In this instalment of our Diversity Spotlight series, we catch up with Simon Devereux, director and founder of ACCESS:VFX – a non-profit organisation which Simon describes as a “lovely, fluffy, friendly monster”. We talk diversity and inclusion within the visual effects, animation and games industry, as well as getting his tips on how to transform initial concept into a thriving programme that has both national and global impact.
Fed: Tell us more about ACCESS:VFX and what the organisation does…
Simon: We’ve been around unofficially since September 2017 and set up as official not-for-profit in late 2018.ACCESS:VFX is a global, industry-led, non-profit and we exist to raise awareness of careers in visual effects, animation and games, providing roots for those into industry. Those kinds of creative roles are your classic hidden opportunities, particularly in this country. So, we have assembled a tonne of industry partners – mostly studios and educators – all working together towards a shared goal, which is to create a more diverse and inclusive industry by attracting a wider range of talent
Our message is around inclusion and diversity, whether it be around targeting that wide range of next generation talent, or supporting people with their mental health within their roles, or connecting with studios to see what they could be doing better too. A lot of member studios actually now join ACCESS:VFX as part of their diversity and inclusion strategies internally.
Fed: How did you come to create ACCESS:VFX?
Simon: It’s a longish story so I’ll try and keep it succinct! I used to work for The Mill – the visual effects/content creation studio in Soho – and during mid-2016, there was a lot of conversation around inclusion and diversity. We were looking inside our bubble and realised that we didn’t have a huge amount of diversity within our studio, particularly on the CG side. The MD at the time suggested that we do some work on it and connected me with Roxanne Hobbs from The Hobbs Consultancy. We did some brainstorming sessions with her where we created an inclusion network and we used that inclusion network to talk about how we would build a strategy to work across three areas – education, recruitment and internal promotion.
I found it really refreshing and I’d had some experience when I previously worked at Channel 4 when they hosted their first paralympic games in mobilising these kind of diversity and inclusion efforts. We took our findings to the senior management team and then poured it all into what became The Mill’s first diversity and inclusion strategy. In terms of internal promotion, we noted that National Inclusion Week was approaching so I created a week of awareness raising sessions with a panel discussion and loads of really cool speakers across different areas of inclusion from mental health and disability to race and LGBT. It really got people talking and that’s what it was designed to do.
At the time, I was also head of L&D and used to go to regular HR working groups. Industry trade body, UK Screen Alliance hosted (and continue to host) a HR skills group and shared the results from an annual survey. It sparked big conversations around gender and race and what we should be doing more of and I was asked by Neil Hatton, CEO of the UK Screen Alliance to present at the next meeting about what we had been doing at The Mill. I presented around May 2017 and I remember looking around the room and seeing all these massive representatives and massive studios and suggested that we do Inclusion Week again as a collective industry. We organised that and that small group of people grew and grew as we approached September 2017 and as we continued to work together, we realised we had formed a great working group, with the same challenges around diversity and inclusion.
As we got closer to launching our event, we started talking about how we were going to keep it going after. We started talking about calling ourselves ACCESS:VFX and then we just branded it, created social channels and did a dummy website to put the event schedule on. We had a mentoring mixer where mentors could speak to all the young people as part of the schedule and that’s really where our e-mentoring platform was born from. That’s how it all kicked off and we have just run with it since then and we still continue to thrive even in these strange times.
Fed: Tell us more about your e-mentoring platform…
Simon: It’s an e-mentoring scheme run by a company called Prospela that we connected with back in 2017. It’s completely remote and aimed at people as young as thirteen. Prospela connect those people to industry professionals through Slack, so they never have to even meet their mentor. It’s completely CRB checked and completely safe for younger people to engage with.
We’re global now so we’ve got chapters in New York, Chicago, on the west coast of America, Montreal and we’re just about to launch in New Zealand and Australia with ACCESS:VFX Oceania. So, say a young person who lives in Wolverhampton is trying to get into the industry, what we can do is connect them with a mentor who could be a creative director from a big visual effects studio in Los Angeles. What an amazing way to start your network and it’s a completely free service.
Fed: As a not-for-profit organisation, how do you find the funding to offer these incredible services?
Simon: Membership. We don’t have any public funding at all so it all comes through membership. We have a tiered system so it’s not a huge amount of money that we ask and the membership fees only really covers our e-mentoring platform and all the day-to-day admin that comes with any company. A lot of the money for our e-mentoring service comes from sponsorship but we’re always looking for additional co-sponsors to support our initiative in particular because it is really the heartbeat of ACCESS:VFX, it’s the get-stuff-done part of the organisation.
Fed: What would your advice be on transforming an initial idea into a programme that has national and global impact?
Simon: My advice would be to just do it and don’t overthink it. I just knew that there was a problem to solve and that there wasn’t enough conversation around diversity in our industry. I think it’s just about being authentic and down to earth and open to ideas. Everybody in ACCESS:VFX has a day job and nobody is doing it as their full-time gig so it’s also about a lot of good will and respecting people’s time. It’s the first organisation of its kind really, with no public funding and at the beginning, everybody just put their hands in their pockets so that we could attend events, launch programmes and pay for pop up banners and t-shirts and badges. So, as corny as it sounds, people just wanted to do the work. People care about it and they’re passionate about it and that was the foundation of it all – good will.
Fed: What has ACCESS:VFX got planned for the remainder of 2021 and beyond?
Simon: We’re planning a virtual careers event and there’s a team burrowing away on that at the moment and we’re looking to get as many partner studios involved as possible, including some of the smaller studios. There will be one-hour career sessions that will be hosted on our website using Zoom with support from Escape Studios, who are one of our members. We’re also planning another Summer of Animation for 2021, including tutorials using Blender and various competitions.
We have also launched X-VFX which is a movement supporting people of colour and we’re also going to continue on with our podcast. We will also be injecting more life into Q-VFX which supports the LGBT community. ACCESS:VFX is a big undertaking which is only getting bigger. I’ve created a monster, but a lovely, fluffy, friendly monster!
Fed: What are your ambitions for the wider future of ACCESS:VFX?
Simon: I’ve always had ambitions for ACCESS:VFX to be recognised as a genuine industry body that people can connect with and get support from. I want ACCESS:VFX to literally stand for the visual effects, animation and games industry and for it to be this trusted source of information with roots into industry and access to humans working in industry who people can engage with. I want to raise more awareness and educate about these hidden careers, particularly at school age.
It’s ultimately about being about action because I’m never happier than when I hear that somebody has got their break in the industry and that their access point was ACCESS:VFX. We run these big events with hundreds of people but if one person leaves the event thinking ‘that’s what I want to do’, then you’ve achieved your goal.
To find out more about ACCESS:VFX, head over to www.accessvfx.org or sign up for a mentor at accessvfx.rg/mentors.