Can Mentorship in Post-production, VFX and Creative Production Survive The WFH Era?

As companies migrate to remote setups in response to the pandemic, LBB speaks to Nikolina Rutkowska, VFX production manager at MPC to examine the future of talent in these industries.

The revolution may not be televised, but there’s a fair chance you’ll be able to access it via Zoom link. One of the more benign, yet hugely significant, side effects of the coronavirus pandemic has been a transformation in the way we work.

And large parts of that transformation have every chance of becoming permanent. Plenty of leading figures across the industry are forecasting how remote working in some form or another is here to stay, and a vision of the post-pandemic industry is beginning to crystallise.

Such a re-alignment represents an opportunity to shake off long-standing issues in post production, VFX and the creative production sector. Historically, issues such as a lack of diversity and nepotism have been tough to root out. Change has long been on the agenda, as evidenced by the conception and success of initiatives such as ACCESS:VFX and Blue Collar Post Collective, and yet it could take a global pandemic to bring about the wide-reaching cultural shift that many have been calling for.

The obstacles are as significant as they are numerous. Today, there’s a case to be made that the entry barriers for those looking to get into the industry are as tall as they have ever been. At a time when many will be leaving college and university, Covid-19 has robbed what opportunities there were to physically attend an internship and get on-the-job experience and mentoring to prepare for a career. However, will the fact that companies have been forced to go remote be the perfect opportunity to allow for a more diverse pool of talent to enter the industry?

For the post-production industry, the problem is particularly acute. In the past, many have moved up through the ranks by learning directly from their mentors and seniors, seeing first hand how to use specialist equipment and technology whilst also working with clients face to face. Will this mean that on-boarding new people whilst working remotely could be a challenge? In the post-Covid pressure pot, how can the industry ensure that it doesn’t slip back into the comfortable habits of hiring those who they already know, and who can easily enter the workforce? What efforts can be made to expand diversity of talent within the industry, leveraging the remote working revolution to provide opportunities to a new generation with new ideas?

To find out, we spoke to Break+Enter VFX’s EP Joyce Boll and CD of VFX Dave Zeevalk, Nice Shoes EP Katie Hinsen, Chimney NY MD Dana Bonomo, junior creative Mickey Jones, MPC’s VFX production manager Nikolina Rutkowska, The Mill NY’s Head of 2D Tony Robins, and Framestore’s Head of Talent and ACCESS:VFX founder Amy Smith.

Tech Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

A small mercy of pandemic-induced international lockdowns has been that they came at a time where technology has evolved to the point where remote office setups are eminently feasible. We live in an age where London can connect to New York in the blink of an eye, and remote training as a concept was picking up steam long before Covid-19 struck.

“In February, an intern who wanted to join us was facing a crushing economic burden or a three-hour commute. Then COVID struck in March and we went remote,” recalls Break + Enter’s executive producer Joyce Boll. “It made it easier for her to take this on while she’s living with her parents, with our team giving her easy shots and growing her into a very promising artist. Our parent company Nice Shoes’ infrastructure has supported remote work for years, in tandem with the pipeline we have put into place, allowing Break + Enter VFX to mentor tomorrow’s superstars while delivering excellence in service to our clients.”

And those benefits may extend further than we might currently understand. “Universal high-speed internet access can open up our industry to a more diverse range of people”, explains Nice Shoes executive producer Katie Hinsen. “That doesn’t just include young people, but it also allows those who have been forced out of the industry to return. Older folks, and those who have left because of the hours, the location requirements, and other accessibility barriers.”

With all that being said, however, there are still some aspects of office life that technology can’t replicate. Chimney New York’s MD Dana Bonomo explains that “it’s impossible to put a price on the ability to learn from someone by sharing their space, having the ability to ask questions spontaneously as your experience develops. Clearly, shadowing someone via Zoom or whatever it may be is not as robust, but I would say that this is something we are going to need to learn to work with, because it’s not going anywhere soon!”.

Rather than lamenting what we might lose, there’s also an opportunity to explore new advantages that the remote learning experience can bring. Mickey Jones, a young creative who has recently completed an internship, is optimistic about the possibilities that are opening up. “I’m glad to take up a remote internship. If finance and travelling aren’t going to be my biggest worries, with my basic needs taken care of, I’ll be able to produce truly creative work because I don’t have outside pressures to cope with. It takes the hassle out of the hustling.”

In a sign of the industry’s increasing flexibility towards working from home, Framestore’s Launchpad Internship scheme went remote for the first time in 2020. “Although we will almost certainly return to our in-house internship experience next summer, the remote experience gives us more flexibility in terms of who has access to Framestore staff, techniques and training”, says the company’s head of talent and ACCESS:VFX founder Amy Smith. “And importantly, it gives us the ability to reach a more diverse pool of talent. So I imagine that, moving forward, our opportunities at an entry-level will almost certainly include some remote-based options in addition to on-site training.”

Standard Bearers

“Young people are coming out of college today with amazingly high standards, and generally their attitudes are outstanding”, observes Break + Enter’s’ creative director of VFX Dave Zeevalk. “It’s a pleasure to work with the next generation and I love being in a position where we’re able to give that opportunity. My concern, however, is making sure that where we have opportunities to offer internships remotely, they’re the highest possible standard for the intern to benefit from”.

For Mickey Jones, the evidence already shows that remote internships are up to standard. “If it weren’t for a remote mentorship scheme I got involved with through CREAM 2020, I’d still be serving coffee at Starbucks. The conversations I’ve had while remote are more relaxed, more productive and allow me to set actions for the following day, week, or month on an achievable level, with someone who can support me at the press of a button. Why aren’t we normalising this?!”

One of the challenges posed by long-distance working has been a lack of access to equipment for young or inexperienced staff. Katie Hinsen, however, argues that “it’s a fallacy that emerging talent needs equipment training. Young folks today are digital natives and many have more years creating complex work at school and home than our professional peers do. What they need is paid work, credits, and training on how to navigate the industry and thrive.”

“I don’t think that [remote working] will be an issue in that sense”, agrees The Mill NY’s head of 2D Tony Robins. “Mentorship comes in different ways, from a head of department, an artist, a VFX supervisor. A good student will find the mentor”.

The secret to great teaching and mentorship, argues Joyce Boll, doesn’t change whether you’re at home or in an office. “The best teachers, the ones that stay with us for the rest of our lives, are invariably those with whom we make a human connection. They take time to know us, and tailor the way they teach to make it relevant to our lives and our hopes. I don’t see how that truly changes whether you’re sitting in an office or calling in from home”.

Three years ago, Nikolina Rutkowska began her career at MPC as a runner. Today, she is the company’s VFX production manager. Striking a similar note to Joyce, she agrees that “if you’re a focused and hard-working person you can achieve anything, anywhere. Whether that is working in the office or remotely makes no difference. You may lose the social aspect where you are able to develop a professional relationship with your colleagues, but this shouldn’t stop you from being able to progress within a company and in your career. It is about being proactive at all times and making yourself useful at every given opportunity. It’s much easier than you might fear!”.

The industry has already begun exploring ways to bring quality teaching, training, and insights to learners stuck at home. “With Access:VFX we have produced a series of podcasts called ‘Standing Out While Staying In’”, explains Amy Smith. “The advice covers everything from how to protect your mental health in these uncertain times, to making sure you are grabbing hold of the many opportunities there are at the moment to train and develop your skills online. Our advice is to be flexible and look at opportunities that you may not have considered before, but also to stay positive and to keep creating work as the VFX industry will recover and will be hiring again very soon.”

The Best Of Both Worlds

With the abundance of opportunity that comes with the migration to remote working, is it perhaps time to celebrate the end of the nine-to-five office era? Not quite, according to our interviewees. Dana Bonomo observes that “what an office environment can teach you are those dynamic social skills which are so important, especially when it comes to working in a team.”

“There’s plenty I’d miss about working in an office environment”, says Mickey Jones. “Stealing free coffee and stroking the office dog, for starters. On a serious note, I can imagine pitching for a big idea might be difficult. You just can’t replicate the passion or drive the points home through a screen as well. But that’s not to say we still can’t pursue a virtual approach 80% of the time and save the office and commute for when it really matters”.

“Mentoring remotely can be a challenge”, says Tony Robins. “If they have had some experience with the software, you can walk them through different challenges and talk about the choices made to complete the project. If they have no experience of the software, it is much harder. At some point the student has to interact with the software to learn it. Remote work demands a computer, software and having a good internet connection”. For every barrier that remote working breaks down, it may create another.

“There is an extent to which absolutely nothing can beat sitting next to an experienced artist and being able to ask questions, look over their shoulder or get their feedback whenever you may want it,” says Amy Smith. “It is the lack of these elements, rather than the equipment, that makes training someone remotely more challenging.”

A Diverse Opportunity

“I believe we can find a solution which works for all parties”, notes Joyce Boll. “We all have a responsibility to pay back into the creative community, and we should be open-minded enough to understand that the world has changed since we were finding our own feet. The style of training and mentorship that we each received isn’t necessarily what’s right for the next generation, and perhaps if we broaden our approach we can begin to welcome a more diverse talent pool into the industry”.

“It’s vital for the future that we get this right”, agrees Dave Zeevalk. “The fact is that there are people who, for a long time, have been struggling to get into the industry. A lot of that has been down to accessibility of jobs, and one thing the breakdown of office culture can bring us is a democratisation of that process. We can all stand to benefit from a more diverse pool of talent in our work, and my great hope is that this shift to a more decentralized model can inspire us to seek out that diversity”.

“If we take a moment to look at the positives,” suggests Nikolina Rutkowska, “this could be a fantastic chance for people who are quite shy and perhaps dread the whole interview process. Now you can have this organised from the comfort of your own space.”

“Many folks feel powerless to make change in the world, but everyone has the power to make a change in their little part of it”, argues Katie Hinsen. “Sometimes that means actions as simple as reaching out to a junior colleague for a chat, finding out more about their aspirations and interests, and offering advice or help for them to take the next step. That’s the kind of action we can all take whether we’re sat across the desk or at the other end of a Zoom call”.

First published in LBB.