Graham Edwards explores the current boom in VFX work and the corresponding recruitment challenges

As the UK begins to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, job vacancies have hit their highest peak since records began, according to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics. The effects of this are evident in the visual effects industry, where COVID-hit studios are competing to crew up for the wealth of new projects now coming online. Everyone is hiring — but this does not mean finding staff is easy. “Recruitment is extremely challenging at the moment, both in the UK and globally,” said Sashka Jankovska, chief HR officer at Cinesite. “The pandemic has changed how we work. There is a lot that studios need to assess in order to strike the right balance, both from a business and personnel standpoint.”

In order to understand the current situation, we first need to wind back the clock.

At the beginning of 2020, the visual effects industry was busier than ever before, with forecasts projecting an all-time record quarter for UK production. When COVID struck, heroic efforts by technical teams enabled studios to switch rapidly to remote working, allowing post-production operations to continue with barely a hiccup. But you can only kick the can so far down the road.

“Things dropped off a cliff pretty quickly for film and television, starting late February 2020,” recalled Neil Hatton, CEO at UK Screen Alliance. “There was a lot of gas still in the tank for visual effects but, with nothing new coming in, that was only going to be sustainable for a certain amount of time.”

As the year progressed, the demand for visual effects dropped off. At the same time, animation production soared — a silver lining that benefited those studios with robust animation divisions. “At the beginning of the pandemic,” Sashka Jankovska noted, “we saw some impact on live action projects. This had a stop-start effect on our visual effects workflow. Fortunately, our feature animation divisions were able to continue production largely unabated, which provided stability for our company.”

By the end of 2020, the UK visual effects industry had seen job losses of around 23 percent, with junior positions reducing from 29 to 19 percent of the total workforce. “Losses at the mid and senior levels were not so heavy,” observed Neil Hatton, “but some redundancies did occur at very senior levels, because that’s a quick way for a company to lose a big chunk of payroll.”

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, a recent project at Cinesite

With cinemas closed and entire populations locked down, streaming services enjoyed a boom time. However, with little or no new content being made, they had to rely heavily on pre-existing inventory. As result, their shelves rapidly became bare.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2021 and physical production is positively exploding, with production companies not only resurrecting shows put on hiatus in 2020, but also rolling out those already lined up for 2021 production. “It’s a double bubble,” Hatton commented. “It’s hard to disaggregate what is bubble because of COVID-delayed projects, and what is sustained demand.” One thing is certain: what was famine is now feast. “We had all those job losses and now we’ve suddenly got to crew up again.”

“Physical production has reverted back to pre-pandemic levels,” agreed Sashka Jankovska, “and the demand for family animated entertainment has never been higher. It is exciting that there is so much work to get involved with, however, the increased demand for new content is presenting all studios with recruitment challenges.”

The resulting high demand for staff — evident in all departments within visual effects — means employees can afford to pick and choose between job roles. “Because there is so much opportunity out there,” said Sophie Maydon, visual effects recruitment consultant and director of PXL Talent, “the talent can shop around. That’s driving up salaries everywhere. We’re encouraging our clients to carefully manage that because, while it’s incredibly busy now, we don’t know what’s round the corner.” The glut of work is also facilitating career progression. “We’re seeing a lot of talent stepping up into senior positions more quickly than previously, either within their current studio which is trying to retain them, or by taking up big opportunities at other studios.”

In the UK, Brexit adds to the turmoil. For European workers made unemployed during 2020, returning to the UK is not as straightforward as it once was. “The EU pool of talent we had open to us has closed,” said Sashka Jankovska. “The visa process is expensive and labour-intensive, and the time it takes is lengthy and inflexible, which doesn’t work for our industry. I believe Brexit has really limited us in terms of recruitment, which in turn is hurting our industry.”

Nor is remote working — which came to the rescue through COVID and remains desirable for many people seeking a better work-life balance — a reliable solution to cross-border issues. While it is technically possible for a UK company to hire European artists working from home, difficulties abound, such as the thorny question of managing payroll taxes. Some UK companies are looking at setting up European entities precisely in order to address this conundrum.

In addition, paying remote workers abroad does not count as an eligible spend for UK tax credits. “Lots of our UK clients have made the decision that they’re not going to have remote workers for long periods of time,” Sophie Maydon remarked. “They may hire freelancers remotely on a short term basis, but for long term positions they need people to relocate to the UK.”

The final part of the recruitment puzzle is education and training. “Historically, a lot of the junior talent in the UK came from the European schools,” said Sophie Maydon. “With Brexit, that option is potentially being cut off, which is another big issue for studios wanting to bring the next generation of talent through the UK.”

The North Water, a BBC Two five-part television series, based on Ian McGuire’s novel of the same name featuring Cinesite VFX

Directly tackling this and other issues, UK Screen Alliance is championing a range of initiatives, including extended diplomas in visual effects, animation and games skills available through the NextGen Skills Academy. “We’ve also seen spectacular successes with apprenticeships,” said Neil Hatton. “We’ve got people with three or more A-list Hollywood films to their names before they’re 20 — that’s a CV to die for. I’m expecting in the next two years to see a tenfold increase in the number of apprenticeships in visual effects, animation and post. And organisations like ACCESS:VFX are helping with careers advice. We’ve done events in London with kids from Tower Hamlets, who have no idea that Hollywood movies are being made on their back doorstep.”

As part of a drive to make graduates more work-ready, the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education recently developed a new “VFX Artist or Technical Director” standard in which the final year of a university course may be substituted with an apprenticeship. Many leading visual effects studios were involved in its creation. “Instead of your dissertation year,” Hatton explained, “you do a year on real work in a real company — and get paid for it, of course. We’ve also got a Masters apprenticeship for visual effects supervisors. That’s more about upskilling, giving people who have maybe spent their life in a visual facility the on-set skills they need to widen that out, and the ability to integrate with the wider production team.”

Meanwhile, visual effects studios are recognising the need to offer packages that give employees the kind of support they are looking for in a post-COVID world. “Cinesite, with its partner studios Trixter and Image Engine, is tackling the recruitment challenges as a group,” said Sashka Janjovska. “We have increased our communication with employees across the group to understand their needs better. We are providing flexibility where possible and continue to look after our employees’ well-being while ensuring the work is done to a high standard and the clients are happy.”

As the black clouds of COVID begin to recede, the visual effects industry now has a welcome opportunity to make hay while the sun shines. “While there is this feeling of uncertainty about what could happen going forward with the pandemic,” Sophie Maydon reflected, “everybody is so excited and happy to see that the industry is coming back on its feet again. There’s so much work, and isn’t that great?”

“I’m immensely surprised that so many people have weathered the storm and are now in a position to grow,” concluded Neil Hatton. “I think this industry’s got a good future.”

Cinesite is hiring artists, engineers, supervisors and production staff across multiple departments, including Compositing, FX TDs, and Assets. Apply here.

Graham Edwards
Author: Graham Edwards

Graham Edwards is a freelance journalist, author, and editor of the filmcraft magazine “The Illusion Almanac.” Between 2013-2021, he worked as senior staff writer at Cinefex, the legendary journal of cinematic illusions. He has had over 18 fantasy, science fiction and crime novels published since 1995 including “Dragoncharm,” nominated for a British Fantasy Award, and the critically acclaimed “String City.”