Tuesday, May 20th, 2003 Article by Jean-Eric Hénault

Interview Tom Atkin

We Interview Tom Atkin, Founder of the Visual Effects Society

We were very fortunate to have this interview with Tom Atkin, founder of the Visual Effects Society (VES) in Los Angeles. Mr. Atkin has an interesting vision of our industry as a whole and where it’s going. For those who don’t already know who he is, introducing Tom Atkin…

CGC: Perhaps you could begin by telling us what brought you to California?

TA (Tom Atkins): I came to California in 1965 when I graduated from military school in Albany, New York. I chose California because it was 3000 miles from Albany, beaches, the Beach Boys, USC football and babes. Of course, it took many years to realize that you can run away from problems, but they have a nasty way of following you wherever you go. Hence, I had to work through them eventually in California.

CGC: How long have you been involved with the Visual Effects Industry?

TA: I have directly been involved for about 10 years. It started when I was doing marketing for several divisions of Sony including Sony Pictures Studios, Culver Studios, Sony Post Production Sound, Sony High Def and the Sony Mobile Trumbotron. Imageworks was developed, and I asked if I could do their marketing. They said okay. I told them I knew nothing about visual effects. Where could I do some due diligence through the visual effects union, guild, society or whatever. I was told there was no such organization. People had tried, but it could not be done. I thought that this seemed like a great challenge and opportunity, so I started to figure out how I might put together such an organization.

CGC: Tell us what inspired you to create the Visual Effects Society?

TA: The answer for this is mostly in the previous answer… because there was no such organization. I could not understand how the future of entertainment (visual effects in my opinion) had no professional organization. Also, I was intrigued when people told me it could not be done. I love a good challenge.

CGC: Do you believe today, you have attained the goals you had originally set your sights on?

TA: Partially. In six years VES has upwards of 800-900 global members, and we DO NOT solicit members. Getting accepted to VES is a rigorous process, and members must really be proven visual effects professionals. VES receives upwards of 150-200 applications per year, and again, remember VES does NOT solicit people for membership. VES will put on its 5th VES Festival of Visual Effects in the United States, and is doing its 3rd effort in Europe.

VES was not altogether pleased with its first European effort about four years ago, but since then we have partnered with eDIT and the State of Hessen to produce eDIT/VES: The European Festival for Production and Visual Effects. We will hold our second eDIT/VES in Frankfurt in September, and we are extremely pleased with the growth and development of this event. This year, VES held its 1st Annual Awards Show. This was a major feat. It is an extraordinarily difficult process which is made even more complex by the extremely rapid changes in this industry.

VES was pleased with its first awards show, and we look forward to a strong growth curve in this area. There is still much to do. There is a large emphasis on getting a world class VES archive in place. To this end, VES had partnered with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences to jointly house the VES Collection in the Academy Archives. VES plans to aggressively develop this over the next few years. VES wants also to develop distance learning programs and a global visual effects competition for young people interested in our industry. This will become a part of the VES Festival. If I can bring all or most all of these few things to life under my service as Executive Director I will have reached my goals.

CGC: During our original phone conversation, you said that, the golden age of VFX is behind us. What is this golden age and why is it behind us in your opinion?

TA: The Golden Age of Visual Effects was from Star Wars until the early 90’s. During this time, the work load often exceeded the qualified artists and/or companies who could perform it. During this time, many colleges and professional schools greatly upgraded their filmmaking and digital departments and emphasis. This prompted many people to get in the visual effects industry. This eventually changed the business to where there were more people than work. Thus, the business became far more competitive and difficult to survive much less make a profit. Today, there are many people trained to do this kind of work. There are two problems. The first is that the big salaried jobs of the 80’s and 90’s are not so plentiful and certainly not highly paid as in the past. The second is that these storytellers are not properly trained in most cases. Hence, we have more people being more competitive with less profit and questionable talents. Thus, the Golden Age of Visual Effects driven by a few great people doing all the work is gone. That being said, the quality of the work does get better and better with lower cost technology and artists in a competitive environment. So in some ways, there has been improvement, while in other ways it has been quite painful for many trying to get in the industry and then to survive.

CGC: Do you think that easy access to computer technology today made the industry a democracy?

TA: No. All technology can and should do is help the artist and make a more level playing field. I think it has certainly given artists huge capabilities to perform, and the cost has come down for the technology to do the work. This is not a democracy, but more attractive to survive as a business.

CGC: You seem to have a very bleak vision for the medium-size VFX companies, why is that?

TA: I would say that you misunderstood this. I think medium to small are the model companies of the future. I have some concerns about the bigger companies that have huge overheads to support. Without a “deep pockets” support, these larger companies are exposed to almost frightening economic downturns. In order to withstand these, big companies must have the cash flow to retain talent and survive in slow production cycles. The bigger the company, the bigger the monthly overhead is, and when things get tough these overheads are business killers. Down the road, successful companies will need global connections and support in order to be globally competitive. Visual effects are “zeroes” and ”ones” at the speed of light. This business requires an understanding of what the world is doing all the time. If you are not always looking at the world, then you put yourself in danger. Visual effects is one of the fastest growing global businesses in spite of the fact that it is hard to be profitable with any regularity.

CGC: The Hollywood magic, the glamour, the appeal. So many young men and women who move to LA, hoping to become an actor or actress. But very few actually make it. Someone recently told me: “That’s why we have such great looking waitresses in LA!”. Do you think we could draw parallels to the VFX World?

TA: Yes and no. All artists want to have the biggest canvas to express their art. Thus, feature films are the sexy “Hollywood” attraction for the artist. The good thing is that there are many areas wherein visual effects are used besides feature films. These include television, commercials, music videos, gaming, industrial work and so forth. So, if the artist can be happy working in various mediums there will be less broken hearts and disappointment. If you will only be satisfied being the senior visual effects supervisor for ILM or nothing else, then you may be in for some heartache. The higher you go in any industry, the thinner the air becomes and less people can survive up their.

CGC: During our phone conversation, you also mentioned something about the rise of the Pacific Rim. How do you see this situation evolve?

TA: Again, I see the world as an open marketplace eventually. There are great artists in poor or third world or underdeveloped countries. Eventually, these folks will be trained to enter the visual effects storytelling world. If they are gifted, properly trained and cost far less than others…the marketplace for their services will find them. There are really only two things that matter when you send work outside of your country of origin. These are what is the talent on the ground like, and what will it cost. If the talent is good, and the costs are attractive the work should follow. To this end, I think that China, Korea, India and other countries will have a major impact when they get up to speed in this industry.

CGC: What is the event you are having this June in LA?

TA: VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects. This is our 5th year. VES focuses on the process of storytelling when visual effects used to bring the director’s vision to life. The Festival has the BEST visual effects artists and projects. This is the “Master’s Classes” of visual effects storytelling. Truly, to really understand this event, one must attend. It is simply to cool to explain by word of mouth.

CGC: Who will be there?

TA: Go to www.vesfestival.org and review the schedule. The names of the speakers will begin to appear as the participants determine what they will present and who best from their teams will do so.

CGC: Looking back now, what is your proudest achievement with VES?

TA: The very first event VES did was to recognize Peter Ellenshaw, Albert Whitlock, Ray Harryhausen and Linwood Dunn as VES Honorary Members. Honorary Membership is the highest distinction the Society can bestow. Only Douglas Trumbull has been added to this group in six years. The night we did this, 95 year old Linn Dunn and I met. This was only the second time Linn had made an appearance in the last year. He was extremely ill. In fact, he was dying. I leaned down to thank him and congratulate him on his honor. Looking up at me from his walker he said, “Thanks, Tom, but I am not here to accept an award. I am here to thank you and any others involved for putting together an organization for visual effects professionals while I am still alive. It has always been a lifelong dream of mine to see this happen. Thank You!” Linn passed away 30 days later. There has been no finer moment for me personally than that one brief evening with Linn, Ray and Peter. Al Whitlock never made it because he too was ill, and has also since passed. Meeting these most gifted artists is enough, but when Linn Dunn made all of his effort to get there to say “thanks” will always be the highlight of this experience.

I would like to think that VES was the most fulfilling business thing I have accomplished. Doing things has always been about “doing them”. Money has never been my motivation. I hope that when this is done I will take on the ultimate CHALLENGE. This would be my own creativity…and, so maybe, some day I will finally sit down and write a book or screenplay.

Many thanks go to Marty Shindler and Tom Atkin for making this interview possible.
Interview Questions by Jean-Eric Hénault

Related Links:

Visual Effects Society