REALTIME's Sam Taylor spoke about the work organization and culture at the studio, talked about their approach to education, and explained what it looks for in new specialists.
Hi, I am Sam Taylor, Head of Skills and Development at REALTIME. I sit across a few areas at the studio and I am primarily in charge of internal training and development for staff. I also reach out to universities and training programmes to support, guide and build strong connections with them. I work closely with our recruitment team to identify and hire talented artists that are new to the industry. Additionally, I help with production as a generalist to ensure that our training always matches the current pipeline at REALTIME.
I studied visual effects at the University of Bolton, developing skills as a generalist but specialising as a more technical artist. This is actually my second time working for REALTIME. After graduating, I started my career at REALTIME as a junior generalist with an emphasis on FX after meeting Tony Prosser (our CEO) when he visited the university I was studying at. I worked at REALTIME for a few years and then moved on to teaching VFX at University for seven years and continued as a freelance VFX generalist on various film and TV projects. It was this continued engagement with the industry and passion for teaching that led to me re-joining REALTIME several years later to lead the studio’s new internal training initiative.
REALTIME is split into 3 super talented teams: Automotive, Games, and Episodic. Our Automotive team is primarily based in Unreal Engine, building car configurators and interactive films for many well-known car brands. Our Games team is primarily a team of generalist artists that produce both pre-rendered and in-engine cinematics. Finally, our Episodic team is a combination of generalists and specialists, following a more traditional VFX pipeline.
Most of our teams are hybrid/remote so we meet each day in our teams for dailies via Microsoft Teams and make use of channels and/or group chats to keep each other posted on some of the finer details and communications.
We are lucky to get the chance to work on cinematic cut scenes for some of our favourite games including F1 2021, for which we produced over 3.5 hours of content and rendered using UE4. Alongside cinematics, we’re proud to partner with studios like Rare and EA Games on their launch trailers and commercials for new games – Sea of Thieves is always a popular project for our team to work on as they absolutely love getting the chance to play with the characters! We also recently won awards for our work on the trailers for Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands and Subnautica: Below Zero. In the TV world, we have just finished working on a ground-breaking project for Netflix, called Dance Monsters, which is out now! So, make sure you check it out.
Hiring a New Specialist
When hiring a specialist the first thing we consider is their skills within that role and previous experience. We also like to find out what excites them and what their future career goals are, whether that be to broaden into more of a generalist or if they want to end up in a leading role using their skills to lead a team.
Soft skills-wise, communication is the biggest one for me, whether someone is on-track, ahead, or struggling with something, it is always best to know where each other is at and it also makes it feel much more collaborative as a team when everyone is talking.
Creating a Welcoming Culture
This is one of the main things I have been brought on board for via the launch of our new REALTIME Level Up Programme, or LUP for short (pronounced “Loop”). We are launching this new initiative with the hope that it will be the natural entry point for new artists into the industry, whether they be recent graduates or people looking to re-train in a new area. Artists that join the programme will be full-time paid artists and will be working on live projects but with dedicated time allocated for them to receive training with either myself or key artists from specific departments. Our goal is to run the programme each year with the intention of keeping on all artists that join the programme, to try and bring through the next generation of VFX artists at REALTIME. We are hoping to launch the first round soon so keep an eye out on our site for that!
As well as this, all new artists that join the studio will have an induction, where they will meet key contacts and members of the teams that they will be working with so they will immediately have familiarity with people. I will also be the primary point of contact for people that join the programme to support them.
Thoughts on Burnout and Crunches
Running up to the deadline of a project our staff can work long hours. Once a project has finished, we endeavour to allow staff time off work to recuperate. As the company has grown and team sizes increase, we have been able to transfer staff between teams to help with the spread of the workload, which has helped to ease the pressure points of a project. This was not possible in the earlier days of the business when team sizes were much smaller.
We allow colleagues to have the flexibility to work from home when they want to but also always have a place in the office if they feel they need to interact with people. We are setting up a scheme that allows and encourages colleagues to socialise during their workday, helping stop feelings of stress due to loneliness or isolation. We also offer a 24/7 confidential Employee Assistance Programme to all our staff which provides not only mental health support but also support and advice in areas such as finance, legal, household, bereavement, and childcare. If a colleague is struggling with mental health, they can take time off for their mental health to recover, which would be paid, in line with our sickness absence policy.
We take our staff’s well-being very seriously and have partnered with the mental health charity Safe In Our World for support with future initiatives, including Mental Health Awareness training for our line managers so that they will be equipped to see the early signs of burnout in their teams.
The Freedom Factor
We are a hugely collaborative team and encourage everyone – whether at a junior or more senior level – to suggest new workflows or tools we can use. Unlike huge VFX studios, we aren’t super hierarchical, so everyone can have a say in how to approach a project and we can credit many of our team with bringing innovative ideas to the table. We also have monthly company-wide town halls which are an open forum where people can put forward suggestions, not just about the project they are working on but about the company as a whole.
Approach to Education
As mentioned in question 4, I have been brought on to train or facilitate training for our artists. These may take the form of one-off masterclasses, weekly sessions, training videos, or shadowing other artists.
We are also in the process of putting together Development Plans for the various levels of artists so that artists and line managers can better see what steps need to be taken or areas to develop in or to level up.
COVID-19 changed the way we work at REALTIME forever. After listening to what our staff wanted, we chose to continue with a flexible working model which allows staff to work either in one of our offices, hybrid work, or work from home. Approximately 10% of our staff enjoy hybrid working, whilst 69% of staff choose to continue to work fully remotely post-COVID. Remote working can have its challenges, but we continue to use Teams video calls to collaborate. We feel the advantages far outweigh the challenges and productivity has remained extremely healthy. Most importantly, our staff is enjoying a better work-life balance.
Tips for Aspiring Artists
Make sure you register your interest with us at: careers.realtimeuk.com so that we can match you with any openings we have. We are still a generalist studio at our core and we like to give people a variety of work as much as possible. So, if you are a specialist but have a generalist skillset, make sure you show that too if you are keen to work in other areas.
In your reel, make sure you are clear about your contribution and responsibilities in the shot if it is a group project.
If you are a specialist, make sure that you show a variety of work within your specialism. An example of this would be for animators looking to join us, it is important to demonstrate both character movement animation and facial animation conveying emotion, as so much of our work includes both.
If you do not already have some experience in Houdini, then spend some time upskilling in Houdini (not just as an FX tool). Learning some of the fundamentals of procedural approaches in SOPs is a good place to start. Then, spending some time looking into Solaris and USD is another worthwhile investment.