Change your lens on communication

Categories Philosophy

Once upon a time as a young, starry-eyed junior artist, I placed a huge amount of importance on being the best Compositor in the room. Visual Effects is a competitive industry, and so I came to the conclusion that putting my head down and out-compositing my fellow colleagues would give me a leg up in my career, and make me look like a rockstar to every studio around! Oh, how short-sighted young Ben was… I worked so hard, worked all the overtime and tried to prove I was “the best” (whatever that is…), but instead, I burned myself out trying to get results that would have come easily had I pulled my head out of my own arse and asked one of the many talented artists/supervisors sitting around me for guidance.

Visual effects is a team game and requires an immense amount of collaboration across many different disciplines to produce any resemblance of a finalable shot. It makes sense that you should be great at executing your piece of the puzzle, but it’s infinitely more important to be able to communicate clearly and effectively to get what you need from upstream departments and communicate your needs and thought processes to production members, leads & supervisors.

I have worked with some brilliant artists in the past, who have spent weeks keeping to themselves, creating shots that were outstanding masterpieces… But in the context of a sequence, that can be a bad thing for continuity’s sake. Let me introduce a guy called David (not his real name), who wholeheartedly embodied this concept. What if David had shared his processes with the team? The entire sequence would be mindblowing, the comp team would grow stronger as a whole, and at the end of the day they would have created work to be immensely proud of & everyone could have come out the other side having learned a few things. But instead, what happened was David was applauded, then received confusing direction from his supervisor: “Wow that looks amazing, but please change it to look like the rest of the sequence”. It would suck to be told your work is great but not good enough at the same time… Because David worked for weeks on this shot, not showing any WIP versions, nobody knew how good his work could be, and it was too late to ask the other artists’ to match all their shots to his.

In an ideal world, David could have motivated the entire comp team by continuously sharing his progress (via dailies, or simply just talking to the person next to him, who would in-turn show the next person, etc.) and showing what is possible. He could have taken the initiative to quickly mock up a couple looks for his shot, and presented it to the supervisor on day 1, which would have set the team up for success on this sequence.

What if you’re not like David? What if you feel your work isn’t always a masterpiece and always has room for improvement? Congratulations, you’ve been able to put your ego aside and take the most important step towards becoming better at your craft. Let’s take a deep dive into some concrete examples of what you can start doing today to be a more effective communicator, and subsequently a better artist.

Don’t wait to be told what to do.

Production teams don’t like artists’ logging idle time — it’s a waste of a studio’s budget, and honestly just makes everyone involved look bad. Of course, sometimes it’s unavoidable during quiet periods, but there is always something that can be done. Production & supervisory staff love self-starters who can take on larger workloads, so don’t wait until you’re completely free of work before you ask them for more to do. When you’re down to your last shot, tell them you’re light on work and will be idle in x amount of hours. It gives production the time they need to sort something out for you, and most importantly, keeps you doing what you do best!

Once a show is on its last legs and there is genuinely a lack of tasks available, there are still things to be done. Why not:

  • Offer to create breakdowns of your favourite shots from the show (this also gives you leverage to ask for said breakdowns for your own reel)?
  • Volunteer to clean up scripts for stereo conversion?
  • Create a list of things you learned on the show (tools, tips, do’s and don’t-do-again’s), and share it with the team to keep in mind for the next project?
  • Based on the aforementioned list, why not spend time improving your Python skills by creating new tools to solve previous workflow inefficiencies?

The list goes on. My point is, there is always something you could be doing to improve your own skills or add value to your company. It’s worth seeking out extra things you could be doing, or a way you can help others.

Clarify a brief before you get started.

A good production team will make sure Shotgun (or their task tracking tool of choice) has briefs for every shot. Although, this usually comes in short-form from a rushed client call or a lengthy & repetitive copy/pasted email, and therefore, is never as accurate as it should be. Before starting work on a new sequence, or a new stand-alone shot, you should always chase up your Compositing / VFX Supervisor for an in-depth brief. They will be able to add clarity to your task at hand, and may have even started working on similar shots & can share some tips and techniques with you!

Nobody likes re-doing work — this tip will hopefully save you some time & unnecessary versions.

Dailies / Reviews aren’t one-sided critiques of your work

Although unfortunately, that’s how they’re treated. The people giving the feedback are human too, and are susceptible to making mistakes just like you. They’re also not aware that a simple note could take you days to complete, whereas a slight tweak on the context of their note could save you just as much time. It’s up to you to bounce back and communicate this with them — they may still think it’s worth your time to take the long road, but it’s always worth the extra minute to clarify. Who doesn’t want to save time, still get a great result and prevent stress lurking over their shoulder??

As a real-world example, let me bring a former colleague, Isabella (not her real name), into the picture. Our team was deep in crunch time, and we were at the office at 11pm. Isabella was noticeably frustrated, so I got up to ask her what was wrong, and to see if there was anything I could do to help. She told me the story of her shot, how many versions she had already done, and that she would get new notes every time. She was beating herself up, thinking she wasn’t good enough and was doubtful that she’d ever finish the shot. This is not a great place to be… We took a deep dive through the shot’s history, what she’d tried (which was, indeed, everything under the sun), and what the current set of notes were; I couldn’t help but agree that the supervisor’s notes seemed contradictory and wrong. I asked Isabella, “have you asked Mr. Supervisor for clarification? What did he say?” She looked at me blankly and said, “oh, I haven’t asked him…”


At this point, I was shocked to hear that Isabella was too sheepish to talk to our Comp Supervisor, who was really the nicest, most approachable guy. She mentioned that at her previous company, it was taboo to “confront” your superiors. But this is not confronting at all; a supervisor’s entire responsibility is to provide support and guidance to his/her team of artists — it’s bizarre Isabella felt this wasn’t the case. This opened my eyes to something I hadn’t considered before — some artists respect the corporate hierarchy (for lack of a better term) so much that it prevents them from communicating with those they’re obliged to work with.

Sidebar: If this sounds like you, it’s time for a truth bomb: supervisors are people too! The good ones are there to support you and answer your questions, and like you, they also make mistakes sometimes. If they’re intimidating, unapproachable, don’t like you asking for clarification, etc. it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with how bad of a leader they are. Unfortunately, these types of ego-driven people exist because good artists with no management experience get promoted to leadership positions all the time, just because they are good artists. In reality, they are two totally different jobs and two totally different skillsets. Don’t take their personality to heart — you can only work with them the best you can.

Back to Isabella. She was afraid to approach the comp supe because she feared his position. She saw clarifying his notes as a form of confrontation, and that was something she wasn’t ready to do at 11pm on a Tuesday, let alone ever. But you know what? With some encouragement, she got up and asked him in the nicest, most nervous voice she could muster if he could clarify his notes and help her to accomplish them, because she didn’t know how. Mr. Supervisor then flicked through Shotgun, found her shot, and simply exclaimed, “Oh whoops, those notes are for this other shot. My bad! Your shot looks great, we’re already sending it for final! Great work.”

One simple miscommunication turned stressed Isabella into a happy Compositor, with no more shots to final, and she immediately went home with a smile on her face. Imagine if she had that conversation hours earlier when she first received those notes?

Don’t ever take notes personally, they’re not a reflection of you or your work, they’re a reflection of how your supervisor thinks your shot could look better whilst staying consistent with the entire sequence.

Can’t hit a deadline?

Your first thought shouldn’t be “oh man this is never going to happen, I must suck”, because that’s super unfair on you, and is never true. You have to think about the big picture, and let someone know! Before the project was even awarded, the person bidding the shot might have simply underestimated how much time it needed. After all, it’s impossible to predict precisely how long a creative task will take to complete, especially taking unforeseen client notes into consideration. Additionally, these shots are often originally bid from super low-resolution Quicktimes, where you can’t see any problematic artefacting on a greenscreen, or the thin blowing grass you’ll have to roto in the foreground. To account for all this uncertainty, shot bids are generally averaged across a sequence of similar shots, and therefore a VFX studio knows they’ll be covered when a 2-day shot turns into 4 days worth of work because they’ve also put the same 2-day bid on a couple shots that might only take 1!

100% of the time I’ve called out an unrealistic time expectation on a shot, it’s been fine. Always reach out to your production team or supervisor if you can’t complete a task in the assigned timeframe. Waiting until the last minute to do so, or not communicating this issue at all makes you look bad, and causes much larger repercussions to the project as a whole.

Communicate your wins

Often times, the dreaded, “ok team, thanks for the hard work so far, but we’re going to start working 60 hour weeks now” email is followed up by groans from your colleagues. But there’s always one person who likes to point out, “oh 60’s are nothing. When I worked at CompanyBad, we were consistently working 12 hour days 7 days a week!”. This person wears their statement like a badge of honour, rather than the badge of shame it really is.

This is one of many examples of how VFX artists are overworked and have the wrong attitude about it. Rather than constantly complaining about how bad your situation is, you should start by acknowledging how bad it was, but try to find the upsides, talk about them more, and move on. More importantly, there are so many positive elements that people simply gloss over because they’re so focused on the negatives. People love other positive people, and their upbeat attitude helps others make it through the rough times. Be that person, and you’ll be universally liked. Start showing appreciation for other people’s talents, and the awesome work they’re creating.

How can I say something like that, and not focus on the great things about working in VFX?

  • People love movies, we help create movies. That’s cool!
  • Have you ever considered how much flexibility contract work gives us? I take 6 to 8 weeks off every year to travel the world, whilst my other non-vfx-industry friends are limited to a measly two weeks a year. Holy shit!
  • People actually pay us, and pay us reasonably well to do a job that we enjoy! Sometimes they fly us to different countries to work for them, and pay for some of our accommodation! My mum is green with envy!
  • You know that feeling when you see the fruits of your labour in the cinema, and someone reacts with a gasp or a laugh at your shot? Fuck yeah, I did that!
  • Some of my closest friends are all VFX artists — strong bonds are always formed during the tough times.

For the sake of keeping this article from becoming longer than it already is, I’ll leave our incomplete list at that.

This mindset covered in this article is what sets apart the good compositors from the great ones. If you are able to soak in critical feedback and effectively communicate your thoughts in a positive light, you’ll go further than most.