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Three Strategies for Success in Visual Effects

Leader, Follower, Phoney

Working in the entertainment industry, and specifically the film visual effects industry presents many challenges, not least of which is dealing effectively with people who use a variety of strategies to make them successful. Being largely a creative environment, it tends to be charged with emotion, personal stakes, ego and of course lots and lots of money. There are three primary strategies used to get ahead rooted mainly in the competence of the individual. If you spend any significant amount of time in the industry you are bound to run into all three of these sooner or later.


It is pretty obvious that, if you are good at your job, you are most likely to get ahead. Of course it takes some serious commitment and hard work to get really good at anything, but if you’re the kind of person who is passionate and driven, commitment and hard work come easily to you. Maybe you even treat them as a personal challenge and reward yourself when you achieve the goals you set for yourself. You love breaking new ground, trying new things and challenging the conventional wisdom. You’ll be a leader one day, but in the mean time you ravenously absorb all new information that comes your way. You find ways to use it in your day-to-day. Your personal and professional growth is continuous and fast. Rather than reacting emotionally to unexpected events, you are thoughtful. You plan and you execute. You do what you do, not what others think you should do. People see what you are doing. Some are impressed. Some are confused…Some are jealous.


Not everyone is comfortable in a leadership position. That’s most of us, actually. We are happy to learn from others and just do what we are asked to do. Let someone else make the discoveries, do the hard work, wrack their brains. We’ll come to work every day, do our job well, and go home to the family. The bulk of any workforce is made of people who are content to do this. In order to be successful, these people generally repeat the behaviors they have observed to be successful. Usually they don’t care to make waves, cause change or sometimes even attract notice. This kind of position can be quite fulfilling and is usually significantly less stressful than the leadership strategy. It is easier to walk out the door and forget about things at the end of the day…to enjoy the evening or the weekend and not be concerned about work until the next morning. It’s harder to keep up with changing technology, business models and management techniques, but many artists have filled many successful years in this way. It is much easier to observe and copy the successful strategies of others than to come up with them yourself. But be aware that if this is your prime strategy, you will never become a leader and you will always be seen as a follower of others.


All of us who have spent significant time in production know the expression “fake it ‘til you make it” all too well. A supervisor asks the question “Is it possible?” “Of course!” we answer, “no problem!” we grin. Then we run nervously back to our desks and work frantically to prove our prediction correct. Among serious artists and T.Ds, this “fake it” approach is driven by confidence; confidence forged in the high-pressure crucible of production by many previous successes and by the understanding that we really can do anything to which we set our minds; it’s just a matter of figuring out the techniques.

But this kind of “faking it” isn’t what I’m talking about. Here we get to discuss “the phoney”; the kind of artist, T.D., supervisor, coordinator or manager who really isn’t very skilled but struts around the studio with such bravado that people simply believe the self-marketing. These are the folks who are often found hanging out around the boss’s office, who go out for drinks after work with the people who run the place, but rarely with the crew. Sometimes the phoneys make it into team leaderships positions using this strategy, especially if the managers are also phoneys. Phoneys recognize each other. They love to congratulate one another and hang out together. Smart phoneys (which they must be if they get into management positions) will surround themselves with people who are actually competent. Usually they surround themselves with followers, though. Leaders can smell a phoney a mile away. Phoneys surround themselves with competent people so they can conceal their own shortcomings, claim credit for the good hard work of others and advance their own careers. When things fail, they have someone to blame. Phoneys are always afraid someone will find them out so they guard their position jealously. Phoneys think they have fooled everyone when they have not. Phoneys utilise manipulation, clique warfare and arrogance as primary weapons. With few actual skills to fall back on, they have little choice. Such people always have a wary eye open for potential threats (competent people). Phoneys have no qualms about launching propaganda campaigns against threats and attempting to remove them from the equation. Ironically, phoneys who find success using this technique actually begin to believe their own marketing. They start to see themselves as competent, oblivious to the whispers and complaints that surround and follow their every decision. Obviously, the incompetent will eventually fall. They always do sooner or later. Don’t worry too much about this type of person, though, aside from keeping out of the crosshairs. The good people around you are generally pretty smart, and the phoney would need to be a sociopath to pull off an act like this flawlessly.


I suppose it is pretty obvious which strategy I prefer, but you make up your own mind. I hope you’re not a phoney. If you are, please stop it and go get some legitimate skills. If you are not, keep your nose clean and don’t play politics. Do your job well, remember to say “please” and “thank you” and you’ll have few problems.

Nicholas Boughen is a visual effects supervisor and the owner of CG Masters School of 3D Animation & VFX, a new concept in professional digital visual effects training.