Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Change the VFX industry

Most of the people that read my blog are aware of the current state of the VFX industry. Things have finally come to a breaking point and over 400 people recently attended an online town hall meeting to discuss this. In the past two days I've seen a lot of whining, gnashing of teeth, and hair pulling. I've also seen a lot of great artists DOING something and offering solutions to change the the way things are done.

I also have a few ideas. I'm not IN the VFX industry yet, but I've worked in a comparable industry for 8 years (albeit without the insane hours, but I've never been paid OT either). I don't think it takes a seasoned veteran to offer suggestions. Different ideas and opinions should and can be offered from all sorts of industries.

I care about VFX and I don't want to start my career in it at it's lowest point.

In this brief blog post I want to cover a few points regarding studios, facilites, and artists. There were some things said in the town hall meeting that I would like to address and throughout I'll try to offer suggestions. I'm going to leave out names because I don't want this to become a blame-storm, and more importantly, I want to focus on the issues.

It was said that Studios take the risks on big budget FX films. While this may be true for individual executives, I don't believe that this is true for studios. Studios and distributors make money LONG after the film has flopped in the box office, from DVD sales, music, and merchandise. Unlike VFX facilites, who go-under because of 1 or 2 films don't come into their doors, Studios produce dozens of flops and still continue to pump them out. I have a sickening notion that many studios KNOW when a dud is being produced and use it as a tax write off. I know that many companies have internal divisions that pay each other and when a film that used the sets-division flops, the company gets to write it off.

It was also said that VFX facilites are the studio's partners. If that's true then pay the vfx facilities like partners. Instead of asking VFX facilities to bid on work, sign a partnership with a facility. A partner would share resources, have more say in the production aspect (less time would be spent in overtime, cleaning up bad film production work) and pay profits when VFX films win big in the box office.

Much of the nickel-and-diming began when studios realized that they could farm out VFX work to external companies instead of  keeping a VFX company in-house. So many of the resources, the buildings, cafeterias, render farms could be shared if studios would realize that the VFX people are an integral part of their system.

For "ground breaking visual effects", facilities pay a lot of money to buy rooms full of render farms. This is supposedly one of the two ways that facilities lose money. I say that if the studio wants ground breaking vfx then they should buy the render farms.  Studios have the technology partners like Dell and HP that a lot of facilities don't have and could buy the hardware at a fraction of the costs.

Another thing that I see as very wrong with the system, is that individual artists and even facilities are not allowed by the studios, to release breakdowns for vfx work, sometimes 6 months after a TV episode has aired, or 9 months after a film has been released. By giving the artists and facilities more flexibility, they will be able to better bid for work and show-off what they can do.

The thing to remember though, is that studios have the money and the pull to keep vfx facilities in business.

This might slowly change as vfx facilities become their own studios and start releasing their own films. An entirely new platform is available for the taking if vfx facilities would use the resources they currently have to make compelling content. On a brief side note, someone said that most vfx artist's true passion is film-making or screenwriting and that these people would be great filmmakers. I briefly heard a vfx artist start to speak up and I wish he wouldn't have censored himself. VFX and matte painting is my passion. If given the chance I would take art direction over feature film directing any day. I WANT to be a matte painter/artist. That is my passion. Please don't cheapen our craft by assuming that we all want to be Directors/Writers.

It was also suggested that more vfx facilities stop low-balling themselves and present better bids. An exec said that he would have no problem paying a higher price, but I don't believe that studios would be able to choke down the actual price it would take if a VFX facility presented a reasonable price that would fully cover all the costs of the facility. I think vfx facilities need to continually try to raise their price to get it to a reasonable number and be more transparent in their practices. Show the studio where the problems are.

A panelist asked what is one thing we could do to help the situation of the VFX industry. Here's my recommendation: Demand that as many artists as possible are listed in the credits. Never again do I want to see a credit with just the name of the VFX facility listed. Artists used to be recognized on films in the OPENING title sequences. The other night I enjoyed watching Swiss Family Robinson with my family, in the first 5 minutes of the film, Peter Ellenshaw, a matte painter, was listed in the opening credits. This is nothing the individual artists can do, this isn't even something the vfx facilities can do. This is up to the studio to do.

Facilities can start doing more to promote their artists as well. I haven't found a vfx facility yet that has the names and bios of anyone but their top executives and vfx supervisors listed on their websites. If a company is proud to have the contract or salary teams that they do, show them off. I know what matte painters and what compositors work at what companies because they list it on their own websites. It should be the other way around. Facilities need to present studios with a list of their top talent, not just the work they can do.

When an artist does something special on their own, a company should be the first to say: "Check out what one of our guys did outside of work!" There are many vfx artists writing tools, creating shorts, and doing extraordinary things on their own dime that benefits the vfx facility in the long run.

When news organizations approach vfx facilities, about the work they did, I think the VFX supervisor should be the last one to talk about their work. There's a saying that "the best boss is the one that cares more about the work of his employees than the work of his own". VFX supervisors should be the champions of artists. They should be shouting from the mountain-tops how great their teams are. Every chance they get they should do make their team look good because in the end, it is their team that makes THEM look good.

The second biggest reason I want to get into VFX is because of the people. When I started working in web almost 8 years ago,  only 1 web artist ever gave me the time of day. Per Gustafson . He gave me a few tips, talked in general about design and art, and listened. 8 years. In the 3 years that I have been an aspiring matte painter I have been totally blown away by the people that have contacted me out of the blue, or been very generous in the information they have given me, or how they've helped me out. VFX artists have taken precious time out of their personal time with their families to write me 3 page emails about what I need to do in a particular matte painting.

Some artists have contacted me without any prior emails or contact, some of them required only a brief introduction from myself. All of them have pushed me to keep working at it and to tell me I'm almost there. The list of their jobs is CRAZY:

Academy Award winning Art Director
2 VFX supervisors
Animation Supervisor
Senior Art Director
Senior Compositor
2 Art Directors
3 Compositors
4 award winning matte painters
Concept Artist

(These people know who they are. They all recieved a Xmas card from me).

So. Let's look at the scales. 8 years, 1 designer. 3 years, 16 people. VFX for the win.

(BTW this is not to discount the countless web artists that I have gotten jobs alongside. I still work with a lot of you and you guys/gals are awesome. A few of you have told me that you too, want to get out of working in the web industry.)

So you can see, VFX people are just awesome. It's where I belong.

Yet facilities in the US continue to work as if we're just like any normal employee at any other industry. Every single one of those 16 people can't get me a job because they don't have the power to. It's up to a recruiter. In most industries a recruiter knows nothing about the job their recruiting for. If your recruiter is a vfx person then you're lucky  Most recruiters working in the VFX industry are/were working VFX artists, that makes VFX people VERY LUCKY. Most artists know other great artists and if you are in a position to hire a recruiter, ask your artists if they know good people instead. (Update 04-15-2010: Talking with a lot of vfx artists, I found out that many VFX artists DO get asked by their supervisors for hiring recommendations. VFX FTW! I also remembered how great the recruiters were at Siggraph 2008. VFX people are very lucky to have recruiters that know what they're doing. I can't say the same for other industries and I still maintain that in other industries, recruiters have no idea what the people really do in the job they're hiring for) Instead of hiring outside of your company, promote within. Foster a good relationship with your artists, help provide any tools they need to become better educated in VFX. You have more buying power than individual artists do to provide good education. As artists become more acclimated to your pipeline and software, they become more faster and can give you a better return on your investment. By not hiring from within, or not hiring people current people to work on the next picture. You are throwing money away. Let me repeat that. Facilities, you are throwing money away.

I hear alot of talk about computers being cheap, everyone's outsourcing, and that certain work can be done remotely. Why not hire college students in places like Phoenix and Ohio then? You could pay these people a bit for their time (a little goes a long way) by making them interns, and then when they're ready to work for you, you have a workforce that is already acclimated to your pipeline, living in the US, and ready to step in the door of your US office and begin working! Work can be done remotely with ftp, vpn, and remote desktop. Other, less technically savy, industries ALREADY do this.

VFX facilities could also be selling some of the software they've written and RENT OUT portions of older render farms to other smaller vfx facilities.

A lot of focus was put on the arists being better at promoting themselves and sticking up for themselves. I totally agree with this. Every vfx artist should have a website and show off as much quality work as they can. PERIOD.

offer to teach in your downtime. Be a mentor. Do whatever you can to be a honest, forthcoming, well known vfx artist. BLOG! Share whatever you can.

When you write tools, share them (I'm guilty of this too...trying to change that). I know of a matte painter working at one of the big 5 vfx facilities that has written a lot of tools, but has NEVER offered to share them with anyone in his company. Tools don't make the artist. It's how you use them.

We need to change. If we continue down this path of self destruction, the American film industry will continue to decline.

Last night I joined in on a followup to the town hall meeting. One of the things said was that the legal fees for getting a union or guild set-up would be very high. Give us a donation button! I'm sure that facilities and even a few studios would be willing to put up a little cash to get this going. We're all in this together.


Chris_Mac said...

"...It's up to a recruiter. In most industries a recruiter knows nothing about the job their recruiting for. If your recruiter is a vfx person then you're lucky."

Are you serious?

You're kidding yourself if you think this is the case... and what's more, you're kidding yourself if you think this is why you're not working in the vfx industry.

You make some valid points and have some good ideas, but seriously... you are SO far off the mark here.

Rockhopper said...

Hi you know my views, I agree with you also on some points.

Just remember you are not on the circus floor yet. This problem wont go away overnight.

Stan Winston fought and fought for recognition for SFX makeup. Nearly lost him his career. This is happening now. Dont become a casualty of this storm.

One such person told me that they could sack a lot of vfx artists overnight and there will always be someone to replace them. Please dont blacklist yourself.

Better to view from afar, dont worry me and you are going to be working together. Sooner than later.

What I am saying is let the generals fight this one out and when they call the footsoldiers forward we will onward march.

The media industry is a beast, I have had two music compositions stolen, one of which earned the company six million in two years.

I kicked up a stink and not been hired in two years why do you think that is?

Matthew Scheuerman said...


Yes I am serious. I could be wrong. But I do think it is ONE OF the many reasons I'm not currently working in the industry.

I do know that a few of the matte painters and compositors that have offered help have said that they gave my recommendation to the recruiter and they never heard anything.

One matte painter went so far as to introduce me to a vfx supervisor via email, I then emailed the vfx supervisor but never received a response.

An art director and a concept artist both asked me to send my resume into their art dept and I have their names under references, never received a reply from the recruiters.

So all of this is just coming from MY personal experiences, which may be very weird. In the 8 years working in web design I have only been asked to give a recommendation once.

I hope that my views regarding recruiting don't detract from the other ideas/points that I have.

Rockhopper: It is our duty as artists to try to make this industry better. Besides my recruiter comment and a few things regarding the studios, I don't think much in the post is really blamestorming or anything to cause people to blacklist me. If anything I hope people use my ideas to build a better work environment.

chris_mac said...

Well, likewise... I can only speak about my experiences... and in the 3 interviews I had with 3 major VFX studios, all of whom are working on major Hollywood productions, I found the recruitment/HR people I met to be very knowledgable of work that goes into VFX.

For what it's worth, it's obvious to me that you have what it takes to break into the industry... you just need a break (and possibly a bit of luck - i think it happened for me because i applied to the right place at the right time)... and it will come... just keep pushing...

(I'm gonna keep this off of twitter for the time being - the 140 character limit doesn't do me any favours.)

Rockhopper said...

still mates though, at least you are not a footballer...

a great post btw, and it shows you care, as for working in the industry only a matter of time.

Dario said...

Hello Matthew,

My name is Dario, from Spain. I'm also an aspiring matte painter.
I'm been following your blog, and I find it very interesting.
I'm also an aspiring matte painter, and I'm writing my PhD thesis about the matte painting.

I've been following your steps, and I want to encourage you to keep on working. I'm pretty sure you will get it.

Bu the way, my skills are a bit different. I mainly consider myself a 3D guy, so I can render anything I need in Maya or Lightwave, getting a nice realism.
I also take photographs in Raw format and edit them afterwards.
I'm not quite good on brush painting, but I plan my matte paintings as photomontages, just like "Hatch" describe in this article:

Take a look, it is really interesting, and they get a high quality result.

So, I just wanted to greet you and encourage you to reach your career, and hopefully I would also reach it as well.
I'll continue reading your blog.

Best regards

Peter said...

During the past ten years VFX has grown into the most important role in film making today. f.e. on 'Prince of Persia' a third of the budget was spent on FX and post. Audiences are getting used to high-end productions and the major Studios worried about their share. Film-making has become more expensive and profits are decreasing not only because of the internet. Of course, producers take a risk when raising money for a blockbuster but artists take risks too. Hard work and improving day by day is what keeps us on track and offers new job opportunities. It would be wise for producers to do the same and not to blame other departments for their own failure in the first place. As you said it before it is very likely that VFX facilities will produce more of their own movies in the future and change film production in a way that Studios won't survive.

Matthew, I think it is the right thing to do - to stand up for yourself and make your point. Forming a union seems a good idea to improve human working conditions that we all deserve.

all the best,