Vfx education in the UK is having to shape up following the publication of the Next-Gen report, but some colleges and universities have much further to go than others. There are already some standout examples of good practice, including the University of Hertfordshire, which created its vfx degree course after extensive liaison with a number of leading UK vfx companies.
Mark Wallman, visual effects BA course leader at the University of Hertfordshire explains why he believes vfx education in the UK is in the state it’s in. A shorter version of this interview appears on page 23 of the June 2011 issue of Televisual.
Are universities/colleges out of date when it comes to the vfx software they use?
Yes. Having worked for 10 years plus in Soho, in companies such as Double Negative, The Mill, Framestore and Cinesite on many different feature films, you begin to see a pattern in the software being used. Although it’s my first year as a full time lecturer I had previously lectured at other universities. Those universities had a big disconnect between what they were teaching and the skills the students needed to get jobs. We are lucky in our university to have Maya, Nuke and now Mari as the main vfx teaching tools.
Do you believe the standard of vfx education in the UK falls behind the US and elsewhere, as claimed in the ‘Next Gen’ report?
Currently, yes. I believe you cannot teach vfx or games art or 3D with a commercial focus without having yourself worked in the industry. I’ve noticed many lectures in higher education in universities throughout England have never worked in the field they are teaching in. They also have a rather institutionalised view of the world. Teaching something creative should not be something you do just pay your bills. You need to have a driven passion for it.
What is the University of Hertfordshire doing to ensure students receive high quality vfx training?
I only took the job at the University of Hertfordshire because everyone who teaches there has come from the industry. I feel this is really important. And the university approached Soho Companies such as Double Negative and Framestore when first setting up the course to ask what skills the students needed to learn to gain the correct skills. So the whole course is based on industry advice.
We also have all the top companies frequently coming in to give presentations and tutorials to the students. We recently had an animator from Double Negative coming in to do a lunchtime talk, which ended up going on much longer than planned. The students were passionate and he was passionate – it was a great atmosphere. Furthermore, we get cg artists from around the world to help design and input into the courses we run.
Our vfx students work on the roto, matchmoving, compositing and 3D on live projects – pop videos, TV commercials, idents on the BBC, etc – and next year hopefully this will also include professional film work. All our vfx students gain a thorough knowledge of the vfx process and from my time at The Mill, I can show them the full process/pipeline. Now The Foundry are pushing Nuke in education, it’s a real help as budgets are tight.
Skillset has released a guidebook for vfx training called The Core Skills of vfx. It describes the book, which has been written with the assistance of vfx supervisors and artists, as “a comprehensive, modular guide to best practice in vfx education and training”.
The Core Skills of vfx is being given away for free to all universities and colleges across the UK, to provide tutors with guidance on the skills the next generation of vfx talent will need to bolster the talent base within the UK’s vfx community.
Elements of the book can be embedded into courses, or the book could be used in its entirety as the building block for newly developed industry-focused degree courses, believes Skillset.
It includes a section entitled 'The vfx Core Skills Student Primer', which addresses the core skills the UK’s vfx industry currently requires – from technical elements to broader skills such as teamwork and the ability to fulfil creative briefs.
Alex Hope, md of Double Negative and co-author of the Next-Gen report, which was highly critical of the standard of vfx education in the UK, says: “This handbook introduces a new way for us all to work together – it’s an important development that will mean many new and productive relationships between universities and our industry.”
Skillset already has an accreditation programme for vfx courses in the UK and, on top of this, is planning to “signpost the courses that provide the most up-to-date, industry-facing education and training.” The Core Skills of vfx guidebook is part of a drive to improve vfx training across the board following the publication of the Next-Gen report.
In response to Televisual's recent feature showcasing good examples of stereoscopic 3d – which included Phillips The Foundling spot (pictured) – Markus Naegele, IT integration product manager at Panasonic Broadcast Europe emailed over his thoughts on what you need to consider when shooting in 3d…
“It has never been easier to hit the record button to begin shooting in 3d, but this increased accessibility to 3d equipment doesn’t necessarily mean the results will always be good quality. In fact, the opposite is true and there are several important considerations to take into account before, during and after any content is captured in 3d. The decisions made in each of these stages will have a direct impact on the quality of the outcome.
All the usual rules for good 2d filming apply while it is also necessary to think more about the end output, paying special attention to the screen size the content will be viewed on, the type of screen (plasma, projector etc), as well as specifics such as the angles involved in filming. Parallax, for example, is key to achieving the right 3d effect and an incorrect setting here will mean the background will show through twice in the final content.
The position of the convergence point will determine whether subjects come to the front or sink back into the screen. Some will know instinctively from looking through the viewfinder if the end result will be good enough, while others may need to view the content afterwards to understand how the settings used affect the capture.
What can be done at the post production stage in the production process is limited. In the interests of producing the best possible 3d, it's preferable not to edit or make corrections at this stage. In the same way that prevention is better than the cure, those that are highly disciplined in the set-up and content capture phases of filming will benefit from the time they invest when it comes to the end result.
In summary, good 3d content is not a given. The ability to produce effective 3d depends on multiple factors such as the quality of the equipment used, ease of operation and the flexibility to amend key settings. Above all, it depends on a heightened awareness of filming in the third dimension and on the consequent need to take a holistic approach to the many variables that impact the final result.”
London vfx house Finish composited an assortment of tattoos onto children for this hard hitting Marked For Life spot for Sire (the Dutch Foundation for Idealism in Advertising), directed by Partizan’s Ariel Kleiman for 180 Amsterdam.
The campaign, which attempts to raise awareness about the long-term impact on children of comments made during divorcing parents’ heated arguments, focuses on a series of young children marked by tattoos of words overheard during their parents' conflicts.
Finish composited and layered all the tattoos onto the skin, tracking them as the children moved around. “I had to make sure the tattoos looked tough and permanent to convey the depth of the idea,” says Finish’s lead Flame artist Paul Wilmot. “In one scene, where the new tattoo is being drawn on, I needed this to look visually different from the others – newly inked and so much more raw and painful.”
MPC colourist Paul Harrison did the grade on the spot.
Buying something outright with cash you already have at hand may seem more sensible than leasing it and paying extra or simply renting it when needed. Jake Bickerton talks to media finance specialists about when it's best to lease, buy or rent
If your company is in the rarefied position of having a reasonably healthy bank balance and you need to purchase something for your business, you should just go ahead and buy it. Right?
Well, not really. Leasing - either lease purchase or lease rental (more on this later) - is likely to be a more beneficial route despite costing you more. And even though, in the case of lease rental, you don’t even own the item at the end of the lease period, it could still be a better option than buying it using available cash.
The choice to lease rather than buy upfront may at first appear illogical - why should you opt to spend more when you've cash in the bank, or, worse still, opt out of owning the product altogether? - however it's an eminently sensible move from the point of view of cash flow and tax benefits. In short, spending your cash now could take your company into very choppy waters further down the line.
To buy or not to buy
"85% of all FTSE top 100 companies lease their vehicles and PC infrastructure even though they can well afford to buy it all outright for cash out of their back pocket," explains Medialease md Paul Robson. "This is because it's always better to have assets that are employed in revenue generation for the company being financed, with the asset paying for itself directly in income verses the cost of investment." Fellow media finance company md, Azule's Peter Savage, adds: "If you're opening a post house or expanding with new equipment, the advice we try to get over if you've £100-200k in the bank and are thinking about paying cash for something when credit is tight, is what happens when you need to get hold of more money?" he says. "A typical scenario is you aim to open your post house in July, but this slips to August, then you get a reasonable amount of work from September to November but after this it starts drying up and by January and February things are going awfully. Your cash flow is up and down all the time and you could find yourself in real trouble if you're not careful." Steve Bolton, director at Barclays Corporate agrees: "A hire purchase scheme spreads the cash flow burden of the purchase and conserves working capital - this is particularly valuable to businesses, like many in the media sector, that are affected by seasonal peaks and troughs in trading activity."
Soho Media Finance md John Edwards is another to recommend a leasing option rather than buying equipment upfront: "If you can pay for something upfront, it doesn't mean you should - you have to be sure you won't have better uses for your finance. It depends on the individual and if they want to sail close to the wind. You pay a bit more on interest with leasing but you may feel more comfortable working that way. It's a safe feeling knowing you have money in the bank. You pay staff monthly so why not do the same with your kit?" Gareth Wilding, sales and marketing director at Fineline, sums up by saying: "If you’ve got the cash to buy then use it as it's always cheaper to do this. But only use it if you have sufficient cash reserves; never use working capital."
If you decide to go down the leasing route, there are multiple options available from finance companies, depending on your circumstances. The first option is to lease purchase, which is paying for equipment in instalments over an agreed term after which the item is yours, following the payment of a nominal fee.
The next option is lease rental, which is likely to be more cost effective than daily hire charges from a hire company. After paying rentals over an agreed term, you have the option to either return the equipment, continue renting it at a further reduced cost or selling the equipment on behalf of the financier whereby you retain a pre-agreed percentage of the sale proceeds.
There are a number of additional leasing options too, including an operating lease, for which the finance company underwrites a future value in the equipment, so the rental cost is calculated on a reduced amount - you lease the equipment for as long as you need it then the ownership returns to the leasing company.
Furthermore, there's a contract lease option, which is similar to the operating lease but also includes maintenance cover for the product too.
Which of these options you choose depends on whether you want to own the product at the end of the lease agreement. It isn't always desirable to own the 'asset' from a tax and accounting point of view, particularly if the value of the equipment at the end of the lease period is relatively small. "Typically production companies and post houses will opt to fund a new piece of equipment using a hire purchase scheme. This gives complete flexibility at the end of any financing term and is particularly relevant as generally the life expectancy of media equipment will be longer than the financing period," explains Barclays Corporate's Bolton. "Having said that, there are a number of production companies who prefer to structure the financial product around the specific lifecycle requirements of each asset. Commonly referred to as operating leases, this funding arrangement is particularly valuable for production and post production houses whose assets are refreshed and disposed of more regularly."
Azule's Savage believes "it's economically sensible to lease purchase as you own the asset at the end of the three years. If the product lasts more than three years, everything after the three years is free." However, he adds, "It depends how often you need to change kit - creative people often want frequent technology changes whereas the technical guys like to keep the kit for longevity - if you lease hire you can change equipment whenever required."br />
Meanwhile, Clockwork Capital's director Geraldine Scher points to the tax benefits of lease rentals: "It's a tax efficient way to get hold of equipment. If you buy something outright it has to be capitalised and depreciated within the accounts system. Rental is an operating cost therefore it’s a profit and loss item not a balance sheet item and a simpler accounting process."
Does renting make sense?
One alternative to buying or leasing is renting the equipment from a hire company. This makes sense in some scenarios, as Wilding explains: "A post house will mostly be renting high-end decks as they can be difficult to justify buying. An SRW-5500 machine costs £65-80k, while the rental costs are £300-350 a day. So even after 100 days of rental use you're not even close to the purchase cost." But, adds Azule's Savage, "The lease purchase rate of the SRW-5500 is around £1,990/month over three years, so if you're going to use it for more than six days a month and can expect to be doing so for the foreseeable future, you'll be spending £2-3k a month on rentals and be better off leasing it."
A more problematic decision has to be made when it comes to whether to purchase or rent cameras. "Cameras are slightly more difficult thanks to all the formats now. Unless you have contracted work on a single format it might still be best to hire different formats to suit the production, and not buy a single format and have to force it onto a production," says Savage. Wilding adds that, "If you have a good idea of your future bookings, you can do a simple equation working out how much you would pay on hire charges per month versus the lease purchase charge per month, but future demand is not always clear." Similarly, Clockwork Capital's Scher says: "If you're a production company with a nine month production schedule, rentals can be high. If you think there's a chance the series could be re-commissioned or if there are other series the camera could be used on, it's worth investing. It's up to individual companies whether they feel they want to reduce operational costs by bringing the equipment inhouse."
Where to go for money
Historically, banks have been the first port of call for companies seeking finance, but a combination of limited availability of credit from banks and the often non-mainstream leasing requirements of media companies mean a media specialist financier is likely to be a better first port of call for production companies and post houses. "You should start by going to a specialist media finance business that will understand your needs," says Clockwork Capital's Scher. "They understand why a production company, post house or freelancer needs equipment, and understand the kit and residual market and are better at thinking outside the box, whereas banks focus on the very tangible assets of bricks, mortar and so on. Banks are less imaginative in the way they approach what they do."
On top of this, Scher adds that "businesses shouldn't have all their eggs in one basket – separating out asset finance from banking is a good idea as it provides businesses with far more flexibility.” Medialease's Robson echoes these points: "A customer's bank will generally not understand the equipment we are funding - Medialease, like others such as Azule and Fineline, truly understand the market, the equipment and the future values of the equipment. Production companies or post houses need to come to a specialist outfit like us to get funding as currently banks are struggling to lend to the SME market unless the company is really strong in balance sheet terms and highly profitable." Azule's Savage adds: "You can be cold called by leasing companies left, right and centre, but they don't necessarily understand the industry. There are a number of well-known, long-established people who can give you the right advice," he says. "Also, using a third party outside your bank is very useful. Banks will cross capitalise their debt, so if you've bought your building through a loan, have a bit of an overdraft and are also leasing equipment through your bank, they are providing you with everything. If your bank increases the rates or decides to stop lending, you're in trouble. If you've a different lender and a third party source of funding you've a far better mix of debt."
Pro Motion Hire has spent £400k on new kit, including Sony PDW-F800 and PDW-700 cameras, to gear up for international demand for cameras and equipment for reporting on the Royal Wedding.
Azule Finance provided the funding for Pro Motion Hire’s investment, which comes on the back of a 50% surge in camera hires leading up to the Royal Wedding. Amongst its new international customers, the hire company is supplying news teams from Network 10 in Australia with Sony PDW-F800s.
“In the days running up to the Royal Wedding, our entire stock of cameras and decks will be out in action across the capital,” says Pro Motion Hire md Duncan Martin. “Over the last six months we’ve been working closely with Azule Finance to expand and balance our kit portfolio. We needed to capitalise on this huge broadcast opportunity without over-extending our catalogue for what is essentially a week-long surge in activity.”
Animation director Matthias Hoegg's short film Thursday “revolves around an everyday love story set in the not so distant future and sees blackbirds battling with technology, malfunctioning palm readers and power cuts” and was made while Hoegg was at the Royal College of Art in June 2010.
Thursday was nominated for a BAFTA in the short animation category and has been shown at various film and animation festivals including Onedotzero and the Stuttgart Animation Festival.
For the last few months Thursday has only been available as a trailer online but as of yesterday the full 7m14s animation is now online (watch it in full below). It’s a visually striking, beautifully paced, remarkable piece of work.
As a footnote, Hoegg lost out on the BAFTA, which was picked up by a former Royal College of Art colleague of his, Michael Please for his greyscale animation The Eagleman Stag, which is also well worth checking out.
Credits for Thursday
Directed and animated by Matthias Hoegg
Sound Design and Music by Marian Mentrup Thursday’s Space Waltz written and performed by Marian Mentrup
Published by Kobrow Musikverlag
Additional Animation by Aaron Lampert
Additional Modeling by Mattias Bjurström
Foley Artist Günther Röhn
Mixed at Talking Animals Studio Berlin
Newcastle’s art space Unit 44, based at Hoults Yard, has been running a ‘white walls’ project over the last 12 months, inviting graffiti artists to create a piece of artwork on different spaces in Hoults Yard, which is surrounded by industrial warehouses and units.
Musician and graffiti artist Kid Acne kicked off the white walls series in June last year, with this massive ‘Dust In the Giant’s Eye’ mural.
“Serial doodler” Jon Burgerman was next up, painting a series of giant colourful characters back in December.
The first white wall project of 2011 was an impressive effort by Belgian street artist ROA, who created a detailed illustration called Three Horses.
The latest instalment in the series is by London graffer SheOne, who has created a striking image called Black Lightning on a gable end property. It took two days for him to complete, with production company J6 Films (also based at Hoults Yard) on hand to capture the process. It set up a time-lapse camera and filmed the artist at work.