IWD: Union VFX managing director and Access VFX and Animated Women board member Lucy Cooper reflects on running a visual effects facility during Covid times, the outlook for VFX, and what more the industry could do to attract and retain diverse talent.
Lucy Cooper’s journey to becoming managing director of Union VFX started in an unlikely place: studying law at Aberdeen University.
Although her degree is now useful for reading through contracts, Cooper says she realised a legal career wasn’t for her from the moment she started studying law. So, as soon as she finished law, she took an MSc in marketing at Strathclyde University, writing a thesis on TV programme sponsorship. Her research involved interviewing TV executives, including the commercial director of Scottish Television, who offered her a job in the broadcaster’s commercials department.
“I just thought it was the most exciting thing ever,” recalls Cooper. “Even though I got paid £11,000 a year, and was selling sponsorship and commercial space for the broadcaster, which wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. But I just really enjoyed being in that creative environment.”
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When Scottish Television opened a small office in London, Cooper offered to move. But she soon switched out of sales, landing a PR and marketing job in 1997 at post production company Tele-Cine. It was also her first introduction to the post production sector, and she loved it. After Tele-Cine was bought, she joined BBC Resources – the then BBC department spanning studios, post, costumes, make-up, SFX, graphic design and OB - in a marketing role, moving onto physical effects specialists Artem and eventually to creative industry software firm The Foundry as head of marketing.
The Foundry was a formative part of Cooper’s career. She was part of the team that helped grow the company, which scaled up from 25 people when she first joined to 350 people globally. Her own marketing team also grew to 16 people. “I had lots of experiences that weren’t just about marketing. I was pretty integrally linked to all the other departments, because of the speed at which we were growing,” says Cooper.
She left after eight years, ready to try different things and a role that involved more than marketing. A spell as a consultant followed, working with companies in a range of industries.
“It was really eye-opening and interesting, but did reaffirm that I really wanted to be in the creative industries. I realised that, for me, technology is only really exciting when it’s attributed to an outcome I’m excited about.”
One of her consulting clients was Union, who she’d previously worked with while at The Foundry.
Since being founded in 2008, Soho-based Union has built a reputation for its ‘invisible’ effects work on story-led productions, with recent credits including Netflix hit The Dig, HBO and Sky’s The Third Day, Marie Curie biopic Radioactive, and Kevin MacDonald’s upcoming The Mauritanian.
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IBC 365: What attracted you to working at Union?
Lucy Cooper: “I’d known Tim [Caplan] and Adam [Gascoyne] since they set up Union. We just enjoyed working together, and they asked me to join the company. It was an opportunity to apply all the things I’ve learned in an environment that I really liked being part of. It’s not a huge company, and Tim and Adam own the business. There are no external shareholders, so we can just do what we think is the right thing to do. They’d both worked at some quite large VFX companies, and their hope was to start a visual effects company that took the good things about that, but maybe not some of the less good things. They started really small, literally just the two of them, and they’ve grown gradually over time.
What size is Union now?
Before the pandemic, there were about 100 of us, but we are now back to our core team due to the nature of what’s happened.
That must be a common issue for the VFX industry at the moment?
As an industry, we talk to each other quite a lot and have been impacted across the board. A lot of the workforce are freelance or on fixed term contracts, so many of them were not renewed or unfortunately had to end early. It’s not been a pleasant year from that point of view, but ultimately, filming stopped for pretty much six months and that has had a knock on impact on everything.
When did Union start to feel the work impact from coronavirus? Was there a lag before the impact hit you?
Absolutely, the impact was delayed. We were very busy when the first lockdown hit, but we started to feel it gradually as projects ended, but weren’t replaced as things were not able to shoot.
When do you think that the VFX sector will pick up?
Productions only really started to get back up and running in the tail end of 2020 and, generally speaking, our real work begins two to three months after the cameras have stopped rolling. Our core team are busy on projects right now and things will start to ramp up in May or June.
There’s talk about a lot of film and TV drama going into production this year, given the hiatus of last year. Do you think that there will be a big pick up in the second half of this year?
We have every reason to believe that it’s going to get very, very busy. Around October last year, the phones started ringing a lot again.The BFI supported insurance scheme for production allowed a lot of people to start thinking, ‘Okay, we’re actually going to be able to film, let’s try and get moving.’ It felt like there was a big surge of activity then. There’s still a lot of nervousness that things might be stop-start, given Covid. But, hopefully, towards late summer or early autumn, it should be busy.
“I’ve been working in media for 24 years. I’ve seen a really positive evolution as I’ve gone along in my career in terms of how I’ve been treated, and how I’ve seen other people being treated,” Lucy Cooper
Will you look to work with the people you stopped working with during the pandemic?
Definitely. They will be our priority in terms of people we pick up the phone to first. We have actually managed to be re-employ a couple of people on projects. I would hope that by late summertime we’ll be back up to where we were pre-pandemic.
Have you kept your office open during the pandemic or switched entirely to remote working?
We had to become remote in a very short space of time, which was challenging. But everyone in the industry has been in the same boat. The office has pretty much been shut, although people can go in when required. In general, we have predominantly been remote, and continue to be so at the moment.
What do you think will happen post pandemic? Will you use more remote working? Or do you think that being in the office and collaborating is what’s needed?
I know a lot of people are talking about this, but I think it’s really hard to predict until we actually get back. There’s a lot of uncertainty, it varies so much by individual. Some people have really missed being in the office, others feel like they’ve benefited from not being in the office. It’s definitely been different strokes for different folks.
I think working either all remotely or all in the office is tried and tested. It becomes challenging when you’ve got a bit of a hybrid going on: sometimes people who are remote when the majority of people in the office can be forgotten about. There are real benefits to being together at certain points in the process. From my perspective, it’s hard to maintain a company culture with a remote workforce. I think it’s also really difficult to nurture young talent in an environment where you’re not present.
The other issue for us is that the studios we work for have very strict security regulations about how we manage their content. During the pandemic, these rules have been relaxed a little bit to keep things moving. Whether or not that will continue when we’re allowed to be back in the office is a bit of an unknown. That’s something that would dictate to quite a large degree what happens.
Tell us more about Union – how do you position yourself in the very competitive VFX market?
Union is built on relationships, and, in particular, creative partnerships with directors, production designers and DOPs. We are fortunate that a lot of our clients come back to us. So if someone’s doing a sci-fi film one minute and then a period drama next, then that’s what we’re doing too. I guess our reputation is very much for storytelling films, as opposed to robots and aliens and superheroes. But that is broadening as we get older and have a more varied palette of work behind us.
What’s next for Union?
This year is going to be spent attempting to get back to pre-pandemic normality. We very much want to figure out what our new normal looks like, and get ourselves back to the point that we were at prior to the pandemic hitting us. We have lots of exciting projects that we’re working on. We’re known for invisible effects in context – ones that nobody knows are there. We are broadening this out into more 3D and effects as well as more traditional 2D and environment effects. In line with that, just before the pandemic, we hired a new head of CG and an FX supervisor. So we’ve been beavering away in any downtime working on some of our CG and FX work.
How do you think the media landscape has changed for women since you started in working in media?
I’ve been working in media for 24 years. I’ve seen a really positive evolution as I’ve gone along in my career in terms of how I’ve been treated, and how I’ve seen other people being treated. I’m glad to say it’s a pretty long time since I’ve experienced any direct misogyny or explicit sexism. Obviously, MeToo and other initiatives have been very prevalent in the news, which has got people talking about things.
I am passionate about trying to get more women into the industry. I’m on the boards of Animated Women and Access VFX. I’m very passionate about having a representative workplace, whether that’s via a socio-economic path, or whether that’s to do with your background, your ethnic background, or what sex you are. Our industry is definitely not a reflection of the community that we work within.
We do a lot of positive outreach work, because I think a big problem is that many people don’t know about the opportunities available in the industry. So we’re attempting to reach out, and open people’s eyes to the fact that there are opportunities and then hopefully mentor them, and help them make their way into our industry. But it’s a very long game that we’re playing.
The VFX industry is still very male-skewed, isn’t it?
It’s definitely a male-dominated industry. There are 28% women as of the last count, according to UK Screen figures. There are more women working in production type roles, but much fewer women in senior creative roles and there are very few women working in technical roles. It’s definitely improving. Certainly, we see more female graduates entering the industry, but obviously, it will take time for them to come through the ranks.
Are there things that could make it easier to attract and to retain female talent?
Retention is clearly one of the big issues. Actually, the industry is quite attractive, once people know what it is, and understand what kinds of roles there are. Many industries struggle with retention. The problem that’s cited the most, is if people choose to have families and what that means in terms of work-life balance. We need to continually challenge that state of play and creatively think about keeping talent within the industry at times like that. But that’s changing as well: I have male employees who are wanting to change how they work, sometimes due to family and caring commitments. This is not just something that impacts women. This is something that impacts everybody.
Over the last year, many people have had to home school their children, and we’ve had as many conversations with dads as with mums about what we can do to help them work through that situation.
What about advice for women working or starting out in the media? If you could go back and offer advice to yourself when you were at university, what would you say?
My advice would be the same to men and women. I talk to quite a lot of young people who are starting out in the industry or thinking about a career in it. I’m always conscious that they feel like they need to know exactly what job they want to do. I’d be keen to tell them that they shouldn’t expect to follow a linear path. Every experience is really valuable, and the industry is so broad that it’s very hard to know what you actually might like to do at the end of the day.
I would get involved in whatever it is that you’re interested in, whether that’s short films or volunteering on a production to get some experience. You’ll learn a lot about what things you’re good at, what you enjoy, and what it’s like working with people in those environments.
Don’t worry about what it is, because you’ll learn things along the way. You’re always building relationships, and I think a network is something that’s incredibly important. Make sure that you connect with people and ask questions. It doesn’t have to be the head of ILM, it could be someone who has a vague connection to the industry.
Once you’re actually starting out in your career, it’s all about doing what’s asked of you to the best of your ability. If you start out as a runner, making tea for everyone might not feel like the most exciting use of your university degree. But in those sorts of positions, you get to hear and see things and to meet almost everyone. Those are really good opportunities to show that you’re diligent and thorough at what you do and that you really care about it. That impression really stays with people and can make them much more likely to give you further opportunities. I think every job you do teaches you, even if it’s just teaching you that you really don’t want to do it!