Episode 77 – Action VFX – From a Kickstarter campaign to a successful business shooting pyro stock footage
Check out www.VFXRates.com
Episode 77 – Interview with Action VFX
Check out the special promo for Action VFX at www.ActionVFX.com
ActionVFX (www.actionvfx.com) is a website that provides stock footage for visual effects, from smoke plumes to fire, from sparks to explosions. Before the company was launched in 2016, its CEO Rodolphe Pierre-Louis, along with Joe Camarata (Marketing Manager) and Luke Thompson (Operations Manager) conducted an extensive survey among visual effects artists, which determined the type of files the site would contain, and its content.
After only a year, ActionVFX’s footage has been used in television shows like Flash, Fear of the Walking Dead, Legends of Tomorrow, How to Get Away with Murder, Narcos, Series of Unfortunate Events; as well as in video games, music videos and the live Lady Gaga performance at this year’s Grammys.
In this Episode, Allan McKay interviews Rodolphe, Joe and Luke about the beginnings of ActionVFX, the challenges of starting a company, the strategies of fundraising and branding; as well as the experience of shooting actual pyrotechnics for their website.
[-57:00] Hey! This is Allan. Just a quick thing to check out: www.vfxrates.com. This is a website that I created to solve a massive problem that we all have: What should we be charging? This is the giant mystery that we all have and most people feel very uncomfortable talking about is what we should charge as a freelance rate. And the worst part is when we go apply for a job, if we ask for too much, we risk alienating the employer and never getting that call back. Whereas we play it safe and ask too little, we not only get taken advantage of, but on top of that, we leave a lot of money on the table, which potentially over a span of a year, can add up to 10’s of thousands of dollars.
[-56:23] So this is chance for you to go to the website www.vfxrates.com. Put in bits of information, like your city, your experience, your discipline, software, little things that are important to figuring out what you should be charging as your base rate when you’re talking to an employer. This is based on a lot of research, but more importantly, it’s based on the braintrust of the industry experts from different fields that we’ve pulled together to collect a very accurate way to generate what you should be charging.
[-[55:51] The best part is not just what you should be charging — but what you could be charging by tweaking a few things:
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I want to share all of this information for free! Go to www.vfxrates.com — and find out what you should be charging for your hourly VFX rate.
[-[55:22] This is going to be a really fun Episode. I’m speaking with guys from ActionVFX. They have the coolest job in the world: shooting a lot of pyrotechnics and stock footage for use in visual effects. There is a huge difference between simulating stuff and actually doing it in real life! They actually do that for a living.
[-54:46] So I’m speaking with Rodolphe Pierre-Louis (Founder and CEO), as well as Joe Camarata (Marketing Manager) and Luke Thompson (Operations Manager). This is a fun Episode, talking about how you wake up one morning and decide to go shoot explosions all day long. At the same time, we speak about a lot of cool behind-the-scenes stuff.
[-54:11] Some other stuff. Yesterday was my birthday. Next week, we’re going to be opening the doors to the FXTD Mentorship. This is the first time I’m mentioning it. It’s been a year and half since the last registration. I’m revamping a lot of the stuff, technology, software. (We have some cool software deals for the students!)
[-[53:22] It’s going to be a little different in terms of registration. When you apply, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get in. We’ll be reviewing your applications. There are limited spots. I want to make sure that this Mentorship is right for everybody. Only a select amount of people will make it in. I’m excited to try this out! All the students who make it through the Mentorship, they’re the ones who have the biggest results.
[-52:11] If you do want to check that out, there will be a link in the show notes. Go to allanmckay.com/77. Otherwise, if you want to get on the inside circle and want to get alerted early, go to allanmckay.com/inside.
[-51:26] Also, the ActionVFX guys are doing a pretty big promotion this month: You’ll be able to get 50% off all their products. So go to allanmckay.com/77 to get more information.
[-[51:11] Allan: How would you describe ActionVFX?
Rodolphe: Basically, ActionVFX is the stock footage site for visual effects artists. The main vision that we had when we started [was that] we didn’t want to be a simple footage site (girls touching tall grass). But if you’re trying to blow something up, we’re your guys!
[-[50:36] Allan: That’s awesome! I love that! I grew up in the 90s. Back then there was Pyromania and Artbeats. I always felt there was a lack of good content out there. Where are you based right now?
Rodolphe: We’re actually based in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Allan: I feel like these days you can be pretty much located anywhere. Are you originally from there?
Luke: I am. But these two guys aren’t.
Rodolphe: I’m originally from Haiti, actually. My family moved to Tennessee when I was 12. I went to college in Miami.
Joe: And I’m originally from Michigan. I moved here for school, then stuck around.
[-[48:37] Allan: That’s awesome! Do you, guys, want to tell the story about how you got started? It sounds like you all knew each other. Were you sitting around and be like, “Let’s blow shit up for a living!”
Rodolphe: That doesn’t sound like a bad idea! The story got started in 2011. One summer during college, I started working with this new software called HitFilm. I thought I’d make tutorials for people. I started getting a following built up and realizing people really needed stock footage. If you had a more realistic element, you’d have a better result. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit in me, so in October 2011, I released some gun effects. (If you compare it to what we do at ActionVFX now, it was pretty terrible. But it was enough to start with.)
[-46:42] As far as ActionVFX goes, the goal was always explosions. You have explosions — you’re legit now. Easier said than done! The process actually started in May 2015. We started talking to some pyro-technicians (because we didn’t feel like killing ourselves on our first job). We were talking to some guys in Chicago. They did work for Chicago 5, Transformers 3. It was cool to get involved with them.
[-[44:27] Allan: How was it, in terms of initially pulling the trigger, from the initial concept to making it official? Where there any hurdles?
Rodolphe: Oh yeah! Nothing in life is easy. After the Chicago shoot, looking at everything, you never get it right the first time. But that stuff was expensive (tens of thousands of dollars). After that, we thought about how to move forward. That’s when the two ideas that would change everything for us [happen]:
- The first was if we’re making a product — and people want it — why wouldn’t they help us make it?
- And the second idea was to create a whole website with stock footage. It would have everything people would need and it would be of great quality.
[-[42:22] Allan: That’s really great! So you, guys, decided to do a Kickstarter campaign? I was so excited to back you. What was your experience like doing a crowdfunding?
Rodolphe: First, thank you for backing our project! The funny thing about Kickstarter was the second I had that idea my mind started working overtime to convince myself of how bad of an idea that was. It was screaming: “No! That’s too much work!”
Luke: I was extremely intimidated by it. Being a videographer, I was transitioning over into the VFX industry. I wondered if people would laugh us out of the room.
Rodolphe: I feel like if you’re doing a movie on Kickstarter, you have some reference. Creating a campaign for stock footage was so new! Either we would be the guys people would follow. Or, we’d be the lesson on what not to do. It was super intimidating.
[-[39:40] Allan: Do you think having that pressure of social accountability made you see it through? It can be pretty powerful.
Luke: Especially after the Kickstarter was finished, we raised just a bit shy of 60 grand. There were people waiting for us to deliver an awesome product. It pushed us that much harder and that much further.
[-[38:35] Allan: How was the reception of the whole thing?
Rodolphe: It was really good! Even right now, most of the feedback we get is really positive. The VFX community has been very supportive from the very beginning. We tried to survey as many compositors and filmmakers. That works a ton: Because instead of assuming how it’s going to go down, why not talk to the people who would actually be using [the footage]: What to shoot, what not to shoot, how to shoot it. Without that feedback, this wouldn’t have been positive.
[-[37:09] Allan: It’s so much smarter to actually talk to the people who will be using your product rather than assuming it. That’s what makes a great product! When you made the initial Kickstarter video, what was your experience like building that?
Rodolphe: I’ve always really liked the idea of selling things and try to reverse engineer a product. The first thing for that video was to pick out [the right] words because every word is a weapon. Really scripting everything out: that the goals were clear, the good length (30 seconds). At the end of the day, we had to just go through it.
Luke: And something else that helped us too: At this point, we had our Chicago shoot. We had a lot of behind-the-scenes footage. That was the main driving factor for our campaign being so successful.
[-[33:51] Allan: I completely agree! Having that level of quality changed everything. Talk about that initial shoot, with pyro-technicians in Chicago. What was it like?
Luke: Going into it made me feel more comfortable about the whole thing. It was definitely a huge learning experience for myself: Just figuring out how we work together.
Rodolphe: You never know what you don’t know — until you know it. The biggest thing was that I learned from that shoot was: You can never plan enough! We thought we were so ready. We officially met the pyro-technicians that same day, and that was just not enough. There were misunderstandings and mistakes.
Allan: Can you give an example?
Luke: I guess scheduling was the biggest hurdle in Chicago. There was some wild miscommunication, so we had to extend all of our shooting days.
Rodolphe: The pyro-technicians were supposed to take care of our night shoots. But we had to stop early, maybe because of the noise. Instead of 8 hours of shooting, we ended up having just 4; then ended up cramming the next night. Even the look of the effect, we just assumed they would know [what we wanted]. When we got there, we had to re-explain what we really wanted. It wasn’t their fault. It was a learning experience.
[-[28:19] Allan: And since there, you’ve been shooting purely in Chicago or Tennessee?
Rodolphe: Since then, we primarily shoot in Tennessee.
Allan: And what’s your experience like now? Are the laws different?
Luke: Definitely! There is a hundred more permits in Chicago! In Tennessee it’s pretty much like: “Hey, just don’t kill anybody!”
[-[27:36] Allan: That’s really cool! What about now: Is there a lot of planning involved? What’s the process like? Is there a production sheet?
Luke: Even in Chicago, we were passing out these binders of production shots. [In Tennessee], it’s not that we plan any less, we just know what to plan more.
Rodolphe: Just going out and shooting without planning, that’s when you end up shooting something wrong. Before we do the FX side, [you have to shoot] it right: the right framing, the right angle, the right lense, the different cameras and backdrops. It’s just spending days before shooting to make sure every little detail is right, before we hit record.
[-[25:18] Allan: Are there any memorable stories of some of your favorite shoots?
Luke: I think the smoothest was our gun effects. We actually shot in this giant field behind my parents’ house.
Rodolphe: It’s crazy how accessible it is! Getting permits for guns! That’s Tennessee for you!
Luke: We had some people bringing specific guns. I was providing some food for them, just as a courtesy. (We just started live streaming too!) I heated up a grill by this tent. Everyone was trying to get my attention, and I look over — and our grill is on fire! The whole thing is engulfed in flames and a huge bush behind it, too! I was still on the live stream and I thought, “This is it!”
Rodolphe: And memorable on the bad side, after the Kickstarter, we did our main shoot. It was a week straight, below zero weather, 15-hour days. After we got through that week, I knew we would “win”. If we can get through that, we can get through anything. Things are sometimes a lot harder than you expect. Are you going to keep going and persevere?
[-[21:45] Allan: What platforms do you typically live stream to?
Luke: That’s when Facebook Live was available through an app.
Allan: I just started screwing around with it. I’m still figuring it all out. It’s pretty amazing how much reach it has! What cameras do you usually shoot on? I’m guessing like Sony 7, just because you’re doing night shoots?
Rodolphe: It kind of varies. The first big shoot we did, we used the Red Epic Dragon which was really good. Then we also used a Sony FX7. We mostly use that when we need multiple cameras [at the same time], like for a structure fire collection. It was better to shoot different angles. We do try to go to Red most of the time. Some users do prefer to have more control over their footage.
[-[18:49] Allan: You actually provide raw files?
Allan: That’s sweet! I didn’t know that! You should check out the new Helium that just came out. It’s got a really amazing light. But I shoot everything on Red. How many people do you typically bring to a shoot?
Rodolphe: It’s usually, I would say, there are two main teams. Anywhere from 7 to 10 people at a time, especially for the bigger shoots. For sparks and embers, we used maybe 4 people.
Allan: That’s cool! In terms of hardware — I’m always going to nerd out about this stuff — is there any specific gear you rely on?
Luke: I think it really depends on the shoot.
Rodolphe: I’m trying to think. Obviously, we love our computers here. We have custom-built computers here, which is awesome, to get all the rendering done!
Luke: We usually drag one of these to set, to look at the footage.
Allan: What about software?
Rodolphe: Most of the processing happens in After Effects. That’s where we do our main keying, native resolution. After Effects plays a huge part in that: dumping it all in there — and gold comes out.
[-[15:33] Allan: In terms of customers, what are some of the biggest projects you’ve seen in which your products were used?
Luke: We’ve had a lot of stuff in video games cinematics, music videos, features and stuff. Flash, Fear of the Walking Dead. What else did we do?
Joe: Things like Legends of Tomorrow, How to Get Away with Murder, Narcos, Series of Unfortunate Events. This past Grammys, they used some of our fire elements on stage during the Lady Gaga performance.
Rodolphe: It’s always such a cool feeling to see our stuff being used. The goal from the beginning was to create a product that was good enough. The other day, I was watching Blindspot, I remembered the shoot.
[-[13:59] Allan: Have you ever experienced when someone used your stuff that you never in a million years imagined being used? Any weird or creative ways in which your elements were being used?
Rodolphe: There have been a few. Recently, we released this blood mist collection and we decided to create a little contest. It’s a free collection on our website. Some of those were pretty creative. Someone created some nice motion graphics with a blood mist.
Allan: Do you get a lot of feedback from customers for future stuff?
Luke: I talk to 5-10 people a day, [telling us] what they would like to see. That’s something that we love because we try to better ourselves and our product!
[-[12:20] Allan: Are there any elements that you have coming up, that you can talk about?
Rodolphe: Luckily for you, Allan, we set aside some things we can talk about here. This is our Allan McKay Exclusive! Currently we are working on creating some mid-air explosions (aerial explosions), more blood effects. We had some cool meetings with VFX Legion. They suggested some different blood elements they’d like to see. [Also:] Flamethrowers!
Luke: Recently, they’ve become more accessible. We are talking to a few companies that make them available for public use (like de-icing your sidewalk). I am extremely excited about that. You’re welcome to come down [to Tennessee], to play with our flamethrowers.
[-[10:17] Allan: I’d love to come down! There is a guy who works at Blizzard. He was going through [U.S.] Customs and told them, “I blow stuff up for a living!” That didn’t go down too well. Mental note! You mentioned some challenges before…
Rodolphe: We used to do them more regularly. The feedback was really good. We had a lot of submissions. People really like getting involved. We’re at the right size, as a company, and we can be down to earth.
[-[08:03] Allan: I feel like there are no good water elements, all those things you could use for textures. Zombies are the flavor of the year. At some point, do you, guys, plan to cut a reel to show off how your stuff has been applied?
Rodolphe: Right now, ActionVFX is still less than a year old. We’re waiting to get enough clips from our customers. Depending on the contract, people have been pretty nice about sharing [their footage].
[-[06:44] Allan: You also do a lot of training and tutorial on how to use your footage. I thought that was really cool!
Rodolphe: People really respond to that. We have been working on more. They’ll be coming out pretty soon.
Luke: With so many different methods in our industry, just having those on hand makes it more on hand.
[-[05:29] Allan: Last thing: How did you, guys, come up with the name?
Rodolphe: Funny story! It was going to be either ActionVFX or Action Legacy. Those were the titles in the mix. For some reason, www.liveactionvfx.com was taken. We thought that was a weird name to be taken.
Allan: I even didn’t connect the dots until about 30 minutes ago. I thought, that would be a cool name for you guys. Damn, I’m an asshole!
Rodolphe: How we came up with the name was, we ended up with ActionVFX to give people an idea what we were about. We also wanted a name we could build a brand around. It’s kind of catchy. It was a good balance between being unique and easy to understand.
[-[03:15] Allan: I find it interesting that people will build their name around which domain they can get. Do you want to mention your website?
Rodolphe: Sure. Definitely check us out at: www.actionvfx.com. We’ve got a tons of stuff in the library.
Luke: At there is a ton of free stuff to download right now.
Joe: Be sure to hop in right now because we have a 50% sale going on for the month of May. You don’t want to miss out on that!
Allan: This pretty much it!
Rodolphe: Thanks for having us on the show!
I’m going to leave it there. If you found it useful, please share this link around. If you want to leave an honest review, feel free to log into iTunes.
Thanks again to all the guys at ActionVFX. Go to allanmckay.com/77 to see show notes with links to their promos; or to get on my insider list.
“Just going out and shooting without planning, that’s when you end up shooting something wrong,” says Rodolphe Pierre-Louis, the Founder and CEO of ActionVFX (www.actionvfx.com). “You have to shoot it right: the right framing, the right angle, the right lenses, the different cameras and backdrops. It’s just spending days before shooting to make sure every little detail is right, before we hit record.” To hear more about Rodolphe’s experience on set, as well as with launching ActionVFX, listen to this Podcast with Allan McKay: allanmckay.com/77.
When it comes to launching a new company, fundraising, branding or shooting on location, the Founder of ActionVFX Rodolphe Pierre-Louis knows a thing or two: “Things are sometimes a lot harder than you expect. Are you going to keep going and persevere?” For more awesome insight, tune into Allan McKay’s Podcast with guys from ActionVFX! (allanmckay.com/77).
I’ll be back with a new Episode next week. Until then — rock on!
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