FMX 2014 celebrates creativity and adaptivity

FMX 2014 celebrated its 20th anniversary in Stuttgart. The conference is headed by Thomas Haegele of the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, and Jean Michele Blottière of NX Publishing. It serves multiple purposes from training young talent to providing a networking hub. The conference also provides  a window into entertainment creation beyond California.

The FMX conference is the brain child of Thomas Haegele, a professor at the Filmakademie and also the founder of one of the first German productions houses, Polygon. Haegele felt that the disciplines growing up around film special effects and the transition to digital filmmaking were not getting the attention in the academic communities or recognition in the film world that they deserved.

FMX 2014 just finished up last week in Stuttgart.
FMX 2014 just finished up last week in Stuttgart.

The conference has managed to attract top talent and it covers wide-ranging topics including animation techniques, special effects tricks of the trade, economic trends, and artistic influences. There are step by step how-tos delivered by vendor experts, and enough discussions of composition and art theory to make a graduate student swoon.

Keeping pace with the evolution of digital content creation, the conference has grown to include games and emerging media forms. After all the students being trained today may well wind up working in completely different jobs than the ones they trained for in school.

If they find work in the creative arts at all. It’s already painfully evident that more people are being trained for jobs in the film industry than there actually are jobs. The same is happening for the high-end games industry.

However, media is evolving to the point that every person who wishes to create content can find some way to share that media with others. That’s good and bad news. There is no guarantee of making a living and it feels a little like what has happened to journalists. For every person that needs a job, there are three people willing to do it for free or almost free. The work may not be of as high a quality but hey, it’s free. That’s bad. What’s good is that media distribution is being reinvented and the day may come when we can see wonderful, personal, quirky, and original work that has previously disappeared thanks to the difficulty of finding a distributor. FMX also explores the evolution of new forms of entertainment including virtual reality, games, and transmedia —multi-platform content such as games to accompany a movie, etc.

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The ongoing conversation and controversy in the film industry over outsourcing and subsidies for special effects has a different tone in Stuttgart compared to that going on in the U.S. over the last couple of years. The state of Baden-Württemberg is a burgeoning center for film work and FMX celebrated some of the recent film work which was done here including The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Black Swan, The Physician. Look Effects, an international company with offices in Vancouver, LA, New York, and Stuttgart along with Pixomondo with locations in LA, Toronto, and Stuttgart can go where the jobs are and the jobs go where the money is.

Germany is offering subsidies to studios and it has a depth of experienced talent. Especially poignant, was the work done by old school model builders who found their talents in demand once again by Wes Anderson.  Like some tired old movie about the over-the-hill gang rounded up for one more job Look Effects’ Gabriel Sanchez and prop master Simon Weisse rounded up  model makers to build sets and models including the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel, the funicular, and a mountain tower. Sven Martin of Pixomondo talked about his work on the Physician which relied on special effects as set extensions – to create a story that range from England to the Middle East using just three locations in Cologne, Morocco, and Eastern Germany. And yet, listening to Martin and Sanchez  Wes Anderson and Philipp Stölzl (The Physician) through multiple changes, many at the last minute, one wonders how well these jobs actually paid when all was said and done. It’s hard to forget the fate of Rhythm & Hues, who did such a fabulous job helping to create Life of Pi and failed as a business.

There are lessons to be learned, but it’s not totally clear what those lessons will turn out to be. Jacques Bled and his company Mac Guff have been making his living off the Despicable Me series and the company has figured out how to franchise and market those characters to an inch of their little yellow lives. Mac Guff also created Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Mac Guff can turn in an animation feature on a much smaller budget than L.A. based film companies who are already relying heavily on off shore talent, which is at least one reason why Universal bought the company in 2011.  The movies from Mac Guff are charming and they have a European aesthetic that appeals to a worldwide audience. It’s a welcome change to the American packaged animation content that has been airlifted in for decades. The Physician likewise, has a very European feel and it has been made a significant chunk of money in Germany and Spain. It was shown on television as a mini-series and it is expected that Netflix will be picking it up.

The people who spend the money to make movies can’t really be blamed for chasing the best deals, nor can governments willing to invest be blamed for building talent pools and luring the money to their countries. This is a given at FMX 2014; it’s not even part of the discussion. What’s going on there are lessons in getting the most of of what you have no matter where you are.

One of the side effects that is so interesting is that the people working in different countries are helping to forge more variety in styles and themes.

One of the ongoing lessons at FMX 2014 was articulated by festival president Jean Michel Blottiere who said, “companies who can adapt and who have a vision succeed. Those who stick to a fixed workflow, a fixed pipeline, they are the ones who fail.” In the meantime, it’s likely there’s going to be a lot of adapting going on as the entertainment industry negotiates new realities in technology and economics.