A different view on the VFX Industry

In the last 10 years I started to wonder a lot about the industry I am working in. There is so much going on, like people getting treated really badly, a lot of overtime, a lot of companies going down, underbidding productions, bad management, no business plan or vision of the company leaders. Now I read so much about it, about new approaches, like the VFX  manufacturing process, or setting up unions. I thought it’s time to just write down some thoughts of mine about all this, as I gained a bit of experience in a couple of different companies, doing not only feature work, and even being on both sides, as an artist and as a manager.

Let’s face it: it is always easy to find the problem in someone else, or in the technology that evolves or in budgets that go down or the lack of unions or the tax incentives granted in foreign countries. But why do artist tend to push away the problems and never see it in their own behavior.
We have to go a bit back and think about: ‘What really is an Artist?’ Well Artistry is a very subjective thing, you either like it or not, you either understand it or not. An Artist however is someone doing things that are unique to him or her and by that the artist influences the world in making a personal statement.
On the other hand we all know about painters who never managed to sell one painting while they were alive, so they have not lived up to being an artist and I think this is because artist tend to lack one essential thing: The art of selling themselves !

There are hundreds of schools out there, teaching youngsters how to use software packages which get cheaper and cheaper, some became even free. High class Cameras are built into every modern phone, image processing is possible on devices that fit into our pockets. Yet we all do not learn to sell ourselves, to thereby protect our knowledge and experience and to become unique.
We let the companies decide for us, we accept their poor payment, we accept the bad working conditions and we accept that no one listens to our advice or knowledge when it comes to how to shoot a VFX shot, or how to make the shot work. We follow a pipeline that companies set up, no matter if we would be 10times faster using more or different tools. We are not allowed to think outside the box, and we cease doing so.
Now of course it is not the same everywhere, and I have worked in companies that maintained the freedom of their artists, given them the necessary respect and trust, given them all the freedom in working hours or tools they wanted to use. Even though this sounds like smaller places, it was not. It was a commercial company and there comes the big difference. In commercials they have less production time and they need to be fast. So they get the best artists from around the world, and give them whatever is necessary to make the spot look good in a couple of weeks. They charge their clients a high amount of money, because it is Art that is created, and you need the top notch people to get it done in these short turnarounds. Of course this is not true for every commercial and not for every company. I pointed that out because of one aspect that I learned in this commercial environment: you are the one selling yourself, and your work. No producer, no supervisor, no managing director. It is you, the artist who decides whether the shot looks good or you need more time. It is you who sells it to the client when they come in to see the result. It is you because you drive the spot.
Now most artists that I know have not learned how to do that. They hide behind their machines, are more interested in coding some fancy scripts or being up to date with the latest plugins. They sell their technological knowledge and their imdb credits , but not their personal skills, and by that, they become exchangeable. Tell me one reason why a company should pay you more money if you are a Nuke artist with 5 years experience than one with say 2 years? Both are doing the exact same thing, namely pushing pixels and moving nodes around. One might be a bit slower but does that really matter when you have to do 150 versions of one shot because the Producer and the Supervisor are not sure what the client really wants ? And these guys do not sell themselves to the client either. They send versions and hope that the people on the other side like it. They do not take responsibility for their work, nor do they sell the artistry in the results.

I know a lot of people who think tools like Flame are dead and have no reason to be longer part of this industry. They cost 100k+ and companies charge clients like 900$ an hour for a session and artists earn huge amounts of money and are treated like rock stars. All this for using a tool that is nothing more than a clever compositing and editing system , in many ways better than Nuke or Fusion, but in many ways worse or more complicated. I tell you what: Flame is the mirror of our industry. To become a flame artist has never been easy. You have to get access to a system like that, which you can only achieve by learning from a senior artist, and assist him/her for a while, mostly for a couple of years. During this time you will learn how to sell yourself being faced with clients sitting behind you, and wanting to make magic for their big bucks. You will sell them what can be done with your tool and they directly see why it is worth all their money. You become the vital artist, and clients want to work with you, no matter where you are. The Artist becomes the focus, not the tool, not the company.
Sadly enough, a lot think that Flame is dead, and I fear in a couple of years this is true for our industry as well. It has become easy to learn tools like Nuke or Fusion, everyone can access it. It has become easy to hide and never see a client to explain your work to. It has become easy to exchange a whole team within weeks for the next blockbuster. And worst of all: it has become cheap to work with VFX tools, and on VFX shots.

It is not only the business owners, the technology or the outsourcing that makes the VFX industry so broken. It is also the Artists, who accept it, and who do not sell themselves as what they are but as what they can do.

Of course the whole story is more complex than this. Companies earn profits by playing this game, and a lot of youngsters just don’t know better. They have no mentor to talk to, nor do other artists in the industry dare to talk clearly and honest. Unions are a step to solve these problems, but for that, everyone would need to be in a permanent position, and not contracted for a short term project. Big , and I mean really big companies officially have 5 people on staff, and yet run a team of 1000 artists. A lot of us want this way of life and we have to deal with it. So if we want to stay in this industry, we need to take on responsibility, sell ourselves better, teach the youngsters to become better artists and by that maybe even change the way companies are set up, and help them to get back on track.

Maybe you should start to think about all this before jumping onto your next gig.

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