May 19, 2011

Great advise from FXPHD Mike Seymour

Getting that Big Break

For many senior artists, the question most often asked by new and eager runners while brewing a pot of morning coffee is “how did you learn and get started ? ” – or as we hear it “ how do I get your job and get someone to make me coffee all day long?” It’s a fair question, but the path to being an incredibly talented yet spoiled rotten hero operator is far less clear than it used to be and the future of how those positions will be maintained is even more interesting.

In years gone by, the path was simple, you joined a tape house as a runner or edit assist and slowly, by sitting in on sessions, you learned the ropes. Until one day the senior operator left or got sick and the middle weight operators were run off their feet –and you offer to work 2 shifts that day, yours and and the all night edit compile. Before long you had clients asking for you by name and someone offering to get you coffee every 30 minutes.

But the digital revolution happened and we ended up with a more efficient work place. AVIDs meant that we no longer required a full-time edit assistant who would sit with an editor all day and learn how to edit. With Henrys and Flames we lost the need for tape assistants in an edit session, as everything is now on the hard drive. Fewer assistant jobs were needed and many of those jobs turned into batch digitizing at night, archiving in the morning and labeling masters.

What of the future? Will future senior positions be freelance or on staff ? In the production environment, Directors of Photography, Production Designers and many others are freelance and at the agency end of the process, there has been an enormous move to freelance agency producers in last few years. By contrast, freelance editors and effects people used to be rare. Since each suite was different it took an experienced editor weeks to fully master so most staff were full time. Now with software driven systems, one Flame is fairly similar to another. So what is stopping us from all going freelance? Certainly, we have seen a major trend to more freelance 3D people especially in feature film production where permanent staff positions are extremely rare.

The prime thing stopping this trend for editor and effects people is the risk to post house of ‘dry hiring’ or ’4 walling’. If a facility just rents gear then they risk becoming little more than a rental house, with little or no client loyalty. Most serious facilities know that the value added services are in highly skilled and creative staff – staff who have a loyal following and who are full time and thus loyal to the facility.

But if the market does move to freelance staff there will surely be even less opportunity for young people to learn and build their skills, yet alone their own client roster.

So where does this leave our new keen and eager runner?

• For a start, formal qualifications are a great step up. A well known film school course for a compositor goes a long way.

• Don’t forget that it is your talent as an artist — and not just knowing how to push the buttons in a software package — that leads to becoming a great lead. Take inspiration from the classic painters..the techniques they used paint to create light and environment can certainly be applied to digital matte paintings and composites. Look at the world around you with an artistic eye. As you’re driving into a city or through the mountains, think about how we get our clues about depth and reality through light and environment.

• Don’t count on your current facility training you. They may, but, as a bare minimum you should study and learn Photoshop, After Effects and a good 3D tracking package. You may not be able to afford an Flame but get yourself a decent Mac or XP workstation – and not just for playing Halo 2.

• Teach yourself. Take advantage of the systems and software in your facility when you can. When the systems aren’t in use, check with the artist and then jump on and dive in. It means staying late and going in on the weekends. But when you get asked at the last minute to help generate some mattes or clean up some footage, you’ll be ready to do it.

• Don’t be afraid of the lead artists. While some many not want to share their knowledge, the vast majority are more than willing to help out juniors with any questions they might have. After all, most of us worked our way up into our positions in exactly the same way.

• The web is a great resource for learning software. News and information sites have a ton of information about the industry. Many plugins and even programs have demo versions which you can download right from the web. Sapphire Plug-Ins, for instance, are fully functional yet burn a watermark over the result image. This way, you can learn the software without spending any money.

• Special edition DVDs are another great resource for learning — the behind the scenes content, while not very technical, is certainly wonderful from an approach and theory standpoint.

• Finally, from day one start building a reel and whenever you get even a small break, get a copy for your reel, it is your calling card and CV. Forget getting a written reference from your holiday job at the supermarket from 3 years ago,… get a reel – edit it and show what you can do. But keep it short and put your best work on first, (but we’ll cover showreels in a separate tip soon) . The bottom line is keep an accurate history reel, – and a current show reel, the hard truth is when a job comes up – you’ll never have time to gather material and put a reel together.

The good news is that the number of positions is growing. I started in R&D designing special effects software and moved via London and LA to post in Sydney, teaching myself Flint, Flame/Inferno, and then Shake, along the way and I am still experimenting. The primary thing to remember is that none of us do this for the money or the hours, we do it because we love it. If you have the drive and the talent there are always positions even if you end up freelance, earning a fortune but still having to get your own coffee.

Submitter: Mike Seymour

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