COVID-19 vs VFX Industry #2 : Virtual Proximity

A year ago, after we’ve all been hit by what would become the biggest crisis for people of my generation, the entire Visual Effects Industry moved to remote working. At the beginning, no one was really convinced about this move and we were all hoping that it would be temporary. We were anticipating a drop in efficiency, a lack of communication, the loss of team spirit and culture and issues around recruitment and onboarding. Today, most of us are loving it and are hoping we will be able to stay partially remote in the future. Why ? Because we’ve naturally adapted to the situation and managed to get the best out of it.

The last year has been tough for the VFX Industry, with a massive slowdown in productions, struggles for organisations and employees. The whole entertainment industry is affected by multiple lockdowns and ongoing restrictions worldwide. 

People lost their jobs, moved back to their country of origin and even quit the industry. The whole visual effects landscape went through a big transformation. At the time of writing, Disney was shutting down Blue Sky Studios, creator of the Ice Age franchise, mainly because of major loss due to the theme park closure and cruise line docking. 

The future looks brighter, the industry is picking up again and the work is coming back. Clients are knocking at the door to put in production all the projects that piled up in the last 10 months, which is amazing news.
What is also amazing is the level of adjustments people have made, trust which grew between Studios and VFX companies, allowing artists and supervisors to work from their living room, trust from the companies towards their employees, confident they would stay motivated and committed to their work ; all of this, without ever putting the efficiency, the quality of the work, the confidentiality of the projects or our professionalism in jeopardy. The diffusion of films also evolved to embrace the different streaming platforms instead of waiting indefinitely for the cinemas to reopen.

The “global” dimension of a lot of VFX companies suddenly really made a lot of sense, it’s never been easier to communicate around the different parts of the world, to organise quick catch-ups, very big meetings, all of this in just a few clicks, without struggling to find a room available. When we have to use Zoom, Facetime, Hangout or Skype to speak to our neighbour, it becomes completely natural to talk to someone who lives on the other side of the planet. Teams working together no longer need to be sharing the same location, we can have artists in multiple places, supervisors and producers in some others. Fully remote companies or new divisions emerged, gathering under the same banner managers and talents who never physically met.

Communications, interviews, annual reviews, coaching session, dailies, supervision, briefing, coffee break, crewing, coordination, management meeting, production, bidding, support, arguments, congratulations, and Christmas party became digital without generating massive issues. Why would we want to lose this virtual proximity?
We’ve never felt so close to our counterparts. We speak to each other every single day and everyone has the same presence on the screen. Booking a meeting is no longer finding the place, it’s finding the time which suits everyone living in multiple time zones. 

If we could sort out the legal and financial aspects of such a flexible model, I’m talking about work permits, visas or tax rebates for example, we would be in a situation where we could hire the right person for a task no matter where she/he lives. We wouldn’t be limited by the amount of talent available in our location, we would have the entire world to pick up the members of our teams, which would be very handy compared to the actual struggle when we suddenly need to grow a big team in a city facing an artist shortage. People would not have to move into one of the VFX capital to be expecting to work for the most prestigious studios, we would save in relocation and would avoid to split some families apart. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, and we still have to juggle with a lot of constraints and policies. But it might very possibly become the new norm in a few years.

If the “all remote” managed to connect a lot of people, it also created some isolation and solitude for those who suddenly were cut from their colleagues and friends. Working in visual effects is sharing a passion for a craft which evolves all the time, it’s being part of a family where the members constantly teach each other, invent and innovate together, and push their limit as a group. Despite the hours invested in Zoom calls talking to other people, everyone at the end is just sitting alone at their desk, and when the call is finished, we are on our own. This situation is concerning and it’s our responsibility to make sure artists don’t suffer from this lack of real interaction by offering them the opportunity to leave their home and interact with each other. A lot of initiative around mental health and wellbeing have appeared to gauge the impact of the pandemic on our mental and to propose some help. That probably will become a component of any remote or partially remote model in our industry.
It is especially true for younger people, fresh grads who are just starting in the business, anyone who doesn’t have a family, who need support, contact and someone to talk to in person.
We know VFX can generate pressure, we need to be vigilant, there is nothing worse than feeling under pressure, alone.

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