One of the hardest parts of filmmaking is growing. Artistic and career advancement require learning new skills, collaborating with new professionals, and expanding the possibilities of the medium.
This post is meant to help filmmakers navigate the intimidating process of working with an experienced post house for the first time.
It can be daunting if you’re unfamiliar with the language of visual effects or the process of working with larger teams. The main thing to keep in mind is this: you’re all there to serve the vision, build new relationships, and maximize your skills.
Once you realize everyone is working toward the same goals, communication is the primary focal point.
Two years ago I had my first opportunity to venture outside my DIY comfort zone and work with an visual effects house. I’d landed a gig producing and directing an internal video for a large athletic apparel company. Due to the contracts involved I’m unable to show it here.
Roughly 75% of the 3 minute piece required visual effects (VFX) work. After the first client meeting, I immediately discussed the client’s desires with my Director of Photography, in-depth.
Now, I’m no VFX guru, but I know my strengths and weaknesses. I could do much of the VFX work myself, with tools and skills in my wheelhouse. But there were a few significant shots that were well outside my comfort zone and required trained, professional attention.
My DP (who’s also an editor) helped me narrow down the top shots we’d need to farm out for advanced CGI work. Here are the things I had working against me:
- Time: most independent filmmakers can learn anything. But the time it would have taken me to learn some advanced techniques would waste my hours, and the client’s money.
- Tools: I would need to purchase or seek out software to get the job done. At that point, I had no immediate access to 3D modeling or compositing software, and didn’t even know where to start.
- Mentorship: while I knew of individuals with these skills, I didn’t know them well enough to ask for some sort of tutelage.
Here’s what worked in my favor:
- Budget: the client requested that I put a bid together. They had no expectations or unreasonable limits (they are a huge company with lots of expendable cash).
- Connected Collaborators: my DP always knows someone who knows somebody else. He was able to put me in touch with qualified individuals and companies alike.
- Basic VFX Knowledge: not only could I handle the vast majority of the VFX workflow on my own, but I also had knowledge of what was possible with CG. This is a huge asset when collaborating with people outside your usual realm.
- Pre-Designed Mockups: the video was being done for the client’s design department, so I was working directly with experienced and trained artists. Therefor, my first client meeting yielded detailed sketches and mockups, which saved a great deal of time and money for all parties involved.
After making a few calls around town, my DP and I narrowed down our search to a single contender. I’ll update this article with their name, pending their approval.
The company we selected was a newly formed and highly experienced team. Between their creative director, his partner, and their staff, credits ranged from Lord of the Rings, to major network television series’.
At the time we came into contact they hadn’t even gotten a website up, as they were already scaling and work was flowing in. After our first phone call, the creative director sent me a reel and some additional work to get a feel for their product.
I really enjoyed interacting with him. He’s truly one of the most affable, helpful, and polite guys I’ve met in this business to date, which is an instant selling point. They were as interested as I was in building lasting relationships.
We very quickly established production requirements, costs, and timelines. I was then able to place my bid to the client, receive the advance, and move ahead!
The remainder of this article will outline my lessons while working with the post shop, in hopes that you can maximize your first collaboration with a VFX house. I’ll cover:
Why to use a VFX house
- Things to look for
- Things to avoid
- Things to do when working with one; and,
- Things not to do
WHY A VFX HOUSE: TO DIY OR NOT TO DIY?
Once you’ve fleshed out your project’s VFX requirements, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the skills of your existing team complement them. Don’t make the critical mistake of overestimating your own ability to “figure it out.”
If it’s a personal project, you have all the time in the world to learn a new skill. If someone else is paying you, be far more careful. It’s better to hire professionals to save time, headaches, and yes, lots and lots of money.
Though VFX shops often have high rates, you’re paying a premium for specialty work. They have specific skillsets that are in high demand and are generally very time consuming.
Know your limits. DIY has its place but, nothing is more disappointing than an ambitious effect that fails in execution. If a client pays for a solid product, don’t give them mediocrity. If you have investors, don’t threaten their recoupment by half-assing a processes you don’t fully understand.
Trust me, I’ve made both of those mistakes. They’re very damaging to careers, self-esteem, and professional relationships.
Money is generally the obstacle when bringing on extra collaborators, so it’s important to know how much you’re working with, what fair market prices are for services, and approximately how long things take?
Basic economics: if you’ve ever mowed lawns or walked dogs for pay, you learned how many lawns you could optimally mow or how many dogs you could walk in a single day. You therefor know how much money can optimally be yielded in a single day.
You also now know what fair lawn mowing and dog-walking rates are in the future.
Most filmmakers have an idea of average industry rates, but if you’re like I was when finding a VFX company (I had no idea what going rates were) you’ll have to call around.
Call different FX houses. Call other filmmakers. Compile a list of quotes and compare them. It’s fun detective work and takes no more than a couple hours.
Communicating with your existing team is crucial. Find out who they know, what their experiences are with VFX, and if they have any objective advice. You can glean a lot from a 5 minute talk with someone you know and trust.
You’ll probably find one or two prospects by word of mouth, and may find a few more online.
THINGS TO LOOK FOR
Here are some pro-tips for your first time narrowing down the right VFX house for your project—some criteria you can explore while narrowing contenders down:
- Seek out startups with experienced staff. In our case this was very beneficial. Startups will often do work at reduced rates to build their company portfolio. They’re also eager to build lasting relationships, so they’re a little nicer than larger and more jaded institutions. But I also emphasize the importance of experience. If your desired startup consists of newbies, expect to do a bit more hand-holding, and know that communication may be strained. Experienced professionals understand the intricacies of doing business, have track records with collaboration, and do higher-caliber work. The result: if you’re new to VFX, they can gladly hold your hand, as was the case with me.
- Check past work and written credentials. Don’t take anyone’s word for it; lots of people say they have experience when in fact they don’t. Ask to see a website, reel, client testimonials, or anything that proves they are what they are. In my case, I was referred to the company by happy customers and their credentials spoke for themselves. The work they showed me was fantastic, and I’d been acquainted with it even before I knew who they were. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for proofs early on. They’re expecting it.
- Seek competitive rates. Don’t get taken for a ride. Compare rates, know what you’re willing to spend, and make sure their work is worth what they charge.
- Prioritize affable collaborators. I value this over all else. If I don’t get along with someone, I don’t want to work with them. This insistence adds some time to the process of landing on collaborators, but it pays off in the long run when you want to go back.
- Prioritize involved creative directors. Look for VFX house operators and points-of-contact who are invested in what you’re doing. One of the key selling points for the shop we selected was that the creative director got very excited about our project in our first phone call. He was animated—no pun intended—and energized by the work. It didn’t take a whole lot of selling on my end, he just clearly loved his job and doing interesting new things, and his energy gave me a big boost!
THINGS TO AVOID
Here are a few behaviors and factors I try to stear clear of with any collaborator, and especially a company that will receive substantial sums of money. These are especially important to avoid on your first time working with a VFX shop:
- Avoid arrogant teams. Being holier than thou gets you nowhere, and rudeness isn’t worth any quality of work. Don’t settle for a team or leader who makes you feel like an idiot for giving them business. In the short term, that can make for a destructive professional relationship. In the long term, it may unfairly jade you to working with VFX crews in the future.
- Don’t accept antiquated portfolios. If the work seems dated or isn’t up to snuff but the company promises yours will be “better,” don’t waste your time. It sounds harsh, and it is a little, but your work reflects on them and vice-versa. Invest time and money in reliable creatives and all involved will flourish.
- Don’t consider larger, more corporate VFX houses. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not working on a Nike commercial, but a smaller or midsized operation. Larger VFX houses tend to put all their attention on bigger clients, while banging out the little jobs quick and dirty, if they even take those jobs at all. You’ll be treated differently, the product may actually be inferior, and my advice is to not even seek them out in the first place, unless it’s to compare their rates.
- Stay away from churn and burn teams. A churn and burn shop is like the McDonalds of VFX work: they take your order and produce unoriginal, factory-grade work. They don’t put any special time or attention into their products. Their M.O. is to turn over as many projects as possible in a given month to maximize profits. If you look at a company’s website and everything looks the same or thrown-together, yours will fall into that category too. If you get treated like a commodity by a creative director or account representative, that’s a good indication of how they approach their work. Move on.
When you’ve finally landed on a VFX partner, there are some things to keep in mind throughout the collaboration. Most of these items boil down to good communication, much of which is your responsibility to uphold as the producer/director. So here they are:
- Be clear on costs. I can’t stress this enough. If there is any ambiguity between you and your client or financier, or you and the FX shop, somebody’s going to pay for it. Mismanagement of funds kills professional relationships and breaks down communication. Make sure to base VFX budgets on an actual quote, not your hypothetical idea of what the job should cost.
- Be clear with your vision. This should be your primary prerogative with your client, crew, and the VFX house. The more all parties involved are on the same page, the fewer assumptions will be made and the less errors will need to be corrected later on. Take the time to communicate clearly and assure that your communication was received accurately.
- Storyboard if possible. If you aren’t a draftsman and can’t afford a storyboard artist, there are other ways to storyboard: take still images with stand-ins, stage toys on a tabletop, or even sketch a lame drawing on a napkin. Anything helps.
- Prep is king. Be sure to schedule as much pre-production as possible to ensure your collaborators walk into their roles prepared. Give your VFX house opportunities to ask you questions, and to explain exactly what their plans are. Some of it may go over your head, but at least you’ll know they have a plan.
- Try to have someone from the VFX department on set. Fortunately this was offered to me from the beginning, and I recommend it to everyone. I was at first self-conscious of our gorilla setup, but the VFX creative director showed up energized, helpful, and even got down in the dirt to assist in staging. This may not be an option with every company, but I recommend seeking it out when you’re able.
- Cultivate confidence in your vision. Don’t allow your intimidation with doing new things to make you second-guess yourself. Be a good collaborator, and stay focused. People are depending on your vision.
- Approve mockups and designs with the client/higher-ups in advance of VFX work. Don’t move ahead with execution—shooting included—until everyone at every level is in the know and in agreement.
- Plan delivery in the beginning. Your early phone conversations or meetings with the VFX house should include an understanding of deliverables. What file formats do you need from them, and what will they need from you? This will reduce guesswork and last-minute questions.
Here are some additional things to bare in mind as you mitigate potential problems, or even disasters. Avoiding these pitfalls could save you a ton of trouble:
- Avoid abstract explanations. If you have to rehearse or write down how you’ll articulate your vision to the VFX crew, do it. If you can draw, do it. The objective here is to not word-vomit a bunch of abstract and vague ideas when explaining your vision—ideas your VFX house will have to decode. If you need a CG robot to walk straight up to the camera and give it the finger, don’t say: “I need this machine, like a set of metal boxes and wires, with feet and arms—oh, and fingers, it has to have fingers. I need that machine, a robot, I guess, to walk up and extend its middle finger.” The simpler and clearer the better. Let the VFX person/people ask you questions to flesh it out, if you don’t have accompanying concept art.
- Avoid development in post. Under no circumstances should you conceptualize after you’ve shot, unless your name is James Cameron and money is no object. Try constructing your photography around the FX and work with the company in advance to build them.
- Take ownership of your communication errors. If something is unclear or is done incorrectly by your professional collaborator(s), it may well come back to you. If requests aren’t connecting or you aren’t getting what you want, try politely putting the breaks on the process, seeing where your collaborators are at with their understanding of the effect, and then find clarity through conversation. Don’t jump to the conclusion that errors are their fault unless you’re being iced out or mistreated. Always aim for clarity.
- Don’t be a diva. It’s that simple. Be respectful, don’t be unnecessarily demanding, be attentive, and don’t be a jerk. You’ll most likely be treated in kind.
At the end of the day, communication is the most important facet of any collaboration. When working with a paid team of seasoned professionals, good communication is expected.
Look for people you want to work with for the rest of your career and theirs. The healthy working relationship will streamline the process ten-fold.
Lastly, don’t be intimidated when it comes time to find and work with a VFX house. Be excited! That new addition to your workflow marks a huge career inflection point, adds another tool to your arsenal, and—if you’ve done everything right—it will produce something next-level cool for your reel, and theirs.
Have you worked with a VFX house for the first time recently? Are you a VFX house staffer with some requests for filmmakers? Tell us in the comments below! Thanks for reading 🙂