This post is by Chris Zwar from ProVideo Coalition

I can’t say for sure, but I think I’m the first person to compare After Effects to Chicken Parmigiana.  And it’s not just After Effects – sometimes the whole VFX and motion graphics industry has me thinking about going to the pub for lunch.  Which one would you rather have in front of you, right now?

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Have you ever read something online, tried to find it again and completely failed?  Lots of conversations begin with someone saying “I read an article…” and that’s where I’m starting today.  I read an article.  Except I read it a long time ago and I haven’t been able to find it again.  It’s not a big problem, because it’s more to do with the way the article made me feel at the time, rather than any specific details in it.  So I’m doing a lot of paraphrasing.  Don’t quote me.

When I’m not working with or writing about After Effects, I’m also interested in food and cooking.  And the article that I stumbled across was on a food related website, and it was looking at the failure rate of restaurants.

Restaurants are quite well known as being poor investments.  Apparently, most new restaurants fail within a year of opening.  This is well covered on the internet, although the exact failure rate is sometimes disputed.

When I resigned from my full-time job and went freelance, the first thing I did was register my business name.  In my particular city, once you do that they send you out a little brochure that outlines all the sorts of things you need to do if you’re starting a small business.  And I remember that the brochure I got had an entire chapter dedicated to saying DON’T OPEN A RESTAURANT.  They mostly fail in the first year.  Mostly.

The article that I have completely failed to find again wasn’t looking at the exact failure rate of restaurants.  What they were interested in was that this figure has been increasing over time.  Now I am completely making up numbers here, but let’s say that in the 1980s, about 50% of restaurants failed in their first year.  That number has climbed.  Maybe it was 55% in the 1990s, 60% in the 2000s, and 65% in the 2010s.  It’s even higher now.

But regardless of what the exact numbers are, why are they going up?

As I read the article and the authors outlined their research, findings, and shared their conclusions, I felt the hairs on my neck beginning to stand up.  Because it sounded like everything that they were writing about could also be applied to the motion graphics and visual fx industry.

I don’t know if motion design and VFX studios are more or less likely to close down than they were 20 years ago.  I don’t know if the number of artists that are leaving the industry is increasing, or if there are any other long-term trends in solvency and profits.  But I can’t help thinking that After Effects and Chicken Parmigiana might not be that different.

Pub Grub and Pixel Pushing

So – what did those authors discover?

The simple version is that a lot of restaurants failed because their founders felt like they were joining a global foodie culture, and participating in some sort of worldwide foodie movement, while the average paying customer just wants something cheap and simple to eat.

Back in the 1980s, for example, restaurants were considered pretty posh if they baked their own bread.  But that was about the limit of in-house production.  But since the 1980s the world has seen an increase in globalisation (sorry, I hate that word) and the emergence of the internet has formed huge, global, social networks.  No matter what you’re interested in, the internet allows you to instantly share and communicate with people with similar interests, no matter where they are around the world.

Foodies are no exception.  There are countless recipe sites, YouTube channels, blogs, forums and so on to do with every single aspect of food and food culture. If you can cook it, or eat it, then the internet is full of people cooking and eating it.  Worldwide foodie culture is absolutely huge.  And even though there’s a seemingly infinite number of cooking shows on TV that run 24/7, the real culprit here is Instagram.

Tiramisu, chocolate fondant (aka lava cake) and salted caramel are all examples of foods / flavours that have spread across the globe, and that have been the subject of research into exactly how, and how fast, they spread.  I didn’t know people could earn a living studying salted caramel, but now that I do I’m re-evaluating some of my life choices.

The problem comes when people who are passionate about food decide to start a restaurant.  They’re obviously doing this because it’s something they love.  But being immersed in an endless source of global content creates a sense of pressure.  Your Instagram feed might be inspirational, but it’s also a constant stream of induced peer pressure from an audience you think you’re a part of, but that you’ve never actually met.  Your imagination becomes your harshest critic.

A chicken parmigiana is a pretty simple meal.  You start by getting a piece of chicken and frying it. Then cover it with some ham, tomato sauce and cheese, and serve it up with fries and a bit of salad. That’s it. Many years ago I met a local radio presenter who was determined to review every single chicken parma in Melbourne. It’s noble work.

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WordPress said I should add more images, so here’s another picture of a chicken parma.

But to someone who loves food, who’s passionate about everything food related to the point that they’re opening their own restaurant, the global foodie community generates a self-imposed sense of pressure.  They’re not just focussed on chef’s hats and reviews, they’re looking for Instagram likes, retweets, shared posts and other social media love.  They want to feel like they belong.

A simple chicken parma is not enough.

Yes Chef!

So the restaurant doesn’t just get a piece of chicken and fry it.  They source their pedigree chicken from organic, free range breeders who hand-feed them an Aztec grain blend.  The breadcrumbs come from the sour-dough bread baked in the kitchen, from the restaurant’s own sour-dough starter, carefully blended with Japanese panko crumbs.  The chicken is deep fried in sustainably sourced peanut oil.  The restaurant cures their own ham (and prosciutto!), and sources their cheese from a local dairy.  The tomato sauce is made from San Marzano tomatoes grown around Naples. The chips are hand cut, the salad includes 3 types of heirloom lettuce, and the dressing is made with olive oil that they’ve pressed themselves, on an antique olive press they restored, and then everything is garnished with micro herbs that they grow in the kitchen’s own garden.

I’m sure the end result is delicious.  I’m sure it looks amazing, and the photos they share on Instagram will receive thousands of likes and shares.

But here’s the problem.  If the owners of the restaurant sat down and carefully calculated how much that chicken parma actually cost them to make, they’d realise they need to sell it for $60 in order to make a profit.

Now as much as I love a good chicken parmigiana, I simply can’t afford to shell out $60 on a regular basis.  Even if a local pub has a $20 lunch special, I can’t justify paying that much every day.

The restaurant owners either don’t know how much their food is actually costing them, or they’re setting their prices based on what other restaurants are charging, or they’re just making up prices to suit their customers.  Their gourmet chicken parma ends up on the menu for $40.

They don’t realise it, but they’re in trouble.  The average punter who just wants a $20 pub lunch doesn’t really care if the fries have been triple-cooked or if the cheese comes from a water buffalo.  They just want a chicken parma, and they don’t really expect it to cost $40.

So the restaurant is either losing customers who think the prices are too high, or when they do have customers they’re losing money because the meals they sell are costing them more than they’re charging.

Eventually, they close down.

The restaurant has failed because they over-delivered and under-charged.  They over-delivered because of the influence of social-media, and they under-charged because their customer base couldn’t support the full cost of running.

Why a chicken parma is like After Effects

Obviously, I’m exaggerating slightly, but that’s the basic gist of the original article.  Do you feel like there are any parallels to your daily work as a digital artist?

I’d be surprised if anyone working in the motion graphics / VFX industry has escaped the fuss and attention surrounding AI tools.  Every time I visit Twitter I’m bombarded with posts proclaiming that “AI is going to revolutionise your job” and that there’s “10 things I need to know”.  Maybe there are, but I’d prefer to eat a can of surströmming than click on one of those stupid links.

From browsing the headlines and popular posts on social media sites, you get the impression that emerging AI tools are a huge threat to the livelihood of digital artists.  But chatting to individuals and listening to what actual working professionals have to say presents a different picture.

Perhaps a greater threat to digital artists is the mental health burden created by a constant stream of online, socially-networked content.  The imposter-syndrome fuelled by an Instagram that’s always full of beautiful inspiration, from a seemingly endless pool of more-talented artists.

The loosely defined term “industry” deserves some attention here.  What I’m suggesting is that the overall “industry” is much, much larger than the relatively small pool of exceptional work that is routinely shared and admired online.

Going back to our food examples, then there’s definitely a market for fine dining.  Many chefs aspire to work in “3 hat” restaurants.  Annual restaurant rankings receive global attention; either gaining or losing a chef’s hat can change the fortunes of a restaurant overnight.

But not every restaurant has 3 hats.  Or any hats.  And if you look at the larger food industry then it wouldn’t be surprising to find that cheap, fast-food outlets are more popular and more profitable.  There’s room in the world for a few restaurants to sell a $60 chicken parmigiana, but the local pub selling a $20 lunch special will be more popular – and almost certainly more profitable.  What do you think the ratio of fine dining restaurants to small cafes and sandwich bars is?  Maybe 1:10, 1:20, 1:50? Or more?

So what about digital artists?  For every motion designer working on a Hollywood title sequence, how many other After Effects users are out there producing website banners, in-store promotions, conference titles, training videos and so on?

It might be worth having a look at the success of Canva, and the impact it’s had on traditional graphic design.  Canva is definitely a success story.  But where did the success come from?  It’s not like they developed a revolutionary new AI tool.  They’re not charging thousands of dollars a day.  Really, what Canva did was recognise the market for simple, accessible design for a very broad audience.

Canva is not the equivalent of a restaurant selling $60 chicken parmas, they’re the café in the office foyer that sells coffee and sandwiches.  There’s nothing wrong with coffee and sandwiches, just like there’s nothing wrong with restaurants.  But which one is making more money?

For every motion design studio that’s charging $20,000 for a small animation, there’s a client out there who’d be just as happy with a $20 template from VideoHive.  I’m not saying that one is better than the other, only that you need to understand who’s paying the bills, and how much those bills are.

If you’re a digital artist who doesn’t work on the types of projects that fill Instagram and Twitter feeds, then it’s easy to feel imposter syndrome.  Just like a restaurant chef who feels like they need to roll their own pasta and churn their own butter, digital artists can feel an online pressure to learn new software, watch more tutorials, read more articles and so on.  I’ve spent the last year telling After Effects artists that they need to learn color management.  And they should, but I know that there’s huge numbers of After Effects users out there who don’t need to worry about ACES, High Dynamic Range, and linear compositing (yet).

Under pressure

Restaurants are feeling pressured to bake bread, churn butter, prepare charcuterie, press oils and grow vegetables.  Is that any different to a digital artist feeling pressured to learn Unreal, or Mocha Pro, or Silhouette, or Nuke / Houdini / Resolve / Cavalry?  Are you spending weekends and evenings watching tutorials, reading articles and checking out other people’s work online?

I’ve worked alongside motion designers who are doing amazing work in Cinema 4D and After Effects, but have confessed to feeling inadequate because they don’t use Houdini and Nuke.  Maybe using Houdini and Nuke for motion design is the equivalent of making a $60 chicken parma.  The point isn’t really the tools being used, but rather the implied pressure that comes from a daily feed of exceptional work that doesn’t really reflect the supply & demand of the overall industry.

I’ll be honest here.  I’m not on Instagram and I hardly use Twitter.  Even though I do have a twitter account, there are countless recommended artists that I have deliberately chosen not to follow, simply because I find an endless stream of brilliant work to be overwhelming.  If you’re on twitter and I’m not following you, please don’t be offended.  It’s not because I don’t think you’re good enough to follow; it’s probably the opposite.  If you’re regularly sharing wonderful, inspirational examples then I’ve figured that it’s better for my mental health to spare the onslaught.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the biggest threat to our industry might not be from AI taking over our jobs.  I’m not sure that “AI will immediately revolutionise the way I work”, and so I don’t feel compelled to read about those “10 things I need to know.

But judging from the industry zeitgeist, and not some bullshit clickbait headline, the very real threat to studios and artists is simply under-charging and over-delivering, because there’s the perception that everyone else out there is doing incredible work, with incredible tools, and being incredibly successful.

I’d like to think that digital artists are inherently creative people.  But sometimes imagination can be a double-edged sword.  Imagining that you’re not good enough, or that everyone else is more talented, more skilled, more successful, and therefore more valuable – is toxic.

So ask yourself – are you a $60 chicken parmigiana?  Being a $60 chicken parma isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But if you’re a $60 parma that’s being sold for $40, while feeling guilty because you still think you’re too expensive, then there’s a problem.

But that’s enough musing for now.  I’m going to the pub for lunch, and I already know what I’m going to order.

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Here’s another one, because you can never have too many chicken parmagianas

I’ve been writing articles and tutorials for over 20 years.  If you liked this one then please check out my other work!