Building Business For the Sake of Art

2017 NAB Show Submission
by Sean Devereaux

The artist mentality: keeping creativity at the core

ZERO is our Boston and LA-based visual effects studio. We specialize in high-end invisible VFX that melts into the background, on titles that range from Patriots Day to Ghostbusters.

It all started from my basement. I partnered up with co-founder Brian Drewes, establishing a team of just six people. It wasn’t a huge enterprise: we were short on manpower, and it was all very lo-fi, with internet lines running all around the outside of my house.

I didn’t have a burning desire to start a business, but it was the vessel that allowed me to do what I love; create ground-breaking illusions for the sake of immersive storytelling. I’m an artist at heart, and I wanted to create a culture and company that kept that at the very core of its thinking. It’s been a guiding principle since then, informing how we approach all output at the studio on projects both large and small.

Artist-focused thinking has kept us happy, successful and creative over the last seven years.

For instance, at ZERO, we consider it incredibly important to be mindful of the needs of the artists: they’re the flesh and blood of this organisation.
We respect each other and make sure there’s time to live our lives outside of work. Because, frankly, if someone’s working overtime, then it means a mistake was made somewhere down the line.

Overtime has always been a common problem in visual effects, and it’s often unpaid. But a VFX life hack people would do well to remember is that avoiding overtime is cheaper.

When any company gets used to an overtime culture, it slows down the work of all involved. The CG artists might just play ping pong for an hour, because they’re going to work until 10pm anyway, so why rush an element out by 6pm? The compositor expecting that element is left twiddling their thumbs. A mistake was made somewhere down that line, and you need to think ahead to ensure that doesn’t happen.

If you burn out your team, people will want to leave. ZERO artists very rarely work over 50 hours a week, not least because overtime makes people miserable, but also because it’s less efficient.

We try not to take on jobs that are unreasonable. 150 shots by next week might be good money, but you’re asking a lot of your team. There needs to be a very good reason when taking on such demanding work beside profit. This is art; money isn’t what’s going to inspire folks to work their best.

You can’t prioritise business over art. Not when your business is the art. When you start taking on jobs just for the sake of jobs, you may have lost sight of what you first wanted. Eventually, the clients will notice. And eventually, you won’t get called anymore.

If you want to start a company, it’s important to question what kind of artist you want to be. No one gets into the VFX sector because they enjoy business. For me, business is simply the medium that allows me to do the work I’ve always dreamed of. I like to tell stories, and VFX is an amazing medium to do that.

You have to really look at the type of work you want to do, and it has to be about the work. If you just think there’s more money to be had, then you’ll fail. VFX studios close almost as often as restaurants. Whatever business model you pursue, it needs to operate in tandem to the work you actually love. It’s the dreamers, the creatives, the passionate, art-obsessed professionals — they’re the ones who are going to succeed and revolutionise this industry.

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