Jonathan Harris: broadening VFX horizons
VFX supervisor Jonathan Harris joined Squint/Opera a year ago after freelancing and working as a compositor in major feature films like ‘Man of Steel’ or the Harry Potter franchise. Taking the reigns as a supervisor and being part of the Squint/VFX division, Jonathan talks about producing effects for large-scale projects, breaking the traditional models of talent sourcing and distribution, and tackling new opportunities in the VFX industry.
I’m George from Movidiam and today we’re speaking with VFX Supervisor Jonathan Harris. Jonathan, welcome to the Movidiam podcast.
Thank you, nice to meet you.
So Jonathan, you’re an absolute specialist as a VFX supervisor. You’ve been in the industry for a number of years and done some remarkable projects which we can come to. But currently you’re based at Squint/Opera.
Yes, that’s right. Squint/Opera’s been around for about 13 years and we started out as architectural previsualizations. And I joined about a year ago and we’ve been sort of split off under the hood of Squint/Opera and created Squint Digital FX, Squint VFX.
That’s interesting. Is that led by the architectural side of things, needing more sort of visual effects work, or is that a completely different entity?
It’s gonna be a completely different entity. It took us a while to figure out how we position ourselves and do visual effects within a company that specialised in architectural previs. But essentially it’s the same skill set, it’s the same computer, the same software. But the market’s extremely different, so we’ve decided to tweak the name a little bit and give it a bit more focus on VFX. And I think that’s needed across the board for all the artists and also for the pipeline and just the way we work. Although it’s very similar, it’s just too different to kind of kick it the same.
Very interesting. And how are you planning on building your Squint VFX team? Is that a percentage in-house or percentage freelance or using freelance networks, such as Movidiam?
Definitely, yeah. In the beginning we started out just kind of pulling in all the resources that we had available to us at Squint/Opera. Most importantly, for some new business it’s the HR, the accounts team, just having desk space and computers.
So it was a nice, easy start, but we’ve realized that we need to get the more specific now. And so with websites like Movidiam, and communities like Movidiam, really help us connect with the right types of people that we need.
You’ve worked on some of incredible films before your time at Squint/ Opera, such as Harry Potter, Man of Steel, and The Avengers to name a few. How have you seen the process sort of effectively crewing up change and evolve for, you know, teams such as your new one at Squint VFX?
Well, I guess for me as a freelancer for the last ten years, it’s just been about collecting email addresses and insurance, trying to get an in, in a company. Trying to find someone that you might know or a friend of a friend knows. And then obviously you can send your CV and reel, but it is a little bit who you know. Now setting up the company and trying to connect with artists, it’s the first time I’ve used Movidiam from that point of view. And I think it just gives you a better insight into who’s out there, where they are, and where they’ve been. It’s a much better summary of what’s going on right now. And of course, a much better way of connecting with these people.
In terms of sort of previously, when you’re on a large feature film, for example, in the VFX team, what are the sort of numbers of people you are working with?
Well, the company ‘s straight up to about 1,000. But on a per-project basis, it would be about 200, but you would have different sites around the world. So maybe 200 in London and 50 in Vancouver or the other way around, and New Zealand as well. So yeah, it’s huge scale projects, people from all over the world.
I suppose with anything, communication and sort of outlining a vision, building the processes, building the pipeline, and sort of actually delivering on that, is a major part when you’ve got so many moving parts. And that’s something we’ve really focused on as well inside our project management features. As a supervisor, is that one of your main challenges, sort of bringing comms together?
Absolutely, I think the more I experience trying to serve the company and run the shows, the more I value the tools that we’re using in order to sort of keep communication good and also bring in the right artist. At the end of the day, it’s all about the artist when you’re sort of in the full throng of the production. And if you can empower them with good tools, it really makes everyone’s job a lot easier.
A good artist with good tools is the best scenario. So Movidiam connects us with good artists, and then we hope to provide them with good tools.
I’m as yet to try the Movidiam Project Management, but I’m looking forward to that.
Yep, we’re really excited actually. We’re building out a whole bunch of new features in a sort of version two of Project Management, which will be launched in about three months time. So there’s a lot of updates coming to that based on feedback that we’ve had from the community to date. So can you tell us a little bit about the sorts of project that you might be taking on at Squint and how you’re gonna look to tackle that and actually find the business?
Well, I guess we started just by myself reaching out to contact some people I knew. And trying to build up that network and let people know that we’re a business and that I was more capable than just being a freelance artist to take on more. And those projects started out as being four British TV dramas. So we did a bunch of shots for the BBC ‘The Living and the Dead’, and also Channel 4’s and E4’s and ‘The Aliens’. And that sort of work is not a VFX heavy show, but It’s key part of the production. Our crew would be up to about ten people. So moving forwards will be more inverged like the shows, but of course, we’d like as a head towards bigger VFX-heavy productions and use that kind to build our team and build our software, sort of little bit more capable and take on bigger projects.
And what’s the sort of five-year plan? Is that to get back into sort of the feature world with the unique proposition of being able to execute these things efficiently for larger studios?
Yeah, that would be my dream, I think. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a feature, but it’s in my experience of commercials, TV, and features it is the medium where you get to sort of do you best work. And there’s a little bit more time and there’s a little bit more of sort of pushing the boundaries and doing work. So I would like to go towards feature and what sort of way the industry’s going. It’s sort of feature films are storing up by the big production houses that run it.So I think we’ll probably focus on TV and try and get into American markets where there’s more money. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get a few high profile commercials, where we can also do some nice work.
And showreel work. Well we look forward to seeing those coming up onto the Movidiam profile in time. Yes, I think it’s very interesting how the sort of industry has shifted around. I think it’s probably one of the biggest changes here is when the distribution changes, everything else sort of changes around it. Whether you sort of feel it coming immediately or whether it’s an issuative process. And I suppose the introduction falls to brands and businesses the likes of YouTube and other video platforms, who elect to get their messages out. It means that effectively a whole generation of creators can actually now be producing content for different brands and businesses. And in the past, they might not have had that opportunity, there might have only been the television or the feature film route. So you’ve gone from feature films. You’ve then gone into an architectural firm that needs your VFX supervising skills and now you’re developing a sort of slightly more TV brand proposition again. Very interesting journey. Could you comment on that a bit?
Yeah, I mean I think it’s really exciting. With, well we mentioned, like YouTube and Netflix, and the way distribution is changing with things such as Vimeo On Demand. It’s just a lot easier to get your content out there. Well easier to get out there but maybe not to get it noticed and make money from it. But, yeah, you don’t have to go and be in traditional routes of big broadcasters like BBC and ITV, where it would just take an age to get anything through. So yeah, we’re really excited about that. I mean, Squint/Opera and Squint VFX are very keen to get into create their own TV shows. And we have all the tools to do that. The architectural firm in Squint/Opera go out and make three-minute films for all sorts of developers. And so they have all the kit and they have all the experience, storyboarding, directing, organizing shoots, editing and final deliverance.
Very interesting, in the past, that might have been a business who would have to go to a different agency or a different production company. But now they’ve decided that with the sort of slightly democratized equipment, it’s easier to sort of bring that in-house, effectively.
Yeah, definitely. So now we need to strengthen our post-production, which is what Squint VFX is all about. And then I guess we should connect with the ideas, with writers and directors, and just trying to pull in these talents and let them know that we’re able to help them make that work, and then get the constant out there, I think. That’s just going to broaden the horizons for any person’s symmetry.
It kind of represents a very interesting sort of shift, isn’t it? Because previously you had to go into sort of Soho or some other part of town to get your edit facility or your grade facility or whatever it is. And now it seems that every small business needs to be a media production house as well.
Yeah, I mean, the lines are really blurring, so the old traditional way to promote to clients, agencies, and then production houses is no longer true, everyone’s doing a bit of everything. The client probably has a bit of post-production in-house and the agency does everything. And now the post-production houses are trying to make their own content and be the clients. Yeah, it’s really, really changing and I think it’s quite exciting.
Yeah, and for a freelancer, like you have been for a number of years, what is your ideal situation? Is it just to have jobs coming through platforms like Movidiam and being presented, and being able to pick and choose I’ll take this one or I’ll take that one? Because you literally are refining the work and looking at the tools that you use, which is where the focus should be and marketing and finding work should come perhaps in a different channel.
Well, I mean, I’m gutted I’m not freelancing and didn’t start at Movidiam beforehand. I think the power of that tool is to be a freelancer, to have that freedom but still connected to the industry. So you can be working from anywhere. You could choose to be in an office or you could be at home, by the beach. But you can feel connected and you can feel part of a team and I think that’s really important for freelancers.
Well I think it’s very interesting, isn’t it? Because it can be quite a lonely process if you don’t have that connection. We’ve actually just introduced another feature recently last week, which is the payment tool as well.. So you can actually pay people efficiently through the platform as well. So when someone comes to you, you might not necessarily know, there’s a sort of escrow payment service, that was actually released last week. So it’s a very efficient way to send files and actually receive payments. So I think one of the big pains for freelance work is occasionally it’s not not going to get paid on time or getting paid a little bit late, based on the waiver fees for the accounts team.
Yeah, it’s also a bit harder to talk about money, isn’t it? If you can just concentrate on creating and connecting and building art.
Sure, that’s a big issue, as well, is that you can just focus on what’s important to kind of progress, not chasing invoices.
What other projects are you making now? Well, you might not be able to talk about, but is there anything else particularly inspiring on the horizon? Because if we go back into your previous world and I think obviously as a supervisor or visual effects team on Man of Steel or Avengers… I mean they are huge, sort of multi-national projects, aren’t they really? And they’re seen by vast audience. I mean, what’s it like going into an auditorium or seeing some of this work participated on that sequence there?
I mean I always thought it was fantastic. And then just sitting there with your computer in one of these big production houses and you have all that footage on your screen that you need to work and to produce, and the effects, it’s just so inspiring and motivating. We feel the fact that it’s been about a year or two of people planning, prepping, shooting just to get to that stage to get it in front of you. So I’ve always enjoyed being a part of that huge process of a feature film, and that was only as a compositor. So now I’m just learning the ropes of supervision and trying to sort of translate their skills there as a compositor, VFX supervising. And so I’m looking forward to more of that really.
It’s just trying to become a better supervisor and managing my team and producing as good a work as I can and using those old feature films as a benchmark.
Benchmark skills, I think there’s going to be some lucky brand to plan plants down the line with that sort of expertise in the pipeline. Jonathan, it’s been great to chat and I ‘m sure you got a whole bunch of projects you’ve got to jump back onto. So I’d highly recommend visiting Jonathan Harris’s profile on Movidiam. And if you haven’t heard from our previous podcast with Simon Rowling, you can catch it on the Movidiam blog or on iTunes.
Jonathan, thanks so much for your time.
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