Getting your VFX team involved early

By Brian Drewes and Sean Devereaux

There is a shift afoot in the visual effects industry. On first look, it appears that bad news abounds, although the change we have perceived bodes well for us all.

Recently, we’ve observed that our clients are asking us to get involved earlier in the creative development process. This is a different notion than VFX companies historically pleading to be involved earlier so that their job isn’t just the clean-up crew. Our clients are asking us share how our visual effects capabilities can help them address problems creatively, whether it be for a fully VFX spot, or a spot that includes both live action and VFX.

We are invited into conversations earlier, when ideas are less refined, and often even before concepts have been developed enough to be storyboarded or shown to the end-client. Our clients are sharing their goals with us, and they’re asking for our collaboration in carving the path to arrive at them.

It’s not news that there is less focus on broadcast and that more money is being funneled into “digital” channels. Agencies are still tasked with delivering great work to their clients, yet the budgets are smaller and the volume of work is often broader with equally lofty creative goals. As the definition of “digital” evolves daily, perhaps, so too does the definition of partnership forged by the agency and vendor.

So now a growing number of clients are approaching “vendors” (like us) early in the process, and saying, “Help us figure this out.” In the best cases, everything is transparent; we know the budget, so along with the agency, we can concept affordable ideas that the agency can then present to their client.

At Zero, we are image-makers, and we use myriad digital tools to help us tell stories. We are at such a sophisticated moment in technology and filmmaking that we all have the notion that “anything” can be done. While this is essentially true, movie magic comes with a cost. Yet, receiving an early invitation allows our entire team to feel ownership. We are all responsible for presenting financially sound solutions that deliver great creative executions. No longer does the ‘idea’ need to live in a separate silo than the reality of budget considerations.

We’ve recently had the opportunity to work this way with Arnold Worldwide, the agency for New Balance. They approached us about developing two :15 web spots for the launch of the updated NB 880.


According to our client David Register, EVP, Group Creative Director, Arnold, with limited production time and financial resources to put behind the project, “we came to Zero with a creative opportunity and a known budget, and we came up with something collaboratively, versus the traditional method of concepting creative and then trying to get it produced.”

Following several work sessions, polished concept frames were created and presented to New Balance. Register added that “bringing Zero into the project earlier allowed us to develop client presentation materials that were much better, and we know we’re presenting something to the client that they can afford.”

New Balance approved a concept, and we set to work. The creative process was not without evolution and new discoveries, but it was smoother due to all of the upfront understanding that came out of collaborative creative development. You can see it here:

After 15 years, Escape Artists Entertainment, a motion picture and television production company with whom we’ve worked on several feature films, needed a logo and title refresh. In this case, we approached them and pitched an idea. A detailed creative development period followed, and then we shared a more comprehensive creative approach.


Escape Artist
Together, we spent the next month evaluating and honing each detail. In addition to all visual effects production, Zero shot all the motion picture footage that appears in the logo The end result was a branding piece that we developed in concert with Escape Artists, and that we look forward to seeing on the big screen in front of our next feature film, The Equalizer.

A More Streamlined Partnership
This new process is diametrically opposed to the veiled world of triple bids and blind submission of pitch treatments.  From a vendor perspective, these treatments burn precious resources, and the lack of access to the agency creatives following an initial briefing call doesn’t necessarily generate the best creative output. Yes, we still do them, and yes, we strive to put our best work forward, but from a process standpoint, we question whether this competition impedes the development of the best work, rather than inspire it.

Another problem that inevitably arises in the traditional production method is that any number of unknown questions pop-up once production is underway. It seems unavoidable that at some point in the process, the agency, client or vendor will have a different set of expectations than what was originally understood. When this happens, overages happen.

Untoward as it may be, many companies will underbid to win a job, only to make it profitable by charging the client overages for each minor change. Working in more of a partnership model, the ideas and execution — because they were developed together — are clearly understood from the start, and the budget is designed to serve the creative. There is no practice of “making up for it” along the way.

One key element to this new model is trust. Can a vendor trust that once engaging in creative development with the agency, the agency will indeed move forward with that vendor and not take those ideas and produce them elsewhere? Can the agency/client trust that the vendor is actually doing the appropriate amount of work for the budgeted number?

At this point, most of us seem to recognize that success is a marathon, not a sprint. Relationships are king and good work begets more good work.  We’ve become a peer-reviewed society. Take Yelp or Airbnb, for example. If you get enough bad reviews, no one is going near that product or service. While it takes trust to work this way, breaking the trust can have enormous negative consequences for all parties. The ripple effect of a fallout between vendor and agency, itself, compels parties to be honest and forthcoming. The stakes are so remarkably high for all involved, that if one link of the chain breaks, what may have initially seemed like a leap of faith in a new relationship, really isn’t much of a leap at all.

Zero VFX is a Boston-based visual effects studio that has worked on many spots and feature films, including American Hustle, The Sex Tape and the upcoming Equalizer. They also developed the cloud-rendering platform Zync, which was just purchased by Google.

Main Image: Sean Devereaux and Brian Drewes


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