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October 01
2019

ISSUE

Fall 2019

How to Start a VFX Studio

By IAN FAILES

Inside Outpost VFX’s Bournemouth studio. (Photo courtesy of Outpost VFX

 

Like any business, getting a new visual effects studio off the ground can be a monumental effort. The tasks of hiring talent, setting up pipelines, bidding for work, and managing the intricacies of VFX production are not trivial ones. That said, the wider availability of accessible VFX software and collaboration tools have perhaps made the task of getting started as a studio and delivering shots somewhat easier than ever before.

VFX Voice asked the founders of four relatively new visual effects studios – CVD VFX, Mavericks VFX, Outpost VFX and Future Associate – how they began as independent operations, how they took up often unexpected opportunities, what hurdles they had to overcome to get their studio going, and what advice they had for others who might be looking to start their own VFX company.

Outpost’s U.K. facility has a 150-seat capacity, while the new Montreal studio has an 84-seat capacity. (Photo courtesy of Outpost VFX)

 

The one constant among the studios VFX Voice spoke to is that they all began as startups by visual effects supervisors who had already gained experience elsewhere. Brendan Taylor, for example, started Mavericks VFX in Toronto in 2011 after working for several years with MR. X.

The TV show Transporter: The Series was intended to be Taylor’s entry into independent VFX supervising, but at the same time he also engaged a small group of freelance compositors as an in-house VFX team. Ultimately, that arrangement segued into a fully-fledged visual effects studio.

The Visual Effects Supervisor admits that the early days of Mavericks were some of the hardest, since it was about keeping work coming in and running the day-to-day life of a company. Things certainly started small: “We sublet a space to begin with, and one of the first things I got was a projector and Foundry’s Hiero, because I knew we had to review shots and couldn’t just do that on a computer monitor.”

As projects rolled in, such as The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Light Between Oceans, A Dog’s Purpose and several television shows, Mavericks VFX grew. This, however, necessitated expanding office space and bringing on artists as full-time employees, with all the related expenses. Taylor eventually sought a Canadian small business loan around 2017. “That’s when I realized I was all-in,” says Taylor. “But it meant, for us, we could take on bigger jobs.”

Looking back at how Mavericks has evolved, Taylor notes that it was incredibly organic. He knew the visual effects industry well, but planning for change has always been challenging. In the early days, Mavericks only spent minimal time crafting a VFX pipeline, and it’s something that Taylor says he wishes they had invested more in.

“When we were just compositing, it was fine,” states Taylor. “The real challenge came when we introduced 3D. Any inefficiencies we had with 30 artists were going to be doubled with 60 artists. And one of my senior artists shared with me that experienced VFX artists are very concerned about the pipeline of the company they go to. If it is an inefficient pipeline, and they have to work harder at doing small tasks, they can’t spend as much time working on their craft, and they hate it.”

Asked what his main piece of advice would be to others thinking of starting a VFX studio, Taylor identifies advice he received from another visual effects industry member – that he should straight away engage a great team of lawyers.

“It has really helped me out,” says Taylor. “When you get into the legal and business affairs of DreamWorks and Disney, it can be daunting and scary. We could have saved a bit of money to go with a smaller law firm, but there’s something to be said for the letterhead. So when Warner Bros. or Disney gets a letter from our lawyers, they know them. I don’t know anything about law, and I don’t presume to, I just want to do great work. But all these things have complicated contracts which you need to understand.”

The lawyers help, too, with production issues, such as tax credits. In Toronto, Mavericks VFX has the benefit of access to Ontario’s visual effects-related tax credits. While Taylor says he stayed in the city for family reasons, he would see the benefit of starting up operations in other Canadian cities such as Vancouver or Montreal to also take advantage of credits there.

Still, he notes, one of the benefits of being a certain size and in one location is having a closer relationship to all the artists at the studio. “Once you get past say 50 people, the role of the management gets different, and the role of the founder gets very different,” suggests Taylor. “A lot of people came on here for the family vibe that the company has. I’m worried if we do get bigger or bring on a general manager or something like that, it could lose that vibe. But we’ll see what happens.”

Outpost’s CG train from the television series The ABC Murders. (Image copyright © 2018 BBC)

CVD VFX founder Chris Van Dyck and crew members soak up the new mural painted at the CVD office. (Photo courtesy of CVD VFX)

‘UNINTENDED GROWTH’

Fellow Canadian Chris Van Dyck is another Visual Effects Supervisor who had built up experience at studios like ILM, Frantic Films, Method Studios and others, as well as being a VFX educator before starting his own outfit, CVD VFX, in 2015. “We were having our second child at the time, and I thought this was a great time to stay at home and work from home,” Van Dyck recalls.

“I started putting feelers out and before I knew it I had a Canadian feature that was about 40 shots.” Van Dyck brought on colleagues and some students he had been teaching, and soon had a group of five people working together.

Projects quickly piled up, and Van Dyck did not have any dedicated space. “I had to react to suddenly having three projects, so I went to the school I was teaching at, Lost Boys Studios, and they were moving at the exact same time I was hoping to set up. They had about half of the floor upstairs that wasn’t being used, so we had that.”

“I started calling it ‘unintended growth,’” adds Van Dyck. “But with each opportunity that kept coming, I responded with, ‘Well, we can bring on one more person,’ or ‘We can just get a few more computers.’ And now we’re over 25 people.”

Van Dyck had already had experience, too, in starting up a VFX studio back in 2008. At that time, he says it was approached as more of a fun venture, “but it was never enough to really sustain the life of having a family and really pushing the envelope. I learned a lot in those two years about being a good producer. So, with CVD, I made sure that we always had positive cashflow.”

“We sublet a space to begin with, and one of the first things I got was a projector and Foundry’s Hiero, because I knew we had to review shots and couldn’t just do that on a computer monitor.”

—Brendan Taylor, Founder/Visual Effects Supervisor, Mavericks VFX

CVD VFX’s office space in Vancouver. ‘CVD’ originally represented the founder’s name, but within the company CVD now stands for ‘connect, visualize and deliver.’ (Photo courtesy of CVD VFX)

“I wish I had also hired more production people sooner. I kept trying to do that work myself, but it’s definitely something I’d recommend to people, to get a really solid VFX coordinator right away.”

—Chris Van Dyck, Founder/Visual Effects Supervisor, CVD VFX

As CVD started working on more projects (such as Dark Matter, The Magicians and A Series of Unfortunate Events), Van Dyck says some of the obvious challenges became upgrading things like servers, as well as ensuring he hired the right people. One suggestion he has for other entrepreneurs is to not hire anyone who ‘wears two hats’ at the studio. “I wish I had also hired more production people sooner,” admits Van Dyck. “I kept trying to do that work myself, but it’s definitely something I’d recommend to people, to get a really solid VFX coordinator right away.”

Looking to the future, Van Dyck says he is considering whether to expand in terms of VFX operations, and considering whether his experience in training could lead to a facility focused on training. “I taught for eight years, so I’d love to spin off an aspect of my business that would have an education angle.”

Duncan McWilliam, founder and CEO of Outpost VFX. (Photo courtesy of Outpost VFX)

“We have had a huge amount of support from Montreal International and Invest Quebec, the government bodies for assisting overseas companies in setting up in Montreal. Equally, our lawyers and our accountants were instrumental in providing the advice we needed to ensure we are operating correctly to be incentive compliant.”

—Duncan McWilliam, Founder and CEO, Outpost VFX

STARTING A U.K. STUDIO, BUT NOT IN SOHO

In the U.K., a majority of visual effects studios are in and around the Soho district of London. But back in 2012, one VFX artist looked to locate a new studio away from the city. “I saw an opportunity to support TV and indie film productions by locating our studio in a less expensive location, with close proximity to the two universities of Bournemouth,” outlines Outpost VFX founder and CEO Duncan McWilliam.

“The initial ‘unique selling proposition’ was to try to get more of our clients’ budget on screen and less in the pockets of landlords, while also working closely with the next generation of VFX artists. Equally, our very different location to London provided an alternative to draw experienced industry veterans to Bournemouth for a different kind of lifestyle while still working on high-end projects.”

Adding to the point of difference by being outside of London, Outpost also offers their employees what they are calling ‘Life Time’ and ‘Extra Time.’ “These are unlimited holidays and payment for anti-social working hours,” explains McWilliam. “They reflect the huge effort our team puts in to getting the work done, and while work can mess with your life plans, it is good to know your days off are not being counted and you can flexibly take that time back.”

Office evolution: CVD’s original workspace, which was a small area sublet from Lost Boys Studios in Vancouver. (Photo courtesy of CVD VFX)

 

Outpost’s projects for television and film include Nocturnal Animals, 47 Meters Down, Jason Bourne, Watchmen, Black Mirror and Catherine the Great. In recent times, the studio has also expanded to offices in Montreal and Singapore, and now has more than 140 employees. That has meant, along with the U.K. operation, a required understanding of tax incentives and subsidies in different parts of the world.

“One of our non-executive board members, Tony Camilleri, was a prominent CFO in the VFX industry and as such we had a good idea of how to structure things, hence choosing Montreal as an Outpost location,” notes McWilliam. “Since then we have had a huge amount of support from Montreal International and Invest Quebec, the government bodies for assisting overseas companies in setting up in Montreal. Equally, our lawyers and our accountants were instrumental in providing the advice we needed to ensure we are operating correctly to be incentive compliant.”

A shot from A Series of Unfortunate Events, a series worked on by CVD VFX. (Image copyright © 2018 Netflix.)

Before and after frames from CVD VFX’s work for 12 Strong. (Image copyright © 2018 Amazon Studios.)

THE BIRTH OF A BRAND-NEW STUDIO

Sydney-based VFX studio Future Associate is a brand-new operation, launched in 2018 by Visual Effects Supervisor Lindsay Adams. Having worked for several studios around the world, Adams found himself starting his own after being given the opportunity to work on the pilot for HBO series Watchmen that his then-employer was not interested in taking on.

Adams quit that job and worked on a shoot for Watchmen in the U.S. He returned to Sydney and crewed up for the shots, later being awarded more of the show. “While we were working on Watchmen,” says Adams, “it was announced that Method Sydney was closing its doors and laying off 200 staff. Since then we have had access to more local talent than we could have hoped for, so as the work continued to present itself I have kept taking it on, knowing we have the artists in Sydney who need the work.”

Although Future Associate has had a steady flow of projects, Adams notes that there have been several hurdles to starting his own operation, including security and studio audits. “I had to become an expert in what you can and can’t do if you want work from major studios,” Adams says. “In the past we have had teams of people to manage this for us, but with my own studio I’ve had to learn every detail and hit the briefs with short-term staff to meet our clients’ security requirements.”

Other aspects Adams has had to consider are space (the studio quickly grew to 20, which meant that a new location was needed), understanding commercial leases and payment terms, and the building up of a technology pipeline. “We don’t have IT staff. We have a group of talented artists and hard-working coordinators that make it happen. We run the cables ourselves, we learned how to be systems administrators, we build servers, we Google the crap out of everything.”

For Adams, the fast growth has actually been surprising. “I thought being a new and small company would be a tough sell, but it turns out small VFX companies are precisely what a lot of customers are looking for. There’s never been a better time to start a studio. I wish more artists out there had the courage to do it too. There is a huge opportunity right now for artists who have a vision of what a next generation studio could be. The VFX community would be in a much better position if artists ran their own studios rather than relying on big corporations who don’t quite understand the intricacies of the business.”

A Mavericks VFX artist at work. (Photo courtesy of Mavericks VFX)

The Future Associate team after inspecting their under-construction office space in Sydney. (Photo courtesy of Future Associate)

“I thought being a new and small company would be a tough sell, but it turns out small VFX companies are precisely what a lot of customers are looking for. There’s never been a better time to start a studio. I wish more artists out there had the courage to do it too. There is a huge opportunity right now for artists who have a vision of what a next generation studio could be.”

—Lindsay Adams, Founder/Visual Effects Supervisor, Future Associate

The original plate for the fire scene in the first episode of season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale. (Image copyright © 2019 Hulu)

The final shot after compositing by Mavericks. (Image copyright © 2019 Hulu)

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