How shade VFX Stays Successful in a Risky Industry
Over the last few weeks we've seen several events occur that have implications for digital artists. First there was the the ADAPT campaign's decision to drop a lawsuit seeking to ban international VFX subsidies. Then DreamWorks announced that it was closing PDI, laying off 500 animation artists. These continue to be uncertain times for artists especially in the VFX industry. However, shade VFX, a small boutique-sized studio located in Santa Monica, may be one of the best examples of a shop that's doing all of the right things to not only survive but thrive.
Much of shade VFX's success is due to its owner, CEO, and VFX supervisor, Bryan Godwin, an artist with extensive experience in the VFX and gaming industry. Godwin is no stranger to company mergers, big studio closings and re-locations. After starting his career at Square U.S.A in 1998, the subsidiary of Squaresoft eventually merged with Enix in 2003. Then in 2007 Godwin was working for EA's Chicago branch when it was shut down and a re-structuring plan was announced.
[caption id="attachment_39042" align="alignnone" width="800"] Shade VFX's L.A. Exec Team (from left to right): Senior Exec Producer, David Van Dyke; CEO, Bryan Godwin; Business Development Exec, Lisa Maher.[/caption]
In 2009 Godwin first opened shade VFX's doors in Santa Monica with a small team of six. Today it has grown substantially (around 65 people) and now includes an East Coast office in NYC that employs around 25 artists. For the past five years, shade VFX has been focusing exclusively on feature film VFX work, contributing to a wide variety of films from the FX-heavy Hercules and Amazing Spider-Man 2 to smaller more "invisible" visual effects within Chef and Disney's Million Dollar Arm.
Godwin recently told us in an interview that the studio's focus on feature films has recently shifted somewhat towards big budget television projects, which he refers to as "exceptional television" (The team has recently worked on Marvel's Daredevil for Netflix). With shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards, television producers like Netflix and HBO are making some of the most popular and financially successful shows today, and shade VFX's plan is to move further into that market.
[caption id="attachment_39055" align="alignnone" width="800"] shade VFX's NY Branch Executive Producer, Camille Geier[/caption]
The increasing growth of "exceptional television" production makes the transition a smart move for a studio like shade VFX, whose smaller size gives it the flexibility for quickly pivoting to a different project's demands. Plus, such larger shows have the "time, budget and creativity to do something that equals the challenge of a feature film," admits Godwin. Therefore, both projects are similar in scope, so pipeline adjustments usually aren't that dramatic.
So what keeps shade VFX successful within such a tumultuous industry? In our interview, Godwin discussed his professional experience, his advice on building a financially successful studio, and his thoughts on the current state of the VFX industry. The result was a very candid, insightful discussion on how to create an effective work culture, how to hire talented artists, and how to build an industry reputation that will keep your studio in business.
Creating a Good Work Culture
Godwin's personal philosophy toward creating an effective company culture can be summed up quite succinctly: "No jerks allowed!" Maybe the idea seems a bit simplistic, but it's certainly a standard many companies are trying to implement more and more. Maybe no where are the stakes for a "no jerks" policy higher than within a VFX studio. Tightening budgets and shortened production times can put a heavier strain on working relationships within a production pipeline while at the same time making them more essential.
"We try and limit overtime as much as possible," Godwin explains, "but it's a big part of what we do. You spend a lot of time with your teammates. We look for people of good character because you're going to have to be roommates with these guys through the toughest of the tough. There are things we can control and things we can't. The clients' demands, schedules etc. are things that we have limited control over. But what we can control is providing a good atmosphere to be in with good people so that you're not angry all the time because that guy next to you is mean."
shade VFX boasts a pretty high retention rate even among many of its contracting artists who often return after leaving for other projects. Godwin credits the low turnover to good hiring practices and company social events, which include Friday cocktail hours at the studio.
Company social events often help employees engage and communicate in healthy ways that promote a more personal knowledge of a colleague's life outside of work. "We try and have some team bonding to help everyone get to know each other better," he explains, "Primarily, it comes back to that policy to keep everyone here really level-headed, calm and appreciative of other artists who are at the facility so that you don't get those battles between egos."
Hiring for a Good Work Culture
Keeping a good culture means, first and foremost, hiring good people. Godwin has specific personal qualities like intelligence and inquisitiveness he looks for in an applicant. However, after years of hiring people, he admits that choosing the right person eventually becomes a gut decision.
Underpinning those gut decisions is an interview process that's designed to narrow down the applicant pool. The process begins with resume and reel submissions then moves on to a basic phone interview about types of positions and rates desired. Godwin explains the purpose for this initial call: "We start there so we don't waste anyone's time. We want to make sure we have a position they're looking for. So we start to filter from there."
Next in the process is a phone interview from a department head or producer. These calls can often end with a hiring over the phone especially if the position is short term and/or for a single project. Staff positions usually involve the extra step of meeting Godwin, an executive producer and supervisor.
For most studios, an applicant's portfolio or reel can be the most important criteria for hiring them. However, artists sometimes submit portfolios that essentially over-represent what they've actually done. For example, sometimes they submit a large scale sequence, but actually they've only contributed a small part to it. Godwin explains, "If they've only been in the industry for a year and their title where they worked previously is just 'artist' and they show these huge shots, you're like hum...yeah...what exactly happened there?"
The CEO suggests encouraging artists to provide breakdowns of their work along with their portfolios. The breakdown being a very detailed, step-by-step list of what the artist did to build a shot. They can give you a more accurate picture of their actual knowledge base.
"We don't see a lot of plagiarism," he explains, "but we do see people presenting really large shots without specifics. That tends to be a red flag. You can often tell by cross-referencing their resume with their reel and if they're not giving a breakdown."
Hiring Generalists vs. Specialists
Hiring people with the right skill set is a constant challenge for smaller studios who hire per project. Each project comes with its own unique set of problems. Often you must determine whether you will need to hire a generalist or a specialist. Godwin uses the project's length to help him with the decision.
"On shorter projects, generalists tend to excel," he explains, "When I used to work in commercials, it was dominated with generalists. You would have a small team with five smart people that could do a lot of different things. They would have a deadline and everyone could pitch in."
Specialist artists, however, are often used on sequences that have longer schedules. This gives them a bigger time frame in which to apply their specialty. "It's not as much a run-and-gun situation," he states.
For Shade as a whole, Godwin says the studio tries to take a more balanced approach. "Being a boutique, we tend to have well-rounded people overall. But because we compete with a lot of larger facilities, we try and take a specialist mentality."
Taking such a balanced approach seems sensible for smaller studios who must specialize in specific effects in order to stay competitive in the market. Producers often look for VFX houses that have a reputation for specific types of work, whether its building creatures, creating dynamics, removal of unwanted elements, etc. Establishing a reputation as a specialist studio can often give you a leg up in getting a bid.
It can help smaller studios like shade VFX to be seen as a specialist from the perspective of the market. However, their small staff requires that they employ many well-rounded artists who can fill in gaps when needed. It's a tough balance to strike given that every project continually presents unique challenges and needs.
But generalists can also be helpful within any studio's pipeline by faciliting communication between departments. "Having a common vocabulary that lets you communicate with your teammates to help solve problems is critical, Godwin explains, "If you're hired as an animator, being able to go and talk to the rigging team about your needs and understand the techniques that are involved will allow the whole team to execute the task better."
What Some Artists Lack Today
Even given the high caliber of artists Godwin interviews on a regular basis, he still sees some who lack basic fundamentals in classical aesthetics. "I'd like to see more people with a specific art background that have a real understanding of color theory and composition. I see a lot of people who are coming out of short school programs who haven't had a well-rounded education."
Part of this deficiency within shorter digital arts programs may be due to the larger focus on the technical aspects of creation. Learning compositing, 3D, sculpting and rendering software is extremely complex and takes large investments of time to achieve studio-level quality. However, for Godwin employing artists with a basic understanding of classical aesthetics helps create a stronger pipeline.
"Even if they're not in blocking or animation, understanding what makes a frame of film look great is important in every single discipline. Whether it's an explosion, a school of fish, or a character running across the screen, understanding composition, color, and balance really helps with every aspect of what we do."
On the more tech side of things, Godwin sees a real shortage of understanding in color workflows. That is how CG colors actually function "under the hood" whether it's working with film, television, or display monitors. Understanding color workflows is "crucial for anyone doing lighting, rendering, compositing, or texturing," he states.
Honesty's the Best Fiscal Policy
While shade VFX's hiring policies and work culture go a long way in keeping the studio internally healthy and efficient, it also promotes a business strategy that emphasizes honesty and resourcefulness. All too often, studios can find themselves agreeing to take on more work than they can handle. This isn't too surprising given the over-abundance of vendors and the relatively small number of film and television studios. The competition can be fierce.
However, Godwin guards against this tendency and credits shade VFX's success with keeping a lean crew while avoiding the dangers of greed and overly-accelerated growth. Ultimately, this approach requires you to be honest with yourself about your limitations.
"We do turn jobs away," he explains, "We don't like to, but if it's not a responsible choice or we think we're going to get in over our heads because of what's in the pipeline, we do say no sometimes. I think that's important."
Studios are often hesitant not to take on work for fear they may not get a second chance with a producer. The fear can lead to over-extension of one's resources as studios ramp up their hiring, software purchases, and development to meet the demands. But Godwin has found this fear to be unwarranted. "Most of our clients understand. They're not like 'Well, he said no, so we're not coming back!' Instead, they respect the fact that we're being honest. They would rather we be honest than take on too much and bail out of the project half way through. So I think we've built a good reputation with that strategy."
But healthy growth is the key to any studio's survival, and expanding with their New York facility was an important part of shade VFX's continued success. Godwin believes that re-locating a studio outside the U.S. for tax incentives isn't as necessary for survival as it may seem. In fact, he believes, taking advantage of incentivized areas that are already populated by talented artists is an effective way to help both studios and workers.
"New York has very competitive incentives, and I'd rather see jobs stay in the U.S. It's not like an incentive that pops up in the middle of absolutely nowhere where there's no talent and you have to import all of the talent. That's not helping that state or city actually generate any revenue, and it's not helping the problem with the migrant VFX worker who's got to move from place to place."
"Even more so," he continues, "I'd like to see jobs stay in a state or city that's offering incentives that already has a good artist culture...In New York I knew I could acquire the talent locally. I could get all the people I needed for my team because they were already there. That's really helped us offer an incentive to our clients that isn't fake. We're not just shipping people back and forth or using this flimsy excuse for an incentive. We have a real culture, a real team. They're permanent. They're not leaving NY. They're from NY."
From trade imbalances to fixed bids, the causes for the current problems within the VFX industry is a hot button issue that's often mulled over by pundits and bloggers around the world. Godwin, however, has seen its effects first-hand and provides a unique perspective on the issue. Although he attributes part of the problem to economic, studio and incentivized pressures, he also believes there's occurred a significant paradigm shift with respect to technology across the entire industry. He explains:
"To some extent there was a paradigm shift from larger shops that relied on proprietary technology to smaller shops that were using commoditized technology. We've seen the technology go from something that was really elusive, like where you needed programmers building an IK animatable system that didn't exist. So you've got places like Rhythm and Hues and PDI that really relied on their tech because nobody else could do it."
In Godwin's analysis, the larger studios focused too heavily on developing proprietary software, something that takes an enormous amount of money. The investment could give you exclusive rights not only to your innovations but set you apart from your competitors. Ultimately, however, these studios became over-extended in their IP investments while smaller studios using cheaper software moved more and more into the market. Godwin explains:
"What happened was that software caught up in a lot of ways. These bigger shops were big because they needed to be. They were working on an older paradigm. And a lot of smaller shops were able to compete for less money because the paradigm shifted towards commoditized software. That isn't to say that there aren't smaller shops building their own IP and tools. We do the same. We have a lot of custom tools that we write. But it's not on the scope and scale of the larger shops that we saw take a tumble over the last few years."
For Godwin, the market has simply re-focused its attention on producing content rather than exclusive content. "It really comes down to the tools getting cheaper and easier," he explains, "It was about getting down to artists making art and not so much about being able to supply that amazing thing nobody else has."
However, he doesn't think this spells disaster for larger studios. Instead, it's only a market correction that looks to meet the high demand of VFX with practical, more affordable, solutions.
"There's still a space for those size shops. Obviously ILM and Weta are owning that space. They're building tools and making things that nobody has, particularly in the digital character end of stuff. But by and large the vast amount of visual effects work that keep companies afloat doesn't require a giant R&D team writing custom software to achieve it. Commoditized software comes out of the box working pretty well. If you have great artists and a great team of problem solvers using it, you can do it more affordably with less people."