A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Slaughterhouse strive: dire reality for VFX artists behind glamorous facade

The visual effects industry in Australia is a lucrative and celebrated part of the global film industry. But behind the glamour and prestige, an army of insecure VFX artists are struggling with dire working conditions and unrealistic workloads. Ashleigh Wyss and Jack Lear investigate.

Slaughterhouse strive: dire reality for VFX artists behind glamorous facade

Photo: Shutterstock

Investigation by Ashleigh Wyss Jack Lear

“We are the ones who make the crazy shit look great.”

Octavia Mansfield, a freelance visual effects (VFX) supervisor, has had a hand in creating world-renowned films, including Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder. Tracking every shot used in the film, from opening titles to end credits, Mansfield’s huge job is just one tiny cog in the post-production machine.

Tracking shots in post-production may seem niche, but its impact – and value – can be sizable. With 28 separate local production houses contributing over $246m in foreign investment, according to reports published by government marketing firm Ausfilm, the Australian VFX industry is one of our biggest cultural exports.

Mark A. Millar, executive producer at AltVFX, the production house behind Oscar-winning drama The Power of the Dog, says the Australian VFX industry is “absolutely world-class.”

“In terms of the quality of what we do, we definitely punch well above our weight on a global scale.”

Good VFX is often discreet, enhancing subtle details and creating “fake” digital assets that naturally blend into a movie’s world. Yet if you remove them, you strip cinema of its most magnetic moments.

Without VFX artists superheroes would be inaction figures. Image by Patricio Hurtado from Pixabay

Without VFX artists superheroes would be inaction figures. Image by Patricio Hurtado from Pixabay

There’d be no glitz and glamour in an extravaganza like Stephan Elliot’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, there’d be no blood and gore to splatter in Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek and there’d be no explosions in an action epic such as George Miller’s Mad Max. Even superheroes would be less than heroic, and Thor? He’d just be Chris Hemsworth gracing our screens in his pyjamas and a long blonde-haired wig.

“I feel visual effects [are] so often used and not often appreciated,” says Aden Beaver, a supervisor from KOJO VFX in Adelaide, the studio with recent credits including hit Aussie horror Talk to Me which grossed over $91 million internationally.

Beaver told The Citizen he had not experienced poor conditions during his career and KOJO “prides itself” on being a good place to work, but he was aware poor conditions at many other houses “seems to be this is what is accepted, this is the standard.”

The possession scenes in hit film <em>Talk to Me</em> needed detailed VFX work by KOJO. Source: Screen Australia

The possession scenes in hit film Talk to Me needed detailed VFX work by KOJO. Source: Screen Australia

In Talk to Me, the work  of VFX artists ranged from subtle enhancements like digitally altering the protagonist Mia’s eye colour during “possession” sequences, and sneaking in extra graffiti to the film’s sets to add grit and dynamism, to achieving an immaculate blend between a physical puppet and digital imagery in a morbid sequence that brought a kangaroo animatronic to “life” through the all-too realistic simulation of muscles, movement, and fur.

Beaver says the purpose of VFX is to act “in-service to the story”, enhancing the practical elements within a frame and to completely immerse viewers in the film’s world.

Long since the days when films relied on hand-made matte paintings, pre-digital lighting tricks and makeup to sell their stories, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has become the cornerstone of modern filmmaking, transforming the way narratives are brought to life on the big screen.

Beyond CGI, VFX can involve motion capture, animation, and compositing, blending together practical effects with new digital elements.

Pulling off these visual feats takes considerable commitment and dedication. Jane, a VFX coordinator, recalls work on a film that demanded a galactic simulation that took 40-hours to render per individual frame. It took months to create a continuous 15-minute “one-take” – a cinematic illusion that connects multiple shots to give the impression of a scene filmed by a single camera, and requires artists to meticulously trace and isolate each character in the scene.

But Kojo’s Beaver echoes the sentiments of many in the industry when he says the film producer adage “we’ll fix it in post” stands not only as a testament to the VFX industry’s vital role in the success of a movie but also hints at the unrealistic pressures placed on VFX production houses around the world.


“People call it a meat grinder”, says Sydney-based VFX Artist John N. Mayer about the working conditions of the VFX industry.

Long hours and huge workloads in the VFX industry makes mincemeat out of some workers. Image by Patricio Hurtado from Pixabay

Long hours and huge workloads in the VFX industry makes mincemeat out of some workers. Image by Patricio Hurtado from Pixabay

Stress, performance pressure, job insecurity and discontent are constants in an industry that demands highly detailed and time-consuming work produced to tight deadlines, but is also highly casualised and precarious. Global studios undercut each other’s bids in fierce competition to win work with artists reporting projects are under-resourced as a result; workers are  frequently laid off in boom-and-bust cycles, or resign due to burnout.

Variety exposed the brutal and competitive nature of the VFX industry in 2018, with the help of Kelly Port, a visual effects supervisor at VFX House Digital Domain, who worked on Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

The expose explored the negative effects of the “bid” system through which  VFX houses compete for work, detailing what they can offer in terms of services, staffing and pricing. According to Variety, fierce undercutting regularly drives the price unsustainably low.

“[It] hurts the industry…the margins are just too thin already,” according to Port.

The  highly labor-intensive work, has combined with a huge increase in demand, created by the growth in streaming services and the CGI-dominated franchise films of major studios. The result? Huge numbers of numbers are needed to complete the work required by tight deadlines. Variety reporter Calum Marsh noted that in 1997, Titanic approximately only had 300 VFX shots to complete, whereas in 2018, Avengers had over 3000 VFX shots for artists to complete.

Last year, British GQ published its own expose detailing artists’ claims of working conditions that were “almost slavery,” and had been prevalent in the industry for decades. As technologies progressed, and digital alteration became possible, workloads increased exponentially (“once artists could create anything, soon enough, they were asked to create everything” wrote reporter Simon Parkin).

“Creating everything” drove many artists to breaking point; Jenkins revealed it was common for bathrooms in UK VFX offices to be full of crying employees, and for co-workers to console each other at desks in the early hours of the morning.

Industry insiders from a renowned global VFX vendor in Australia, who asked to remain anonymous due to employment fears, says unsustainable working practices are also widespread locally and have a devastating toll on artists, supervisors and coordinators.

Jane, a VFX artist, describes how her ordinary 9am- 5pm work day frequently became a 8am to 5am shift, resulting in overwhelming feelings of stress, anxiety and burnout.

“We were doing 20-hour shifts and then expected to be at work the next day,” Jane says.

Dave, a worker from the same company, told The Citizen the company would routinely take on more work than their artists could handle – or was humanly possible.

Source: survey of industry members conducted by <em>The Citizen</em> on LinkedIn in October 2023 with 38 participants.

Source: survey of industry members conducted by The Citizen on LinkedIn in October 2023 with 38 participants.

In an Australia-wide survey conducted via LinkedIn over a two-week period, almost two-thirds of the 38 anonymous respondents (63 per cent) indicated they faced unrealistic time pressures at work.

One source said that between a “hawk” of an executive producer notorious for screaming at entire departments for underperformance, to “cowboy heads of department” who would overestimate their teams’ abilities, there was no clear path for artists to raise concerns over impossible workloads or mental health concerns.

Several survey participants alluded to local VFX vendors’ struggles with keeping staff. Sources recall five veteran supervisors working on a big budget Hollywood project who were overwhelmed by the demands of company leadership and, one after another, resigned.

Dave says he was laid off last year in the wake of the strikes which concluded in November 2023, when both The Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists reached agreements with the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, signaling an end to one of the longest strikes in Hollywood history.

He says intense hiring and retrenchment periods in a boom-and-bust cycle are features of the local industry.

“VFX companies in Australia just don’t have the money to retain people through [periods without new] projects, so they just have to let everyone go, and then rehire everyone all over again.”

While the US strikes have ended, Australian studios are still grappling with their impact and many workers predict the pipeline of international projects is still months away.

Kojo Studio’s Aden Beaver says that for some in the post-production sector, the effect wasn’t immediate, as VFX vendors were under no obligation to cease work on productions that wrapped shooting before the strike started.

This was in contrast to other parts of the film industry, which banned further work on affected productions until the strikes were resolved; this difference is explained by the high level of unionisation among writers and on-set workers and low levels in the VFX sector.

According to The Citizen’s 2023 survey, only one in five working VFX artists are members of a trade union.

Source: survey of industry members conducted by <em>The Citizen</em> on LinkedIn in October 2023 with 38 participants.

Source: survey of industry members conducted by The Citizen on LinkedIn in October 2023 with 38 participants.

“It’s like an earthquake,” Beaver says about the impact of Hollywood strikes on the VFX supply chain. “[Y]ou get aftershocks five miles away, [and for those] 100 miles away, you’ll get it later.

“We [are now] at the point where the earthquake has hit.”

Simon Rosenthal, managing director of global VFX production house Framestore’s  Melbourne studio, says he’s “not sure that anyone has really thought of the ramifications further down the line in production, post-production and visual effects because it’s quite significant.”

Dave says it is unclear if there will be any flow-on effect of the working conditions agreed to in the US as a result of the strikes – which include better pay, safe working conditions and AI protections –  as local studios “return to normal”.

“The writers and the actors in America will come back to better conditions, but whether the rest of the crew on set will come back to better conditions is a question mark,” he says.

Another survey respondent, who requested anonymity, echoed Dave’s sentiment.

“The strike just ended! The writers got what they wanted. When will the artists get the same treatment?”


US strike action led to agreements to improve actors and writers working conditions but did not extend to VFX artists. Photo: Shutterstock

US strike action led to agreements to improve actors and writers working conditions but did not extend to VFX artists. Photo: Shutterstock

A 2022 2022 survey by the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (the US union that represents post-production workers) revealed the global VFX industry is largely nomadic, with freelancers and people on fixed-term contracts working for transient production houses that relocate to pursue government subsidies.

Many countries offer funding, tax discounts or other incentives to lure productions to their shores; Australian incentives include the federal government’s Post, Digital and Visual Effects Offset, a scheme which offers studios a 30 per cent tax rebate on projects who source VFX production in Australia, regardless of where the film was shot.

Industry veterans say this culture is unsustainable long term.

“There definitely is a [need] for something secure and permanent in post production,” says Dave, speaking of the precarious experience of chasing contracts from one studio to another, “which might be in different cities, or even in different countries.”

*Names changed due to individuals’ fears about future employment

READ MORE: Strike that: Hollywood walkouts and the “meat grinder” leave local VFX artists reeling

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

Winner — BEST PUBLICATION 2016 Ossie Awards