Visual effects is both a technical and a team craft, discovers Matthew Bell. And the sector is desperate for new creatives
Television can be fiendishly difficult to break into, particularly if you nurse presenting, producing or writing ambitions. Learn a technical skill, however, and opportunities open up. Visual effects (VFX) and motion graphics are booming.
There’s a huge breadth to the sector, which runs from animation for promos and ads, through TV, to the stunning digitally created effects on Hollywood superhero films. Many Marvel movies are so reliant on VFX, that, without them, there would be little for audiences to watch.
TV and film VFX producer and supervisor Simon Frame told an RTS Futures event at the end of May, “U & VFX”, that, when he first started working in the VFX field in 1997, there were just 350 people working in Soho – then, as now, the centre of the industry.
Two decades later, numbers have risen almost 20-fold, to around 6,500. “The market has become huge,” said Frame, who has recently been working on Sky Atlantic’s historical fantasy Britannia. “There are so many ways in.”
Over the same period, VFX kit has plummeted in price, which gives newcomers the opportunity to learn on the latest technology. “Software is super cheap,” said Frame. “What really matters now is talent.”
But new VFX artists would be well advised to move to London. “The talent is in the capital because that’s where the industry fertilises,” said Frame. There are small VFX outfits outside London, “but there isn’t enough local work to keep these guys going – they rely on work out of London.”
Louise Hastings, VFX producer at Milk Visual Effects, whose credits include BBC One’s Doctor Who and ITV historical drama Victoria, matched Frame’s optimism: “It’s a growth industry – there should be lots of jobs to go around.
“Netflix and Amazon are creating more and more content, with bigger and bigger budgets – we can’t keep up with the amount of work we’re asked to bid for at the moment,” she continued. “TV is going to keep Soho very busy. We’re also getting a lot of the American films [shooting at Warner Bros Studios Leavesden, such as Fantastic Beasts].”
As a drama specialist in the VFX field, Frame is in the right place at the right time. He accepted that the TV drama boom is “a bubble” that could burst but, because of the length of time it takes to make series, “we are still looking at another four years of boom in production terms”.
“TV is still strong, but there is a definite shift to YouTube and the digital area"
Moreover, there is no indication that the boom is ending. The order books of the large effects houses were full, Frame revealed, which has led to hundreds of new start-up outfits entering the marketplace. “Boutique [companies] are a much, much better place to start and develop than the bigger companies,” he advised.
“TV is still strong, but there is a definite shift to YouTube and the digital area,” said Anthony Scott, studio operations manager at creative agency Fall of the Wall. It makes commercials and promos for clients that include Sky. Scott completed the panel at the Futures event, which was held at Channel 4’s headquarters.
Frame sounded one note of caution. “Brexit is a problem,” he admitted, because, despite lobbying, there is “no special dispensation for overseas employees. There are an awful lot of European artists in town and I don’t know if they can stay. It’s going to be a real problem for our business.”
The RTS Futures event, ‘U & VFX’, was chaired and produced by Alex Lawrence, the founder of digital content producer Clearhead.
What do VFX artists do all day?
‘There are two sides to what we do: one is in the back room, the guys on workstations in basements with low lighting, making the shots; the other side of it is making the film,’ explained VFX producer and supervisor Simon Frame. ‘Ultimately, though, we’re all film-makers. If you don’t like film – or image-making – you’re not going to last long, because it’s really hard [work].
‘I have to physically go and make the film, which requires enthusiasm, energy and a massive liver; the ability to [survive] being cold, wet and hungry; being shouted at by people who are really stressed. It’s hard work, and it’s not what most people think VFX is going to be.
‘I’m there from the very first meeting in Soho House over beers, when you get the script, right to the wire, when they’re screaming for it [to be ready] for broadcast.
‘I have to break the scripts down, with my VFX producer and supervisor heads on, working out where effects are needed. I make a list and that goes into the big planning mix – why we need it, how we are going to make and shoot it.
‘We do the pre-production and then go on set. We shoot it, which is like pulling teeth, and… then we spend months putting the VFX together… and deliver it.
‘I started on [Sky Atlantic’s] Britannia in November 2015. We started pre-production in February 2016 and wrapped on Christmas Eve, in temperatures of -12°C in a field. We delivered the series on 28 July 2017.
‘If I can be candid, a lot of people interested in VFX are the more geeky, computer-literate kids. Trying to drag people out of the bedroom on to the set is hard.
‘But, whether you’re sitting at your workstation in a dark basement, doing motion graphics and VFX, or sitting on a wet hillside with Roman soldiers, they are both team games. You can have an introverted guy who’s really good at particle animation, but, if he can’t work with anyone else in his team, he’s going to be largely useless.’
Top tips from the panellists on…
Simon Frame: ‘I say to people, “Hassle me gently.” Don’t give up; if you don’t hear back from me the first time, put a polite reminder in.… Nine times out of 10, people in my position will respond positively, because we will all need someone sooner or later.’
Anthony Scott: ‘The least impressive [situations are] when someone comes in and claims to know everything and starts to talk over you.… The people that impress are those that have done research, and understand the company and the work we do.’
Working for free
Simon Frame: ‘I’ll bring someone along who’s really keen and pay for their travel, and they can be with me for a couple of weeks. I’m not going to pay them, but I won’t have them lose any money. That… will give them a good look at what we do.’
Louise Hastings: ‘It’s very rare that we take on people unpaid – if we do, it’s for a week, two maximum, to give people a window into the [job]. People wouldn’t do any work in that week; it’s more of a shadowing [exercise]. It’s not unpaid labour.’
Anthony Scott: ‘It’s about getting a taste of what studio life is about.’
Simon Frame: ‘Say yes to everything.… There’s nothing worse than sitting in your bedroom, hoping that someone’s going to ring you. ‘Get out there and make stuff, work for student films. Someone’s going to get a break and, when they do, they tend to bring people with them. ‘Never say no.’