The VFX Industry: Part 2
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When One Door Closes..
For a number of reasons, I decided to go back to Boston at the end of my internship at Centropolis FX to save up some money for a move back to LA the following summer.
During this period of time, Centropolis’ parent company, Daw Werk, went bankrupt. Shortly thereafter, Warner Bros. pulled all shots from the Matrix sequels in an effort to protect the release date, and Centropolis FX closed it’s doors.
Warner Bros. re-awarded the Matrix shots to Imageworks, and my then future boss immediately hired the head of recruiting from Centropolis to bring over as much shot-ready talent as they could for the new work.
I again crossed over the California border in June 2003 and settled in to look for work. Everyone I knew from the internship program had all said the same thing, this town has a way of testing your resolve – many of them had only found jobs once they were nearly out of savings and getting ready to pack it all in. My experience was no different; when things weren’t looking so good, I landed a job as a runner at Weller/Grossman productions in North Hollywood. I worked there for a few months before getting a call from the same person that had called me to come in to interview at Centropolis, except now she was a lead recruiter at Imageworks. Their recruiting coordinator was being promoted and they would need a new one; which I soon became!
As an aside, this was technically not my first interview with Imageworks. A couple weeks after coming back to LA, I applied for a job as a PST (Production Services Technician) and went in to talk with that team. PST’s are assigned to each show and cover variable shifts 24hrs a day - their main focus is keeping the render queue moving and fixing any issues preventing that when they arise. This position required extensive scripting knowledge of which I had little to none of at the time. As one might assume, I bombed this interview and felt horrible for wasting everyone’s time. Years later as an employee, I stumbled upon the notes of my interviewers during this cringefest (thanks for believing in me nathan!).
So Many Reels
When I started at Imageworks, they were just about to go full-force into production on 2 simultaneous shows; The Polar Express and Spider-Man 2.
I immediately started setting up interviews for open positions on each show; this involved scheduling a few interviews with each of the show teams every day as well as running reel reviews.
I would get 20-30 packages delivered to my desk every day - these were all reels from people that wanted to work in VFX. The vast majority were recent grads with no experience (see PST interview above). After sorting through all of these for a few weeks, and also seeing the CG Supervisor’s reactions to bad reels, I started to get a sense of how well someone would do just by the way the package looked.
If I received a highly-polished package with VHS and VHS case both labeled and wrapped in an elaborate design, accompanied by a shiny folder with resume and supporting pages all on heavily-textured paper, and almost always with a business card where the person submitting names themselves as “CEO of ‘My Name’ Studios” - I knew for sure this was going to be a hard pass.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, I once got a package from Richard Edlund that contained an unlabeled VHS tape with a wrinkled resume wrapped around it with a rubber band. When I got that, I literally ran to a tape deck to see what he was showing on the reel.
We later spearheaded a program that would bring us as a facility closer to schools with the hope that we could influence the curriculum in a way that would get us production-ready candidates soon after graduation. We also used this opportunity to ask them politely to discontinue their “reel prep” courses - they were most assuredly not helping chances at all.
The Interview/Reel Review Room
Reel review was always a fun time; the busiest, most-talented people in the building would always show up on time (for the most part) so that they would get a chance to crew their show with needed talent. We would always separate these by department; CG supervisors would look at color, lighting, FX, roto, and matchmove, Animation Supervisors would only look at animators, and our Character TD leads and Engineering leads would mostly focus on resumes alone.
The CG Supes would turn the sound off on the TV and give every reel about 3 seconds to impress. One out of 30 reels would get some kind of facial reaction from them and something like one out of a hundred would come in to interview.
It was always incredibly important to be specific about what you worked on in the shots that you were showing in your reel. This is especially true as, even more so at the time, this was a very small industry and fakers were sniffed out quickly (again see PST interview above).
I remember one interview where a candidate told the interviewer they had done FX for a shot on the reel they had just watched. This statement caused the interviewer to pause and ask again (their last chance to come out clean). The candidate doubled-down and before they could finish repeating what they had said previously, the interviewer was already on the phone asking someone to come down to the room.
It had turned out that, for this film in particular, we had hired the entire FX team after that show had wrapped. The person being interviewed had just lied about what they had been responsible for on the shots and the CG Supe had caught them red-handed.
The FX lead came down to the interview room and the CG Supe instantly shot up and said, “This is the FX lead from the film you just showed us - do you want to tell us anything different than what you just said?” The interviewer finally admitted to what had been done and they were soon out the door.
The Day I Met Oscar
I never worked on a single shot, but with the small part that I did play inside of the massive effort and hard work I saw our team put into it, I was so proud of our shop for winning an Oscar.
"I love my job." -John Dykstra
I went into work that day and there was literal victory in the air. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but things started to become apparent when I noticed two full palettes of champagne being dropped off on the loading dock.
Then the party started and, front and center, where John Dykstra and Scott Stokdyk with their brand new Oscar statues taking pictures with the team in front of a large Spider-Man 2 poster.
They stayed in that spot until the entire company had taken pictures with them - something I will never forget, and not just because of this:
John Dykstra, Bill Anastas!?, Scott Stokdyk
A week or two later, I was dropping off a resume and interview schedule for Scott. When I walked into his office to leave it on his desk I saw his car keys, a half-eaten sandwich, and an Oscar.
I knew this meant we were already focused on the next project, but I had no idea how many of those would be coming thanks to that golden statue.