Career Advice - Working as a Director, Producer and Software CEO with Nigel Hunt
Want a successful career working as a Director and Producer of a studio producing film, visual effects, virtual reality and architectural visualisations? Or how about running your own software company working with software developers to create plugins for the most powerful 3D programs and game engines?
Nigel Hunt is the Co-Founder and CEO of SiNi Software and Director/Producer of Urbân VFX and he sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring image makers and business owners, looking for an exciting and challenging career like his own.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
Not sure how to answer this one as I have many different roles across multiple companies and community activities. I’m going to split my answer into companies and community.
I am a director in two different companies, Urbân VFX and SiNi Software. Urbân VFX is a production studio I own and act as a director/producer on selected projects, and overseeing executive producer on everything else. As a co-founder of SiNi, I am the CEO and steer the software developers business objectives. Both roles involve being the spokesperson and representative of the businesses, meeting clients, stakeholders, sponsors and customers.
I am actively involved in running community Meet-ups and events, as well as guest lecturing and mentoring. I really enjoy working with new talent and young entrepreneurs wanting to get into the content creation industries. I also find the time to publish a new archviz industry magazine, 3Disciple, that promotes my curated selection of new and established talent.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
The two executive roles I hold are owner/director of a visual effects studio, Urbân VFX as well as CEO of software developer, SiNi Software. Urbân VFX works on film and immersive projects specialising in large-scale CGI builds of cities and environments. It specialises in time lapse stories taking audiences into the past, present and future.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
There was no CGI industry when I started! In the late 1980’s I went to college in my home country New Zealand to study architectural design on the advice from my architect father with the hope I would join the family firm. My dream was to be a traditional cartoonist and live a surfer lifestyle. I was also at the time getting into DJing and organising dance parties or as they later became known, raves. In the final year of college, we were introduced to Computer-Aided Design software, AutoCAD. It was so crude and unuseful.
At the same time, our parties were growing in ambition and we started experimenting with VJ graphics. This was a mixed-media combination of images, lighting and early kaleidoscopic/3D graphics created on the Mac and saved to film for projecting. With no preconceived plan of staying, I arrived in the UK in 1992, on a world trip with my girlfriend (now wife), but we ran out of money having too much fun! I got a job with Sega and took night school classes in both AutoCAD Advanced 3D modelling and another in graphic design.
Reading the weekly architectural press papers at school I started to see glossy renderings produced by new studios Hayes Davidson, Miller Hare and GMJ Design. I immediately knew this was something I wanted to get in on as it seemed avant-garde and reminded me of my early DJ days when it was still considered a counter-culture underground activity. I quit Sega and got a job in a new 3D department for a property developer. I stayed for 1 year before forming my studio Glowfrog in 1995.
How did you get your first big break?
The first few years of running my own studio translated into freelancing as a limited company doing contract work. During this time I had the privilege to work with many interesting designers, architects and clients, many of whom are still friends to this day. I even got to work with Madonna! Being exposed to as many different studios, styles of design and working practices is something I encourage everyone to do if you plan to run your own studio.
My first big break was during the DOT-COM boom. I observed that every studio I went to were all repeating the same tasks building 3D models of manufacturers products. The internet was slowly taking off at this time and I had an idea that an online 3D library of products would benefit both the design community and the product manufacturers. By chance I got talking to an architect whose brother (and friends) were looking to invest in a dot-com idea. Literally within hours of meeting, we had seed investment and formed a company, ReplicaNation. It quickly grew to employ around 65 people in the UK, USA, Europe and India. At its peak, the company had around 25,000 active online users and worked with 50 international furniture brand leaders. In 2001, it was voted in the top 100 companies working in CGI globally with me being named the ‘face of 3D’ by a leading European magazine.
However, like many pioneering internet ideas at the time, the business funding ran out with the dot-com crash in 2002. The assets were sold off to new online 3D libraries, that remain in business to this day.
During the last year of ReplicaNation I had kick-started Glowfrog to become a multi-service studio working in archviz and visual effects. In 2002 my first big commission was for USA Architecture firm, HOK, as well as starting smaller commissions in broadcast VFX for the BBC.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
My journey is 30-years in the making with many peaks and troughs along the way. I would define the journey as one of reinvention and having the child-like curiosity for new ideas and technology development. I’ve never been afraid of taking risks and as a result, I’ve pushed myself and my teams to go beyond their comfort zone, often successfully but also, regrettably, to failure.
Looking at my career I’ve had approximately 20+ jobs. Some lasting 20 years, others 4 hours. I’ve always believed in myself and try not to take myself too seriously. In the last 5 years, I have turned my focus from self-serving competitive production work, to embrace the wider community with the aim to try to make a selfless difference to others; mentoring, teaching, and helping organise meetup groups and events. If I leave this industry in better shape for everyone than when I started, then I’ll be proud.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
I typically wake up and start work between 5 to 6 am, where I check over the social media channels and reply to messages and emails. Between 8-9:30am I go through admin tasks and respond to production daily reviews. I then travel into the office to arrive around 10:00am where I meet with the team and discuss any concerns or progress on projects.
Depending on the day of the week I will split my time between the companies, discussing strategy, projects and meeting with customers, clients and technology partners. I leave the office around 6-7 pm. I may check social media channels between 8-9pm and/or respond to emails/messages from global partners.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
When I get an opportunity to get on the tools the main products these days are Adobe CC, Autodesk 3ds Max, SiNi Software and Chaos Group V-Ray. However, I live on Google Docs and Slack and occasionally Shotgun. Other tools my team use are Unreal Engine, Unity, Corona Renderer, Autodesk Maya, Nuke, Arnold.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
I have worked at a CEO, director/producer, decision-maker level for many years. I, therefore, work with business partners at an executive level as well as mentoring and directing internal and external talent as required.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
I could say reliance on social media for communication. It’s very difficult to talk with clients this way. I still prefer face to face client engagement and phone/video conferencing conversations. It’s more personable. The industry is moving towards realtime/virtual production. This doesn’t mean however that your clients will respond in realtime and you’ll get paid faster!
One thing you’d never change about your job?
Being a decision-maker. I have always been a creative artist and love the freedom to explore ideas and see them through to delivery. I enjoy working as a team and the collaborative nature of the industry. This could be the smallest idea or scaled up to become a new business.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
Industry respect. Both from within and from clients. For too long content creators using computer graphics (VFX, VIZ) have not received the recognition from their clients and industry that they deserve. Feature films rely on VFX to add significant value and building architects and developers have relied on the archviz artists skills to sell their designs off-plan, as nobody can read plans anymore. Both continue to be disrespected and undervalued. People tend to forget the work is created by people and not computers. Managing and nurturing the creativity and business activities should be paramount to building a sustainable respectful community.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
This depends on the school to which you have attended and what type of work you wish to be in. Great schools that employ industry outreach ensure the graduates are trained to industry standards making them employable. I started in this industry before computer graphics and learned on the job as the industry grew. The same may apply in the future as new tech emerges. I, therefore, feel spending thousands on formal education may not be necessary. It demonstrates your commitment and basic training, but most studios will retrain you to their workflow and pipeline if you possess eagerness and talent. Saying that, great educational training at the right schools is invaluable to launching your career, if you are talented and hungry enough to prove yourself!
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
Are you a nice person and do I want to be around you for 40 hours a week in the studio? Enthusiasm to learn. Are you a creative thinker and problem solver? Will I need to micro-manage you? Knowledge and respect for the architectural/VFX industry.
Are you talented? Does your portfolio reflect you as a person and support your desire to work in the industry you are applying to?
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
If you want to work in archviz start by replicating architectural photography. Take photos and replicate the shot in CGI. You’ll learn about camera settings, composition, materials and lighting. NEVER copy another artists CGI. If you copy a professional photographer be aware of copyright. Reach out to them and ask permission. ALWAYS add copyright credit and metadata to every image you share.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
Be empathetic. Be prepared. Do your research. If you show respect and enthusiasm for their company they will likely return the respect. Imagine the company is a gang of creatives, how will you fit in? Prepare yourself and research the company and the work they do. Prepare to ask them questions about the role, past projects.
When researching for work, imagine yourself as the interviewee. What do you have to offer them that they don’t already have? Why will you be a valuable asset to their team?
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
1. Respect the people you work for and your work colleagues. You will discover very quickly it’s a small industry and the number one means of getting work is word of mouth. Start networking, going to meetups and conferences and talking to people, even when you’re a student. 95% of people I have employed over the years have come from recommendations from within the studio or friends.
2. Take acting classes. Fake it to make it. Many of us have blagged our way into a job or winning a project and then quickly learned on the job. If you do this, don’t forget no. 1 above.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
Seriously consider taking the job offer in 1997 from the new studio in New Zealand, Weta, rather than starting your own studio! Ask yourself what makes you happy and make it your life’s mission. Don’t be anxious and impatient to reach the top so quickly. The journey and adventure are important. Enjoy your 20’s doing crazy fun things like travelling and experiencing the world. You may think you have a lifetime ahead of you but if you want to make it your career, become a marathon runner rather than a sprinter. Remember, there is no finish line to learning new things if you remain curiously creative.
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