Shaina Holmes has worked as a visual effects artist, producer and supervisor on more than 200 movies and TV shows including Netflix’s The Get Down, Zoolander 2, Poms, and Big Time Adolescence. As an assistant professor of Television Radio Film at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, she also teaches courses in visual effects and post-production to undergraduate and graduate students hoping to make a career in film.
With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the United States, Holmes, like so many other women working in the entertainment industry, is staying home. Here’s how she and her colleagues are navigating this new reality.
My company Flying Turtle Post had three films scheduled to release in March 2020 (Holly Slept Over, Big Time Adolescence, Banana Split). The impact on those releases has actually been positive — Big Time Adolescence (Pete Davidson and Machine Gun Kelly’s latest) was released earlier than anticipated on Hulu due to theatres shutting down, which likely increased viewership since people are now at home more to watch digital content.
Thankfully, we’re already set up to work remotely. The bulk of my artists are entry-level former students who are eager to continue honing their skills through my mentorship-focused company and get their first feature film credits in the process. Each artist has their own workstation at home and takes on work as they are able to. My role as VFX Supervisor is to provide both technical and creative support and direction to my artists.
I’m also an assistant professor of Television, Radio, Film in the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, tasked with teaching hands-on production courses remotely to students who won’t have their usual access to the equipment cage, school computers, or a crew of their peers to complete their final projects. This is where I have experienced the most change so far due to the quarantine. While lecture, essay, and quiz-based courses have more obvious options available to them, the production students are at a higher disadvantage in meeting the learning outcomes of the course. But this is where we can modify the coursework to break out of the conventional filmmaking modes and create something completely unique. I treat my students as if they are interns in the film industry, and try to relate all the lectures and projects to the real-world environment as much as possible.
I’ve been thinking back to the writers’ strike in 2007, another moment when most film and TV content stopped production. The out-of-work community created some very innovative game-changing web-series content, including Children’s Hospital and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I am challenging my students to use these as examples of how great content can be produced during difficult times and see what they can do without their conventional resources, practicing social distancing, and being isolated from their creative team. I’m excited to see what they come up with to work with their teams virtually and rally to create content together in a new way.
On top of these challenges, add in the questions about their first step into an industry that is not fully operational. Many of my students are getting ready to graduate, and the biggest question is how they can look for jobs in a world that is essentially on hold.
Thankfully, I am not in a situation at the moment where I am out of work. I continue to meet with students, research assistants, and freelancers virtually as well as checking in regularly with those in the industry affected by the ever-evolving decisions made at each studio. Many VFX and post-production professionals may be out of work for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to: The need to work on-site to comply with non-disclosure agreements from certain studios (there’s a petition to allow VFX artists to work from home on projects that are highly restricted due to NDA’s with Netflix, Disney, and Marvel to name a few); not owning a powerful enough workstation at home to do this type of work; and film and TV production shutdowns causing delays on new work moving to the post-production and VFX stage.
This remote working option will have lasting impacts on the film and TV industry, not just in Hollywood but globally. Remote work makes anyone capable of working-from-home an asset to any VFX company, studio, or indie production looking for their content to continue with as little interruption to their delivery schedule as possible regardless of race, gender, and age.
If the footage hasn’t been shot yet, that’s a completely different issue. The nice thing about post-production and visual effects is that as long as we have the computing power, resources, assets, and security measures in place to protect our client’s IP, it is much easier for our community to adapt quickly to a remote working environment compared to the production community. Even though it is a highly collaborative team environment, most of your day is spent isolated on your computer with the occasional in-person meeting. Most feedback and communication are through chat or production tracking tools already.
My biggest concern about how this remote work period of time will impact the industry is related to work-life balance. Already in VFX, there are no regulations on the artists due to the lack of VFX unions and a high percentage of a freelance global workforce. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, long-term VFX staff positions with benefits were hard to come by, which led to artists chasing work all over the globe, working 100-plus-hour weeks, having barely enough turnaround time to sleep. But when they leave the workplace, they are off the clock.
VFX producers, on the other hand, end up being on-call 24/7. I couldn’t tell you how many times I was interrupted as a producer with emergencies on weekends, in the middle of the night, the rare vacation, or even my wedding.
Now, with VFX companies providing their artists secure ways to work from home, the same may happen to them. To maintain a physically and mentally healthy VFX community, I hope the artists are able to retain some sort of boundaries in a time where they will no doubt need more time to complete the work remotely due to internet speeds, render power, and pulling/pushing content on an overtaxed online pipeline. Clients won’t be paying more money for all these new pipeline accommodations, so the artists likely will be getting paid less to spend more time working and waiting.
Still, there is a bright side. It used to be that in a two-person household where both work in VFX, one would likely have had to leave the industry to start a family because of the long hours. Now, both caretakers could potentially support their family from home and take turns watching the kids. With less worry about having to physically move locations every few months chasing work, I could see this situation becoming a positive one regarding having or starting a family, hopefully reducing stress over money.