Thirty years ago, Framestore was a five-person team working from a small office in London’s Soho. It is now one of the world’s biggest post-production companies, with 1500 staff and two offices in London, as well as others in New York, Montreal and Los Angeles.
The company is best known for its VFX work – it won an Oscar for the visual effects in space film Gravity in 2014 and created a CG Mars for Ridley Scott’s The Martian – but has also expanded its offering to include VR experiences and digital content for brands. In the past three years, it has worked on VR projects for Game of Thrones and Marvel, built interactive visitor experiences for Tate Modern and brought Audrey Hepburn to life for a Galaxy advert using cutting edge CGI and body doubles. It’s even working on a theme park ride in China.
As a result, Framestore’s team has grown significantly. It has hired over 300 staff to work in its Montreal office since 2013 and will often bring in hundreds of new recruits to work on major projects – when working on feature film The Tale of Despereaux in 2014, the company’s London team grew from 300 to 750 in just a few months.
Mike McGee, who co-founded the business in 1986, says this has presented several challenges – not just in terms of finding the right people to produce such diverse output but also in making sure existing staff have the tools to manage bigger teams and take on new kinds of projects.
“As the company has grown from that small number to the size it is now, our creatives and managers and people in small teams have become the leaders of very large teams … so we’ve always put a great emphasis on giving people the skills to lead not just creatively but managerially,” says McGee. Existing staff are given training to help them develop ‘softer skills’ such as b learning how to be a good listener, learning how to negotiate and learning how to discipline. “All of those things that make people better managers and I think, better people for it,” he adds.
“We’ve [also] placed a great emphasis on constant training and learning once you have a job at Framestore,” McGee continues. “If you come with a wealth of technical skills we will help you build those softer skills and vice versa. Because we’re an evolving technology company, we have a training room where we give constant masterclasses and tutorials to keep everyone up to speed and also to keep their traditional skills honed. We still have life drawing and sculpture and photography classes and I think that’s really important.”
Training programmes are created in response to individuals’ needs or projects the company is working on: when creating the visual effects for Gravity, McGee says Framestore brought in physics professors help animators understand how objects would behave differently in zero gravity. It has also brought in social anthropologists to help them understand the conclusions that people draw from different facial features and expressions. Sales staff, meanwhile, receive negotiation and communications training to help build their confidence.
McGee is a firm believer in building an environment that is creatively stimulating. Working in VFX can be a gruelling job, with animators and technicians spending long hours in dark rooms and weeks or months working on a single sequence – so McGee is keen for staff to work on hands-on projects away from their computers and learn from creatives in other fields outside of VFX. “We have a lot of creative people from other industries come in and talk about their creative process. As a creative, I find inspiration just from learning how other people get their inspiration,” he says.
“The more things we put on for people to help them be creative, the more creative we are … and you invest in those kind of things, it makes them more loyal to you as a company,” continues McGee. “We all have to work very hard, often very antisocial hours, and it can be a tiring job. It’s glamorous in that we produce Oscar-winning movies but the work involved to get there can be quite gruelling, so you want to be able to have fun and learn while you’re doing it. It’s about creating an environment where we remove all of the obstacles to being creative … and providing the right support for everyone that needs it.”
We have a lot of creative people from other industries come in and talk about their creative process. As a creative, I find inspiration just from learning how other people get their inspiration
With the company receiving around 200 applications a day, Framestore isn’t short of candidates. It also has a recruitment team that travels the world looking for promising new talent. But many of its staff are recruited after being recommended by existing employees, says global head of recruitment Amy Smith.
“By that, I don’t mean it is everyone recommending their friends or their brothers and sisters, but people they’ve worked with in the past or have heard good things about on the grapevine. It usually works out really well because people who are already here know our culture and our work and know they will be a good fit,” she says.
When it comes to entry-level positions, Smith describes “a good fit” as someone with a strong work ethic and a passion for creativity as well as technical ability and good people skills. Candidates aren’t required to sit tests or exams but they will be asked about their work, process, hobbies and interests.
“We always ask people, ‘What do you like doing? What kind of games do you play? What do you read?’ You don’t have to have a passion for VFX – at 16, you don’t necessarily know what your passion is – but we’re looking for people who are passionate about creativity and we look for them to be able to demonstrate that in some way,” she says.
“Lots of people say ‘I love films’, but have you gone out and made films with your friends? Shot things on your phone? Put videos out on YouTube? It doesn’t have to be great but [you should be] demonstrating that you’ve tried these things and tried different techniques. It’s also about demonstrating that you can knuckle down and work well in a team, that you can lead when it’s necessary but listen to other people’s ideas when it’s necessary too,” she adds.
For more senior staff, Smith and McGee say it’s not just experience that counts but the ability to bring a fresh outlook to the business and inspire others. “Obviously they have to have certain technical capabilities and a certain skillset but again, those soft skills really come into play,” says Smith. “If we bring that person into our existing team, are they going to be able to rally the troops? To inspire people and engage them and get the best work out of other people? And also, are they bringing something new to the table? Things in this industry move forward so quickly, we need someone who’s got new ideas and is keeping up with what’s happening elsewhere – someone who can offer something different.”
You need to be able to motivate teams and put your ideas across and interpret someone else’s creative language … and to know when an idea isn’t working before you waste too much time going down the wrong path.
McGee agrees, adding: “You need to be able to motivate teams and put your ideas across and interpret someone else’s creative language … and to know when an idea isn’t working before you waste too much time going down the wrong path.” Not being precious about ideas is crucial, says Smith: “We need people who see an idea as a process and not a finished thing,” she adds.
Framestore has initiated a number of formal training schemes to help young people prepare for a career in VFX: the company has created a 12-month training programme for runners which includes mentoring, feedback sessions and reviews and runs an annual paid internship scheme.
It has also worked with the NextGen Skills Academy to develop two paid VFX apprenticeships – apprentices spend around 20% of their time in the classroom and the rest learning on the job, and are paid an annual salary as well as holiday pay – as well as a diploma equivalent to three A Levels. In Bournemouth, it has opened up a small office which trains up graduates from Arts University Bournemouth in tracking or paint/rotoscope. Graduates are paid and can apply to join Framestore’s London office at any point.
“The idea is that it provides [graduates] with a bit of a stepping stone,” says Smith. “If you’re not from London then finishing uni and packing up your whole life and moving to London without a permanent job lined up can be quite daunting, so [the Bournemouth scheme] is a way to make that process easier.”
Smith and McGee see these formal training schemes as a way to give something back to the industry, training not just Framestore employees but people who will go on to work at other VFX houses. But they also aim to fill a skills gap: in the UK in particular, Smith says there are more VFX and animation graduates than there are jobs available, yet few of these graduates are coming out with the right skills and experience.
We don’t prioritise creative education in the UK, we prioritise academia and unfortunately what that means for our industry – both in the VFX and the design and digital sides – is that people aren’t coming out with the right combination of creative and technical skills.
“I don’t see that as just the fault of universities, I think it goes much deeper…. We don’t prioritise creative education in the UK, we prioritise academia and unfortunately what that means for our industry – both in the VFX and the design and digital sides – is that people aren’t coming out with the right combination of creative and technical skills. Our education system is set up so that you’re either an art student or a science student so for us, making sure that we’re creating educational opportunities that allow you to be both allows us to get the right people at the other end of it.”
When it comes to training students and graduates, Smith believes that European countries – namely France, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Spain – and Scandinavia are leading the way.
“A lot of these countries give equal weight to creative education,” she says. “It’s also because their [further] education system is largely privatised, so it means that courses can be much more agile, they are able to keep up with the industry better and a large number of lecturers and teachers are industry professionals themselves,” she adds. A recent survey by UKScreen revealed that 26% of Soho’s VFX workforce are Europeans from outside of the UK – a statistic that makes the threat of Brexit even greater. If European were to leave en masse, the UK could have a serious shortage of talent.
In the company’s early days, McGee says he would oversee the hiring of new staff and do their appraisals. This is no longer possible but in order to retain the culture he and his co-founders are keen to foster – one that is supportive and encourages creativity, while making sure staff have the technical ability to rival other VFX houses – Framestore has put rigorous systems in place, hiring an HR team that is passionate about the industry (and finding the right people for the company), and developing a clear structure for hiring, training and supporting staff.
“It’s about being able to keep your company feeling like it’s pockets of small teams all healthily competing with each other in a creative way, and reshuffling teams so it always feels like a fresh place to work and not just a big factory,” says McGee.
“I think that’s something we do quite well – we put together teams of different sizes and skillsets to solve different problems, and we don’t just work in TV and film, we’re making theme park rides, outdoor screens for Times Square, real time puppeteering and content for every platform … so as a company, it means you can come here to do one thing and find lots of other avenues for you to express your creativity.”
One of the team leading the company’s theme park ride, for example, is an existing employee who is obsessed with rollercoasters – so much so that she has a tattoo of one on her arm. She was brought in to work on the project in part because of her passion for the subject – and experience of riding various rollercoasters around the world. “We certainly encourage people to make lateral moves,” says McGee.
“I’ve also realised the importance of human resources to make [the business] run smoothly – to make people feel welcome from the time they turn up in your city from somewhere else and to make sure that continues once they’re in the company.”
For a full breakdown on Framestore’s effects work on Gravity, see framestore.com/work/gravity
Lead image: still from Framestore’s title sequence for 007 film Spectre. Image courtesy of Eon Films and Framestore