VFX Cloud Houses, Part Two: Scarecrow and Legion
My stomach does a little cringe when I think about all the artists out there who are trying to keep their heads above water after the massive purge over the last year. The unstable houses have fallen, leaving literally thousands of people worldwide out of steady work. I believe the cloud-based houses may offer a way to reestablish a flow of jobs. It's like reversing the trend — instead of work going overseas, a sizable chunk of it may soon be going to the cloud. That means talented artists worldwide will have an opportunity to find regular work based on their skills and reputation. However, since supervision is virtual, it may be more difficult for newbies to get cloud-based work.
Let's take a look at cloud houses and how they operate. Each one is unique, so you've got your work cut out trying to figure out the best way to approach them. This is a short blog, so I can only look at a few of them to give you and idea. Google is your friend here, to find others if you need to. (For those of you who haven't been following this series, I'm looking at VFX houses that work primarily in the cloud or with remote artists via Internet.)
Since I started assembling this article, I've been contacted by a number of houses that are looking for, and are experienced working with, remote artists. I can't cover them all in one piece, so I will be extending this series to give them all a mention and a look at how they work. These first two, Scarecrow and Legion, are fairly different. What you learn will help you contacting others as well.
The first question that comes to mind is: how do these houses operate? How does one approach them and get work?
Last blog, you met Rohin Aggarwal. Rohin is actually a businessman who has been observing how things are done in this field and has been applying best business practices to refine the process. Scarecrow is the youngest cloud house I found. They really haven't launched yet. But honestly I'm impressed. Here's what Rohin had to say about how their system for hiring.
“Our model is pretty simple. Artists register on our website and are then vetted by our recruitment team prior to gaining access to our platform. We list work, and artists apply for various shots and parts of shots that we have available. They bring their own hardware and software, but we're working with software vendors to access flexible software licenses for them. Beyond that, all other costs need to be reflected in their hourly rate. We expect them to consider ancillary costs such as health care, hardware maintenance, electricity, Internet access, etc., when determining what their rate should be. This is not a simple process, and we're launching a blog soon that will help them think through these considerations. Doing it this way lets the artist be free to move around and make changes as their circumstances change.”
I pushed a little and he added, “People often mistake our freelance and global model to imply that we're driving down rates and picking the cheapest artists. That's not the case. In a model where the artist is not beholden to a company, they have the absolute discretion to stop working for us any time they have a bad experience. Given that, our goal is to deliver an unparalleled experience for the talented artist so they are incentivized to return and work for us again. That means being fair and transparent with them. As stated above, our recruitment process is more rigorous than most facilities', and it is not simply driven by cost. Ultimately, we are on the hook for delivery by a client (not the artist) and a cheap but inexperienced artist will reflect badly on us.”
So you become an independent contractor, complete with your personal overhead. This is pretty straightforward and fair. If you have to use satellite Internet and it is expensive, you have to factor that into your hourly rate. I think it may even out. In some places, cost of living in general is low but electricity is expensive. I suspect the efficient, outstanding artist who lives in a low cost-of-living area (from Alabama to Malaysia) will have an advantage with this system. But the L.A.-based artist may have a leg up because she is local and easy to reach and work with.
Ultimately, these models work because they are looking to level the playing field ignoring where artists are based. The focus is on your work and delivery, not necessarily your location or your rate.
I spoke with James Hattin, VFX supe and creative director at Legion. Here's Legion's deal: they are a going concern with a track record of working on high-profile projects. They only work with senior talent, but you can be located anywhere on the planet. They have taken only high-level referrals up 'til now, but if you are a senior-level artist with credible experience and a solid reel, they are interested in talking with you. This is a new opportunity. They don't have a formal recruitment setup at this time, so I suggest you check out their website and contact them directly.
Their process for bidding the work and getting it done is to have their VFX supervisors assess how long a shot will take. They post that shot description with the cost (as they have already bid on it.) If you feel you can complete the shot in good order for that price, you take it. You are then responsible for all of your costs involved in on-time delivery. That's why they use senior artists who know what they're doing and can complete the shots on time. The advantage is that they have already integrated the all the costs for you, and they're experienced at that.
Legion can, in some cases, help with Creative Cloud licenses. As for Internet, you provide your own. If you have difficulty getting decent bandwidth and you're a really great artist, they may work with you to find a solution.
As for your work hours at Legion, again, they are your own. They are open to having artists with disabilities, as long as they can produce professional work in a timely fashion. As with the other remote working houses, they even have a number of moonlighters from major houses working weekends when they want a little extra cash.
Both houses work on major motion pictures as well as TV and commercials.
Second question: Do you have, or are you planning to develop and use, a collaborative work environment?
As a founding member of 5D, I'm biased towards immersive collaborative work environments … just so you know.
The definition of collaborative work environment is vague. In general, houses are using Skype as a kind of collaborative work interface. Some are developing immersive virtual work environments, but that is an expensive and time-consuming process. At the moment, most cloud houses have developed or are using various forms of communication rather than immersive work environments. I suspect that will change in time. I'm sworn to secrecy by the ones who are actually developing such a thing. (I will soon be telling you about an online video review system called Frankie. It's not cheap, but it can save a lot in the long run once you get up to a certain size virtual studio.)
Hattin says Legion uses Google Hangouts almost exclusively for this: “When an artist has a question or wants to talk about a shot or a setup, they can just ring up the supervisor or TD and get a face-to-face conversation going with screen sharing. One of the elements that was always missing at larger facilities that were forced to chase the tax credits and open multiple offices was they rarely had a way to communicate visually with the artists. This causes a lot of animosity and miscommunication, in our opinion. Legion’s solution is to 'kick off' artists with a multi-artist hangout, and we also record it for anyone in a wildly different time zone."
Third question: Do you also do character animation?
The answer in most cases was: “Not at this time.” Some houses will take on some minor character animation, or even virtual human animation, but don't count on it. I haven't really look into cloud-based animation houses yet.
Fourth question: How do you calculate hours?
Well, the answer, in virtually all cases, is: “We don't.” That makes sense. What they tend to do is post jobs to be bid upon, and you are the one who comes up with your hourly rate — your COB, or cost of doing business. You estimate what you can do this job for and you bid on it. But only people who are part of a studio's stable of artists can bid on these jobs. You have to be well-vetted or you'll never know about them.
In Legion's case, they've been creating VFX for a long time. They know what it reasonably takes to do the job. So they post the job with what they feel it should take. If you feel you can do it for that, go for it. On the plus side, if you're very fast and very good, you can make extra, because you get paid the whole amount regardless of time and resources spent. If you're not fast, you get paid that same amount even if it takes you twice as long to do the work. It pays to be efficient at Legion.
Number five: What kind of contract will I have?
For the most part, these studios offer a standard contract. You have to read it, and preferably have a lawyer read it, to make sure that such things as change of scope, delays, and re-dos are covered and that you will be properly reimbursed for your time and any added expenses. Ultimately, as a private contractor, you are responsible for covering your costs, negotiating your contracts, and making on-time deliveries of excellent material. It seems to me there is an opportunity here for an enterprising young and smart lawyer to create a business evaluating these contracts and negotiating terms for the artists, who in general hate anything to do with contracts.
Last question: Can you help me with equipment upgrades so I have the power I need to produce?
Okay, in general the answer is “No.” But not always. I'm told there might be exceptions in special cases where a brilliant and trusted artist needs an advance to get started. Most expect you, as a private contractor, to be responsible for your own equipment. You build the upgrade costs into your bid. Or across several bids.
Coming up next week is a look at Vancouver-based The VFX Cloud. They've been doing this a while and work on a lot of exciting projects. We'll also take a look at Cosmic Forces. Also, I'll be looking for some more info on how various cloud houses operate and how you get paid. (For example, if you you live in Italy, you won't want to be paid in U.S. dollars.) And I'm also investigating a Spanish house that is hiring remote artists internationally.