no depth in scenes. A note to any audience member who’s witnessed one of these mishaps: don’t confuse this decline in quality with unskilled work. Blame the strenuous working conditions forced on these artists due to the flawed economic business model that controls this sector. VFX artists note three specific projects that marked the entrance of significant labor malpractices: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), Game of Thrones, starting in 2011, and Life of Pi (2012). Pirates of the Caribbean was completed in a short amount of time after Disney “made increasingly huge demands on the VFX studios.”8 Game of Thrones doubled down on work intensification and pushing extreme deadlines: “you’re turning around hour-long, film-quality visual effects, times ten, in the same amount of time that you would be given to do a single movie.”9 Anonymous VFX artist named Conrad recalls “working overtime on Friday” for an episode that would release on Sunday because the directors “just hadn’t made up their mind on what they wanted.”10 The shared labor malpractice: both movies lacked the resources to pay the artists for their overtime work. 

The third and most heartbreaking project was Life of Pi. The film, an adaptation of the book by Yana Martel, describes the gut-wrenching survival of Pi. After surviving a storm that sinks the ship Pi’s family was on, he finds refuge on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. There are intense scenes of Pi bargaining with the tiger and heartwarming scenes of him tending and caring for the tiger. The philosophical nature of the book is accentuated to an incredible degree within the movie, largely due to the insanely life-like and magical quality of the VFX. The beautiful ethereal whales, the rough violent oceans, the swooshing winds and rain, and the majestic Bengal tiger were all beautiful and magnificent. Those responsible for the beauty and godliness of the film are the VFX artists at Rhythm and Hues (R&H), which was founded in 1987 and specializes in providing visual effects and CGI animation. To participate in Life of Pi, R&H had to place a competing bid against other VFX studios, and they took advantage of foreign tax subsidies that reward film studios for moving their filming production sites abroad to have a more competitive bid. With offices working on the project in Los Angeles, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kuala Lumpur, Vancouver, and Kaohsiung, 20th Century Fox accepted their bid in 2009, and R&H got to work. They built upon their experience developing the lion used in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005) and spent a year on research and development to master the figure and movements of the essential figure: the tiger. Their hard work paid off, and they were nominated for their craft at the Oscars. The cherry on top of their excellent artistry and skill was Snow White and The Huntsman (2012), another project of theirs receiving a nomination for best VFX. Everything seemed to be going well; they had done everything right, they had offices in every film tax haven, and they were being recognized by the top institution of Hollywood. 

Yet, eleven days before the award show, R&H studios filed for bankruptcy. They had no money left to pay for their artists, and the day before, they had attempted to save the company by laying off 254 employees within three hours,11 most with weeks of unpaid work. They released a documentary, Life After Pi, describing how the VFX industry’s economic infrastructure condemned the studio. One of the founders, John Hughes, described how to save the studio or increase its economic lifeline: he had to lay off workers, cut salaries, or restructure their contracts to avoid paying workers their overtime. In the documentary, Hughes can barely look at the camera and is visibly distraught; he speaks defeatedly, “we run this company for the people, and then to have hurt them so badly, it’s really the antithesis of what we wanted to do.”12

The artists outline the structural issue that condemns VFX studios to intense labor malpractice. Most of the projects are from the six big studios: Sony, Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox. This Hollywood oligarchy controls the price of VFX art, labor, and the average rate per project ––ultimately, they control the bid price. The bid does not fluctuate or change depending on the artistic temperament of the director, which leads to creative changes, added scenes, or new characters –– the bid is fixed. Despite the natural trajectory of a film evolving throughout the process, and directors often demanding reshoots, this extra time is compensated. The background actors get paid overtime; the main talent gets paid overtime; set design, sound, lighting, costume, and makeup all get paid overtime. Yet, because of the precise immovable nature of the bid, a metaphorical noose around the necks of VFX studios in the form of directors’ pedantic changes often results in overtime work that almost always goes unpaid. R&H artists said that near the end of Life of Pi, they were working “100-hour weeks.”13 This overwork leads to explosions of frustration, annoyance, and fatigue in office spaces. An anonymous VFX artist named H told Gizmodo, an online publication,

“I have had artists who have had H.R. step in and say, ‘We have to take you off this show because it’s unhealthy and we’re concerned for your safety.’ There have been fist fights in the middle of the studio. People just reach a cracking point…I’ve been on shoots that were doing 60, 70-hour weeks for five weeks straight, full of people who don’t see their family anymore. And that’s standard across the industry.”14

H describes that “Almost every studio had some sort of cry room where people will just go into and cry for ten minutes, and then they come back out and do their job.”15 The intense pressure enforced by these strict deadlines makes the work environment intense and mentally exhausting. Most VFX artists cite passion as the reason they entered the field, with a love for animation, storytelling, and cool fight scenes. If we’re being honest, most VFX artists are really big nerds, entering projects –– and the industry––with enthusiasm. However, that enthusiasm quickly disappears once the rigor and the unpredictability of the directors’ needs begin to increase the amount of useless work. VFX studios get paid per project; thus, artists get paid per project; thus, the bid allows an infrastructural refusal to pay workers overtime or enough wages to complete a project.

R&H also expressed that director Ang Lee’s constant “nitpicking” was a reason for their overtime work. Directors and producers would view the scenes and demand the rain to change direction, a wave to come from a different angle, etc. To the untrained eye, these changes appear simple and seamless however; anonymous VFX artist David says, “A basic three-second shot of Robert Downey Jr. with all the holograms floating around” would most likely take up to “50 hours” of work.16 Meaning a simple change in the direction of a wave would take hours to produce, and these hours went unpaid. However, VFX studios can request an “overage,” meaning if additional shots were produced, they could ask the studio for compensation ––though this is difficult to accomplish due to the fixed price bid model. The documentary demonstrates that reshoots and conceptual changes made by creative decisions are a natural part of the filmmaking process, even encouraged. Dave Rand, the senior visual effects artist, described that the set designers get paid per hour on a set. “The decision-maker, the director, whoever that person is has to be there, there is someone telling him every second what the meter is at, and the creativity just rolls.”17 The running meter creates a focused dynamic that forces the director to be involved. Yet, in VFX studios, the director is absent, and the creative decisions are made by the workers without the director’s supervision. Thus, that creative distance between the artists and the director creates tension and produces overwork. When the decision maker is removed, like in the VFX industry, the artists end up getting to “version 15, 16, 20, 30, and the [director] hasn’t even seen it yet.” Rand makes it clear that the director’s presence should be absolutely required amongst the artists in the VFX studios. 

At the 2012 Academy Awards, R&H won the Oscar for best visual effects for Life of Pi. That night, 500 workers protested the unstable business model that forced the studio into bankruptcy and forced workers to migrate to film tax havens. Bill Westenhofer’s speech on behalf of R&H was cut off by the “Jaws” theme music at 44.5 seconds, while the Director of Photography, Claudio Miranda, winner of Best Cinematography for Life of Pi, spoke for 60 seconds without interruption.18 In the documentary, workers expressed their disappointment in the lack of recognition of their work and their art, which led to the film’s Oscar acclamation. “And then to top it off, you’ve got Claudio, the cinematographer, and Ang Lee [the director] not thanking the people who really did about 75% of the movie.”19 It seems that the work of VFX artists remains largely invisible to directors, even within their own projects. Taika Waititi, in a video interview for Vanity Fair, scrutinized the VFX in the “Taste The Rainbow” scene from Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) even after the project was released. Waititi stops the scene and points at the shot with Korg in the center. Korg, voiced by Waititi, is an alien character made of rocks and pebbles. Hours of VFX and CGI were dedicated to the character’s development for this character to exist within the film. Waititi pauses, “Ok, does that look real?” he asks. “In that particular shot, no, actually,” responds the actress Tessa Thompson; she trails off laughing.20 Waititi joins in on the laughs, and the two proceed to question if anything in the scene looks real, “Does he look real? Does she look real? Something looks very off about this.”21 The labor and knowledge disconnect between Waititi and the VFX artists, is clear. It seems that even in 2022, directors have yet to take a stroll into VFX studios.  

Pixelfucking seems to be a guaranteed disease that an artist will catch if they work in the VFX industry. Symptoms include headaches, body aches, insomnia, mental breakdowns, generally horrible mental health, relocation every six months; becoming a digital nomad (a “Pixel Nomad”), spending long periods of time away from family and friends, living in hotels, working overtime, not getting paid for overtime work, always working overtime, not getting acknowledged at award ceremonies, work not being acknowledged in general, working with annoyingly absent directors and more! So, how do we treat this sickly disease? Unionizing!

Hollywood is mostly a union town, with guilds and unions protecting the craft and trade for each part of film production, from set designers to sound editors to screenwriters. VFX workers are the new kids on the block, so in capitalist tradition, they are easiest to exploit for labor and gauge down labor prices. R&H studios went bankrupt, and 20th Century Fox gave emergency loans to the VFX studio to complete the unfinished projects. VFX is an industry that the Hollywood blockbuster factory is extremely dependent on, and 20th Century Fox providing “emergency loans” shows that these big studios have money to go around. Drexel Heard, a legislator in California, interviewed by David Smith for the Guardian, stated that

“the visual effects team is carrying the biggest load in Marvel movies now that everything is green screen, done on sound stages that require a little bit more visual effects to them and less hardwall and less carpentry.”22

The documentary feared that the industry would become extinct; the workers are more burnt out than they were ten years ago and often leave without returning. But studios like Marvel keep demanding the completion of more and more projects. “Disney Marvel is very famous for wanting multiple versions running parallel so that they can decide what they want. A strong union would be able to reel that in a bit,” argues Joe Pavlo, chair of the animation and visual effects branch at the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications, and Theatre Union.23 Most artists are split on how to go about unionizing; some want individual shops to unionize, while others demand a larger, comprehensive trade guild to avoid singular VFX studios from getting blacklisted. Currently, artists are trying to join their trade unionized entertainment colleagues and form a VFX-IATSE, a union for production and facility-based VFX workers.24 Moreover, journalists are encouraging actors and directors to speak out about VFX artists labor abuses through their provocative questioning, that is sure to upset Marvel and Disney. 

While it seems like we are living in the golden age of VFX-dominated projects, for VFX artists, this era is more like a gilded cage. The most notable exception is Keanu Reeves, who gave up his “profit-sharing points to the [Matrix] franchise’s special-effects and costume design team.”25 Ultimately that is what the documentary Life After Pi demanded: profit participation. While each upcoming Marvel movie has a shiny new award-winning director or an indie breakout rookie upcoming actor, these movies aren’t dependent on the fanfare they attract. The directors or actors can use every bone, muscle, and ounce of sweat they can muster to act out their two-dimensional copy-paste character. Still, these dependents do not have the artistic skill set that VFX artists possess. Management, marketing, and on-set production teams are over-dependent on VFX workers’ skillset. The true talent department of a Marvel studio film is not the actors but the VFX workers. These are the artists that paint, sculpt and render unimaginable words into existence. They are the people that create the infinite multiverse; they are the true gods that grant these heroes powers of time manipulation, superhuman agility, levitation, and magic. Perhaps they are the only real Marvel heroes that exist in our universe. Their artistry and skills are as valuable to the film as big-name ‘talent,’ who are often allocated million-dollar salaries that big studios hire. Who is considered ‘talent’ in these film productions should include VFX artists. Profit sharing of these films’ total revenue must be expanded to VFX studios. With profit-sharing, these studios will have enough money to sustain themselves economically, pay their workers fairly, and pay for overtime; only then will the quality of VFX improve. Until then, VFX quality will continue to decline. Without their labor and art, ‘readymade,’ action-packed Marvel movies would simply be 120 minutes of a green screen.

  1. Lang, Brent. “’Parasite’: How This Year’s Wildest, Buzziest, Most Unexpected Breakout Hit Came to Life.” Variety, Variety, 21 Nov. 2019.
  2. Pulver, Andrew. “Arthouse Marvel? Lucrecia Martel Reveals She Was Approached for Black Widow.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Dec. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/dec/13/lucrecia-martel-marvel-black-widow-scarlett-johansson.
  3. Sharf, Zack. “Martin Scorsese Compares Marvel Movies to Theme Parks: ‘That’s Not Cinema’.” IndieWire, IndieWire, 4 Oct. 2019, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/10/martin-scorsese-marvel-movies-not-cinema-theme-parks-1202178747/.
  4. News, Yahoo. “Coppola Backs Scorsese in Row over Marvel Films.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, 2019, https://news.yahoo.com/coppola-backs-scorsese-row-over-marvel-films-173112180.html?guccounter=1.
  5. Chin, Daniel. “Marvel Has a VFX Problem.” The Ringer, The Ringer, 21 July 2022, https://www.theringer.com/marvel-cinematic-universe/2022/7/21/23272388/marvel-mcu-vfx-cgi-problems-working-conditions.
  6. JulienCFDurand, director. Why Marvel CGI Sucks | A Video Essay. YouTube, YouTube, 1 Sept. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLnp16YqXPU. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.
  7. Lee, Chris. “I’m a VFX Artist, and I’m Tired of Getting ‘Pixel-F–Ked’ by Marvel.” Vulture, Vulture, 26 July 2022, https://www.vulture.com/article/a-vfx-artist-on-what-its-like-working-for-marvel.html.
  8. Codega, Linda. “Abuse of Visual Effects Artists Is Ruining the Movies.” Gizmodo, 9 Aug. 2022, https://gizmodo.com/disney-marvel-movies-vfx-industry-nightmare-1849385834.
  9. Codega, “Abuse of Visual Effects Artists Is Ruining the Movies.” Gizmodo.
  10. Codega, “Abuse of Visual Effects Artists Is Ruining the Movies.” Gizmodo.
  11. Leberecht, Scott, director. Life After Pi. YouTube, YouTube, 25 Feb. 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lcB9u-9mVE. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.
  12. Leberecht, Life After Pi.
  13. Leberecht, Life After Pi.
  14. Codega, “Abuse of Visual Effects Artists Is Ruining the Movies.” Gizmodo.
  15. Codega, “Abuse of Visual Effects Artists Is Ruining the Movies.” Gizmodo.
  16. Codega, “Abuse of Visual Effects Artists Is Ruining the Movies.” Gizmodo.
  17. Leberecht, Life After Pi.
  18. Leberecht, Life After Pi.
  19. Leberecht, Life After Pi.
  20. Sunmonu, Funmi, director. Taika Waititi and Tessa Thompson Break Down ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ “Taste The Rainbow” Scene. YouTube, Vanity Fair Magazine, 9 July 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYl48TKSAcE&t=546s. Accessed 4 Dec. 2022.
  21. Sunmonu, Taika Waititi and Tessa Thompson Break Down ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ “Taste The Rainbow” Scene.
  22. Smith, David. “’Bullying Is a Problem’: Visual Effects Artists Speak out against Marvel.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Aug. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/aug/03/marvel-disney-visual-effects-artists-speak-out.
  23. Smith, “’Bullying Is a Problem’: Visual Effects Artists Speak out against Marvel.” The Guardian.
  24. IATSE VFX Union. “The Union for Production and Facility VFX Workers.” IATSE VFX Union, 30 Nov. 2022, https://vfxunion.org/.
  25. ABC, News. “Keanu Gives Up ‘Matrix’ Money.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 10 Sept. 2001, https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=102572.
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