A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from an acquaintance at the art institute of Austin who asked if I might be willing to give the commencement address at their summer/fall graduation ceremony today. At first, I honestly wasn't entirely sure whether I should do it but I thought about it some more and decided to say yes. Thought you might like to read what I told the graduating class this evening. Hopefully it's not too long.
Graduates, teachers, families, thank you for being here today. As my gift to you, I promise that I’ll be brief. Congratulations graduates! You did it! You survived and finished one of the biggest projects of your lives and today it ships. You have all accomplished something in your time at the school that will be a great landmark for you that you can launch off from.
My name is Brian Behm and for the last four plus years I’ve been the motion design director and a visual effects artist at a local Austin production company called Rooster Teeth. There’s a chance you may have heard of us. If you haven’t, that’s fine. You’d be surprised at how many people haven’t. A common follow up that might be handy to keep on hand later might be, “So… you guys put videos on YouTube and you get PAID for it? There’s money in that?” You might also ask “Do Roosters even have teeth?” For the record, they don’t.
We create popular web series like Red vs Blue, RWBY, the Slowmoguys and a lot of other video game culture and humor content. This year we finished our first feature film Lazer Team. (In theaters everywhere, January 27th. Go see it!) I spent a good chunk of the summer working with one of your alumni on finishing the visual effects for that movie. Shout out to Colin Jimenez.
When I first got the invitation to speak at this ceremony today, I have to admit that I was both really flattered and quite surprised. I had to re-read the e-mail twice. I expected to see a request to pass along an introduction to one of our founders, not to have it directed to me, a behind the scenes designer who has many fewer twitter followers. In any case, if you personally, were really hoping for one of the Rooster Teeth founders, Burnie Burns initials are also B B, so as you move forward from today, if all you remember is that someone with the initials BB from Rooster Teeth spoke at your graduation, you can make that leap.
As a designer and a VFX artist, most of the time my audience is internal. I’m always thinking about what I can do to entertain our community with my work but I’m mostly focused on figuring out what’s in the director’s head and trying to make that a reality. There’s an inward focus. you could call it designer as psychologist. As you move forward as artists, learning how to do that is going to be one of the most important things you can do. The keys are patience and learning how to ask good questions. Earlier in my career I didn’t always have that patience. You probably won’t at first either. Client’s can be pernicious and in a stressful situation we don’t always respond the way we probably should.
A wiser mentor took me aside at one point and reframed the client/designer relationship for me. 90 percent of the work is yours. It just is. A client is going to give his input on what you’re working on, but you’re going to be the one who narrowed down all of the choices that they’re reacting to. Even after they give you a list of changes, you’re going to make decisions about how to interpret those instructions. You’re controlling an awful lot of power. When I learned that, and really applied it, I was able to start taking some of the ego out of the process and I started to do better work.
The big thing that I want to talk to you about today though is almost simpler than that. It’s a word you already know. Yes. I know it’s not long and you probably use it every day, But I want you to look at it and apply it to your life. Yes is the one word that has done the most to change my life over the course of my career. In improv there’s a concept called “Yes, and”.
If you’re doing a scene with someone and they say, "I'm an orangutan!" and you say they aren’t, it ends the scene. If you say, “well, you’re quite fetching for an orangutan, fancy this banana I just picked?” the scene continues on. Yes opens you up to things and Yes is how I ended up at Rooster Teeth.
Graduates, as you step out into the world, yes is going to be how you build your career. Find your friends around you and when they ask if you can help with something… say yes. When I was asked to do this speech today, I had the option of saying yes or no. If I said yes, (and I did or this is some kind of really odd dream) the improv game continues. If I say no, it doesn’t. You say yes to things because saying yes moves your career forwards. While you know what will happen if you say no, nothing, the status quo, you never know what will come from a yes. It might not be anything, but it might be someone seeing that thing you did and asking you to do something else. If you say yes to something, and you care about that project and make every effort to make it the best that it can be, the yes’ multiply.
My wife and I moved to Austin seven years ago from Colorado. We’d originally moved there with a company that I was working for at the time and after a couple of years, the company went out of business. We were both really passionate about film but we weren’t around people that were doing film. That’s another piece of advice: go find your community. If you have something specific that you want to be doing, go be around people that are doing that thing. We knew that if we were ever going to be doing film and entertainment work we were going to have to go somewhere where that was around us. It’s not impossible to start something on your own but the amount of energy that it takes to create something where nothing exists is exponential compared to going somewhere where that thing is going on. It’s a great way to make a giant leap in your career as an artist.
We plugged into the film community here. Hanging out around the Alamo Drafthouse, we made friends with a collection of film geeks, bloggers and production people. There was no attempt to network. We just wanted to make friends. Traditional networking is a lousy way to actually network. Getting into a fake situation where everyone is passing out business cards and trying to charm someone into doing business with them doesn’t create actual relationships. You get home from the mixer and you’ve got a stack of cards. What good is that? But if you build friendships and you’re around when that person needs something, it’s a lot easier to be able to step in and help.
One of the first things i did as we arrived was to volunteer at SXSW. As a guy who had a lot of video production experience, I was able to work with their editorial team. Editors aren’t necessarily designers and being around the editors that were working on the team led to opportunities to make motion graphics for some of the videos.
You know that cliche piece of advice that if you find the thing you love to do you’ll never work a day the rest of your life? It’s not true. The reality is that you’ll probably work harder because you’ll love and care about it, but there’s still an immense amount of fun. Getting a SXSW badge to sit around and have fun playing with graphics for a video was a pretty great opportunity and it was another case of saying yes. Hold on to that thought for a moment. Those SXSW titles will turn out to be important.
I mentioned earlier about how you don’t know where a yes is going to lead. As we made friends and got into situations where we could help our friends, I ended up working on a film called My Sucky Teen Romance. A coworker had agreed to help our friend Emily Hagins produce her third feature film. Emily got a lot of visibility for making a feature length zombie film when she was 13 years old. She made a second film a couple of years later and was gearing up for her third. They couldn’t figure out how to shoot a mirror shot where this teen girl who’s accidentally been bit by a vampire discovers that she can’t be seen in mirrors anymore. I told them I’d take a stab at it. Saying yes to that led to me working on the poster for the release, the titles, the web site, thirty more VFX shots and a lot of other little things. We got it into SXSW. It got bought and had a small theatrical release. Other friends were watching and they asked me to work on their projects because of what they’d seen me do on MSTR.
One of those friends, it turns out, was friends with the Rooster Teeth founders. I saw that RT was doing a lot more visual effects work on Red vs Blue. It looked fun. I thought it might make sense to see if this friend would connect me with them. I didn’t even want a job. I just wanted to have something cool to work on. He connected me, and they asked me to send over a reel. Unbeknownst to me, Matt and Burnie had made a decision earlier that year to hire someone who could do titles. I sent them a reel of title design. That reel had a lot of those shots I’d done at SXSW. They thought it was really, REALLY cool that I’d done work for SXSW. I couldn’t have known any of those things. The job was never posted anywhere. They hadn’t started the process of finding someone, they just knew it was something they wanted to add to the company. Because I had said yes in all of those other things, it put me in a position that I wouldn’t have otherwise been in.
In any entertainment story there’s usually something that’s not replicable. If you want to be Robert Rodriguez and sell your El Mariachi film to hollywood, it helps that there are not NEARLY as many people doing the same thing in the 90s and Sundance hasn’t blown up to what it is today. It was way easier to get in. Rooster Teeth doesn’t exist if Microsoft and Bungie don’t give their own yes to us using their Halo game. That’s a pretty huge yes.
In my case, if I hadn’t said yes to those other things, I wouldn’t have been in the position that I didn’t even know I needed to be in to get my job at Rooster Teeth. It’s not replicable, but in other ways, this philosophy is entirely replicable. You can make friendships and help your friends with things. You can put things out into the universe. You can create. All of these things are eminently replicable. You just can’t be sure exactly what the outcome is going to be. You can just be sure that the outcome will be greater than it would have been if you’d done nothing.
One word of warning, say yes to things, but say yes to the things that you’re capable of or that are just beyond where you are. None of this is about getting into a situation where you’re in over your head. Ultimately, it’s up to you to learn what the yes’ are that you should be going after. Use your gut and train it.
I want to close with a small section from Seth Godin’s most recent book What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn). It’s a sort of benediction.
“Tell the truth”
“We don’t know wht you see. We have no idea what you’re thinking. We need your contribution, your vision, your truth. Yes, for a long time, for most of your life, we demanded you ask for instruction and that you comply. We’re ready now though. Ready for you to show up and to lead us. Ready for your contribution. We are ready for you to tell us your truth. Not THE truth, but your truth. The truth of the world as you see it and as you wish it to be.
Thank you for your time today. Now, if we hurry, we can all make it to The Force Awakens.