This article was first published on VFX Serbia.
- Tell us a little bit about yourself – where did you grow up, what did you study and what path led you to the post-production industry?
I grew up in Socialist Yugoslavia, in Opatija, a small town by the sea. It was an idyllic childhood and completely detached from technology and computers. I actually saw the first computer when I came to London to improve my English in 1980’s. I was 21. The fact that I am still here says a lot (about my English hahahaha). I got into the industry by complete accident and literally by stepping on someone’s foot at a party. After I apologised we got chatting and he later introduced me to his friends who were Cambridge scientists designing Computer Graphics hardware and software. They had an office on Soho Square and asked me if I would come in and play with their computers so I used to waitress during the day, nearby in Greek Street, and go into the offices in the evenings. Few months later I was sent to do a freelance job. The rest is history. Hahahahaha I very quickly learned, on my first job with the clients, that the most important thing is not how good you are, though it helps, but how well you get on with people. I took over a job from someone who got into difficulties and tried to entertain the clients with as many East European jokes as possible. It worked. The next day I was sent a bunch of flowers by the clients and the company offered me a job.
- What can you tell us about working for MPC, The Mill and Glassworks?
I really enjoyed working in all 3 companies as they all do great work, invest into their people and do a lot of R&D – always pushing the boundaries of VFX. They are structurally quite different, The Mill is focused on advertising, Glassworks is advertising boutique facility, while MPC does both film and advertising. I started at MPC in commercials, continued at Glassworks and then did few film projects at The Mill. The good thing about working in these companies is that you are always surrounded by people that are better than you, so the only way is upwards.
- What is necessary for a compositor to step out from technical role and to be perceived as an artist?
To be honest a lot of artists never step into technical role. I am definitely one of them. That is if one defines technical as being able to write code and so on, having a mathematical mind. Though I must say I am quite logical and methodical and that helps. There are definitely two types of people in the industry, and there is space for both, one type that comes from a more scientific background and another that comes from the artistic one. In large facilities it is not a problem if you belong to one or the other as both are in demand. To develop into an artist one has to have a good eye which can be developed through observation of your surroundings and engaging with arts. The knowledge of photographic principles and lighting are also important. All this can be learnt, but some people have a real feel for it.
- How do you see VFX industry today?
The industry has changed dramatically since I started and the advancement in technology definitely hasn’t brought the reduction in working hours. A number of issues have arisen that will have to be tackled sooner or later. To mention just few, a difficulty of getting into the industry, the expense of the courses that lead into the industry and the insecurity once in the industry. Full time jobs are generally more common in advertising than in film and broadcast. The globalisation of VFX has meant that VFX artists have to be fairly mobile and willing to uproot and move around the World following film tax breaks. This is fine when you are young and single, but once the artists have a family it becomes more difficult and painful to sustain the livelihoods as the separation from the family becomes inevitable.
Of course for women (I am putting my feminist hat on now!) it often means dropping out of the industry. This is apparent when looking at the male – female ratio of VFX artists in the industry. 20:1. Just to demonstrate the problem I once went for an interview after having a child and the interviewer asked me “What would you do if your child had an accident. Would you just go and leave the clients behind?” I thought “What a jerk!.” but said “No, I would take them with me.” Hahahaha Clearly I didn’t want the job.
Obviously there are additional problems that affect everyone.
- What is the secret of a great VFX/Flame/Nuke Artist?
The secret is to always keep on top of what is happening in the industry and keep up with the skills. The learning never ends. Also the willingness to share one’s knowledge and be a team player is greatly appreciated. Getting on with people and being confident while also humble is a definite bonus. I think having as wide range of skills is crucial and the main reason I have survived in the industry is that I was able to move around between film, advertising and broadcast. This is relatively rare. I could only do that because I made sure my skills are always up to date and wide enough. Flexibility is the key. In fact someone asked me in an interview why I move around from company to company so often, I wasn’t moving from company to company, I was moving from software to software or hardware to hardware.
- How do you think the compositing process has changed over the last decade?
Actually the compositing process hasn’t changed that dramatically. Obviously the tools have developed, some are more automated, and there are plenty of aids to achieve photorealism in a quicker and easier way but the principles of compositing are the same.
- How globalisation influences the VFX artist?
Well for the artists in the West globalisation has created a number of problems. Having to compete with a much cheaper workforce has meant a reduction in rates and, as I mentioned earlier, certain amount of insecurity. VFX artists are not as much in control of their destinies as they used to be. Also in film environment the Film Studios have great power to shift the work around and look for cheaper and cheaper services so there is no guarantee, or shall I say loyalty, as before that meant if you have done the previous job well you are guaranteed the new job. We live in a liquid, mobile world altogether and that affects VFX too. The question of how sustainable that is will be answered with time.
- As a witness of so many changes in the industry what are your thoughts regarding the future of post-production?
We are definitely entering the Virtual World, the immersive experience of the World around us or better said the representation of the World around us that will be glossed over. I suppose that will be just another form of escape from the real World. Next big thing are digital actors. That is the definite direction of VFX at the moment. A lot of post-production will be happening on the shoots already. We are getting close to the point when production and post-production will effectively merge and the need for the traditional post-production will lessen and with time disappear.
- What challenges do you see post-production studios facing in the next few years?
The challenges have been there for years and the biggest one is keeping on top of the demands for ever-more VFX for the same or even lower budgets. It is tough. A lot of studios are getting involved in production, content creation seems to be the key to survival.
- What do you think about merging grading and compositing/finishing?
I am a total believer in merging these together. The generations of Flame artists have been doing it for years. It has been such a shock to those of us that moved to other systems having to split into one or the other. I am definitely a Finishing Artist myself as I have always done both Compositing and Grading. This is another aspect of the industry that is problematic – the narrowing of the skills. I think the wider you spread your wings the better the chance of taking the control of your career. And grading is essential part of compositing so in effect the grading could be swallowed by compositing rather than the other way around as compositing skills are a bit more complex even though the Colourists seem to get more respect. Hahahaha
- Which software do you use for your compositing? Why that software specifically?
I use The Foundry’s Nuke. It is a great piece of compositing software and used widely in the industry though my first choice would be Autodesk Flame which I consider the Rolls Royce (ok Aston Martin) of the industry. This is because I like to not just do compositing but also edit and grade. However, the difficulty with Flame is that it is expensive and so not so easy to own which for a freelance artist is a bit of a problem as one can’t keep up with the skills and experiment in one’s own time. The one company I have great respect for is Blackmagic Design for giving free access to DaVinci Resolve showing full understanding of the artist’s needs to have access to the latest releases and so stay competitive. The Foundry have also just released non-commercial Nuke license, which is a very wise step and shows they are in tune with artists needs and not just companies ones.
- Biggest difference between working on film and commercials?
The biggest difference is the turnaround, though there are also a number of different personality traits that a person working in commercials needs as opposed to the people working in film. For example in film one may end up working on one shot for 6 months. That is a long time and one needs a lot of patience. In commercials however the turnaround is much faster. The pressure in commercials is slightly greater. This is because there are so many decision makers involved so one has to have both confidence and humility to successfully interact with clients. There could be up to 20 clients in the room with you – each one with a slightly different idea of what the commercial needs to achieve. The actual client wants to sell the product, the creatives want to win an award, the director wants to make a feature film, the producer wants to keep within the budget, the account manager wants to keep everyone happy and so on… Also in film the VFX roles have been narrowed and are highly specialized while in commercials there is a scope to widen them. It is sometimes heartbreaking interviewing people from film who are between contracts and are looking for work in commercials as their skills are so specialized that it is often impossible to offer them work. A good example is a Matchmove artist so I would always advise on widening the skills to be able to move around the industry.
- Biggest difference between working as a freelancer and working for a salary?
I would always advise people entering the industry to try to get a full time job as you get a real understanding how companies work, how the interaction with the clients is performed and you get the opportunity to learn from the others. Being freelance is a bit of an isolated experience and more appropriate for the senior artists that have an established client base. Of course getting a full time job is not always possible so freelance contracts may be the only option.
- What would you say that is the most important thing that you learned through your career and experience?
- Never put all your eggs in one basket.
- It’s not how good you are but how well you get on with people.
- Rules are made to be broken.
- What is the best advise that you ever got about industry?
“It’s not how good you are but how well you get on with people.”
Somebody actually told me this at the beginning of my career and I was pretty shocked and didn’t really believe it, but it is true. A lot of people do well due to their people skills.
- What are some of the highlights of your professional career?
Definitely working on Gladiator. A number of reasons. Small team, working on Flame, doing shots from beginning to end and working closely with the Director, Ridley Scott. It is quite rare for the artists to work with film Directors these days, which is a great shame. The dynamics are totally different when you are detached from the Director and there is too much bouncing of the work back and forth.
- Do you have a favorite work that you’ve done, or something you’re especially proud of? Why that work especially?
I am an ideas person so my favourite work is my Art Direction work on Promos Title Sequences that I have shot and post-produced too http://www.klaudijacermak.com/work.html and Visions of the Future – short for UN Human Rights http://www.klaudijacermak.com/index.html. In VFX is Gladiator and commercials with Harald Zwart – I really liked working with him as he had a clear vision but always gave you leeway to suggest and try things out. I have also started painting recently and quite like this painting: http://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-Postmodern-Piet/678950/2235633/view
- What has inspired you and kept you determined over the years?
An insatiable hunger for knowledge. I am totally driven to do, learn and try out new things.
- In your opinion, what qualities does an advertising campaign need to earn an award?
It needs to fulfill its purpose of selling the brand, the product or the service but in a surprising way while getting to the essence of what it is selling. This is very much based on people’s aspirations and lifestyle nowadays.
- Tell us about your book? Idea, writing process and did you expect to become big hit?
Well, this is a long story. Hahahaha My book was in a totally different shape and I was told I have to split it into 2 books. So the next one, unrelated to the industry is coming soon. The book that is out was aimed at Post-production students to give them some alternative info that they may not get on their course. I was very conscious to make the book readable and to the point, as young people seem to read a bit less than we do. J The funny thing is that I actually made such an effort to make it as concise as possible and some people don’t like that. Hahahaha The book was entirely based on the questions students asked me after my talks at universities so it is by no means a comprehensive guide but I think it is pretty helpful. I know that my colleagues and I would have found it helpful to have known some things that are in the book before entering the industry.
- What are your major influences? Any artists in particular who influenced you a lot, or other media such as music and movies?
Many many people but I will give you 5: Tolstoy, Tarkovsky, Malevich, Kandinsky, Kis. The most inspirational contemporary artists for me are Abbas Kiarostami, Zeng Fanzhi, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuaron, Aki Kaurismaki.
- What is your opinion of the VFX industry in ex-yugoslav territory? Will it grow in the near future? Did you had a chance to work with artists from Balkans?
I know there are a number of great VFX artists in ex Yugoslavia. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to work with them. I have worked briefly with Alex Pejic and Jelena Stojanovic in London. They have very good reputation here. Also Dado Valentic who is a Colourist in London.
- Do you have any advice for aspiring visual FX artists?
The first advice I give to students is to read ‘Skills for Success’ book by Stella Cottrell. Sounds cheesy but it gives you an opportunity to get to know yourself, your aspirations, your strengths, your weaknesses and enables you to define what success is to you. Once you understand these you are able to research the industry and tailor your path towards a set goal and understand the skills you need to achieve to reach that goal. And always keep learning new skills.
- What is the best side of working with visual effects? Why do you love what you do?
I am a visual person. I like creating beautiful images. I like a challenge. I like solving problems. VFX are always full of challenges and problems and sometimes beautiful images. Hahahaha
Klaudija Cermak History Reel
- Could you share some anecdotes about your work or projects that still make you laugh today?
Well, the best one must be when you are sitting with the clients and somebody says “Could you add 10% more magenta please?” and you go to the menu to make a change and before you actually make it you hear a voice saying “That’s much better”. Hahahaha That’s a classic.
This article was first published on VFX Serbia.