Archive for the ‘Filmmaking’ Tag

The Geeks in the Basement

VFX artists tend to be seen by the rest of the film industry as the geeks in the basement.

Okay, so admittedly, we are all pretty nerdy and into computers. And, I guess our desks do tend to be covered with Lord of the Rings figurines and light sabres. And, sure, due to the light sensitive nature of our jobs, we do work in blacked out rooms… So the name isn’t all that inaccurate.

But it still says something about how the rest of the film crew sees the VFX artists.

And that comes down to how the films are made.

Okay, bear with me here as I go into a little bit more detail than anyone ever asked for on how a film gets crewed, but it is relevant.

You see, when a film is greenlit by a studio – say, Paramount – the producer doesn’t just go out onto the Paramount lot, grab the Paramount film crew, and start shooting.

Instead, the film will be crewed by freelance crew members, brought together by the production just for that one film.

The first person to join the film will be the director (often having a known director attached – along with some big name actors – is part of getting a movie greenlit). Once he or she is on board, the production will start to bring on the heads of departments, people such as the director of photography, the editor, the art director, and so on. These are the people responsible for the creative vision of the film, and they’ll often be people the director likes, has worked with before, or has heard good things about. This will be done in consultation with the studio and producer, who ultimately have final say, but generally want to keep the director happy.

Once the creative HoDs are in place, they’ll start filling in their departments, hiring assistant editors, camera assistants, gaffers, grips, chippies, sparkies and woofies.* As these will often be local talent, most of this round of crewing will happen after the production decides where to shoot the film. These people will be found through networks and friends – hire the 2nd Assistant Camera in Vancouver, and they’ll know someone who can come on as the focus puller. 98.75% of the time, this is someone they’ve worked with before that they like. The other 1.25% of the time, it’s someone they know from film school.**

And that’s it. We come together, spend 4-6 months making movie magic and getting heartily sick of each other in the process. Then, once the film is complete, we have a massive wrap party, grab our crew swag (which is useful, since we probably haven’t done laundry in the last month), and go our separate ways. Until the next film, where we’ll either know half the crew already, or figure out who we know in common.

So, that’s how the film crew works. VFX is a little different.

You see, our software is pretty complex. And, our software also doesn’t like to talk to other software. Even other VFX software. And since every department in VFX uses different software, this can make things tricky.

Say we’re doing a shot where a CG dinosaur runs through a CG river. On a high end film, each step in the pipeline – from building the dinosaur, to adding the CG water, to lighting the shot, before finally putting all the elements together to fit seamlessly within the plate – will be done by a different specialist.

Most of those highly specialised jobs also have highly specialised software packages, and none of them talk to each other. Because apparently that would make too much sense.

So, we have to write a lot of code to move shot information from one department to another. It’s expensive, time consuming, and constantly changing as software packages get updated. All VFX companies have a dedicated pipeline department whose job is to make sure information gets from one place to another.

Another thing that happens along the pipeline is something called rendering. The computer scenes that we work with are very complex, and require a large amount of computer power to process.

Take, for example, a lighter working on the scene with the dinosaur: the lighter will add light sources to mimic the on-set lighting, and then the computer has to go away and think about just what exactly that means. How hot is the kick off the water? Where are the shadows, and how long are they? How do the dinosaur’s scales react to this light? Is there anything causing a bounce light in the scene? These calculations can take hours per frame, so when you’re dealing with a 200 frame shot, that’s a lot of computing. Especially since it takes multiple (and I mean, in the hundreds of) versions to get a shot pixel-perfect.

If we were to just render on the machine we were working on, we’d basically get one render of one shot done every couple of weeks. Oh, and because it would take the entire computing power of that machine, we wouldn’t be able to work in that time. Which sounds like fun, until you have to pay rent.

So, instead, we send all of these scene off to the render farm. This is a stack of computers dedicated to rendering. They have no keyboards or monitors, and their only job, all day, every day, is to render shots. Companies can have hundreds, or even thousands of these dedicated, high-spec computers on a render farm (although still never enough come crunch time). And of course, once you put hundreds of processing computers in a small, enclosed space, putting out a massive amount of heat, you also need to add some heavy duty air conditioners to make sure they don’t do something silly like catch fire.

All of this adds up to one big, expensive nightmare that film studios don’t want to deal with.

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Instead, they can outsource it to a VFX studio that is  already set up with a pipeline, render farm, and artists, and have them make the whole VFX problem go away.

This does, however, create an interesting situation. It means that when I sign on to a film, I’m actually signing on to work for the VFX company, rather than the film production. And this leads to a couple of problems.

The first – and the one that often rankles VFX artists the most – is film credits.

The film studios determine how many credits each VFX company will get. Because credits add to run time, and run time in the cinema costs money, the film studio wants to keep the number of credits to a minimum.

Everyone on set is guaranteed a credit.

No one in VFX is.

I’ve worked on shows with almost one hundred artists, only to be told that we get twelve credits. I know everyone thinks that credits are already waaaay too long, but they mean a lot to people that worked on the film.

But that’s not the worst problem that the division between VFX and the production can cause.

Because VFX and the film making process have become so separated, the director often has no exposure to the process of VFX. After all, it’s not like building a film set where you can walk on the stage day after day and see it take shape. VFX often happens in a different country, and the director only sees a few select stages along the way.

This means that when the directors asks for a change, they don’t always know what they’re asking for. If the director walks on to set and says “yeah, I know I asked for a library, but what I’m actually thinking would work well is a bedroom. Can we change this to a bedroom?” they know just how much of that set is salvageable, and how much is going to be torn down and thrown away. They can see a tangible cost in terms of materials and time.

A lot of directors don’t know that in VFX. Is the change something as simple as loading in a prebuilt bedroom, or is it something much harder? (Hint: it’s something much harder). And, unlike on a sound stage, where the director would arrive at set the following morning to see the haggard, sleep-deprived faces of the set department who had worked through the night to change the set around glaring at him, with VFX, the director often won’t know what the human cost of their changes will be.

(A side note: sometimes, if the revision is large enough, the VFX studio will issue the production with a change order. This is basically something that says “So, you paid us to build a library. We built a library. Then you decided you wanted a bedroom. Now you need to pay us to build a bedroom.” This can also cause problems, as the director, without having a real library to touch and feel, doesn’t understand why a second virtual set costs more money. It’s hard to argue the value of something that – to many people – isn’t real because it only exists in a computer.

Also, this isn’t applicable to all directors. Some, like Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and James Cameron are very VFX-savvy, having owned their own VFX houses, while others, like Neill Blomkamp used to be VFX artists themselves.)

It’s hard to say how this ignorance of the biggest department on most films has come about. I suspect it’s a combination of the directors not being able to be a part of the process, and the VFX houses wanting to shield the director from the daily crazy that is VFX.

I would like this to change, but it will be tough. Ideally, the director would be embedded with a VFX studio for post so they could see the daily rhythm of visual effects, but the director is already spoken for by editorial, sound and music in that time. Besides, with multiple VFX studios in different countries working on the same film, which studio would the director go to?

Maybe over time, as more directors come of age in a time where VFX is as common on a film is as sound, things will start to change; directors and film crews will see us more as equal contributors to the film, and less as anonymous geeks in the basement.

I’d like that. I really would.

Just as long as we don’t have to give up our lightsabers.

*Okay, that last one isn’t really a job, but the others actually all are.

**Which leads to the big catch-22 of the film industry – how do I get a job in the industry without knowing someone, and how do I get to know someone in the industry without working in it? I have no idea, sorry.

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Getting Into the Film Industry

So, it’s come to my (rather slow) attention that people are visiting this blog because they’re interested in working in the film industry in Canada. And then they get stories of me wandering in the woods at dusk and swimming in glacier lakes – which I can see could be kinda disappointing.

To date, I haven’t really done any kind of “how to” post on how to break into the film industry because, well, I don’t really know. It’s different for everyone, and I didn’t want to give anyone bad advice. But, because not knowing something has never stopped anyone from posting something on the internet, I present to you: my How To Get Into The Film Industry blog post.

It is long.

It is also targeted to people wanting to get into “below the line” film roles; runners, VFX artists, unit assistants. If you want to be a director or DOP, ignore this, grab a camera and go and make some films.

Before we begin, please read this. It’s an article I wrote a few months ago for a website about how to find work in the film industry in Canada. It will cover the basics, and some Vancouver specific information. Read it? Right, good. Moving on.

To talk about getting into the film industry, let me share my story. It may seem self-indulgent (hell, it’s a blog. Why not?), but it will become relevant later on.

I’ve wanted to work in the film industry since I was a child. At the slightly inappropriate age of seven, I watched an old eighties horror film called American Werewolf in London. My much older – and smarter – brother explained to me how, by using camera angles, special effects, and editing, the filmmakers had made it appear as though a man had turned into a wolf on screen. My little seven-year old mind was blown and instead of nightmares, I had a career calling.

The next chapter came during a drama course in high school. My teacher, who was, by this point in her career, pretty much just phoning it in, assigned us the task of giving a speech. I think her rationale was that it would teach us not to be afraid of talking in public, however – being an aspiring actor, and not realising that there was such a thing as being afraid of talking in public – I completely missed the point, and thought we had to do a talk on something drama related. Because that made sense to me. So I decided to do a talk on special effects.

This was back in the mid-nineties, a long, long time before youTube and the internet changed the rules of school research. Nowadays, I’d find some tutorials, watch a few behind-the-scenes videos, and make something up. Back then, I had to find someone in New Zealand who knew how to do this sort of thing and then pester them to show me. I didn’t for a second think this was actually going to happen.

But, never being one to let reality slow me down, on a whim I called the head of Weta Workshop, Richard Taylor. For those film geeks out there, he’s the same Richard Taylor who won all the Academy Awards for the Lord of the Rings series, but back then, Weta Workshop was a smallish studio who had spent the bulk of their career making crack addicted puppets and alien monsters for Peter Jackson’s earlier films.

Still, I was surprised when a) the phone number for Weta Workshop was listed in the phone book, b) when Richard Taylor answered the phone and c) when he said “Yeah, sure, swing by. How’s Tuesday for you?”

I swung by. The studio was working on PJ’s first big Hollywood film, The Frightners, but Richard took time out of his day to give me a personalised tour of the studio – complete with vats of blood, and the boxes of arms and eyeballs.* He showed me how they made latex wounds from molds, minor abrasions with mortician’s wax, and robotics for animatronics. I spent the entire day just hanging out at his studio. I chatted with all the artists, and to a person, they were incredibly kind and generous with their time. I left with some latex molds, a tub of wax to torment my friends with, and the knowledge that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

Of course, at that point I was still in school, and Weta was still in its infancy. It wouldn’t be for five long years before I actually set foot in Weta as a paid employee, and that was due to a combination of good timing, perseverance and – of course – knowing someone. Oddly enough, that someone happened to be my mother.

The final chapter came in 1999. Lord of the Rings was starting to crew up, and my mother and her knitting group were hired to knit background chainmail for the armies in the film. Because.. sure. My mother mentioned that Weta were desperately looking for crew, and so I sent my CV in to both Weta Workshop (the practical division) and the nascent Weta Digital, who were breaking into the world of VFX, or Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). A few days later, Weta Digital called me for an interview. It was just as a receptionist, but hell, it was as a receptionist for Weta. I said yes.

After eight months, noticing my hard work and eagerness (and also probably that my people skills were not what visitors should be greeted with), Weta took me off the reception desk, and made me a PA.

Now, fifteen years, twenty-something films, and five countries later, I have worked on some of the most challenging films of the last two decades. I’ve also worked on some absolute shite, but lets not talk about that here.

So, now that I’ve bored you all with my extremely fascinating life story, how does this help you, dear reader, crack through those thick glass walls of the film industry?

Um. Right. I did have a point when I started out on the epic back-story that was my break into the industry. Oh right, it’s this:

Get to know people. Whether it’s someone giving you the heads up that a company is hiring, or recommending you to the person in charge, knowing people in the industry makes everything so much easier.

I know, I know, it’s that annoying catch-22, how do you get to know people without being in the industry?

Well, there are several ways:

Firstly, you may be surprised at who you know already in the film industry. Your aunt’s next door neighbour’s cousin is working on the local tv show? Great. Ask your aunt to pass along your phone number and let her know if they ever need someone as a runner at short notice, you’re available. It may be a one day job shepherding hopefuls on “Canada’s Got Talent”, but show you’re keen and not an idiot, and you’ll find your name getting passed along to others in need of crew.

Fortunately, people who work in the film industry aren’t exactly shy about letting you know what they do for a living.

“Did I mention I work in the film industry?”
“Oh, that’s great – “
“In fact, I’m working on Godzilla 2 right now”
“How exciting. So -”
“Yep, should be a great film. That I’m working on. Cause I work in the film industry. Did I mention I work in the film industry?”
“You did, and I’m really happy for you. Now, if you’d like to proceed to the next window, your meal is ready for pick up”

We’re really not shy about it.

Another option is through grassroots filmmaking. Most towns have a filmmaking centre that will host industry events, local film festivals, or film making initiatives. They will also be able to put you in touch with anyone shooting a low- / no-budget film who may will be looking for help. We love what we do – so much so that we’ll often make our own films in our evenings and weekends. I know award winning cast and crew who have donated their time to work for free on no-budget shitty little short films (ahem, mine), simply because they are passionate about films. You never know who you may end up getting coffee with between takes.

Another way is through the internet; find filmmaking collectives, local facebook pages or web forums. Go on reddit and check out r/Filmmakers. Meet people. Make friends. Help out. Get to know other filmmakers, and one day, one of those contacts might just pay off.

And of course, there’s the film school route. Film schools vary greatly in how much practical knowledge they teach, however one thing they’re all good at is forming connections. We fill a lot of our less specialised positions with “someone that this guy knows from film school”.

And if none of these approaches work, find a pub near to a shoot location, and settle in to have some drinks with the crew. I actually know people who have done something similar. It is worryingly successful.

None of these are quick fixes; it may take several long years before you find regular, paying work in the film industry but it’s worth it in the end.

Whichever route you take, here’s something that is blindingly obvious, but which I’ll state anyway – work hard. If you phone it in on my short film, I’m really not going to recommend you on the feature I just joined. That guy that put his all into it, even though he was an unpaid runner picking up lunch from Wok in a Box? I’ll do everything I can to help him get a job.

Also, let the people you meet know you’re looking for work. A lot of people are too shy to ask for help, but our industry runs on it.

Oh, and be nice. We have enough egos to deal with on a daily basis, we’re not looking to add to that collection.

But why are people in the film industry so obsessed with hiring people they know?

A lot of our hiring is done by someone who’s already worked a fourteen hour day, and this is pretty much all that’s standing between them and a glass of wine on the couch. So, we often go with the safe, expedient option. “That’s our runner’s boyfriend? Yeah, great. I’m sure he’ll be fine. Now, who’s got the corkscrew?”

Another part of it is because we get some strange folks applying for work in the film industry. People think that it’s all movie stars and sipping coffee with the director while you discuss the emotional intent of the lighting.

Ha. In reality, it’s mostly standing around being sunburned or freezing cold while the director, DOP and 1st AD argue over the next set up. It is an amazing job, but the excitement wears off pretty quickly when you’re shooting during a dust storm in a waste treatment facility at 1am (true story).

We want to hire people that we know will stick it out. People that we can trust to keep going when call time is 4am, when you have to stand around for three hours whilst special effects gang reset the dump tank, when it’s the end of a long shoot and everyone is sick of being in everyone else’s armpit for seventy hours a week and you just want to go home and sleep. So, we bring on people we know, giving stock to the old phrase “better the devil you know, than the devil who will say ‘fuck this shit’ and walk out, leaving the unit table unstocked, the DOP without his special kind of Italian cigarettes, and the coffee machine empty”.**

Okay. So, this has been a very long blog entry; but before I go, here’s why I wanted to share my story of breaking into the industry (I mean, apart from because I like talking about myself).

Even though Richard Taylor was in the middle of the biggest, highest-profile film he had ever worked on, he still took time out of his day to show a 17-year-old kid around his studio. And that wasn’t all; over the next three years, he was kind enough to meet me several other times to offer advice and help on breaking into the industry.

Why? Why did he go to such lengths for a stranger? Well, partly because he’s a really nice guy. But also because he saw someone passionate about something he loves, and he wanted to help. He knew from experience how hard it is to learn something like special effects in New Zealand, and he wanted to make my journey that little bit easier.

Filmmaking is more than just a job or a paycheck for us, it’s something we genuinely love being a part of. When we meet someone else who geeks out over the same strange things we geek out over – whether it’s camera work, a clean greenscreen or great title design – we feel a bond and want to help.

Behind every one of us in the film industry, there is a Richard Taylor, a person who went out of their way to give us our start in this crazy industry, that gave us a tour of their workshop, some career advice, or our break as a runner. We were all there, once; looking in with our faces pressed up against the window, wondering desperately how we can get inside the world of film making. Someone helped us out, and we want to do the same for others like us.

Plus, if I can’t find a runner to fill the coffee machine and go and get lunches, that means I may have to. And I really really hate doing both of those things.

Alright. That’s it. That’s basically everything I know. Every location is different, so I can’t promise this advice will work everywhere; heck, I can’t even promise this advice will work in New Zealand or Canada, but give it a shot.

Also, if you’re still reading, here’s some hints on cold calling folks in the film industry, scientifically determined from the last year of having people emailing me:

1) Flatter them. Lets face it, people in the film industry are not renowned for their modesty. Look them up on IMDB and say nice things about what they’ve done. We’re proud of our work (for the most part. I may neglect to mention Man-Thing on my IMDb page) and like to think that people enjoy the end product of all those long days. Also, if the person writes a blog, opening with “I love your blog” gives you a better chance of getting a reply.

2) Be realistic. I’ve had people email asking if I could get them a work visa and a job on Avengers 2. Yeah… No. If I could get anyone a job working on a Joss Whedon film, it would be me. Sorry.

3) Keep in touch. Sure you sent us your CV in June, but it may be November by the time we’re next crewing, and we are easily distracted by shiny things (and alcohol). It doesn’t hurt to occasionally reach out and see what’s going on. I sent five CVs to Weta before I finally landed a job.

4) Don’t be crazy. There is a fine line between flattery, keeping in touch, and straight out stalking. If people aren’t getting back to you, you may be falling into the crazy camp.

5) also, read this first. Did I mention you should read this? You should read this first.

*Possibly the coolest thing, ever.

**It’s a common phrase in the industry. Honest.

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