2022 has been something of a bounce-back year for the creative industry at-large, and and that’s really been felt in the VFX industry. With motion picture studios, streaming platforms and even advertisers increasing their content output after a covid-induced lull, our panel of experts reveals that VFX artists have never been so in-demand.
Coinciding with significant advancements in technology - the increased use of AI and more crossover with the video game industry’s tools like Unreal Engine for example - this appetite for VFX artists has been both a blessing and a curse for the studios that we spoke with. With more content, comes more opportunities for work. However, more work requires more talent - and talent crunch has been one of the biggest talking points across the creative world in the last 12 months.
Speaking with LBB’s Ben Conway, VFX experts from across the world sum up their 2022s, discussing everything from the shortage of VFX talent to the excitement of web3 and other new technologies, and how remote working can be a double edged sword. Lending their insight to this feature are leaders and artists from The Mill, Framestore, Ambassadors, UNIT, LIGHT, Heckler, Where the Buffalo Roam, Chocolate Tribe, 9iFX and Juice.
The competition for talent is stronger than ever, enhanced by the flexibility of remote working. At the same time, this is a positive, as it is opening up our industry to more opportunities for more people, and this will have an exciting impact on the creativity of the content that our industry produces. Studios have also seen that a competitive market encourages more internal promotion of our next generation of creative talent, which is equally positive. In line with recent years, we are seeing work opportunities from all around the world, very much in sync with brands working on a global basis with international messaging and versioning.
[We’ve had] the opportunity to work with creative and production talent outside the cities where we have studios, and 2022 brought a growing need for brands to create great content and assets and distribute them in visionary ways across multiple platforms. We’ve also seen progress in diversity and sustainability, but not enough. There are numerous initiatives across the industry, and every business needs to continue to assess results against initiatives, and course correct if progress is not in line with planning.
For The Mill, in 2023, we expect a further realisation of the opportunities that a studio combining VFX, design, direction and experience represents to our clients and brands. And for both The Mill and the broader industry, we anticipate a brave and visionary approach to marketing and communications in what we hope will be a year much less impacted by covid.
The last year has been great at Framestore with our offices seeing more work than we could engage in. The work has been really stellar with big creative projects around tech launches, automotive and tentpole events like the World Cup. We still navigate the challenges of remote work and the different iterations it takes to get things right, but it has also shown us some big efficiencies.
Competition remains high when it comes to securing top talent in the wake of the pandemic, which led to high staff attrition rates across the business. Thankfully, we have been a first call for a lot of the great talent fleeing the competition. We have doubled down on our diversity initiatives with industry-led organisation ‘AccessVFX’ and have created some great mentoring opportunities for our team.
There is some uncertainty in the advertising industry for 2023 with agencies and clients taking stock of their overheads and spend, but I feel that the top tier VFX companies will still experience a huge demand for their services. There is a certain level of work that can only be done by the right talent.
Halbo van der Klaauw
People want flexibility and a supportive company culture, and in the end, that’s what brings us great new hires. Ambassadors is a place where family comes first (as in, your real family, not our work family). Because of that, we tend to have normal working hours. That doesn’t have to be boring at all. It makes creativity flow and keeps the smile on our artists’ faces. Apart from a few crazy nights here and there, it works. One big trend that changed the way we work in 2022 is how artificial intelligence, namely deepfake, can help take photoreal VFX to a whole new level. With the use of this technology, we’ve been able to craft beautiful projects for brands like G-Star and Adidas where you see characters age or de-age. There is no doubt that AI will change the way we produce content forever.
Transitioning to almost exclusively remote work has been a game changer, especially for parents. It opens up the capacity for quite a few things, such as juggling sick kids, which has been historically difficult within production, and a flexibility for artists to work at a high level outside the traditional 9-to-5 structure. This alleviates a multitude of factors that have previously been disruptive to work - like injuries, commute times, and other challenging life events.
Another benefit is the increased access to high-end talent from across the globe. We are no longer limited by location. Home offices are now loaded up with fancy multi-GPU rigs, allowing us to work with some seriously-heavy hitters unrestricted by limited studio space. The tools also seem to be improving day by day. Houdini keeps getting more feature-rich and paid render farms have been working wonderfully for us.
That is not to say there aren’t downsides. Rockstars in Europe and abroad? Funky hours. So, to work efficiently, we need to work funky hours too, or reduce the number of check-ins (which presents its own challenges like slower turnaround times). The loss of a shared physical space also restricts the internal camaraderie we are used to having with our coworkers, as well as any efficiencies that can only happen when team members are in the same room. This means it often takes longer to get things done than it had before.
Perhaps one day we’ll return to how it was, but it’s not something I see on the horizon anytime soon.
Nosipho Maketo-van den Bragt and Rob van den Bragt
The industry has seen a massive boost over the last year. During the pandemic, the workload dropped, then significantly recovered. In the last few months, there has been such a huge uptick and we have experienced an extremely busy period. This strong growth has led to a shortage of highly skilled staff, which resulted in companies taking on more people to train. The work is largely coming from streaming services, such as Netflix, Disney and BBC - and to some extent, advertising.
For smaller studios, work is also coming from the big players in the industry. The larger studios are looking for more talent to assist them on projects, as their usual talent pool is largely exhausted, and freelancers from overseas are usually sought out to support them remotely. This has encouraged everybody to look in places they normally don't look. The concern though, particularly for studios in emerging markets, is that credit is not always given for shouldering some of this growth.
Looking ahead, the VFX, animation and film boom will likely settle over the next 5-10 years as demand settles and training takes effect, but for the foreseeable future, collaboration, growth and learning are going to be major positive driving factors worldwide.
Shortage of VFX talent is one of the biggest problems faced in 2022. While improving, there are still limited VFX and post-production-specific courses accessible to UK students. As a result, we work closely with universities, colleges and schools to offer training, apprenticeships and placements to help bring through the next generation of talent.
In 2022, our work was split 85% advertising and short-form, with 15% episodic and features. Long-form demand has increased considerably and I see this growth continuing into 2023 and beyond.
Limited diversity in the VFX industry is also a deep-rooted issue, and both the industry and the government need to work together to tackle the problem at the source: accessibility to all communities across the country. A concerted effort to introduce more VFX and post-production courses in all educational institutions would be a positive start.
Tracey Rae Miller
Recent changes and shifts in the industry have created a strong talent pool that is moving to new studios with innovative technologies, and which recognises that the WFH workstyle is an added benefit. With the developing virtual production market, the metaverse at every turn and AI tech developing exponentially, there are plenty of changes ahead for the industry. 9iFX works in the advertising world as not only a VFX house, but a creative agency, production stage, and sound design space. Going into 2023, we’re expanding our workforce. We haven’t felt the talent shortage much; the artists who work with us have stuck with us through the pandemic - seems they like it here. With our new studio space, the new web presence we’re rolling out in the first quarter, and the roster of fantastic clients we’re working with, we are very excited for what 2023 will bring for the company.
We came off a very strong year - and there definitely appears to be an incredible demand for the visual effects industry as productions have recommenced in a big way following the pandemic’s halt on filming. We’ve been quite lucky in growing our studio during such a relatively prosperous period for post-production and animation! There’s an undeniable global demand for visual effects and animation artists, so it’s been key for us to consistently recruit and foster new talent. As a global company with remote capabilities, it’s been great to welcome artists from a variety of locations and, as we have opened up physical offices in London, Paris, Angouleme and our headquarters in Royan, we also encourage and nurture a studio environment for those artists that would prefer a return to an office to collaborate directly with a team.
A lot of our work has been coming from major motion picture studios and streaming platforms for the US and UK markets, including Netflix, Lionsgate, Apple TV+, and others. 2022 has also allowed a gradual return to in-person festivals, screenings, award shows, and recruitment events that allow us to meet creatives, artists, and producers in an industry setting. There’s something to be said for these opportunities to meet and collaborate in person and present our studio face-to-face both with clients and emerging talent.
Not only have we observed incredible, industry-wide initiatives to foster diversity across talent and recruitment, a lot of emerging films, programs, and high-end commercials have definitely become more representative of a global community and it’s been encouraging to be part of the creative force that helps present this diversity on the big screen.
The industry is holding up healthily! I’ve noticed a bounce back after the pandemic. This year we had been swamped with projects compared with 2022. The ‘zero-covid’ strategy and lockdown in China, one of our main markets of operation, was the most challenging moment, which lasted from February until early summer and was much more restrictive than what we experienced in Europe and the US.
The VFX market servicing features and series has increased its turnover, but lacks a lot of hands to work with! There is a shortage of talent, due to the fact that both industries are working heavily with Unreal Engine - so VFX companies are constantly competing with game developers. On the other hand, smaller studios are getting a chance for high-profile projects as the amount of content is increasing continuously. In 2023, I see an opportunity to tackle these problems by shortening and automating processes, thanks to AI - for example, at the stage of concept development.
Most companies are doing as much as possible to keep employees satisfied in-house, because of loosening relationships in teams, caused by remote working. I see a significant threat in the fact that artists are moving into the role of freelancers, for whom projects are important, not necessarily the places where they are associated for the long-term. At Juice, remote working was always a standard, even before the days of the pandemic, and I see this as the future of the job market, which studios need to adapt to. At the same time, the challenge is to create incentive programs that will support employees, their well-being, and team building to keep them motivated.
Partner and executive producer, Heckler
There's a very high demand for good calibre artists. Quite a few of them are being absorbed by the big studios doing long-form. In our case at Heckler Singapore, we have been lucky to experience a bit of the reverse of that. We have some senior artists who’ve moved from the big studios to join us and we’d like to think it's mostly because of the creative autonomy and variety that commercial creativity offers. It’s a good time to be a VFX artist!
It has been a transformative year for the industry with all the exciting advancements in tech, a higher interest in virtual production, and the convergence of gaming and storytelling. AI and web3 offer new platforms and new visual languages for the curious to dabble in. We’re seeing slightly braver clients willing to experiment with narrative and medium. At Heckler, 2022 has been a year that’s seen interesting scripts in the creative tech space ranging from AR/VR experiences to mobile-first interactive experiences, NFTs, 3D Billboards and large format immersive content. It has certainly felt like a return to advertising normal. If anything, ‘revenge shopping’ seems to be a thing!
There is also definitely a higher focus on diversity and sustainability in the industry. Initiatives like ‘Destroy This Brief’ by Only One in the Room in Australia and ‘Take the Lead’ by TBWA come to mind as impactful moves in the right direction for diversity and inclusion. Brands that are committing to pay a green offset levy on the cost of producing an ad are leading the way for green advertising.
We are also interested in the opportunities of web3, once the dust settles and a clearer visual aesthetic emerges. We’re keen to adopt AI in a bigger way and have it inform our processes and workflows. 2023 is going to be an exciting year!