Danny Duke on what it’s like to head up a team of top VFX talent at Absolute Post
What is your job title?
Production Director – Film and TV at Absolute Post.
How would you describe the values and culture at your company?
The team is full of Absolute Legends™.
There’s a really collaborative, friendly and supportive vibe at the core of the culture that’s been established over the last 19 years. We’ve welcomed the hybrid ‘office vs WFH’ workflow which was born out of 2020, but equally, we’re conscious of how that impacts the sense of ‘team’ and culture, as well as the training and nurturing of junior staff. Going into 2023, we’re aiming to implement training programmes to support the development of our employees.
But it’s not all about the work. It’s largely about the people. Absolute is famous for its family feel, and our very active social calendar ensures inter-department socialising, whether you work from home or come in daily.
Above all though, we believe in doing the absolute best with every project we work on. No matter what the budget or output format, we believe the work we do and the way we communicate should be second to none.
What’s the best thing about working there?
There’s a sense of freedom and a trust to get on with the task at hand. It’s a belief that team members know how best to achieve their own work without being micromanaged. For me personally, it’s allowed me to build a first-class film and TV team whilst pursuing the work that excites us all.
What have you been working on recently?
We’ve recently delivered VFX for Amazon’s The Rig, Netflix’s Dance Monsters, Season 5 of Unforgotten and Philip Barantini’s upcoming drama Malpractice. 2022 was a fantastic year for Absolute and I’m incredibly proud of the team, but I’m also really excited about the slate going into 2023. We’ve just begun work on our first ‘sole vendor’ Netflix feature and have lined up some very, very cool shows… so there’s plenty of career opportunities for people joining the team!
What inspired you to work in visual effects?
After doing my Art Foundation in Bournemouth (way back in 1997) I spent a few years working in pubs, book shops, and even Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society. I ended up in a Sony Centre selling massive 100kg Sony WEGA CRT TVs and demonstrating surround sound systems.
When walking home one day I was trying to figure out what I wanted from a future career, but I knew it wasn’t working in a shop any longer. I’d always been fascinated by film, TV and video games – and art was always my favourite subject at school. So, even though it took me a while, I realised there must be a role that combined my passions and would give me a career that I’d love and thrive in.
I knew next to nothing about it, but the idea of making films and working in special or visual effects suddenly felt like the obvious route. It was genuinely like an epiphany – clouds parting, God rays and a choir of angels sort of thing! I wanted to make Star Wars!
I chose the route of special effects and model making, animatronics, scalpels and latex, but being epileptic I wasn’t allowed to use the workshops at Uni. So they bought me a laptop and a copy of 3D Studio Max 4.3 and changed my path forever!
Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?
My degree in Model Making for Design and Media was at the Arts Institute in Bournemouth (now the Arts University). I discovered a passion for 3D modelling on computers, and went on to do a Master’s Degree in Computer Animation at Bournemouth University. Ultimately, I went on to work in video games and my first day of paid work after graduating was indeed making Star Wars. I designed and built my own Star Wars vehicle which got signed off by Lucasarts!
After a number of years in games, I moved into a Principal Artist position and was an Associate Lecturer on a games art course. I later moved into production where I helped to secure projects from clients such as LEGO, BBC and ExxonMobil, as well as seeing them through the production cycle and ensuring they were delivered on time.
I was soon head hunted by a small VFX team in Bournemouth, becoming the sixth employee of Outpost VFX. By the time I left, five years later, I’d become one of the Board of Directors, helped grow the UK team to well over 100 people and set up the first international office in Montreal.
Absolute, is now my home and I’m growing a new team, working on exciting film and TV projects and still enjoying working with a talented and committed team nearly 4 years into the job.
What are the main responsibilities of your job role?
First and foremost, I’m responsible for my team. I need to ensure they have the skills and the tools they need to do their jobs. Some of that comes from resourcing i.e. finding enough artists with the abilities to deliver the expected standard of work, but also much of my role involves finding the projects in the first place. We’re in a very busy time in post-production, but we have to be careful not to overreach.
What do you spend most of your time doing?
Much of my time is spent developing relationships with clients and understanding their projects (both current and future). I read scripts and help to breakdown what might end up as a visual effects shot. If we’re in pre-production, we discuss methodologies and costs then put a plan into place. But sometimes changes are needed on location, or we’re not involved early enough to create the plan in the first place. In which case, we rebid the work once it’s in the edit. For an entire season of TV or a feature film, it’s a very time-consuming process, even before we get to work on a visual effects shot.
What do you need to be good at in your job?
An eye for detail, whether it’s picking out changes in a script in pre-production that affects visual effect costs, or seeing something on screen in a spotting session with a client. Also, being very organised is important. There can be a lot of moving parts on a single project, and often we will oversee more than one production at any one time.
Crucially though, you have to be able to communicate well at all levels and across all formats. When interpretation of a brief and subjectivity of what’s delivered comes into play, language and the way we use it is absolutely crucial.
What were your career goals when you started out, and how did these change as you progressed?
I always knew I wanted to work in the creative industries. Initially I saw myself as a Fine Artist, but I eventually found my way into CG. Beyond working on Star Wars, I really hadn’t thought much further. I’ve been very lucky to have been supported and encouraged during my journey, taking bigger steps and finding new challenges along the way.
What are the benefits of learning lots of different disciplines? What would you say to someone who is set on specialising early on in their career?
Specialisms have a really important part to play in the process, but I do think it’s important to try a variety of roles , much like an art foundation course before picking a degree subject. For us at Absolute, we’ve always needed more generalists than specialists and have been lucky enough to call upon well respected CFX TDs, riggers, FX artists, matte painters as and when they’re needed. So there’s definitely a call for finding your own niche, it’s just that its doesn’t always happen right away.
What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?
I’m still a total geek, so anything with monsters or science fiction really hits the spot!
But I mostly enjoy the projects where I’m surrounded by great people and sometimes those projects will be with the fewest visual effects shots and the simplest of problems to solve. It can be incredibly satisfying to know you’ve helped good people to achieve their vision and get something on screen.
What’s the most significant change you’ve witnessed in the industry since you started working in it?
Coming from video games I knew engines like Unreal, Unity and CryEngine were incredibly powerful with huge potential, but seeing what UE5 is now capable of in so incredibly exciting.
Who or what has most influenced your career and why?
I’d love to say it was all the video nasties I watched in the ‘80s that inspired me, but the biggest influence on my career has always been my wife, Sophie. She knew my potential way before I did and encouraged me on every step of my journey. She’s AMAZING!
What show/exhibition/film has most inspired you recently?
All Quiet On The Western Front. Hands down.
In an age of the biggest super heroes getting the biggest post budgets, along comes Frank Petzold and the teams at Cine Chromatix and UPP. In All Quiet on the Western Front, the direction, photography, script and editing are all wonderful, but I really loved the visual effects involved.
What project are you most proud of?
Years ago, I VFX produced a so&so Production for Netflix called My Beautiful Broken Brain. It dealt with the difficult subject of a young woman’s struggles after having had a life altering stroke. Her speech and sensory perception were affected and our task was to show the audience what she goes through every day. Warping images to match her brief was an incredibly challenging but rewarding process and very different to our usual briefs.
What do you miss about being in a less senior role?
I miss being an Artist. The seniority of the positions I’ve had isn’t the important part, it’s more about being ‘hands-on’ and knowing that you’re translating an idea from your imagination to paper or a screen.
On rare occasions, I’ve had the chance to contribute to some of our shows. Concept art, previz animations, proof of concept UE5 experiences and a small amount of modelling all keeps my hand in, but it’s very rare that I’m ‘on the box’ myself any more.
What strategies do you have for coping with the pressure of your work?
That’s quite a difficult question. I’ve only very recently been diagnosed with ADHD (aged 44) which affects me in so many ways. Typically this means poor time keeping and organisational skills, both of which are crucial in my role.
However, discovering this so late means I’ve already developed strategies to manage my work / life balance, time keeping and organisation which typically are difficult for adult ADHD sufferers. Coping with pressure for most people comes in the form of hobbies, which is something I’m working on in 2023. For someone like me it’s easy to hyper focus on things and forget to leave time in the day for other activities, even when you know it’ll be really good for mood and productivity the following day.
What’s your advice to artists for creating a killer showreel?
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a blockbuster feature film or an independent short film; showing off your work in its best possible light is all that’s important. This includes clearly breaking down the final shot and showing the part you played in achieving it.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
The wealth of free learning material and the democratisation of Digital Content Creation software means that people are starting to learn visual effects skills much younger now. Make the most of the time you have available and explore the areas that excite you the most… and then practice, practice, practice! Don’t give up, and share your progress. It can be hard to put yourself out there and some people will be unkind, but there’s an incredible community and most people will cheer you on, willing you to succeed and offer essential advice along the way.