Culture of The Creative Backbone
How VFX Artists Power Franchises
16 November 2022
Ju Yi Wong
From animated Disney+ television series’ to mega-scale blockbuster films, Marvel definitely takes the cake for being the superhero saga front-runner, preparing extensive lineups of releases (including widely anticipated announcements) to keep fans locked in for years oncoming. My personal favourite to date? Wandavision.
According to Statista - as of June 2022, the Marvel Cinematic Universe series was the highest-grossing film franchise with a total worldwide box office revenue of 26.6 billion U.S. dollars (RM118.3 billion, just to blow your brains a little).
One would imagine the scale of preparation taken for these films and shows, especially with that level of expected ROI - production & design units, various location rentals (am I the only one who enjoys post-film credits highlighting the different countries that films are shot in?), costs/ contracts for hiring AA+-level actors/ celebrities, the list truly goes on. But of course - if we’re talking Marvel and its world of visual excellence, this article’s focus will be on what I would consider the most unspoken of and underrated unit in the actual Marvel universe: the Visual Effects (VFX) teams.
In a market report by Technavio, the VFX market is set to grow by USD 5.56 billion from 2020 to 2025. A lot of credit is to be given to some of our most iconic film franchises that have paved the way for the globalization of VFX worldwide: think of how Harry Potter paved the way for UK-based artists, and what Lord Of The Rings did for New Zealand.
Akin to how creatives are perhaps one of the backbones of advertising (because let’s face it: what is there to advertise without visual/ audio?) - if you’re as film-credits-inclined as I am, you would usually see a pretty extensive list of VFX houses being credited for Marvel films. To provide a simple example, Thor’s arrival in Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity Wars probably wouldn’t look as cinematically cool without the meticulous work of men and women behind the scenes.
Source: The Direct
As of late, however - there has been an ongoing conversation (or rather, criticism) surrounding one of Marvel’s latest projects, She-Hulk. Other than lacklustre CGI, the show’s been rated as one of the worst MCU releases to date (not my words!), Still, one of the main themes of the conversation has been revolving around VFX artists touting their refusal to work with the mega-franchise ever again due to “impossible expectations” (arguably a shared sentiment within the ad industry as well).
There are plentiful threads online citing poor treatment (i.e. contract exploitation, poor budgeting, broken bidding processes, location-based tax incentives) for VFX houses, with anecdotes directly from VFX artists who have worked with Marvel.
Former VFX Artist for Spiderman & Guardians of the Galaxy, Dhruv Govil also shared his personal sentiment on why he left the industry altogether.
In a now-deleted Reddit thread, supposed VFX artists in the industry shared their accounts of frustration under hidden pseudonyms (to protect their own welfare/ bread & butter).
The problem isn’t specifically just Marvel. It’s merely easier to highlight the mega-franchise because they hire numerous VFX houses with every project. When Life of Pi won Best Visual Effects at the Oscars in 2013, the film’s visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer highlighted that VFX specialists are “artists, and if we don’t find a way to fix the business model, we start to lose the artistry.”
Clearly, this has been a long-term issue - Is it entirely bad and damaging, though? To VFX houses that are shortchanged, perhaps. At the end of the day, it’s still a largely growing industry especially as demand for high-quality content becomes a norm for the everyday television watcher. Netflix themselves have bulldozed their way into being the forefront runner for top-tier motion graphics, having made a huge success with the Stranger Things series, The Witcher, and even Squid Game (the main VFX house was Seoul-based, but still).
Where there is a will, there is a way and where there is demand (us), there is extensive hard labour and work.
Similar to our advertising industry, it sometimes, unfortunately, boils down to who can deliver the mostest, fastest, and cheapest. Competition has always been part of the game, but it definitely feels heightened further as things become more digital, responses are expected more immediately, and the turnaround time for creativity is shorter.
In a cyclic system that’s difficult to diffuse, we can minutely hope that individuals within the industry (whether it’s filmmakers, investors, or decision-makers) can take note of this virulent culture of continuous creative churning. While that is the definite ideal, awareness and knowledge is the first step to any large-scale issue. And perhaps what we can do as individuals who create this demand within the entertainment industry is to take note and appreciate visual work the next time we find ourselves engrossed in a show that is cinematically incredible.
(For me right now, I’m thinking specifically about the whales in Netflix’s Extraordinary Attorney Woo Young Woo.)
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