Freelancing in Visual Effects

I struggled to think of a more interesting title for this post, because I really do think it’s an important and fascinating topic. How to get return business. And to keep it all topical, how to get return business in the entertainment industry.

It’s important to note that, while I currently work for a small visual effects company, and am thus privy to a lot of the inner dealings and workings of getting work and dealing with clients, this post is more about things on an individual level. It’s about the freelance artist, making his way from company to company, and client to client. After all, things on the studio level in this day and age are far too complicated with the involvement of subsidies, foreign markets and so on, and I couldn’t really help you anyway.

I currently have a full time, 10-6, W-2 visual effects job. And while I love it, I’ve had various reasons to branch out and take on extra work over the years. This has entailed anything from visual effects for short films, commercials, music videos, independent feature films and web series. It’s also included being an animator and a director. You should never pigeonhole yourself into a set job description. But that’s for another post.

I recently got married, and in the year leading up to the big day, I spent a lot of time working to help pay for things. That’s where these jobs come in. I told myself that once the wedding of our dreams was paid for, I would hang up my freelance hat and stop taking on side projects. I would spend time with my new wife, snuggling and watching things like Breaking Bad. Boy was I wrong.

Because, you see, (and here’s where things come together) of repeat business.

I worked for several people last year that have contacted me well after the jobs were over, asking if I was available to work on other projects. Now, I’m not bragging. I swear…….ok, maybe a little. But seriously, the emo kid in me dares to ask the question, why? You really think I’m good enough? The last time we worked together wasn’t a disaster and now you don’t hate me and I’m not going to listen to sad music for a week?

And while I never ever thought so negatively of myself, I also never thought so positively either. It means a lot to have someone bring you a second or third project. To entrust in you a pivotal part of their production. Because while many people don’t value the work that a visual effects artist adds to a production, I can guarantee you that it is virtually priceless. Watch any recent movie…ANY of them, and I guarantee that a visual effects crew will be listed at the end of it. And if they aren’t, it’s because of how little respect we get, and they will have at the very least imdb credits. And these people, the ones that call you back, they know what you did for them, and want you to do it again.

I try to live my life by the motto of, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Basically, I try to treat people with the same level of respect that I think I deserve. And when I get angry, frustrated, etc…I try to maintain that understanding that is so necessary. I’m not the only one that is stressed, and would I want someone else yelling at me? Hell no.

On an indy film I recently worked on, I messed up. To be technical, I asked for 16 bit log dpx files, when I needed 10 bit log dpx files. It sounds minor, but what I received I couldn’t use. The effects weren’t going to get done. Now, this was a super low budget project. Like, the tiniest of tiny budgets. So when I contacted the person in charge of giving me these files, and asked for his help, he was completely unhelpful, citing the fact that he wasn’t being paid to take care of this……
ARE YOU SERIOUS? I get it. I really do. I wasn’t being paid to deal with that problem either. But there’s a level of pride and ownership I take in everything I do. There’s a point where someone is asking for too much, sure. There are lines in the sand that we all need to draw. But this guy was just being completely unhelpful. He would barely talk to me to help me figure out why my files weren’t working. Was it me? Was it his export? I know the problem now, but at the time I was super stressed.

Now, that guy…I will NEVER work with him again, if I have the choice. Why would I? He wasn’t helpful..and I honestly snapped back, which is rare for me. But the excuse of, I wasn’t paid for this…not my problem, is not good enough for me. In the end, the mistake was my own, and I owned up to that, verbally and financially. But I received very little help in figuring out the problem. I didn’t have to figure it out. I didn’t have to do any of it, but I don’t want to just give up, and I don’t want to be that guy that says “sucks to be you.” BUT as a result of my attitude, the client, was very appreciative. He understood what I went through to get his movie made. He acknowledged me at his screening, and even more important, has called me several times since to talk about future projects. He’s a good guy and understands that I’m willing to go out of my way to make something good.

And before you think I’m the kind of guy that bends over backwards and gets screwed left and right…that same client, on that same project, offered me a very bad deal to work on his movie. And I’m happy to say I rejected it…but I did so respectfully and honestly, detailing the amount of work he was asking for, and explaining that I couldn’t afford to work for the price he was offering. And because of that (and a kickass demoreel) he was open to negotiation, and we worked out a deal that favored both of us. Because of this mutual respect and understanding, we have a very fruitful working relationship.

So here’s what it comes down to.

Always be respectful, even when people are wrong.

Always do your best. Go above and beyond, but always be conscious of whether or not you’re being taken advantage of.

And really, that’s it. If you’re talented, and follow those simple rules, then I can almost guarantee that people will want to work with you again.

Good luck out there!

Stanley Kubrick

Recently I went to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibit being held at the LACMA. They displayed all sorts of props, working scripts, clips from his films, etc… The exhibit was well done, but it’s not quite what inspired me to write this post. What inspired me was the man’s body of work.

Going to see the exhibit was part of a date day planned by my wife. In anticipation of the date, she stopped at Best Buy and picked up 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Clockwork Orange. Now, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut are probably the only Kubrick movies I had seen from beginning to end (I watched half of Clockwork, bits of 2001 before) so I was in for a treat when we had a mini marathon. We only ended up watching 2001 and The Shining, but I was completely blown away and inspired.

I don’t usually like older films. In some ways I’m just as ADD in nature as the rest of my contemporaries, and older films bore me to death. But the sign of a truly great movie, is one that withstands the test of time. I’ve seen a few in recent years that still hold up despite their age. Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind. Seriously, there’s a reason they are still parodied to this day. And while Kubrick’s movies aren’t quite that old, they are still getting on in age. His space movie predates Star Wars. His horror film blows Freddy and Jason out of the water, and was made way before them. I’m not fact checking that, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

But this all begs the question why. And why do I feel the need write about it. His movies have been analyzed to death, I’m sure. I think it’s all about his style. It’s what you love about him or what you hate about him. The ambiguity. The long shots without a single camera cut. The music, oh the music!

2001 – I totally get why some people don’t like this movie. It has long drawn out sequences in space. It’s slow in parts. Very slow. Not to mention the color trip of an ending. But I say to you that those “slow” parts where there’s not much dialogue and not a whole lot going on, forces the viewer to think. I found myself zoning out, analyzing the shot itself, how mundane a task this astronaut is going through. Why is it taking so long for this ship to dock? Because it would actually take a long time. By not force feeding an action and an event to the viewer every 30 seconds, it allows you to step back and think about the bigger picture. The meaning behind it all. Evolution, life, the past present and future of our species. Are we alone? Artificial Intelligence? There are so many interesting ideas being batted around.

The Shining – There’s a reason this movie is still terrifying to this day. It’s about what it doesn’t show. Why are two little girls the creepiest thing I’ve seen in my entire life? Because of this slow build, following a child on a bike for 2 solid minutes, the music. The hint of scary things, without ever showing too much. My mind can imagine a world far more terrifying than anything that would be put up on screen.

And here is my point. Movies these days rarely if ever hide things from you. What is that actor thinking or planning? Well, they’ll probably outright tell you in a second. What is this creature we’re so scared of? Oh, you made it brown and furry…that’s not that scary to me now that I’ve seen it. You get a lot of cheap scares that way, but it doesn’t get down to your soul. These movies won’t stand the test of time.

Good films, or rather, good stories, leave a little to the imagination. We can create anything your heart desires using the computer and Visual Effects (And if you have an appropriate budget), but should we? I’ve talked to tons of independent filmmakers who want flashy effects littered all over their project. Creatures galore. Monsters. Aliens. Cooler. Faster. Sexier. But what they’re always lacking (besides money, let’s be honest, it’s Hollywood) is the relationships in their screenplay to back all of it up. The tension caused by an alien invasion only means something because you care about what happens to the characters. The aliens and spaceships are just a happy bonus.

The real test is, can you make this movie without a single effect? Could you possibly make it work, or is it not even a little doable? If your mechanical shark broke down in the middle of production, how would you work around it?

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!