AE Project Diary: 2) Green Fever

How lawn bowls taught me the most important lesson of my career

 

PVC_GreenFever_TitleImage

This is the first article anyone has written about Star Wars, lawn bowls, weddings and coffee machines, and how After Effects is an unlikely link between them.

Since publishing the first After Effects project diary several months ago, I’ve been collecting old project assets for the series – but after writing a more reflective article I was reminded of an old project I hadn’t thought about for years: “Green Fever”. Green Fever was made so long ago that I don’t have any records of it. No quicktimes, no screengrabs, nothing to show for it except a hazy memory.   But just because I can’t show you any pictures from the series doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from it.

The main purpose of the After Effects project diaries is to give insights into projects as a whole, and to talk about more than specific plugins and effect settings. With this in mind, “Green Fever” epitomizes the most important and significant lesson I learned when I first began working professionally.

So, what do you do?

In the article I published a few weeks ago, I outlined what my student life was like and how my initial ambition was to write and direct my own sitcom. However the student culture and raw enthusiasm that marked my university days was generally absent in my professional working environment, and realizing that “the industry” was in fact an industry was something I struggled with. I’m going to re-use an image from my last article to emphasize the culture shock I experienced in my first job:

ExpectationVsReality
Top image by Josh Agle (Shag)

Something that I have always found difficult is explaining to people what I actually do. When you meet someone for the first time, it’s only a matter of time before you’re asked “what do you do?” The trouble I had – and still have today – is that the general public equates film and video production with feature films and television shows respectively. While it’s one thing to label yourself a producer / director / video editor / animator etc. it’s another thing altogether to try and explain the types of projects that you actually work on. The majority of the work I’ve done over the past 15 years has been for the corporate sector – what we loosely term ‘corporate videos’.  But whenever I’ve been on a shoot in a public location, the most common question passers-by ask is “what channel are you from?” – assuming that if there’s a camera then it must be a TV station. Trying to explain that we’re shooting a corporate video is usually met with a blank stare.

Judging from my experience, the average person thinks a corporate video is something like this:

“Who Cares Wins” from The Office (series 1, episode 4 of the BBC series)

I worked out a long time ago that if I say I’m a “motion graphics designer” or a “compositor” people don’t know what I’m talking about. So I usually describe myself as an animator, and so far everyone I’ve met understands what an animator is. But labeling what I do is not the same as explaining what I do on a daily basis and who I do it for – and this is where I have always found it tricky. Because as soon as I say ‘animator’ people assume I work on films like Toy Story, and I don’t.

The Star Wars Question

FRIENDS

What are you working on?

ME

I’ve spent the last three months making training videos on how to play lawn bowls.

The friends look surprised. Then everyone giggles.

FRIENDS

Wouldn’t you rather be working on something like Star Wars?

 

I’ve had that conversation more times than I can remember.

The question “wouldn’t you rather be working on something like Star Wars” is one I’ve been asked again and again over the past fifteen years. I still get asked that now. It’s the question I’m asked as I struggle to explain what it is that I actually do, by people who understand what animation is but aren’t really sure how it could possibly be useful outside of Hollywood.

The Star Wars question is the point of this project diary, because the answer is ‘not really’.

Lawn Bowls

“Green Fever” was made so long ago I don’t remember when – but I think it was around the same time “The Phantom Menace” was being filmed in Sydney. I don’t have any copies, it’s just a fuzzy memory from the past, and even if I did have a copy it would be on tape – this was well before the age of digital masters. But I know that for about three months whenever I was asked what I was working on I would say “I’m making training videos on how to play lawn bowls”. And the person asking would laugh. So would I.

Lawn Bowls is a distinctly Commonwealth sport and one that is especially popular in Australia. Even fifteen years later I can remember one piece of trivia from the series – there are more lawn bowls players in Australia than in the rest of the world combined.

Crackerjack
The Australian film “Crackerjack” was based on the absurd idea that someone under 60 might actually enjoy lawn bowls!

In Australia lawn bowls is synonymous with retirement, which is a polite way of saying it is synonymous with old people. It’s not revered, like surfing or football or motorsport. It’s daggy. It’s gentle. It’s the punchline for jokes. It’s what your grandparents do. Lawn bowls is so thoroughly linked with the image of old age that an indie feature film was made about the preposterous idea that someone under 60 might actually play it!

But despite the daggy image, lawn bowls is incredibly popular and a big business. Local bowls clubs can be the social hub for their members, and the size of bowls clubs can be impressive if not outright astonishing. They may not be fashionable, but bowls clubs can be small empires.

Moama is a small country town in Australia with a population of about 5,500. The Moama Lawn Bowls Club is the largest facility in the town and I have a vague recollection that 1 in 3 Moama residents is a member. The large size of the club in a small rural town is testament to the popularity of lawn bowls as a sport and a social network.

At some point in the 1990s, the advertising agency for the Moama bowls club thought it would be a good idea to have training videos for new members. The project came to the company I was working for at the time – Entertainment Media in Melbourne. Titled ‘Green Fever”, the series was comprised of three half-hour videos that were offered for sale at the club, and also by mail-order. The entire project kept me busy for about three months.

Different paths to different worlds

Of all the things I have learned since leaving university, the most significant is that “the industry” is not simply one big happy family. I thought it would be, because university generally was. My last article was trying to make that point – at uni we were all united by our passion to create things, whether that was comedy, music, drama, fantasy, documentary, experimental art or so on. It was normal for us to swap and change what we were doing every day, every week, or even every few hours. We collaborated with musicians, dancers and other artists. That’s the point of university – it’s an exciting time where new ideas are explored. In fact the main thing I got out of the film “Pitch Perfect” was the way the main character’s dad kept saying “College is about the experience”. Yes, I agree completely, although my experience didn’t involve A cappella choir groups.

GreenFever_CareerPath_01
What I thought it would be like after uni…

The industry” is not really like that. While there is some crossover between crew members, over time I discovered that what could generally be described as “the industry” was in fact a loose collection of quite different industries, which in some cases had little or nothing to do with each other. As I started work in the late 1990s, over the next few years I began to see that there were seven quite distinct industries that all came under the broader banner of film and television production:

  • Feature Films
  • Television shows (programs for broadcast not made by TV stations)
  • TVCs
  • Corporate videos
  • Documentaries
  • Television stations (i.e. full time news crews)
  • Weddings (or single-person production companies)

The term ‘career path’ is commonly used, but what I slowly realized was that the further down one path you go, the further away you are from the other paths. I feel I should emphasise that this is my own personal observation, and it’s not something I’ve heard other people discuss.

GreenFever_CareerPath_02
…and what it’s really like.

I’ve touched on this before in previous articles, but it’s such a fundamental and critical observation – perhaps the most significant thing I’ve learned – that I’ll repeat an example:

This phone call has never happened:

“Hi, is that Bob, from Bob’s Budget Wedding Videos?”

“Yes, Bob speaking, how can I help you?”

“Bob, it’s George Lucas speaking. I’m here with Steven and we’re talking about the next Indiana Jones film we’ve got coming up and who could shoot it. We saw your video of Alice and Keith’s wedding and we think you’re the man for the job. We ran it by Harrison and he agrees – he loved the way you captured the tossing of the bouquet. Are you free next year?”

This example is supposed to be funny. There’s an obvious difference between shooting a wedding video and shooting a Hollywood blockbuster, and the difference is so big that it’s unrealistic to expect that a career in wedding videos will lead to a job on a Hollywood film.

It’s important – VERY IMPORTANT – to stress that I am not ridiculing anyone who makes wedding videos. I’ve come across several guys who’ve made a great career out of shooting weddings with a professional attitude and smart business acumen. In fact, when I think of the people I know who make wedding videos , and those who aspire to be great TVC directors, it’s the ones making wedding videos who are more likely to have a fancy car and a holiday house. But there’s no disputing the fact that shooting a wedding is different to shooting a Hollywood film.

This is another phone call that’s never happened:

“Hi, is that Bob’s video productions?”

“Yes, Bob speaking, how can I help you?”

“Bob, it’s Keith from McCann Erikson – the advertising agency. We’re planning some more Nespresso TV commercials with George Clooney, and we know you made the training videos that are packaged with the Nespresso machines. I think you’ve done stuff for the Nespresso YouTube channel as well. You obviously know the brand and the product, so we figured that you’re the man for the job.  If you’re not sick of Nespresso already are you available next month to direct a few TV commercials?”

This fictional phone call is just as unlikely as the first one. But the key difference is that while the first phone call is unrealistic to the point of being a joke, the industry is full of people who still think the second phone call is going to happen to them. But in reality, the idea that someone will be awarded a job directing a high profile TVC on the strength of their corporate video work is just as unrealistic as someone landing a job as a Hollywood DoP because they shot a wedding video.

These industries – wedding videos, Hollywood films, corporate videos and TV commercials are really quite distinct.  In my experience, there is little crossover between them.  What I have seen repeatedly is that someone in the same industry but with less experience is more likely to get the job than someone with more experience in a different industry.  As an example – someone who has spent years working as a DoP shooting TVCs is more likely to be given a job directing a TVC than someone who has been directing corporate videos for years.

This observation that the industry is actually several distinct industries is not a better or worse comparison – and I’ve posted other articles trying to explain that. The world of TV commercials is simply a different world to corporate videos. Not better, not worse, just different in many ways.

This observation isn’t what most people expect – hence the second fictional phone call above not sounding like a joke, even though it’s just as unrealistic as the first.  It’s also not what most graduates want to hear.  The idea that years of experience making corporate videos will not count for much in the world of TV commercials or feature films is frankly unsettling (especially if you work in the corporate sector and want to make films…) and yet so important that it’s the most significant lesson of my career.

Each of these industries has their own distinct culture – so the differences aren’t just in the types of work being done and the clients they’re done for, but in the way the projects are made and what it’s like to make them. The types of clients, the production schedules, budgets and timeframes, as well as the technical requirements all give these different industries their own vibe.  The production offices will have a different working culture. Sometimes I think analogies help to explain this better, so think about different food industries instead:

Working for a 3-hat restaurant is different to working at a café that caters for the 9-5 office crowd. Restaurants have different vibes to pubs, then you also have private catering businesses, food trucks, and business that employ in-house staff such as hospitals, conference venues and so on. All of these scenarios involve professionals preparing food for a living, but each one of these environments will have a different working culture.  Not every cook aspires to work in a 3-hat restaurant.  Working 7 – 3, Monday to Friday in a cafe might be more appealing than working until 2am six days a week in a restaurant.  Perhaps owning your own food truck and being your own boss is the life for you.

The same goes for the various film & television industries – the difference isn’t just in the types of clients, but extends to the types of office cultures and working environments, and they all appeal to different types of people.

The story in the credits

According to the internet, when the film “Nosferatu” was produced in 1922 it was made with a total crew of 19 people.

In 2013, “Iron Man 3” listed over 3,300 people in the credits – and the average Hollywood blockbuster lists well over 2,000.

That’s a lot of people to make a film.

Working on a film that’s the scale of “Iron Man 3” is very different to making Uncle Bob’s wedding video. And making Uncle Bob’s wedding video is also pretty different to making a TV commercial, and they’re all very different to making a documentary.

One critical aspect of those differences is “ownership” – how closely you feel associated with the final product. The concept of ownership has become one of the most significant factors in the direction of my career path.

It would take a whole other article to completely describe the differences in culture between feature films, corporate videos and the other industries I listed above, but it’s enough to say that one of the biggest differences is how closely the people working on them feel to the end result.

I’ve often found it interesting that some of the people I know who’ve worked on Hollywood blockbusters can feel quite removed from the end product. Hundreds of animators worked on “Mars needs Moms” but I bet they’re not thinking that the film failed because they didn’t do a good job. Feature films involve huge hierarchies and many levels of control and supervision, so it’s easy to feel like a small cog in a big machine. And while Iron Man 3 did a lot better than Mars needs moms, I’m not convinced that every one of the 3,300 people who worked on it thinks the film was a success solely because of their own individual work.  In fact the individual CG artists who work on blockbusters are often unaware of the basic script – by the time you break a 120 minute film down into 75 frame shots and divide them up between hundreds of people, it’s pretty hard for them to judge how all the pieces will look when they’re put back together.

The fact is that even though several thousand people may work on a film, only a handful of people make the key creative decisions that shape the final result. Please don’t take this as any sort of criticism against the people who work on feature films – it’s just that most films only have one director, one director of photography, one production designer, one colour grader and so on. The thousands of people who work on your average Hollywood film are all doing wonderful work – even if a film doesn’t do well at the box office it can still be technically excellent – but the simple fact is that if you’re one of 300 animators working on a blockbuster film then your main job is to ensure your work looks the same as the other 299 animators, and not to do whatever you think looks good.

I’m sure it feels great to work on a film like Iron Man 3, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or any other blockbuster film that is a smash hit and sets box office records. I know that when I meet someone who says “I worked on The Avengers” or “I worked at Weta” then I am in awe.

But that’s a different world to the one I work in.

Most of the projects I’ve worked on have involved less than ten people. Some have involved less than five. It’s rare that I work on projects that are seen by the general public – although it’s nice when that happens. I know that when I tell someone I work on conference openers or even opening ceremonies it doesn’t inspire the same level of awe as it would if I said I worked on Star Wars. But the reason I’m happy doing what I do is because of that magic word – ownership.

Lawn Bowls cont…

Green fever was a tiny production with an even smaller budget. Most of the work was done by a team of 3 people – myself, my colleague at the time who directed the shoot, and the DoP. I think it took two days to shoot (on Betacam SP) and I’m pretty sure the Director doubled-up as the sound recordist because the budget was too low to justify hiring one.

But when I look at “Green Fever” I can happily say “I made that”. I did the initial research and wrote three half-hour scripts, so I can call myself the writer. I helped organize and schedule the shoot, so I can call myself the co-producer. I edited the three half-hour shows, so I can call myself the editor – both offline and online. And I designed the opening titles as well as all of the graphic elements used throughout the series, so I was the motion graphics designer and the colour grader. I even mixed all of the audio too.

While my friends might have a giggle when I say I worked on training videos for Lawn Bowls, it was fun and immensely satisfying to see a project from initial concept all the way through to completion, and think of the end result as something that was mine. That feeling of responsibility – ownership – is the reason I work in the film and television industry. There’s a basic pride in having an idea of how something should be made and then making it.

If I was offered a role on a Star Wars film I can’t imagine saying no. But I know I wouldn’t have any level of control over the end result. It might turn out to be the most fun job I’ve had, and it would definitely be the most high profile. But if it ever happens, and my name is added to the 3,000 other names in the credits, I wouldn’t be sitting in the cinema thinking “I made that”.  In fact I’d probably be sitting there thinking of everything I’d have done differently.

So as much as I giggled a bit about making videos on Lawn Bowls, I spent a rewarding three months producing a series of videos that I had ownership of, which were made exactly the way I wanted them to be made, and which I can still look at today and think “I made that”.

Success has many parents, failure is an orphan

Green Fever is a distant memory now, but it’s the earliest example I can remember where I started to see how the industry worked and decided that I was happier having creative control rather than working on projects with a high profile.

The industry isn’t one big happy family where projects of all types come and go. The industry is a loose collection of smaller but clearly distinct industries, and each one has it’s own working culture.  Recognising that and working out where I fit in (and where I am happiest) has been more significant than any software or hardware upgrade.

Would I rather work on something like Star Wars?

Actually, not really.

What’s important to me is that I can go home at the end of each day and look at what I’ve done and think “that is mine.” And if that means animating lawn bowls instead of light sabres, then so be it.

 

Did you enjoy this longer read?  If so, check out some of the other longer articles I have written on similar themes:

Or just check out my ProVideoCoalition channel for everything else.


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Chris Zwar

Chris was born a geek, and was lucky enough to own a Commodore 64 at a time when the number of students at his primary school who owned a computer could be counted on one hand. Upgrading to an Amiga with the onset of the desktop video revolution, Chris began experimenting with digital graphics and animation in his bedroom, and incorporating them into his high-school video productions.

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