How to foster effective client communication
Outpost VFX's Josh Sykes gives his best practice tips
Outpost VFX is a UK-based visual effects facility that creates work across film, broadcast, and visual effects. The studio’s projects are varied, with credits on Watchmen, Hobbs & Shaw, Black Mirror, and Jack Ryan for clients like Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and Apple.
What’s unique about Outpost VFX is its location. The studio’s headquarters isn’t jammed into the side streets of Soho but sits next to the open sea in Bournemouth. From here, the creative team runs a global operation that reaches out to Montréal, Los Angeles and the APAC region. That means a great deal of communication back and forth across continents and oceans, on projects of a hugely ambitious nature.
We wanted to learn a little about how Outpost VFX manages this flow of information without any miscommunication or misunderstandings that can result in costly production delays. Below, Josh Sykes, VFX Producer at Outpost, gives us his insight into maintaining clear and consistent communication across the vast physical divide when working on projects with some of the world’s biggest clients.
When you first start work with a client, how do you establish the relationship?
Clear communication is, without a doubt, the key to success for any show. From day one, we ensure that we are fully aligned with the client and track all incoming and outgoing information accurately using a variety of systems. You must build a full and accurate picture of the work that is required, understand what the client expects and when, and grasp the creative elements of every shot – and how you can deliver on those elements. That means daily sessions to discuss work, being available whenever required via email and phone, and generally being as accessible to the client as possible to form that comprehensive understanding. Once you have it, you can even start to predict capacity requirements and challenging elements later in the schedule. My tip for best practice during these early stages of a project, however, is to double-check. If you’re in doubt, confirm and clarify. If you start making assumptions, you invite potential difficulties later down the line.
Image from HBO’s ‘Watchmen’, 2019
How often would you recommend that you stay in communication?
As much as is necessary – which usually translates to “constantly”. Creating a visual effects sequence is always a team effort, with multiple people adding their thoughts and skillset to the process. That includes the opinions, desires, and requirements of the client, which must be considered every step of the way as you give form to their vision. During a live show, we’re in touch with the client from the first thing in the morning until late at night, often having 10-plus calls a day, along with review sessions and plenty of emails.
Clients entrust us with their projects, so we make it a priority that we communicate clearly and consistently with them throughout production. That constant communication is the only way to deliver a final product that meets and exceeds their needs.
How do you make sure communication is clear and without confusion?
It’s not an easy answer, as every client is different and likes to operate in their own way. However, I find that following up each call with an email to confirm everything discussed is always good practice. It’s essential to make sure that both parties are in total agreement with what’s been said and that there’s a clear information trail for later reference, especially for third parties that may not be present in that initial discussion. That’s why things like cineSync’s post-session PDFs are so useful. Direct conversation is crucial, but you need to have everything down on paper too.
What tips do you have for other producers when they receive unclear feedback?
Again, if you’re in doubt, always check! There’s never any harm in going back and asking for clarification, so you know when you spend the next few hours addressing feedback, you’re doing so in line with the expectations of the client.
Of course, using visual language, such as annotations or quick mockups, is always a useful way to clarify feedback quickly. A quick sketch can give form to abstract ideas and ensure everyone is on the same page, from the client right through to us in production and the artists working on the shot.
Do you have any specific tips around reducing feedback cycles on a project?
As I mentioned, always save annotated review sessions and make them available to all crew regardless of their position on the project. If everyone has access to the context around a piece of feedback, they’ll better understand the goals you’re working towards. That way, the next iteration will always be more on point than it would be if you’d kept anyone, at any level, in the dark.
Also, whenever you’re presenting a shot, always clearly detail the remaining tasks that need work. That way, everyone understands what’s still to be done, so you don’t waste time discussing something that’s going to change anyway.
Image from Apple’s ‘See’, 2019