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Thriving in VFX: Up Close and Personal with Luma Pictures

The survival of our VFX industry is a very serious subject for me. Most of my friends are somehow associated with it, and they are, for the most part, talented, dedicated and hard-working folks. So I'm continuing my investigation into what makes VFX companies thrive in difficult times. I've been talking with a few studios, and not just American ones, but a few in countries with subsidies. It turns out VFX companies fail there too. But the savvy companies that thrive all seem to have some things in common.

The first thing I did was take a look to see who was hiring, then I checked with my VFX artist daughter Danielle to get her thoughts, and finally I just contacted studios that were clearly doing well. Let's take a look at one I found right in Hollywood's backyard in Santa Monica: Luma Pictures. I remember when Luma was founded a decade ago, and it still appears to be doing very well. That's their classy yet far from extravagant conference room, at top, and I've included more pictures, below. Over the years I'd heard that Luma was a good place to work but I didn't hear much more; they've kept a very low profile ever since.

Luma Pictures was started by Payam Shohadai (left) and Jonathan Betuel. Jonathan wrote one of my favorite films, The Last Starfighter, which was also one of the first major motion pictures to feature serious digital FX. Payam is still the CEO and was kind enough to answer my somewhat invasive questions to help with my quest. In my conversation with him it became very clear that he cares about his people as much as his company. That seemed like a very good beginning. "In recent months," he told me, "we have been reflecting on our longevity, and how that in spite of industry turmoils, we've remained healthy and have even been thriving despite our low profile. We've decided that this is significant, and that Luma should no longer be so introverted, and that perhaps some people in our troubled industry would be interested in what Luma does, and how we go about business." Exactly what I was starting to think, which is why I was so glad he decided to open up.

How will Luma spread the word? "We've recently decided to break out of our shell and become a more active part of our community," he continued, "something we've really shied away from in the past.” He told me that Luma is going to take a more serious position, and join in the mission to try and improve the VFX industry here in the U.S. “We realize much effort has gone towards this, and have no misconceptions of the challenges ahead — but with the help of other active participants, we will try our hardest to make a difference.” He also told me that Luma will be expanding both here and abroad. “We are in a global market — it's not the U.S. industry vs. other markets. As long as the playing fields are level, there's enough work to be shared by the best players in the international community. And we want to be a more prominent part of that larger community, so we've also decided it's finally time to expand Luma's presence – cautiously – domestically and internationally."

Growing realistically in a healthy way is a HUGE challenge for any VFX company, and far too many have already suffered the consequences when this goes badly. Payam thinks it's time to test the waters. "We're no longer going to limit our footprint," he told me. "Going forward, we will carefully grow Luma — in our home country, and/or other countries — with each sensible/responsible opportunity.” In our conversation it was clear that Luma has been looking very carefully at potential opportunities in VFX friendly jurisdictions.

With plenty of space and ergonomically designed work areas, Luma artists enjoy pleasant conditions.

I asked Payam what makes Luma Pictures a stand-out company from his perspective. It isn't just the company's fine work, he said. He is extremely proud of the principles on which the company operates. They are clearly stated by the top management and everyone working there lives by them; it's been like that at Luma from the beginning. Here is how Payam spelled it out.

The Luma Principles

1. Treat everyone as well as you'd expect to be treated if you were in their place. Payam explains: “This affects our management style on everything ranging from employee overtime to client overages. For example, our managers try their hardest to avoid overtime for our artists (and do a great job), because I very firmly have ingrained the outlook that overtime is a failure of sorts for our management. Our mindset is to be conscious of the likelihood that an OT request is probably ruining someone's evening plans, or adding pressure to a relationship/family, or causing other strain for that person. While the many wildly unexpected fluctuations make it hard to avoid OT completely in our industry (and we have had our share of mild-by-industry-standards crunch periods), I believe Luma would be at the top of any list for good behavior in the VFX service industry: Never a Sunday work request; Very rare Saturday work requests.” I admit, I was both amazed and somewhat shocked by this statement. Many of the houses I'm familiar with work their people to the bone. VFX people tend to be passionate about their work and are thus easy to exploit. Payam tells me they are aware of this and work extra hard to avoid exploiting their people. I believe him…and reality verifies it.

2. Know that anything Luma does can always be done better. “We constantly and aggressively think about Luma's 'machine,' and how to improve its efficiency and our quality of work, while also pushing ourselves to continually up the fun and cultural 'freshness' our employee experience," he explains. "We also always vigorously push for our employees' feedback on where they think we can make their processes easier, or their lives better – always.” (Interesting…I've heard complaints over the years from people who have come up with clever ways to improve the flow or efficiency of production who were constantly ignored by management. Not so at Luma. Also in order to do things better then others, they maintain a substantial in-house pipeline development team.)

3. Question everything. “Just because things have been done a certain way by others in the past does not mean that is the correct way," he says. "As a matter of fact, there's a chance that the longer something has been done a certain way, the more likely it's due for an improvement in processes. Or as another example, even when a person we trust highly recommends we hire someone, he/she is still put through the heavy vetting of Luma's hiring process.” (The motion picture and television industries are evolving so rapidly that entire workflows can change between production cycles. Rapid innovation is a big key. The studios want more and better and quicker for less money. And they want all that reliably. So it would appear that keeping on top of your internal processes and procedures and constantly upgrading them is a critical part of success. Studios that get stuck in a rut doing the same things the same way over and over tend to disappear.)

4. Luma is run as a true meritocracy. “Seniority and authority are entirely based on one's abilities, no matter how long the person has been with the company, or how much experience they may have," Payam says. "Our very best are leading and inspiring others to be their very best.” Read that again. This is where so many studios screw up, big time. This is a tough business and seniority only really counts when it brings that combination of cleverness, talent, experience and effectiveness that it should. Having expensive senior people resting on laurels is a quick way down the tubes.

Everyone working at Luma can enjoy the cool sea breezes and sunshine of Santa Monica on the studio's comfortable patio.

I never expected to uncover so much interesting stuff, let alone in just four concise but brilliantly honest principles, about how to run a VFX company. I also never expected it to jibe with my own personal business philosophy. I ran a multinational company for several years with a similar people-oriented approach and it was very successful. Along those lines, Payam then pointed out something even more telling. “Luma is a mostly staff-based company," he told me. "We maintain a vast majority of our employees as long-term staff, in contrast to this largely nomadic industry. We still have multiple employees dating back to our inception ten years ago, and even a few from the previous incarnations of the company from prior years. We place significant focus on finding the very best artists who are the right fit, and then work hard to give them a good, long-term home. We've lost very few good people over the years." He said that even Luma's short-term hiring is done "with an eye towards finding those very best people who are the right fit, possibly for a longer-term position.”

I couldn't agree more for all of this. It is exactly the kind of thinking this industry needs more of. It looks towards stability and clearly this kind of thinking pays off big time in many ways.

Not really knowing Luma, as few people outside the company really do, I asked Payam what Luma Pictures does best. He surprised me with his answer. I expected something like, "We do the best Fluids or environments or creatures," all of which they are known for. No, without thinking, he immediately said, “If I had to choose one thing, I'd say it's our hiring practices. We've always had a knack for this, but with each passing year we've sharpened our skills in finding great employees, in all positions, and also in quickly determining when a new employee isn't a good fit or who may simply need some positive guidance. Every employee at Luma is carrying his/her weight — there are so many super sharp and talented people here, that you can't help but feel a sense of pride.”

So here is my takeaway: Without taking the opportunity to sell his company through my interview, Payam helped us all better understand what's working well for him and what this industry needs to thrive.

OK, I can hear you all chiming in loudly at this point, "This is great, Peter, really inspiring stuff. But did you ask him the hard questions? You know, including the big one, like how Luma competes with foreign subsidized VFX studios the world over?" Yes I did, and his response was complicated yet very helpful. “This has definitely been the biggest challenge for Luma and the US industry as a whole," he began. "I've seen the collapse of nearly every brandname U.S. VFX company that has existed since I started doing this.” He admits that it has been so discouraging at times that it seemed like it was a losing battle.

Luma's battle plan, however, has largely been to focus on improving the studio's total machine, which improves margins, which in turn allows them to put resources back into improvements. It also goes a very long way toward maintaining their corporate quality of life. “Beyond that," Payam added, "we work hard to really provide the best service, convenience and quality to our clients, so they see the value beyond just the bottom line of the bid. And fortunately, we have repeat clients who have come to appreciate that aspect of working with us.”

Still, he admitted to me that it may not be enough. The writing is on the wall and a major effort is needed to overcome the imbalance in bid pricing due to foreign subsidies and rebates. Payam and his people have some ideas on where they can best contribute to this endeavor. And here's where you come in: they need all of you to consider helping in one way or another. “We've very recently decided to start taking a serious part in the community effort to correct the international imbalance," he explains, "and in trying to re-level the playing field for the U.S. market. I'm willing to spend serious money, task existing employees, and even hire new employees for this cause, wherever my team feels it's wise and will have an impact.”

Payam also feels that although there are existing campaigns approaching the government for assistance, they're likely short of resources and could use much more help. It's a political situation that has to be handled through intelligent persuasion. The average American is not going to want tax dollars to go to support the millionaires in Hollywood. They don't see or think about the struggling production people who are suffering. There are many good arguments already out there, like “The American film industry is one of our nation's largest and most renowned exports, but foreign subsidies have led that industry to create these films mostly with labor in other countries."

Payam and Luma Pictures would really like to make a difference. "I genuinely support a global industry — and do have plans for Luma to expand on a more global level — but the bottom line is that success should come to teams and facilities based on their performance, not their location," he said. "At the end of the day, if there's to be any hope for fixing the competitive disparities between countries, much more effort needs to go into educating the public and government officials about the dramatic losses so far and about what still remains at stake. There's so much information out there that it's making people's heads spin. Luma is going to take major steps to create better clarity and presentation of all that information, and we'll put a lot of focus toward educating those individuals who're in positions to help create equality, so that U.S.-based facilities also have a fair shot at winning the work." While it's still the early days for Luma in this regard, he said, "I urge anyone who's an active participant in this cause to reach out, share knowledge, and cross-pollinate with some of our efforts.”

Another thing? He's prudent. He admitted that investing resources is one thing but he also told me, point blank, "I don't waste money. We're willing to donate significant resources towards this endeavor, but we'll be judicious with our efforts in order to ensure quality progress.”

I came away with admiration for Payam and his team. I think it's true that Hollywood's production community needs more lobbying effort both in Washington and definitely in Sacramento. It's one of California's most important industries and it can't be neglected by the government any longer, especially when it competes with VFX work subsidized by other governments around the world. And an even healthier movie industry means more jobs and tax dollars; it's a no brainer. I recommend any of you who have something to contribute, whether it is talent, wisdom or effort, and really wants to help in the cause to stabilize this industry here in the States, write an email to "industry@lumapictures.com" and tell them what skills/effort you can contribute and what your availability will be. If you're unemployed, don't be shy about it. We're all working to get you back in the saddle.

Next time, I'll take an up close but not too personal look at Scanline VFX LA and Vancouver, whose spectacular success over its relatively short life may give others inspiration and insight into their own potential.


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  • Afif

    Nice advertorial, I wouldn’t call it a journalistic sound piece of reporting though…

    • Peter Plantec

      Afif, if you want to take a shot, why not explain what you mean. An advertorial Implys that they might have paid to look good here. I wrote the article, I researched it, and I purposely picked a house that is doing a great job. I don’t do advertorials. In fact, I’d barely heard of Luma before calling them…few people had.

      For a decade Luma has kept a very low profile. They were resistant to this exposure and are extremely modest about their remarkable accomplishments. This is a sound piece of journalism and I fact checked it carefully.

      If you want to take a shot at me do it on my next blog post about Scanline. Scanline is in my family. It’s owned by my Daughter and Son-in-law. It is in competition with Luma Pictures. So I didn’t MAKE Luma look good, they did it all by themselves. I had no advantage and possibly some disadvantage in telling it like I see it. I’m not always right, but I ALWAYS tell it like I see it and I’ve covered this industry longer than just about anyone else, so I usually know what I’m talking about.

      • Nimby

        Hey Peter,

        Asides from Payam (who, I’m sure shared his view of his company in good faith), I was hoping you would get candid interviews of a cross section of the artists working there. The results may balance the article and make it all the more convincing to read, while lending it more credibility. I think that’s what prompted Afif to dismiss it as advertorial.

        Not trying to stir the pot here, I was just hoping to read a balanced article that covers both ends, rather than self-pity from the trenches, or lofty views form the top.

        pretty the pics are, though ;)


        • Peter Plantec

          Hi nimby, that would make a great follow up, but by then we’ll all want to have moved on. For the purposes of this post I was more interested in the management philosophy that lead to the whole “thriving” thing, so that’s where I concentrated my effort.

      • Afif

        Hi Peter, nice of you to answer this post.
        What I mean is simple, as you say it yourself in the article and again in the response, your daughter works in the industry, so you know everything about it (huh?)… Then concerning the “hard” questions, you asked him just one? Also did you check if some statements are true like “Seniority and authority are entirely based on one’s abilities, no
        matter how long the person has been with the company, or how much
        experience they may have” so what is the core team of supervisors like? Are they getting replaced regularly by new blood? Or (like in many companies) have they been in place for many years? Also, what is the ratio between lower (junior) and highest (CEO?) pay? These would be “hard” questions and there could be many more. Why ask just one small one?
        But you don’t even cover the very basic: what is the track record? What productions? How many people work there? What is the (roughly) gross income of the company, or the progression of it over the past years? Where do the founders come from professionally?
        So it seems to me that your approach is more passionate than professional, you have a chat with your daughter, then a long (but superficial) chat with the CEO (no one else in the company), sorry but I don’t see a balanced nor in-depth piece of reporting there.
        But passion is good, we need passion in the industry.

        • Peter Plantec

          Fair enough. Thank you for replying, I see where you’re coming from. I would have hoped the title might have given you different expectations. This series is not about putting a house under a microscope. It’s not an exposé either. What I did was go looking for a few places with a track record of keeping people employed, giving them good benefits and reasonable pay…AND also managed to weather the storms beating against the VFX Industry. I looked for places that were actually thriving. I then contacted the leaders at these few places and asked them for their personal thoughts on why and how they were able to survive and still treat their people well. Payam was remarkably kind and forthcoming.

          Clearly Luma is doing something right and their CEO has bent over backwards sharing with us. I know it’s not the feature article you were looking for, but it is the Blog entry I wanted, and I think the blog and Payam’s answering of questions has given extraordinary access to Luma’s philosophy and procedures.

          • afif

            The thing is that if you talk to the CEO of any company, even the very worst, they will always look good. Never, ever will they outline any issue that might make them look bad. We get a hint when we read Payam’s reply to criticism as “having a dubious agenda, or they have or had other personal issues going on”. Really? What a strange way to treat criticism from the employees… And then this: “90% of my employees are paid *exactly* the rate they ask for”… at this point, 90% of all professionals anywhere in the industry are choking of laughter.
            Have you talked to any of the employees, content or not? Or to the direct competition (not Scanline as they are not in the same town)?
            I thought journalism was about hearing (and reporting) from both sides, researching a story, challenging dubious claims with in-depth questions. As none of this occurs in your story let’s call it a passionate hobbyist essay rather than an advertorial…
            You would do the industry a favour by digging a bit deeper before publishing.
            As it is, even if Luma was, as they claim the holy grail of vfx, none of the article actually comes close to demonstrating this, quite the opposite. I guess people like to hear about the fairy tale land VFX where all employees are happy and get the salary they want… Not sure any of this relates to reality though.

          • Peter Plantec

            I point out that Luma Payam specifically admits they don’t have all the answers, but with urging was willing to share his thoughts on why they have done so well.

          • sageface

            I am an employee… and I can tell you that I have always felt like I was treated and paid well here at Luma. I have run my own small studio and worked at other shops over the course of my career and I can tell you that while its not 100% perfect (no employer ever is), Luma has always tried to make sure that people are treated fairly. Visual Effects is a difficult business as we all know, and any company that manages to stay busy, provide a full spectrum of staff benefits (health, dental, vision, 401k, bonuses, PTO, overtime pay) while keeping people on the payroll even when times are slow, represents a positive influence in our industry.

            There is this idea that is floating around these days that atop every VFX studio is a wealthy fat cat lighting $1000 cigars with $100 bills just waiting for their opportunity to force you to work unpaid OT so that they can pay their country club dues and quite frankly its dishonest. Most of the people running these studios started out as artists themselves and are struggling with the complexities of keeping afloat in a market that is being eroded from both within and without. They are at best.. human and a while some may try to make ends meet the only way they know how, counting on the artists passion and endurance to push labor costs down, others, like Payam have opted to invest heavily in efficiency, hiring practices and pipeline to get the job done and its suited them well. There is no comprehensive prescription for the industry here but there are several good ideas that might help to make things a bit better.

            Is doing Visual Effects hard work… absolutely. Does it sometimes require you to sacrifice your time to achieve something awesome… hell yes. Is there a way to make everybody happy in the process… nope. For me, working at Luma has been a great experience, even with the occasional crunch time and I would be glad to answer any questions that anyone might have about my experience, good or bad.

          • afif

            Thanks for this, yeah I know “people” sometime have misconception about the industry. I am all in favour of getting real information out there and not create this fairy tale vision of an industry where “employees are paid *exactly* the rate they ask for”.

          • Payam (ˈpīəm)

            Hi afif, I’ve not made this claim for the industry, but rather just for the vast majority of employees at Luma. It’s a carefully balanced policy with nuances which I’ve worked hard on, specifically to foster additional harmony between the employers and employees in our crew. I weigh it frequently, as it’s something that’s challenging to maintain sustainably; but this policy has indeed been in place for quite a while. Your interest and opinions are great and valued; but if you’d like the *true* facts, please try and reach out to anyone who’s got some current & long term employment history at Luma. You will be pleasantly surprised with the results you find :)

  • Dan Supko

    As a sound designer/editor/mixer, I would give almost anything to work full time for a company like this. If this company’s principles were copied by every business in America, we would have a much happier and productive workforce, and a lot less dead weight eating into the bottom line and driving companies out of business.

    The problem with most companies today is that people “fail upwards”, meaning that when people are hired and cannot do a good job in their position, instead of being let go, they are given promotions to make room for a new hire that can perform their job at a lower starting wage.

    After a while, you are left with a group of executives and managers that never really excelled in any position, and have no idea how to accept good or innovative ideas from their lower ranked employees, even though it’s those same low wage hourly employees that are the key to the businesses success.

    The problem may be that most companies are afraid to fire useless employees for fear of wrongful termination lawsuits. In their corporate minds, it’s better to keep a useless employee on the payroll than face the legal mess of a lawsuit.

    Anyway, good article. It’s inspiring to know that maybe one day, there may still be opportunities for creative American citizens to thrive in creative industries and make a living.

  • Scott Ross

    Seems like a great organization but the solutions are a bit too simple for me. the issues are way more complex and onerous… and whilst Mr. Shohadai’s suggestions are important to the success of any business…. there is something much more difficult to address here than just by following those simple rules.

    • Payam (ˈpīəm)

      Hi Scott.. it’s really nice to (sorta) meet you!

      I can definitely see your POV that a series of bullet-point principals appear too simple for such a complex set of problems. There are of course, many more principals, details, and efforts that go into running our company – more than can be represented in an article; but I would in no way assume that our business principals will resolve all of the issues faced by other companies. These are just the ways in which luma goes about resolving issues faced by our own company.

      To address one issue as an example…

      In the most basic sense, when we learned long ago that a large number of jobs lost to foreign incentives / rebates had no mandate to be executed in that country (it was just about the client savings), it crystallized for us the fact that we could compete with that rebate largely by continually improving our efforts in hiring, processes, and general efficiency. After all, in many circumstances a 30% rebate is interchangeable with a 30% discount on a bid.

      We’re just one independent company making our way how we best see it; it’s up to others to determine if anything we do is more broadly applicable to their own challenges.

      I believe we have each other’s personal contact info, so if you’re interested I’d be honored to have further discussions with you about the nuances of Luma’s efforts, and to see if there are ways in which we can contribute to your own efforts.

      I hope to speak with you soon!

      • Peter Plantec

        Wow, Payam, I really appreciate you personally chiming in here. As you can see this is a highly charged topic these days. I’d like to make a point for all, if I haven’t made it already. We all have a choice of getting highly paid on project often without benefits and with long work hours, OR if we are lucky, we can work for reasonable wages, with great benefits in a reasonably stable environment where we can raise a family and stop being a nomad. Many of the project based companies that some of you got high pay at, no longer exist. It’s a bad way to do business. This industry needs to morph into a more stable stance so it can offer its people a better lifestyle, more reliable pay and more steady employment. Payam has found a way to do that for his people. Perhaps we can learn from that. I appreciate his willingness to share his data with us. He didn’t have to do that.

  • Anon

    I can tell you that Payam sounds like he has a heart of gold but is is also a very sleezy business man. He underpays his crew by a lot and while the atmosphere and team spirit is great he failed to mention that luma was known as a sweatshop working 90+ hours a week a few years ago. This article makes him sound so nice and artist friendly and I can attest to this NOT being the case years ago. If it has changed I applaud him and luma for making this change.

    his stance on globalization is admirable, why don’t you ask him if his crew is union or how man rep cards are signed at luma.

    • Payam (ˈpīəm)

      Hi Anonymous,

      It’s hard for me to address someone’s specific dismay without knowing the person’s identity, whether they have a dubious agenda, or if they have or had other personal issues going on. But since it’s my job to make my employees happy, I view your assessment – if valid – as my personal failure.

      As much as I try hard to make every employee happy, it’s sometimes an impossible task with a *very few* select individuals. I’m genuinely sorry if your experience at Luma was not good as the vast majority of our historical employees – I know I’m always trying my very best. In some circumstances, the employee and the company are simply not the right fit, as was likely the case in your instance. However I wish you the best of luck and experiences with other facilities.

      I’m beyond happy to let my record speak for itself, and I wholeheartedly urge any reader to check with their industry contacts – clients or employees – about my “business man” ethics. But… while this may not be the right forum to address your claims, I’ll make some effort:

      More than 90% of my employees are paid *exactly* the rate they ask for – the primary exception being extremely-junior / recently-out-of-school positions (who are paid competitive entry level wages). More than 85-95% of our employees (at our typical count) have long-term staff positions, with exceptional benefits such as paid healthcare, PTO, and too many others to list here. We’ve also instated equal benefits for freelance employees at their 1st anniversary, if they’ve worked at Luma for a good majority of that year.

      If you are amongst a few (about half dozen) artists who experienced *the worst of* our last “mild-by-industry-standards” crunch periods **a few years ago**, you worked roughly six Saturdays / 80-85hr weeks, and received the requisite 1.5X and 2X pay for your efforts (along with lots of great free meals and care). While not a terribly long crunch period for our industry, this was one of our few shamefully heavy crunch periods (and only for a small minority of employees), off of which we worked hard to improve ourselves. Our employees have been paid through the professional payroll services of ADP & Administaff, and I am therefore able and happy to offer objective proof of my facts for anything that doesn’t violate confidentiality laws.

      As for a position on unionizing.. it’s an extremely complicated topic with lots of pros and cons – a topic too long for posting into the comments section of an article. But as an employer, Luma has taken a position of providing “industry best practices”, such as the ones mentioned above, and we’ve put a lot of effort into treating our employees very well.

      I may not have the time to respond to as many posts as I’d like, but if possible, I’ll make the effort.

      Take good care, and I wish the best employment opportunities for you.

      Thanks for your feedback..

      • Anon

        Payam, thank you for addressing this. I highly doubt that 90% get the rate they ask for. Maybe if they grown with you and started at 15$/hr as juniors, which you know to be true. I know some seniors were seen at greedy in asking for more than 40$/hr and thats by no means a high wage for a senior artist. I remember your mantra “what’s the lowest wage you are comfortable accepting because i dont want any employee to be unhappy”. By itself that’s a reasonable question, but if the result is about 20% to 30% under “market price” I do wonder why luma has such a high turnaround on people? You do post a lot of ads for jobs and we all know they dont get filed a lot. I seen more than one layoff at Luma. thats nothing special of course but the above comment made it sound like it doesnt happen at luma. I will applaud luma for holding onto their high staff crew though. That is very nicely done. You are correct I did not see a fit in this “hip & crazy” company. For every trip to maui, every iPad that luma gives out I am reminded how its financed by very low wages. But its up to every artist to decide what he is worth. I am by no means trying to tell you how to run your company, I just plead for more transparency to the readers of this article that dont know better and on only see the pluses not the cons. For some artist the stability at a lower wage and added benefits is desirable and I can respect that. finally i can attest that you followed all labour laws and overtime which is appreciated but really do we have to thank a company now to NOT run illegal schemes? Its a law, nor a curtsy to the artist. Just because some bad sheep dont pay overtime does not mean its a selling point to me that luma does.

  • Linzo

    I too am an employee and one of the few that can speak to this from the unique perspective of having worked at nearly all VFX facilities in Los Angeles (and even on the studio side) in the past 20 years. (Most of the people there were born at and grew within Luma.)

    I can honestly say that in all my years doing this that Luma (and Payam in particular) provides the very best overall work experience one could hope for. In no way am I slamming any other facility. They all have their good and bad things (just as Luma does and any other place) but in the case of Luma, the issues are small and changeable. Meaning – as a Luma employee in *any* position, you are able to voice your feelings about things and work collaboratively with your co-workers and managers to resolve issues.

    Your contribution is immense at a place like Luma, not because it’s “required”, but because that’s the kind of people that work there and because it gets recognized. It’s just the kind of place that makes you want to do your best and then some.

    Above and beyond all – I wanted to address the pay, the hours worked and frankly the Payam business man comment. The pay at Luma is comparable across the board with other places these days, the hours are MINIMAL in comparison to any other shop (although of course if you have experience in this business, you know some amount of crunch time is unavoidable). The difference at Luma is that you get paid for your time and you get bonuses. Be it straight up compensation or oh, I don’t know – a paid trip to Vegas, Mexico, Maui?! Beyond those enormous gestures, there is one thing that Luma offers which no other place I have ever worked does. Stability. Luma has never had a single lay off in the history of the company, regardless of how busy we were (or not).

    Also, due to the size of the company (not small but not vast), the opportunity to be promoted from within is far greater. In fact, it’s something Luma specifically strives for. Loyalty from the top brings loyalty in return. That’s how Luma works.

    All that said, I have been an employee of Luma’s for about 5-6 years in total. I am heavily involved (in fact that’s my entire job) in the business aspects of Luma. I can tell you that I have (as do all Luma employees) a 100% open and honest relationship with both Payam and Jon. At no time would I call anything either one of them have done “sleazy” or anywhere near it. I have a huge amount of respect for how they both treat their employees, their co-workers and their clients. I’ve never been more proud in my life than to say I work at and with Luma.

  • Matt

    Will Luma’s upcoming Melbourne office be receiving any tax rebates/incentives? If so, how much was this a factor in opening up shop there?

  • Kat Evans

    You know Peter, this is a good article, but I think you could have done better. It’s easy to interview studio owners, and it’s easy for studio owners to say that their businesses are artist-focused. I am not implying that Luma Pictures is anything other than how it is presented in this article; I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been there. Based on the information in this article, I assume it is in fact a successful studio that produces great work and treats its workers as well as they can.

    However, I would love to see you go farther. Why not interview the rank-and-file? Go talk to a few matchmovers or compositors, people who tend to move from shop to shop. They will give you a different perspective. These are people who have worked at many places, and can speak to the quality of a shop as a basis of comparison with other places they have worked.

    If you actually decide to do this, I’d recommend that you not interview artists who are hand-picked by management. Find rank-and-file workers on your own, and interview them independently of your interviews with the owners. It will make for much richer, more interesting articles.

    • 4kpimp

      on the job boards why does luma spam for open positions every week. is the turnover that bad? when looking for work luma always has the same positions open. I have skip to the next page because they flood the job boards

  • Chad Dombrova

    I’ve been with Luma since nearly the beginning (when Payam was still executing a shot here and there) which gives me a pretty unique perspective on the both the company and on Payam as an employer and a person. I felt compelled to share some personal stories about my time here. Sorry it’s so long.

    From the beginning, a key part of Luma’s model has been recognizing the potential in very junior artists, and giving them the chance to take on responsibilities far greater than they might elsewhere. Almost 10 years ago, I was one of those very green juniors, and Payam saw potential in me where none of the other studios did. Over the years, as I moved into pipeline development, he’s given me a huge amount of freedom to do what I felt was right for the studio. I thrive under those conditions and Luma has sought out other strong, independent, and responsible artists who do as well.

    Luma wasn’t always the well-oiled machine that it is today. During one of our earliest shows, we did over-time of epic proportions, but no matter how hard we worked or how little we slept, Payam was always right there working even harder and sleeping even less. After that show, Luma hired a few outsiders who had been through the major studio circuit to give us some perspective. Payam made it clear that we should question everything we learned and implement nothing verbatim. There were certainly some tense moments while I, with my whopping one year of industry experience, grilled a veteran on the rationale behind each of his design proposals, but Payam empowered us all to stand toe to toe with the “establishment”, so to speak, and that mentality persists today.

    We’ve grown a lot since then, and everything is quite a bit more polished now, from our offices, to our pipeline, to our management practices. Part of me misses those wild west days when we could blast offensive music at high decibels, but there has been a very conscious effort to offset the “corporate-ness” that comes with growth, and this mandate comes directly from Payam. He honestly and truly wants Luma to be a cool and happy place to work and he does what it takes to make that a reality. But think about it, if you owned your own company, wouldn’t you want it to be that way, too? Sure! Well, it turns out that it’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of time and money, and a human at the top who cares enough about his employees to make that investment; not some corporate boardroom filled with bean counters whose spreadsheets can’t find a correlation between happiness and productivity.

    Luma seeks out people who value loyalty and instill it in others, and who are generally cool and humble people. That’s what makes the whole family work, and amongst the many factors that keep attrition here very low. On the flip side, because so much of its talent is home-grown Luma can be pretty insular, which can have its drawbacks. Generally, though, I find that there are enough outside perspectives to provide a consistent cross-pollination of ideas. Probably the strangest effect of Luma’s insularity is the almost surreal contrast of our lives here to the stories we hear from all over the world, of vfx studios closing their doors without paying their artists, not giving benefits, forcing crazy OT without extra pay, or just generally being miserable places to work. It’s taken me quite awhile to realize how special Luma is in this regard, and now I’m very appreciative of it.

  • Antonio Neto

    This sounds like a good family of our best friend and that we would love to be part of. Also we are familiar some how to the idea of get hired for just a period of time, and when the show get over, they layoff a lot of people. I follow the 2-pop forum and every week there’s anouncement’s for studios hiring people for diferent positions. I could say that evey month I see Luma and Scanline anouncing that they are looking for people to hire for some positions. So I thought those 2 studios was one of those that hire/layoff people frequently… Now I get curious about how they are always looking to hire more people? How they could manage that? From my point of view of someone that is outside of this studios I would say that they are growing exponentially… if not layoff people as hire others… I just wanna clarify their management.

  • anon

    Luma sounds amazing and I would love to work there. However, in Melbourne there has been some frustration rattling around in the VFX community surrounding Luma. It seems a few people have had the experience of applying, having their work deemed to be worthy of an interview, having a great interview, then getting turned down, with no real explanation other than “we have no more vacancies”, THEN seeing those positions continue to be advertised on various job sites. It is understandable that Luma wants to create the best team, but the hiring practices in Melbourne have left a lot of us thinking there is no point in applying to Luma when vacancies come up, as they are probably not going to bother getting back to you, or if they do, it could be a waste of time. Furthermore if this is how they treat prospective employees, it casts some doubt over how we may be treated if our application – by some miracle – IS successful. So- what’s the deal?

  • Anonymous

    They have the worst hiring process though, they rarely contact people who apply, when they do they often give an indication of interest then just don’t contact them again, or weeks later, which led me to find the folowing quote from the article particularly amusing:

    “The Luma Principles

    1. Treat everyone as well as you’d expect to be treated if you were in their place.”

  • Guest

    This is so true. I thought it was just me until colleagues reported the same bad experiences with the interview and screening process. Their pipeline team is quite arrogant and full of themselves. My overall experience with Luma only helped fuel my drive on getting out of VFX for good.