Episode 146 — Framestore’s Recruiter Kathleen Ruffalo
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Episode 146 — Framestore’s Recruiter Kathleen Ruffalo
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 146! I’m speaking with Kathleen Ruffalo from Framestore. She is a Crew Manager. It was great to speak to her about Framestore and her experience managing any kind of artist. She shares such great insight, I’ve already been quoting her everywhere.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[-1:20:59] I’ve put out some free training at allanmckay.com/plasma/. It’s available until June 24th. You have 8 hours of high end training. This should be a lot of fun. If it’s past June 24th, you can still sign up for future releases.
INTERVIEW WITH KATHLEEN RUFFALO
Kathleen Ruffalo is the Crew Manager for Framestore. She is in charge of recruitment, management and team development at both the Los Angeles and Chicago offices.
After years of production experience, Kathleen joined Framestore in 2012. Since then, she has become an integral part of growing the creativity and culture within Framestore. She casts a wide array of skill sets that match the industry’s ever-changing and evolving technologies.
In this Episode, Kathleen talks about becoming an artist in demand — the importance of both technical and artistic, hard and soft skills — and gives valuable tips on reels and getting started in Visual Effects.
Framestore’s Website: https://www.framestore.com
Framestore on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/framestore
Framestore on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Framestore/
[-[1:20:15] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time to chat! Kathleen, do you want to just quickly introduce yourself?
Kathleen: Yes, so I’m Kathleen Ruffalo. I am the Crew Manager for Framestore Integraded Advertising for both Los Angeles and Chicago.
[-[1:20:02] Allan: Did you always want to work in film and tv? Or was it something you fell into?
Kathleen: I did have a focus in art initally. I studied photography in high school. I went to art school for college [where] I discovered the world of video and film. I always loved film and cinema, but it was more interested in the live action side initially. But after I moved to LA and worked for a while, I discovered visual effects. I was one of those people who was against CGI. But as you learn about it, I realized how incredible it was and how much it can add to a story. These days, you don’t even realize what’s CG. It really change my appreciation for it. But I always loved art. Visual effects was more happenstance.
[-[1:18:36] Allan: You’re right. Visual effects can get a bad rep. It really comes down to were they good or bad visual effects. But these days, it opens a lot of doors. When did you get your big break?
Kathleen: I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s more of a conceptual art school. On a whim, I moved to Los Angeles, without a job or a place to stay. I just had a friend whose couch I slept on. I just knew that there was no way I was going to get into this industry if I didn’t take leap of faith. I moved at the time when there was a recession. There was a writers’ strike that just happened. It was pretty terrible. For the first 8 months, I couldn’t find a job to save my life! I was doing side jobs to make ends meet. It was through knowing people that I got my first job working on reality tv shows. I was a PA. I worked a few short stints, made sure to do a good job and be respectful to the crew — and it progressed from there.
I did that for about 4 years, some scripted tv and reality tv shows. I was primarily in the office, doing administrative jobs. I landed on the show House, its very final season. Through that, I met some people. The AD was dating the project manager who was getting the building set up for Framestore in LA. He turned me to the fact that they had a position of an Office Manager. I thought it was an incredible opportunity to get in. I initially interviewed for that position but they didn’t offer me that position. But they did offer me the position of a Receptionist / Runner / Production Assistant. It was a bit of a step back because I was getting more Coordinator offers on reality tv [productions]. But I thought it was a great opportunity and it would allow me to show everyone what I was capable of. I was one of the first people they hired at the LA office.
When we initially opened, there were only 5 people in the building. It was very bare bones. I helped set up the office and worked my way up over the last 6 years, and ended up in my position now. I went from being a Receptionist to Office Manager. Then I went into production because I thought I was interested in being a Producer. I quickly realized that the part I actually loved was working with artists. When I found out about that role, they gave me the opportunity. I’ve been in this position for 3 and a half years. I’ve helped with the LA office. Now, as we’re opening our offices in Chicago, I’ve been helping them as well, with recruitment and hiring. It’s been a great opportunity for me!
[-[1:13:11] Allan: Moving to LA on a whim must be scary. But it makes sense to go where the work is. Did you have much of a plan?
Kathleen: To be honest, I didn’t have much of a plan. I did apply for positions from home but it became quite apparent that you needed to know someone. I’ve always loathed that phrase: It’s not what you know — it’s whom you know. Networking is really essential to getting into the next role. A lot of places weren’t paying attention to my resume because I’ve been working on small scale projects in Chicago. I never heard anything from any of the places I applied in LA. I just decided I couldn’t wait to get an offer. I just needed to move there and pound the pavements. That’s what I did: I went there, with a few connection, went on general meetings and got people’s stories on how they broke into the industry. I had some people vouch for me. The PA position is the most entry level but it was still hard to get back in 2009. It was a struggle that I wasn’t anticipating! I was scraping by but I was so excited just to be there and make connections. It was never an option for me to go back home. Eventually, it all falls into place if you keep going. You never know where the path will take you.
[-[1:10:07] Allan: Absolutely! I think it’s so great that you decided to make it work no matter what. As you mentioned, getting your foot in is the critical part — and then you can prove what talent you have. I do know some people who had random luck and met the right people. I’d love to chat about the insights you can give to those who are breaking into the industry or those who want to get perspective on managing teams. How would you describe a typical day at your job?
Kathleen: Well, my typical day involves a lot of emails every day. I do my best to follow up with people. We get a lot of unsolicited emails and we do our best to follow up. In my role, I’m doing recruitment, scheduling and working with career development. It’s quite a big range of tasks.
– I go through emails.
– We’re constantly checking in with production that they have the team they need and that the team that they have is working.
– As new work comes in, we prepare for what we might need.
– I’m dealing with some resourcing. In the facility, we make sure everyone has the systems they need.
– We also connect with the team via reviews and see how their projects are going and where they see their careers going.
– I also work with our internship program and hiring new runners.
– It’s a lot of communicating and meetings. I’m always trying to do some passive recruitment. We’re always looking for freelance talent and we go through new applications and keep an eye on new artists. We set up general meetings with people.
[-[1:05:16] Allan: Wow! That’s pretty big!
Kathleen: We do internships three times a year. We connect with different schools. We invite student to come on tours of our facilities. We’ve been able to do it with several schools. We want to bring up the next generation of artists. But it’s a lot of emails though!
[-[1:04:27] Allan: With Chicago, how is it going? Is it mostly commercials or do you have some features coming through?
Kathleen: Just to give you the breadth of work that Framestore does: We’re across every area. We do have offices around the world: London, Montreal, New York, LA and Chicago. We do features, commercials, tv episodic, VR and AR, installations, theme parks. So it’s the whole gambit. In Chicago, it’s the smallest team, so it’s mostly commercial projects or concert visuals. We’re starting to look into candidates who have experience with realtime rendering. Games is the only thing that Framestore isn’t doing at the moment. That might change. It’s a huge range.
In Chicago, we have about 20 people. It’s definitely the smallest. We have 500 [people] in Montreal. The Chicago office is still growing which is exciting. It’s been opened for a year. A lot of finishing work comes through there as well. We’ve brought some talented people in to help set it up. It’s going quite well. There is still lots to be seen from that office.
[-[1:01:09] Allan: That’s really great! Let’s say a project got green lit internally. What happens in terms of hiring?
– If we’re bidding a project, we usually try to get a rough idea of what the schedule and needs would be from the team. We try to utilize our staff team first. Between LA, Chicago and New York, we are working as one single team. First priority is to utilize our talent. Then we communicate with producers and supervisors to see who would be the right fit for a project. I have a pretty good insight into most skill sets of our teams so I can put together a list.
– If we don’t have enough staff to cover the roles, that’s when we search our freelance pool. We have a pretty amazing network of freelancers already. We’ve been pretty established so we have our go-to people. If they aren’t available, then we go the people we’ve interviewed.
– But if all of those resources aren’t available, that’s when we start to push out to general calls for interest and availability. In Chicago, we struggle the most with freelance talent because it’s a small pool. LA is has such an amazing resource! To be honest, the work that comes out of Chicago isn’t necessarily at the level that Framestore expects and strives for. We had to push and train people to bring them up to that level. Part of our goal is to do more outreach to schools and give their students guidances in terms of what kind of work they should be doing and reels. A lot of it is soft skills too that can be taken for granted in visual effects: Having a good attitude and knowing how to collaborate, and how to take feedback.
[-[56:53] Allan: I’d love to segue into that: Do you want to talk about hard vs. hard skills?
Kathleen: Sure! For Framestore, we’re doing photo realistic visual effects work. We do have a design studio where we do motion design work or projects that are more stylized. But the majority of work that comes through our door is that high end, photo realistic visual effects work.
– We always look for candidates who have a base understanding of CG and Maya. That’s our primary software.
– We also use Houdini a lot, for effects simulations, and we’re starting to use it for lighting and grooming. I think it’s an amazing program and one that take a bit longer for people to get their head around it.
– We use Nuke and Flame for compositing. Flame is more for finishing so we don’t expect students to have that knowledge.
– Our design team uses Cinema 4D and After Effects.
– We are interested in people who have experience with Substance Painter because we’re doing more realtime work.
– We also use Zbrush a lot.
If people come in with these hard skills and general live action integration, we’re interested in them. The thing that makes our team amazing and what helps us to grow is how we emphasize those soft skills:
– Knowing how to work well within a team.
– [Knowing how to] take feedback and not take it personally. Yes, you probably put all of your heart and soul into it. It can be disheartening to start over. It’s part of the job in this industry. At the end of the day, we are a client service industry. We’re serving someone else. Take the feedback and use it to get the shot to the next level.
– Being able to clearly communicate with your team, supervisor and producer about where you are with your shot and being able to give realistic timelines. That comes with experience. It’s hard to know that right out of school. It’s better to say you’re not sure. If you oversell, it’s going to come back harder on you.
– Realize you’re on a team and work well with that team.
[-[51:36] Allan: You’re right about that. Artists need to learn to manage themselves better. It’s one of those things people don’t do intensionally. The earlier you start paying attention how long a shot takes, the better you get at managing your time. If you tell the producers it’s going to take half a day, they’ll put down a day. Everybody is adding marginal time because things do go wrong. The quicker you learn, the quicker they’ll trust what you say. I think it’s really important!
As you talked about it too, it’s critical to learn to take ownership of your work. But it’s also important to see the bigger picture when you get feedback. I heard an artist say, “As long as they have the money — I have the time!” We are hired to bring to live someone else’s vision. It’s our job.
Kathleen: I think so too!
[-[49:09] Allan: In terms of hiring, typically are you pulling from your own database or are you also reaching out to bring on new artists?
Kathleen: It’s a bit of both! Framestore is very fortunate to have such an amazing reputation. We do have a lot of candidates who apply through our website. I think that goes for a lot of big companies: For people to apply through our websites! I’d say that’s the best route to get yourself noticed! I always encourage people to go to our career section, update their profiles and reels. We’re looking at that all the time! I’m constantly looking at people who applied through our website. We also do quite a bit of outreach as well. I’m a Crew Manager at other sites and I go to various events like SIGGRAPH and job fairs. We do look at outside websites. Our supervisors might see someone on Art Station and send me their reel. LinkedIn is a great networking site. Framestore is pretty active on that. We post our job postings on social media and LinkedIn. LinkedIn is pretty effective for replying to us. When people post a new reel, it does make you take notice, especially when they’re staff somewhere else. That’s a clue to recruiters. A good 90% of people is coming to us through our website.
[-[46:03] Allan: That’s really great! Do you keep older reels on file as well?
Kathleen: It depends. Our database is controlled by what the candidate posts himself. As long as you have a Vimeo page — with all the progression of their reels — and keep it active, I love that. You can see the progression they’ve gone through. Our database if more controlled by an individual.
[-[44:41] Allan: If people are applying on your website, is there anything you can recommend for them to stand out?
Kathleen: Sure! The thing with the website: We have a lot of offices. I would encourage people to be mindful where they want to work and sponsorship opportunities (for foreign based artists). It is a bit harder, but not to say it’s impossible! I recommend thinking about if you are eligible for that situation. A small pet peeve is when a candidate applies for every position. Does this person even know what they want? Don’t apply for a runner position and a senior compositor.
[-[42:50] Allan: I think it’s so true! There is a good marketing analogy: When marketers talk about walking into a drug store with a headache, you’re going to buy the drug that says “cures headaches”, not “cures all pain”. If you’re specific, people will know what to do with your application.
Kathleen: On our website, we have general calls for CG artists. It’s very important to highlight your areas in a cover letter. We do use Generalists a lot in advertising. In feature films, we’ll use more specialized artists. In advertising because the turnaround is so quick, the more things you can do, the more likely we can roll you on to the next project. I hear a lot about cover letters being obsolete, but I do look at them. It can be a short one: just your experience, what position you’re interested in and the roles you’ve had. You’re interested in lighting and you use Houdini. We have internal tagging categories.
We love people who have computer science and artistic backgrounds. Those people are pretty rare and they bring quite a lot to the table.
[-[39:41] Allan: So having scripting or coding ability is pretty valuable?
Kathleen: Yeah! We love problem solvers. That’s what we have to deal with all the time: People who think along those lines.
– Anyone who thinks along the lines of Python is really great. If you’ve build tools and automated things, that’s going to make you stand out. Anything we can do to save time and money, it would be very beneficial to us. Those things do stand out!
– People with realtime rendering are someone we’re interested right now. Anyone who expresses interest in technology and new programs — always looking into the next thing — that shows that you have a passion for visual effect. You can express that in your cover letter. That’s really interesting to us as well.
When it comes to reels, I’m an advocate for a minute! Especially for people who are starting out! I don’t need to see every work in progress! You have to put the most interesting work at the very beginning. It’s about putting your best work up front — and keeping it short! Recruiters look at hundreds of reels. You’d be lucky if they look at 2 minutes of yours! You get what what you need to get within a minute.
[-[36:33] Allan: There is this bad advice out there: End your reel with your best work. How are people going to see your best work if it’s at the very end? Whenever I’m staffing a job, I’m going to look at hundreds of reels. I’m typically looking for an excuse to move onto to the next reel. People are focused on the wrong thing, like music. One wrong thing — one long title that goes on for 20 seconds — is enough to say, “NEXT!” Every single shot needs to keep them captivated until the next shot, and the shot. And less is definitely more!
Kathleen: Music is something you should think about. 98% of the time I have the music off because it’s distracting.
[-[35:20] Allan: Having music is good for putting on YouTube and Vimeo. But when it comes to recruiting, you’re going to have the music off. You’re just trying to make the short list as quickly as you can. I believe the cover letter is so critical. I get 5-6 people applying for my company. The more insight you can give in the first paragraph, the better it is. A quick summary is enough for me to say, “Great!”
Kathleen: I think the art of the cover letter is starting to get lost with these online application. Like you said, a paragraph is plenty. State that you’re excited about the opportunity. It’s always nice to hear that someone is excited.
A little advice on what not to do:
– I’ve had people write a wrong company they’re applying for. They’re obviously duplicating the cover letter. It’s hard not to be dismissive of that application. When you’re applying for jobs, you need to embrace that and be thoughtful, and not just copy and paste. Each company is unique and you need to make sure to demonstrate that you care and your attention to detail. If you aren’t thoughtful, it’s a clue to the recruiter that the person won’t notice mistakes in [their work].
– I tell this to our runners: If you take care and take pride in the work required of you and you’re mindful that it’s a contribution to the bigger picture, we’re going to notice that. If you’re proactive — and you make sure that client services are done well — that’s going to read on so many ways. A lot of companies can make images, but you come to Framestore for the services that we provide. It’s important to take care and pride in everything that you do.
[-[29:57] Allan: It’s the demonstration of the effort you put in. I’ve had people Carbon Copy 20 companies they’re applying for, in an email. When it comes to client service, you’re the face of that experience. As a client, you want to feel appreciated. It has a huge impact on everything. I’ve had friends who started in client services and ended up in their dream job. You have to put in the hard yards. In terms of disciplines, are there specific ones that are in demand? What are the go-to?
– Houdini effects artists are one of the biggest ones — and that’s across the board at all of our studios.
– Even more abstract effects, we’ve had to come up a lot more: You’re still using Houdini but you aren’t doing your typical destruction and thinking about particles and visceral effects. It’s been a challenge. You might have someone who’s great at Houdini and destruction effects, but when you ask them to design this abstract idea, [they can’t].
– We look for really strong compositors in Nuke.
– Now that we do real time work, we look for people with that experience but also know how to do high end visual effects.
Houdini is the biggest one, I’d say. And we look for people who have a strong understanding of photo realistic effects in CG and strong compositors that are a blend of technical and artistic. If you can automate things and deliver the shot faster, we’re looking for that.
[-[25:52] Allan: Can you talk about your graduate and runner program as well?
Kathleen: Sure! We have two programs: One is the internship and one that’s a runner program.
I. The way that it’s set up in the U.S., we have the internship program. It’s held three times throughout the year, for 3 months. The internships are open to people at all level, not just for students. It’s a paid internship: It pays $16 an hour across all the sites in the U.S. It’s an immersive internship, which means that the interns work on the projects we’re working on at that time. There will obviously be some training component, in a large production pipeline. They get feedback and go through dailies, learn to use programs like Shotgun. We don’t set interns aside to work on their own projects, but there is an ability to train. We give them opportunities to develop in new areas. Let’s say, we get someone who has experience in modeling but they want to learn texturing. We’ll get them trained in Mari. It is an amazing opportunity to play and learn, and you’ll be surrounded by some talented people in the industry. I should mention there isn’t as much pressure as there would be if you were a freelancer. There would be a certain expectation from you as a freelancer. [The internship is] more about giving you learning opportunities. It’s a great way to get exposure on what it’s like to work at Framestore. It’s a really amazing opportunity and it’s a great way to get your foot in the door.
II. The runner program is for people who aren’t ready for the internships. We do try to find people who are interested in visual effects. It is focused on client services and other tasks like ordering lunches and cleaning up the facilities, checking on clients and day-to-day admin tasks. If you have an interest in the industry, you could sit down at the computer — when you aren’t on the clock — you can use the programs and facilities. Our team is all about mentoring you. The idea is that from the runner program, you can apply for the internship. We try to focus you in some areas. That goes for three months, but we do tend to extend if they still don’t have the skills necessary for our internship program.
I should specify that our internship program is very competitive. We keep it quite small, so in LA and NY we take 3 in CG, 2 in Compositing, 2 in Design and up to 2 in VR. In Chicago, they take less because they’re smaller. We do that so that we can give one-on-one attention to our interns and give the support they deserve. It is a competitive position. Sometimes, the runner role is the best way to get started in case you didn’t get into the internship.
We have people who used to be runners who are now running the company. The president of Integrated Advertising in the U.S. started out as a receptionist, as a runner. Tim Webber started out as a runner — and he won an Oscar for Gravity. It’s a really great way to get started. There is no shame in working your way up. You’re dealing with client services and you can see the progression. You can network within the program and ask artists for feedback. Everyone values the idea of mentoring the next generation. The more everyone knows, the better we are overall. These are both amazing programs for entry level positions! And Framestore has a great reputation for promoting from within.
[-[16:04] Allan: In the U.K., traditionally, everyone starts out as a runner — and you put in the time and work your way up. You get to observe everything from that position. Say, someone came in as an intern: What’s the structure for artists, at Framestore?
Kathleen: In Integrated Advertising, typically, the way we have our team set up is:
– Every project will have a creative director who will be the top of the internal creative vision. He / she will have the final say.
– Below that, you will have supervisors. These are people who go to set and supervise the project. We do have department supervisors as well. The idea that they’re across all projects that we have. One person looks after all the work in that department, on all the projects we have going on.
– Then, there are leads. We usually have a CG lead and a 2D lead on a project. A 2D lead is going to look after the compositing aspect. Within commercials, there isn’t always going to be a lighting lead, a texture lead, etc. in one show. You will have one person fulfilling that role.
– Everyone below that reports to a CG lead.
– So when interns [come in], what we try to do is assign them to a mentor and rotate them around to different mentors. They will work with a senior artists at one point, so that they get to know more people.
In feature films, the structure is more rigid. Juniors report to sequence leads; and there is going to be a larger lead over the top of that. Within advertising and the projects that we have, it’s a bit of a simplified structure.
[-[12:14] Allan: That’s awesome! One question I have: Is there any big red flag that you see when people are applying for jobs?
– I think it’s important to remember that we’re are in a digital age and your information is easily accessible. We do Google our candidates. Be mindful of your online presence: Be it inappropriate photos on social media or negative comments on YouTube.
– Other red flags are applying to multiple positions.
– If you are a graduate, I would not encourage you to apply for a senior level position — because you are not ready for that.
– It’s important to be mindful of time. You don’t want to show up too early or too late for an interview. The people you’re going to talk to have a busy day.
[-[10:12] Allan: It’s so disruptive when you have people waiting in the lobby for 45 minutes. You can come into the room with people who are already upset.
I. Keeping your ego in check is important. Especially in the beginning of your career, it can be a big turn off. Have some humility and know where you are. You want to have confidence and speak about your ability, and have a 5-year plan. But it does show that you have consideration where you are and that you’re realistic about it. Acknowledging how much you don’t know is what a lot of young people struggle with! You don’t know everything yet. Having that understanding of where you are in the industry is important.
II. The biggest detriment is when you start comparing yourself to other people. It’s important to acknowledge what you have and you bring that to the table. If you’re going into your performance review, you don’t want to say, “I saw Bob do this — and he gets $10 more an hour.” Tell us why you deserve this promotion. You’ll also be happier as a person.
[-[06:03] Allan: It’s important to acknowledge what you’re good and not so good at. If you aren’t good at dynamics, you aren’t good at fluids. That means, we don’t have to put you in that position. But if you say you’re good at everything, it’s harder to place you.
Kathleen: And it sets unrealistic expectations. You aren’t able to perform and you’d be let go of, or not brought back. If you come in telling me you’re an amazing lighter — and you come in and you can’t do it, I have to figure out who can replace you. Everyone would be frustrated with me and working longer hours. It will come out eventually.
One of the things I like to see on you reel is listing what you did, at the bottom of a shot, in that scene. You can always embellish the truth but it will eventually come out. It will make us more frustrated with you. It’s a small industry and it’s easy to find out the truth. I’ve heard of people who used other people’s shots on their reels.
[-[03:26] Allan: Or using someone else’s reel entirely. But it’s a great point [about] listing what you’ve done on a shot. You never know! You may not even be lying, but just not clarifying. The more clear you are — the better.
Kathleen: Breakdowns are amazing! Or if you can get together a PDF that explains what you did on each shot — it’s always really helpful when you do the first pass at the reels.
[-[02:14] Allan: This has been so cool! I could ask you a hundred more questions, you’ve given such great advice! Are there any additional resources you’d recommend?
Kathleen: For Framestore, you can visit us on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/framestore), go to our website (https://www.framestore.com), or visit us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/Framestore/). Our website will have all the jobs we have open. Generally speaking, follow that approach with all companies. We post any networking events on our LinkedIn. Those are the main one. Get your work out there and network, network, network!
[-[00:56] Allan: Thank you for sharing all this valuable information! It’s been amazing.
Kathleen: Thank you for having me! It’s been a privilege.
I want to thank Kathleen for this great insight. Please take the time to share this Episode around and review it on iTunes. I will be back with Episode 147, Part II of my interview with Bobby Chiu.
I’ll be back next week. Until then —
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Money, negotiating, probably two words that build the most tension just at the thought of, other than public speaking.
This guide was designed for Artists – whether you’re a Designer, Illustrator, Matte Painter, Animator, FX, whatever! We all need to get hired for productions, and we all need to get what we’re worth.
But, most of are afraid of missing the mark, and scaring away our employers. Or, just not sure how to even start the conversation. Worse, we’re not sure what we’re actually worth, or we just plain don’t want to be in a tense back and forth negotiation.
Realistically – a good negotiator never needs to haggle, they never have a moment of tension, they never are in an uncomfortable situation. It’s actually very seamless, easy and kind of fun. But, it does require understanding many of the fundamentals that this guide covers in-depth. Negotiating your worth the wrong way can cost you tens of thousands of dollars per year, and it’s the most critical thing we all shouldn’t ignore.
Get the guide now, and never leave money on the table again!