Open Letter To The VFX Industry

A few weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to James Cameron started a discussion about issues that everyone who works in the visual effects industry knew about but that hardly anyone was discussing out in the open. The ensuing conservation has been great and will continue, but today, I want to directly address everyone who works in the visual effects industry.

This is my open letter to you, and it’s about a topic that I believe most of you will know very well.

I’ve said that I believe that visual effects facilities need a trade group to represent them. I’ve also said that that I think visual effects artists need some sort of guild or other organizing body to protect their interest. I want to reiterate my beliefs and point out that nothing I’m about to say contradicts them in any way.

So to everyone who works in the visual effects industry – you need to stop making excuses and start making movies.

YOUR movies.

If you’re an individual artist, work with whatever resources you have and don’t let your limitations stop you. Some artists actually use their limitations create better work and some are able to muster up people and equipment seemingly out of thin air and blow right past the limitations. Either way, get to work.

And if you have a company or facility to create visual effects, that goes triple for you. You have no excuse.

I won’t repeat I can make sure that every visual effects facility owner and manager hears me loud and clear — you have no excuse not to be creating original work, right now.

Think of everything you have. You have the equipment, software, infrastructure, connections to the entertainment industry and the personnel. You have all the elements that most independent filmmakers would kill for.

There’s simply no excuse whatsoever that you are producing something on a regular basis and distributing it to the world.

For the sake of the entire industry and the sake of yourselves – DO SOMETHING.

Create something cool.

Show us a movie trailer that will blow us away, even if you haven’t made the film yet.

Make webisodes and create an iPad App to share them.

Do a short film and bring it to Sundance… or better yet, Vimeo and YouTube

Create a music video for that dude who runs your render farm that also happens to play bass in a band.

Take that Z-Brush artist who does such amazing work and bring one of the characters she created in her free time to life using the rest of the resources you have.

Try to create something cool and share it with the world. Make it commercial or at one guard, as you want. Make it experimental or derivative. Make it a group project or a singular vision.

Right now as we speak, we are living in the most opportunity rich environment ever for artists.

Let me give just a brief personal example, because I’m not talking theory here. A couple years ago, I made a short comedy video and put it up on YouTube. I did everything on the video myself. Within a few days, it had tens of thousands of views. Within a few weeks — weeks, mind you — I. had appeared on CNN twice and had a meeting with the head of comedy development for NBC Universal.

That’s my story, but I’m sure you’ve heard dozens just like it. It’s not unique, it’s not about me; that’s the world we are living in.

It was hard for me to create a video, but not technically part. That’s easy stuff. The hard part is putting your work out there, the world to see and to criticize. And make no mistake, they will. The same Internet technology that delivers instant worldwide distribution also brings anonymous critics, jealous artist, and just plain haters. They will judge you, misinterpret you, misrepresent you and try to ruin your day. Sometimes, they actually will ruin your day.

To hell with them. Stop making excuses and start making movies.

If you have a company , you will get resistance from both inside and outside your organization. Investors won’t see the financial upside. Employees will be angry that their idea wasn’t chosen.

And whoever you are — individual or company — the people closest to you will have 100 friendly reasons why you shouldn’t put your time and resources into your own project. Well-meaning friends will explain to you why what you’re doing won’t work.  Colleagues will tell you that it’s too late to make an impact at the marketplace is too crowded. Or that it’s too early to make an impact and that the marketplace isn’t ready. Your family will think you’re crazy, and wonder why you’re spending so much time on such a speculative pipedream of the project.

Smile, thank them, let them know how important you they are… but don’t make excuses and keep making movies.

Ultimately, I think it’s pretty clear that there are economic benefits to creating your own projects. By creating original work, you make yourself indispensable and impossible to outsource. You increase your value and the value of your company. It has the potential to completely change the value relationship you have with vendors and buyers.

But that’s not really the best reason.

The best reason to stop making excuses and start making movies today is that it’s what you’ve always dreamed of doing. You didn’t get in this business to sell soda or create lower thirds about Britney Spears or to be one of 100 roto monkeys or to be the effects supervisor on direct to DVD sequel, did you?

I know. You have responsibilities and you have bills to pay. You’re short on resources, including time money and sanity. You want to do your own projects, and you plan to someday… someday, which is not now. Or you tried you own projects before and nothing came from them and why put yourself through that again?

I understand. I have been there and I have told myself the same things. There’s always plenty of reasons not to do original creative work but in the end most of them just come down to your own fear. The excuses won’t go away. You have to ignore them.

And I hope you will

12 Comments

  1. Well said Lee. Even if facilities don’t want to jump right in with creating their own content, the message is still there, that the Vfx industry needs to take charge of their own destiny. If you want to be at the mercy of a big studio that abuses you daily until your will to work in the film industry is gone, then keep on the path you’re on. If you want to be a facility that’s recognized for honesty and integrety by both studios and your employees, then stand up for your rights, take the blame for the past squarely on your shoulders and move on. Stop trying to excuse the lack of progress by pointing out others mistakes. We’re in this together and until we all take a serious personal stance against letting ourselves be taken advantage of, then we will never be satisfied. That is simply my addendum to your comments and I’d like to reiterate that i love the idea of Vfx artists and facilities making their own content. Thanks for your thoughts and thanks for the Vfx townhall. Keeping this discussion on the tips of everyones brains is crucial to progress.

    Reply
  2. Agreed… but who pays the actors the crew, etc and with what money?

    Any decent film isn’t cheap to make and you can’t keep calling favors forever. Because ultimately the people involved also need to put food on their tables. Films are collective works so they demand people. And people need money and not promises or hopes.

    Honestly this whole discussion is going towards a far too simplistic view of things in my opinion. It’s not every company that will be able to produce content, even less that will manage to distribute it correctly and very, very few ones which will manage to make any profit from it.

    As for artists this is all nice and dandy, but how an artist would put food on his/her table by making home movies with the resources he has at hand and distributing them on YouTube for free?

    Ok YouTube rentals might be an option for some, but certainly not all.

    I think that people in this discussion are becoming either too defensive or too offensive and neglecting the business as a whole. The defensive ones play the victim part (the poor guys) while the offensive ones blame everything into others. Either way they both use it as an excuse to not look or accept what they are really doing or did in the past.

    Anyway… keep up the great work we need this!

    Reply
    • Joe,

      Honestly – everything you’re saying in the first four paragraphs are EXACTLY the kind of excuses I’m taling about – how will I get actors, who will it makes money, how will I eat, etc etc etc?

      Stop making excuses. Start making movies.

      Scripts are free to write. Movies start with scripts. Don’t worry about paying the actors when you don’t have script. Are you starving now? No – then write something.

      Even scriptwriting software is free – go to http://www.Celtx.com

      Reply
  3. I’m aware about Celtx I use it my self. I’m also aware of a whole bunch of other free softwares but this has nothing to do with producing films. Scripts are the most important part of a film up to the point where you still don’t have one, once you do have one things change. The fact is that most of the ideas can’t be made for FREE. And spending money, time and other resources into something that won’t give you any sort return isn’t a profession but a hobby. A expensive one.

    For instance. I have a bunch of scripts, ideas, concepts here and no money to pay the actors, 3d artists, dp, etc to get those ideas out of the paper. I can do part of it my self but I still rely on other peoples work. And since other peoples work usually means money and charity work is great in theory and most often never works in practice this isn’t as easy as you make it sound.

    With charity work and a true indy team spirit everything starts good and after a few weeks any person that is only doing that (ie: has no other source of income) and is not making any money from the project it self starts to drift and everything crumbles. I know that because I’ve tried at least 4 times in the past 8 years and neither one succeeded. I had my own work, most of the people involved had their own works and most often they weren’t that interested to work for free in a project where they wouldn’t be the director.

    And since each attempt demands time, resources and a whole bunch of other stuff that sometimes you simply don’t have, can’t afford or can’t get for free things get trickier than what they may seen.

    I could however film my cats and put them on the moon drinking martinis all for free, but that isn’t the type of film that I want to do. So in the end I guess it’s all about what type of films you want to make and how.

    Maybe in my 5th attempt I get it right, who knows 😉

    But I would love to hear pointers and tips on how to get projects of the ground/paper without spending a dime. That sounds like magic.

    Reply
  4. Here’s the short answer — lots of people have done this already. It’s not an impossible proposition.

    If you’re trying to feature film made, you start with a script. Find an experienced line producer who believes in your script and have them help you put together a budget. Then get attachments such as an experienced director and bankable actors. If you can’t do any of those things, chances are, the script isn’t that good — so write another script.

    But in the meantime — go make something. Make a trailer using just graphics and illustrations and make it awesome. Create a graphic novel. Use your cats as actors; I bet that would get a ton of hits on YouTube. Do anything but do something.

    There’s no possible way and agree with you that it’s impossible.

    Reply
  5. I kinda of agree Lee and I’m aware of all that but the thing is… what will keep putting food on our table while we attempt do all that?

    These things aren’t exactly instant, they take time. A time where you still have to pay your bills and eat. So in the end this would just become side projects and not your main thing which still leaves us with a situation to solved regarding the artists and the market/industry as a whole.

    But of course that if you’re rich or is still living with your parents and is in that position where you’re allowed to keep playing without a income for months upon months until you see how everything you have been doing pans out this is a way different story. But this isn’t the case for 99% of artists or any serious professional around.

    Besides I think telling everyone to start producing content isn’t the answer to the current situation. If everybody stops to do what they are doing now and start to work on their own would probably cause this market to collapse and most likely cause content to be a not so difficult to find commodity which on the long run would put us back on square one me thinks.

    Reply
    • Joe,

      Where did I ever say people need to stop doing what they’re doing now? Keep doing what you’re doing — just do more of the stuff is really important in the long run.

      Don’t buy into the myth of the starving artist. When was the last time you actually read a newspaper about an artist starving?

      You won’t starve. It just won’t happen. That’s exactly the kind of thing people use as an excuse to keep themselves from living up to their full potential.

      Reply
  6. I gotta say…I dont think this whole “Go out and make your own movies” logic has anything to do with the issues we have been talking about lately. Not every animator/modeler/concept artist/compositor/whatever wants to write a script and make a movie and become a director. Most of us are just happy being artists paid to do art…We are just taking issue with the unfair things that are happening to us (OT pay, independent contractor mis-classifications, etc).

    I dont know how this whole “Go make your own movie” thing of yours has anything to do with that.

    Reply
    • Ask yourself this…

      Why do visual effects companies allow themselves to be beaten down and accept work from studios that doesn’t pay them enough to remain a viable business?

      Why do visual arts artist allow themselves to work long hours for days in a row with no overtime pay?
      The answer in both cases – dependence. The facilities and the artists feel that they have no choice. They feel they have to take it or starve to death.

      So one solution to this, that is guaranteed to work is independence. A company like Pixar doesn’t have to go out with its hat in its hand begging for work, do they? James Cameron doesn’t need to accept horrible working conditions, does he?

      Reply
  7. One thing is for sure inevitably all of this will settle down at some point. But before that happens I think we will still see a whole bunch of other facilities closing down and lot’s of professionals leaving this business.

    The dependence you talk about is absolutely true. But I would say studios are also just another link in that chain since they too depend on investors, banks and people in suites that don’t care a single bit about any of this or even films. Just numbers on a spreadsheet.

    In a way I think that we basically have two points that contribute to all this mess.

    1. The influx of new people to this market that are willing to work for anything and don’t yet understand the business side of things or don’t even think about sustainability.

    2. The bankers, investors and whatnots. In another words the people that bank the studios.

    Anything in between get’s crushed in their own way.

    The only way out in my opinion is revising the business model of both studios and facilities and the mentality of artists regarding their part in this industry. As long those don’t change I doubt we will see any expressive change on the long run.

    Reply
  8. Well said!! I think it’s nuts that more people are not doing this. I work in the industry in Vancouver and have been very lucky getting talented people to help with a liveaction/cg short film my wife and I are making. – http://www.monstertheshortfilm.com

    They are doing amazing work and it’s incredible to watch them all a push themselves to new levels. All of them are self motivated,passionate. Most of them all come from cartoons and video games and this project is cg realism and live action. So I think some of the team might be seeing this as a great opportunity to create new skills for themselves and feel that this is a project that is, well, cool.

    It’s very exciting and I feel so fortunate to know these people.

    -rich

    Reply
  9. It seems that the need for VFX services is growing more each year, yet the way the effects artists are being treated is becoming worse. For a studio to stay alive in this economy, it needs to have something special and unique about the talent that is creating their projects. Artists need to be in demand and offer something that most studios could not get from a newbie in the industry.

    That being said, I know it’s not easy when the newbie from school is willing to take a drastic pay cut just to get his or her first gig. I work for VFX studio in Montreal Canada. We specialize in VFX for the advertising industry. We have built and continue to build our name on the quality of work we put out. We try not to underbid and we stand by our work. We want people to come to us because we are the best at what we do. They could always go elsewhere but the quality would pail in comparison.

    If all high-end studios would ban together and find a way to treat their employees fairly and demand the right amount of pay for the high quality service that they provide, then we would be on the road to recovery.

    There will always be new VFX houses popping up, but not all of them can offer the talent that a veteran of the industry can offer. I believe that by acquiring the best talent and putting out the best possible product, you can increase your brand awareness and hopefully get paid the right amount to your studio and your staff.

    Does anyone know if there has been a response from anyone in Mr Cameron’s camp about this article? He does not seem like the type who cares too much about the people who work for him but I would love for someone to prove me wrong. If you are interested in seeing some of the work we do. Please check out our website:

    http://www.boogiestudio.com

    The demand for VFX is growing and so is the amount of small shops popping up everywhere, but more studios need to stand by their product and veteran artists need to demand what they deserve.

    Thanks
    Dale

    Reply

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