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.

Friday, March 26, 2010

warming up again

I felt that I needed to do a warmup, since I've been staring at the same two matte paintings for over two weeks and while I'm not tired of them, I wanted to approach some of the changes I needed to make with a fresh eye.

This is a copy of a classic matte painting by Rob Stromberg

Update: Look...I know this painting is uber saturated. It's subpar. Will try to do better

Later I checked to see if the film was on Netflix streaming. It is, but as luck would have it I don't think the matte painting shows up in the film.

I was trying as much as possible to replicate classic matte painting techniques in Photoshop. Just used brushes and tried to have fun.