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Working the New VFX Landscape: Rules to Live By

In my last blog I gave a baker's dozen rules for VFX studios to survive in this difficult time. Now I take a look at individual VFX artists and technicians. The rules have changed big time and keep changing. If you can't adapt you are likely to be slipping into a new career real soon. If you heed my advice, you improve your chances not only of surviving but of thriving in this industry.

First, a few caveats. Not every one has the chops to do what is suggested. It's not easy and it requires a certain level of native talent and cleverness that not all of us have. The globalization of the VFX industry is impacting us all. It's a reality, it's not going to change and if you want to survive, you have to look at the situation realistically and take sensible action. Having ordinary VFX skills to do great but not seriously challenging VFX work is not going to help you. That work is going to places like BaseFX in Sanlitun Village, China, near Beijing. They've already won Emmys for HBO's The Pacific and Boardwalk Empire. They're doing semi-high-end feature work, too, and very cheaply. I've seen a number of well known US VFX people move to India, China and Malaysia in order to stay ahead of the curve. They've become industry leaders there. Sometimes those that make the move make less money but achieve a higher standard of living…think about it. You need to keep your eye on what's happening in the field and be ready to move and do what must be done to stay employed.

Where to head? Vancouver might start looking good to you. It's one of the ten most beautiful cities in the world, you know. If you read the following rules and realize they're not for you, perhaps you should start looking sideways for a career that will utilize your current skills in a less competitive environment. For example, creating internationally renowned hot sauces and other delicious incendiary products might be a good backup position…oops, that one's been taken. (check out J.D. Cowles' http://allspicecafe.com/ ).

Beyond these rules, which can apply to both artists and technicians, you need to believe in yourself and present well, with genuine passion. It will show.

Plantec's Rules for Staying Employed in the VFX Industry

1. Be flexible. The field of VFX is changing rapidly and you have to adapt quickly if you want to stay on top. That means adjusting what you're good at and how you work and what applications you work with.

2. Don't rest on your laurels. Long experience in the field can count for and/or against you. You need to be able to demonstrate outstanding current skills and exceptional ability no matter how long you've been in the business.

3. Be efficient. Nobody will keep someone who works slowly any more. In the old days I saw guys draw out a two-day job to two weeks…not anymore.

4. Develop a friendly personality that fits in comfortably with your fellow workers. Try to think of them as your greater family. Show them respect. The best studios look at how well you fit with their team..they take this very seriously, often giving team members a vote on hiring you. They also get rid of people causing high drama, the toxic types that slow everybody down.

5. Become an expert. You want to be irreplaceable. That means if you're a TA, you are fast and furious with the code, setups and problem solving. You get along with the artists – they love you. If you are an artist, you hone your art and craft to a fine edge. If you're a concept artist, 3D modeler, lighter, layout artist—you name it—you want to be the best. Those are people who are kept on overhead during soft times.

6. Be innovative. Find better ways of doing things and ways to save your studio money. Share those ideas around. Don't be pushy about it.

7. Be Productive. Be willing to work your full day and give the studio it's money's worth. I personally don't think you should be willing to work 60 hours a week for a salary except during crunch time. That would be exploitation, and any studio who exploits it's people like that is likely to run into serious difficulty. The good studios give at least part of the weekend off and reasonable work hours. I'm serious.

8. Network. Get known in the field in case you need to look for a job. Get respected. Contribute to the field, have your own website. And by all means, do a little or a lot of social networking with others in the field. Go to industry events and parties when you can and be sociable, even charming, if you can. Go to VES events.

9. Embrace your studio. Show them your loyalty. Enjoy the community aspects of your workplace, wear the brag rags and go to the softball games. It's really hard to fire the effective employee who is a company booster.

10. Support your IMDB page. Too may people in this industry don't even have their picture posted there. Credibility (and press!) is important and if you stay on top of your IMDB image, it will help in the long and short run. The better you are and the better you look on IMDB and Google, the more value you are to your studio.

11. Be versatile. After you've nailed your specialty, stay on top of it with regular training, either with the company or online. Consider joining Lynda.com and/or DigitalTutors. Use these same resources to learn new skills. The field is constantly changing and you could find that your specialty is no longer relevant. Learn Zbrush, for example. It is in user at all the major studios, small and large, and if you have a sculpting talent with it, your dance card just got more attractive. Also, many young people these days have developed both artistic and technical talents as they've matured in their craft. Those dual qualities are pretty much required wherever you end up these days.

12. Sharpen your creative eye—if you have it. It's not usually something you can develop at will. If you have it, your work will show it. If you don't, you should be looking at the technology end of VFX. Know where you belong and function best.

13. Deliver quality. Get a reputation for being reliable and for delivering the goods on time. Your work has to be flawless these days, so you need to hone, and still deliver your end of the VFX process because usually others are dependent on your stuff in order to continue on to a successful project sign-off.

This baker's dozen rules may seem obvious, but many of them often are not followed. None of this will guarantee you a slot or guarantee you will retain your job where you are. So much depends on what work is currently available. Ask yourself: Does currently available work require my expertise? Am I working at a stable studio? Am I in the top of the staff retention list? Am I located where I can take advantage of current work?

Most important of all, don't overprice yourself. It's the high-end people who are often lowest on the retention list, especially the less productive ones. Work for a reasonable wage, look for benefits and be happy you're working in your dream field creating magic. Appreciate the fact that you have a job…but NEVER put up with abuse to keep it. That's easier said than done, but I mean it. Find one of the great houses to work at, like Luma Pictures or ScanlineVFX LA or Sony Imageworks or ILM. There are others. You have to find them yourself. Also, be willing to work for that reasonable wage when you do find the right fit, maybe even tighten your belt a little.

The hard facts? This field is changing. There is a ton of work, but it's flowing into a vast ocean of VFX studios worldwide. The competition is fierce but there are a LOT of qualified VFX artists out there. Schools are dumping more into the pool every semester. Also, stop thinking that those overseas houses do bad work. Most are getting very competitive in quality. If you want to work in LA where there are no subsidies, make sure you join a studio that is competitive, well established and has good working conditions and an even better work ethic.

Good luck out there. If you disagree with my rules or can suggest new ones, please respond with a comment. I read these, respond to many, but appreciate them all and learn from them.

[Photo top: A thriving VFX house in Marina Del Rey, California (photo by Peter Plantec)]

9 Comments

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  • Peter Planted

    I just read my own words and realized I made it look like J.D. Cowles should be looking elsewhere. Not so, he’s a talented, experienced VFX guy, and he’s developed this amazing award winning fallback business for soft times. He has a passion for both. Sorry JD.

  • Peter Plantec

    I just read my own words and realized I made it look like J.D. Cowles should be looking elsewhere. Not so, he’s a talented, experienced VFX guy, and he’s developed this amazing award winning fallback business for soft times. He has a passion for both. Sorry JD.

  • douglas velie

    I don’t care about those F@*KERS. I’m bald and hairy and that’s good enough for me.

  • Matthew

    Good advice overall for any job, not just vfx , but I have issues with #9. Enjoying the community aspects of work belongs in the networking tip. “Show them your loyalty” is bad advice. VFX companies (and all companies) are businesses. They are there to make a profit. They will cut you loose with no notice if you become unprofitable to them. No one cares if you wear their Tshirt. They have NO loyalty to you, and your loyalty to them should begin and end with your paycheck. Look out for yourself, your finances, your family, and your benefits. Do not give loyalty because the show is “cool”, or you get free snacks, or because the supe is a really nice guy. VFX artists need to be better business people, and operate on the same level as the business they work for.

    • Peter Plantec

      I’m sad that you’ve had that experience. Your advice certainly should be heeded if you work at certain companies. But there are VFX studios that cherish their employees and keep them on staff for many years. These same studios dump people quickly if they don’t fit in or don’t perform. Read my up coming profile on Luma Pictures for a company who cares about their people.

  • anonymous

    This is all ridiculous…if artists are expected to do all of this while making the same or more likely less pay, forget it. It’s a race to the bottom-pure and simple. This has been a second career for me and it’s turning into a nightmare. As soon as the economy recovers, I’m headed back to Architecture, it kept food on the table for twenty years and I consistently moved up in the field. Visual Effects isn’t the only game in town, there are other industries out there that are more mature. As more young people begin to figure this out, the visual effects industry will experience “a correction”

    • Peter Plantec

      Anon, I hear you, but there is a ground swell beginning to form; people who are working to stabilize this industry. And if you read my upcoming story on Luma Pictures and several other local VFX studios that are thriving, you’ll see that picking the studio you work at is perhaps more important than the actual job you get.

  • Peter Plantec

    Thanks for that addition Markus, Eran is a friend of mine and you are absolutely right. He is a great teacher and a wonderful person. I was delighted to see him win the Emmy.

  • anon

    Ive been in this I crazy industry for15 years. Let me tell u It is a race to the bottom, and the bottle for that matter.