Episode 360 – Fred Ruff – Running a VFX Studio
Episode 360 – Fred Ruff – Running a VFX Studio
Fred Ruff is the founder of Refuge FX, a Portland based visual effects studio responsible for projects like For All Mankind, Helstrom, Queen of the South, Runaways, Grimm, Last Knight.
Fred has over two decades of experience in computer graphics, visual effects and software development. He’s worked as a Lead Product Designer at Autodesk. He currently serves on the advisory board for Turbosquid, the world’s leading 3D model marketplace. Fred launched Refuge FX in 2013.
In this Episode, Allan McKay interviews Fred Ruff, VFX Supervisor and Owner of Portland-based VFX studio Refuge VFX, about a day in the life of a studio owner, the phases of growing a business, the importance of relationships, the positive impact of COVID-19 on the industry, how to avoid the race to the bottom dollar and get better quality work.
Fred Ruff on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3846698/
Refuge VFX Website: http://refugevfx.com
[04:08] Fred Ruff on Starting Refuge VFX
[08:39] Wisdom on How to Get Started as a Studio Owner
[16:26] A Day in the Life
[23:43] Phases of Growing a Business
[32:00] The Importance of Relationships
[45:52] Chasing Better Work – Over Chasing More Work
[50:06] Better, Faster, Cheaper
[1:02:38] The Impact of COVID-19 on VFX
[1:16:12] Talent or Tech?
EPISODE 360 — FRED RUFF – RUNNING A VFX STUDIO
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 360! I’m speaking with Fred Ruff, VFX Supervisor and Owner of Portland-based Refuge VFX. I’m sure you’re familiar with their work: For All Mankind, Helstrom, Queen of the South, Runaways, Grimm, Last Knight. Fred has been on the Podcast twice before.
I speak to Fred about a day in the life of a studio owner, the phases of growing a business, the importance of relationships, the positive impact of COVID-19 on the industry, how to avoid the race to the bottom dollar and get better quality work.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:32] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:18:44] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH FRED RUFF
[04:08] Allan: Fred, thanks so much for coming on the Podcast! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Fred: Yeah! Thanks for having me, Allan! My name is Fred Ruff. I’m the Owner, “boss guy” at Refuge VFX here in Portland, OR.
[04:30] Allan: You run a studio in Portland. I’d like to go back to the beginning when you first got started.
Fred: Refuge VFX was an opportunity I saw and I jumped on it. There was a show shooting here called Grimm and I did a smaller shot. I did that and the guys that were in town liked what I did and asked for more shots for the show. That seems like ages ago! We started with 6 guys in the office, that grew to 8 guys, that grew to 12 guys. We got another office. Then we moved to another office and became 28 people. And now we’re at 43 people. It’s been a quick growth over the last 8 years. Once I figured out what the job is and how to do it, it seems like it changes. We’ve doubled over the pandemic. It seems like the need for VFX grew and maybe the amount of studios changed. There is a backup of production work. We’ve been flooded with work and having to say no.
[06:42] Allan: I completely agree! With COVID a lot of people were at home and there was a higher demand. When you started a studio, was there any fear?
Fred: I don’t know if it was fear. It took some time, age and wisdom to make that choice. I felt like at that point in my life everything led me to that step. I’ve worked enough in a corporate environment and I’ve done enough production work, I felt I knew my skill sets. Then jumping off and not having a job, I had to make sure there was money coming in to pay myself and everyone else. That was the biggest scary point. I made a really good relationship with one client and that was enough to keep me going. The big question was what if that client went away? If I were in my 20s, it would’ve been a massive failure just because I didn’t have the experience. You have to have confidence and know how to deal with people. I had to put together a pipeline.
[08:39] Allan: Now that you’re 51-ish, what are some of the big things you know now in terms of running a company?
Fred: There is this show The Profit. I love that show! I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I always had a list of ideas. I didn’t know if I should be doing that. The older me now would have told the younger me to take a business course in college. The younger me didn’t want to wear a suit to work. That wasn’t the lesson I should’ve walked away with! I did end up in an art community. But the truth is, I should’ve taken a business course. When you’re jumping off the cliff to start a business, those are some of the things that would scare you. “I don’t know how to run my books.” “I don’t know about HR.” So what? You figure it out! You could make some bad decisions, but you should just jump off the cliff:
- Do I know how to make good decisions?
- Do I have the right intentions?
I think I wanted some of the same people from my last job. I saw this creative team that would complain about the place where we worked. When I left, I thought, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to save everybody!” That totally didn’t happen. There was no saving anyone.
[12:13] Allan: It’s important to acknowledge what you don’t know. It helps identify the markers of what you need to lean into. If you don’t know, hire someone who does.
Fred: Yeah, hire someone. You don’t have all the money in the world to hire all the experts. In the beginning, I gave up the IT responsibility to someone else. A year into it, I realized I needed to know more about it. I dove in and didn’t need to get a degree. I needed to put together something that worked for everyone, and then I’d hire consultants to help me. I became a better person because of it. I spent the money to utilize my team better. This business is about people. I had a lecture recently [where I said], “You, guys, know that you’re trading your time to make stuff for someone else. That’s what we do.” We make a custom piece of art for every shot and each client. When we do it and the client doesn’t like it, we get to do it again. It’s a 100% labor business.
[14:48] Allan: For 3D especially, it’s about problem solving. It bridges art and science.
Fred: And it’s a business though. It has to work! It has to make money for the studio to grow and the employees. As an Owner and an ex-employee, I do try to hide it from my artists. If I’m losing money, it’s on me because I didn’t budget it right. They shouldn’t have to worry about my bottom line. It’s not their job! Their job is to show up and keep crushing it!
[16:26] Allan: What’s a typical day in the life of a studio Owner? How do you keep inspiring the team? It is so critical to give purpose to everyone.
Fred: I wear two hats: I have to supervise the shows and I like to stay on the box. The reason it happens is because I love that shit. I love it more when I know how to do a shot. Someone set a watch and time me! But it’s also fun when you don’t know how to do it. I want to give my team incremental tasks. In our shop, we have a lot of generalists. You can’t just throw things at everyone. A lot of the time, I take on the hard stuff that we don’t know how we’re going to approach. I haven’t pulled out the Scanline render trick. I take on the stuff that will make the team squirm. You need to get them done in a way that no one can repeat.
My typical day is to get up in the morning and do a production meeting every week. We borrow artists for each team and then I go into reviews for 4-5 hours until we get out for lunch. At that point, I need to be the owner. I need to manage my day. Something different comes up everyday. Why do a lot of big VFX companies fail? It’s because of that feast or famine stuff. They land a $3 million job and then that job goes away – but they have so many people! It’s so hard to keep things afloat. I hate that the business is like that!
[21:07] Allan: There are studios that have a million dollar overhead everyday. There are bigger studios on the planet. I remember attending meetings at places like that, and they’d lose a job to another company. When you have 2 giant buildings and your accounting team alone is 20 people, your overhead is going to be insane. Do you lose a lot of talent? When I ran my studio, the network would go down for 3 hours. You sit there counting how much money you’re losing an hour.
Fred: That’s why I want to sit around 50 people. It’s good to have smaller jobs and different types of jobs. I like to have a mix of things coming into the shop. If you have diversity in a studio, it makes it more healthy.
[23:43] Allan: As you grew your studio, what were the phases you went through? You’re either going to do freebie work or do overflow work. You can build relationships with bigger studios. Now, you have a business model.
Fred: Like I said, nowadays, I have to say no. We had a call from Netflix recently and we didn’t have any availability, as much as I wanted to work on it. It was so instantaneous! We started off with an NBC show doing 13 episodes of a 26-episode season for the first 4 years. We had a good relationship with them but that’s not where jobs come from. Just because you know the VP of post- at NBC! The business comes from the creatives or the producers. I learned along the way who the people are who can bring you on a job. We did a lot of smaller jobs just to keep people paid. But once Grimm ended, I didn’t have a lot of relationships to bring more shows to do post- in Portland. There was an opportunity to work with Guillermo del Toro, but once again, he’s not going to use a small shop. He’s dealing with big numbers and he’s going to go to the big guys on that.
As we get older as a studio, we need to make the best impression with the clients and form that bond. There’ll be at least two people you’ll meet from that connection. After Grimm, a supervisor went to work on Mayans MC. We were on that first season. We weren’t even the first vendor pick. They called us in because they had a shot that wasn’t working. There wasn’t a lot of money but there was an opportunity there. We saved that shot and ended up on that show to do all those spirit animal creatures. Then that went away but we had met a post- supervisor. That’s what I like about VFX, you’re going to keep meeting people. That seems to work into their friendships and relationships. You need to treat people with respect. I’ll call out when something is intense. If you’re just honest with them, they’ll come back to you later. Now, we went from begging for music videos work – to now working on top notch shows for HBO and Apple TV+.
[32:00] Allan: This is why relationships are so important! You meet one person and you meet their surrounding team, but as you build relationships, the team doesn’t stay the same. People move on to other places.
Fred: Everyone wants those people on the team who help them solve problems. An artist who comes up with solutions is a valuable teammate. If I do that for a supervisor, he’s going to remember me. If I save money for a producer, he’s going to remember me. Don’t nickel and dime everyone. Some people get really annoyed at that. If you people start picking apart the shot, everyone’s a critic in VFX. But if you can make everyone happy along the way, you’re solving problems for them. Be honest and open, and don’t oversell.
[34:26] Allan: Freebie work isn’t the same as favors. You can explain the additional costs that you cover.
Fred: It just happened today. Someone came with 3 shots that are due in a few days. If they’re in a jam and I take those shots on – they owe me one. And that’s a great spot to be in. But I’m also a bit of a character. I’ll call people out. The pandemic changed how we do business. Nowadays, a lot of our team is remote now. We’re global now: We have 2 artists in different countries. The Zoom thing is changing the relationship because we now see our clients. I get to be myself. I get to show my enthusiasm which may not come over the phone. We were working on DMZ for HBO, and we met the team early on. The post- supervisor was wearing a Red Socks baseball cap. And someone on my team gave him a hard time. It was the funniest thing in the world. We had a face-to-face connection.
[38:23] Allan: You mentioned Guillermo del Toro and favoring the bigger studio. Nowadays, bigger studios are asking to make things affordable. But they also want the two other deals. I’m fascinated to see more creative ways to make deals.
Fred: I can see myself understanding how a deal works and how to manage relationships with people. For a boutique, it’s a little different. I’m so happy that we’ve made it past the point of having to take on music videos. The harder part is having to compete for the incentivized regions. That’s been a huge deal for Refuge VFX. We aren’t in the zone where people can get their money back [in rebate]. You can’t even compare the budgets. It’s more about how the vendor expects what’s going to be done. But during COVID-19, it changed because of the supply change. That was such a breath of fresh air! Things have changed over the last 2 years. We have a lower cost of living in Portland but it’s been hard. The last two years, we’re just getting asked if we have availability. You have to plan for VFX artists where people are starting to plan ahead.
[45:52] Allan: You’re also in a different position now. They have to wine and dine you now. I was going to DP a commercial a while back and we were going to come to you. But the agency decided to do it in Canada because of the trees they have. I was like, “Have you seen Portland?!” But it turned out because of the rebates.
Fred: I was going to say. If it’s for the trees, it’s a great creative decision. But it is for the rebates. But you also might be charged more. You can’t compare unless you do the homework. Once you get out of the penny pinching spot, you’ll find that the clients will start coming to you because they really like to work with you. And they enjoy your take on the work they’re giving you. And I believe that’s the future of my shop.
[47:31] Allan: If your unique value proposition is that you’re the cheapest, then someone else might come in chapter and then it’s the race to the bottom.
Fred: And no one can tell on the screen if it was the cheapest. And it never comes down to that. It’s about the trajectory for the company. I’m excited for where we’ve ended up now. We’re working with some of the top notch opportunities, but if you take on too much, you can fail. So now, I’m running into the situation of having to be careful with to whom I say yes. If I agree with your 300 green screen shot, I have to do it. You have to have a sensibility to commit to what the client is asking for. [Saying no] sometimes gets you better clients. I always see shops that are expanding and that’s a strategy. At Refuge, we want to take on better! How can we take on work that we can charge more for, in a fair way? So that we can keep the team smaller and personable. I don’t want to open shop in every incentivised area. I’d have a heart attack!
[50:06] Allan: There is a studio that did that and they had to roll back on a heck of a lot of their locations.
Fred: And how do you keep the quality up if I can’t watch the shows. If I had other locations, I’d have to trust the other person watching my team. Some people don’t treat artists the way I do. I act as a Producer, VFX Supervisor and Owner. All that keeps me in check. One guy may be asking you to do more and more work, and the Producer is giving you a whole other thing. I do it all in my head right away: I think about the quality, the time and the budget all the time. I don’t know if that makes me the best Supervisor.
[52:03] Allan: Better, faster, cheaper. You can only have two. We’re both on the same point. It’s not about getting more work — it’s about getting better work. Which means repositioning yourself in the eyes of the producers. I’ve been in that situation a few times. You have the entire feature film and you get to choose the chunk you want to work on.
Fred: You mentioned being that first vendor on the show. It’s the stuff that I enjoy. Although I do find it hilarious how I can work on an entire season of a show and not know the plot. That kills me. We’re in there doing some of the work on the show on the need-to-know basis. We had an opportunity to be the first vendor on the show last year. After that experience, I’d like to be the second vendor. Give it to the bigger shop! It’s a lot of responsibility and it involves a lot more work up front.
The particular show we were on didn’t have a VFX supervisor. It came with a lot of responsibility and didn’t reward us that much. I think it was a perfect storm of all these things. The network took care of us. It didn’t come together in the end. I have a lot more respect for Showrunners now. You have to have it all be put together. My favorite shows are the ones where I get to talk to the Showrunner directly. You get to have that face-to-face and there is nothing to hide behind. No email, no notes. We are on the phone and trying to make the sequence better, to support the Showrunner. You aren’t talking about the effect itself but the bigger goal. You can tell them which shot will cost a lot of money, or which one will be more time consuming. It gives you the rapport of what the sequence to be. When you get on the call the next time, they remember that conversation. It’s that face-to-face situation. You can discuss it as a team. Then you can have all the adults in the room, and we can decide where we want to go from there. And those turn out to be the most successful shows. If we’re just getting emailed notes, I think there is a difference. I’d prefer to look at people’s faces when they’re talking. You can see when someone is excited or scared. I look at my artists sometimes and when they seem worried, I want to walk through the shot with them.
[59:53] Allan: Where are you at with your studio, in terms of outreach?
Fred: The past two years have been insane. Over a year ago, we were working on Hellstrom. And we weren’t even supposed to be on the show. They gave us a couple of shots on the bridge. And that changed from episode 1 to episode 8. Then I met the Showrunner and we started working together. We ended up getting more and more work on the show, a good amount for a team of 8. It was intense, it was Marvel but grounded. And the Showrunner was really smart and graceful. We had to move everything to remote workflows because of COVID.
[1:02:38] Allan: So let’s talk about that! At the very beginning of March 2020, they told us COVID would last a month and it would go away. Later on, everyone had to pivot and work remotely. The recurring theme was: The show must go on! With COVID, all the secrecy [when it comes to the studios] went away and you could work from anywhere.
Fred: They changed their story pretty quickly. Right when it happened, we were working with Apple and Sony, and Marvel. All of them reached out within a week to talk about remote workflow. I just wanted them to tell them what to do. It was too soon. At one point, I handed out a bunch of bandanas to hand out to the staff. We were already masked. We happened to have a new firewall. We just opened the option to going remote. There were still 25% of people who wanted to go in. They didn’t want to work remotely. I didn’t really understand how this was to work. I had to work the news to get the information. It was hard to figure it out. We just spread out across the office and put sneeze guards all around. Of course, the shows stopped all production. We continued to do post-. They let us keep working which made the effects better because we could slow down. The other show was For All Mankind. They spread out that year in terms of production. It was awesome because we got to keep working.
[1:07:06] Allan: It was interesting to hear about all the policies around Season 3 of For All Mankind and navigating it during COVID. Every production was handling it differently. I had a DP on the Podcast who would be in LA but controlling a camera in Florida. Fight scenes were removed from scripts. Virtual production became a thing. There are so many challenges that happen during these disaster-like situations — and all the innovations that happen with it. It feels like there is a delay. But now there is a bigger demand because people are sitting at home and want more streaming content.
Fred: I do like people in the office. The business we’re in requires looking at a screen and pointing stuff out. And if you’re working all remote, it can be frustrating. There is a drop in productivity. Only highly motivated people can keep up that productivity. They have to be willing to get on Zoom and talk. Not everyone is like that. I feel like my job is to motivate people. Those conversations got slower with working from home. It got really scary for me.
But it kicked me in the ass because we were able to grow our studio by having people on our staff that we wouldn’t be able to get here in Portland. I’d say 30-40% of our team is now remote and they have never been to the office. We landed really great talent. We had to come up with ways to keep them engaged, make some video tutorials on how we do things at our shop. I think it really comes down to the people that you work with. I’m not always at my desk for a chat messenger. It’s hard to be available. There are certain points in the afternoon where I just need to walk the floor. I absolutely love that kind of work. There is more of a culture. We have different things to break up the time. We now have people do some yoga in the office. We have an indoor basketball court. I’ll run down there and horse around a bit. As much as remote working has helped us grow, I still love the water cooler mentality. I’m all about culture. I don’t know how to keep that up for people who have never been to our office. We try to do a call every week. I’ve learned to be transparent as an employer. I have no problem telling my employees what we’re working on and what issues we’re having. It makes the people feel a part of something.
[1:14:46] Allan: You expanded the team throughout a crisis and a lot of other studios did that. I’m trying to hire 9 people right now: engineers and Houdini artists. It’s impossible to find people. You can go anywhere you want and you won’t be at a lack for work.
Fred: Like you said, it’s hard to hire people. I have to incentivise people to come work for us. I think we’re at the right size right now. The goal is to keep doing great work and have people love the work.
[1:16:12] Allan: That’s just it! You build a happy, fun environment — you get to retain talent. I wanted to ask if you lean into talent or tech. It’s not tech! Talent is the one that has to use the tech.
Fred: Can I pick both? Get the talent and when they ask you for the tech, support that! When you are doing better work and they want a better tool, then you provide that. I’m now buying what the needs are.
[1:17:46] Allan: This has been fun! I’m excited to come and visit the studio now. It’s been really amazing to see how much Refuge VFX has grown. There is a lot of aftermath that comes with it. So congratulations on that!
Fred: Thank you! And thank you for having me on! I always love to talk shop. I hope people got something out of this.
Okay, what did you think? I want to thank Fred for coming back to the Podcast. It’s always a blast!
Next week, I’m interviewing ILM’s VFX Supervisor David Vickery about his journey from a VFX Artist to supervising on set, dealing with rejection, working at ILM, working on projects like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Cloverfield, Die Another Day — and so much more!
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.
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