Global Adventures & A Purpose-Driven Freelancer Career
Aylin Ihnen, June 2021
A glimpse at the life of a global freelancer, visual effects artist who worked on Hollywood blockbuster productions such as Planet of the Apes, Iron Man, and The Avengers.
His job is to combine elements of different origins into one image, so it appears as though all shots were taken at the same time, in the same location, and under the same lights. An artist who combines Art with Technology.
An interview with Martin Ofori: Digital compositor and global nomad.
What brought you to your profession, and how do you become a digital compositor?
I’m what you might call a “techy,” but at the same time, I’m an artist — a real creator at heart.
I’m passionate about “Technology meeting Creativity.”
One of my most beloved hobbies was painting back in the day, long before I started my career. Working with colors and molding thoughts and ideas into a drawing was an intense experience.
“I’m passionate about technology meeting creativity.”
When I finished school, my uncle, who worked at Thyssen Krupp, told me about Software Development and how the new industry sector (IT) is growing into a promising market.
Following his advice, I decided to start studying Software Development in Cologne, Germany.
After finalizing my studies, I moved to Berlin to start my first job as a System Analyst for mainframes.
Two years later, I left Berlin when one of my friends who worked in the creative sector told me about a new school opening up in Cologne: “The Academy of Media Arts.”
The program I ended up applying for was “Media Design & Creation.” The expected prerequisites of applicants were software development skills combined with creativity.
I was excited to apply but knew I had a slim chance of getting one of 10 open slots in the program with hundreds of competing applicants from all over Germany. Ended up getting accepted and finished my studies two years later.
During my studies, I took advantage of the technical equipment available for the students to use for free.
This equipment was far too expensive to buy as a poor student back in those days. I was obsessed with learning how to utilize the technical equipment by experimenting in different directions.
Through this experimenting by doing, I began to find my personal style and taught myself new skillsets.
In this creative phase, the idea of working in visual effects for cinematic movies matured in my mind.
At that time, using technology-driven animations in film was a completely new industry.
At what point did you decide to start working for yourself as a freelancer, and how did you manage your transition from a secure job — into self-employment?
My first job as an employee was in a post-production company in Düsseldorf. They used a costly hardware/software solution to produce commercials.
I was the first to dare to work with the “machine.” After a steep learning curve, I became the “go-to” expert for creating visual effects for advertisements. One of my projects included the launch of the Cherry Coke campaign in the German market.
After four years of crazy working hours and nearly no private life, I started to consider taking another route by working for myself.
The pain points I had at that time and the dissatisfaction with my situation were so intense that I didn’t have to think for too long.
I followed my gut-feeling, taking the risk of leaving financial & local security by exchanging that for a new global adventure.
“The pain points I had at that time and the dissatisfaction with my situation were so intense …”
The breaking point came after a taxi-ride with my colleague at the time, who told me that she was considering leaving and starting her own business.
It felt like a calling, somebody letting me know: It is time to redesign your life — now!
In 1998, my new free life as a global working nomad started.
I want to encourage everybody, going through a similar thought process and paint point:
In case you are unhappy with your job, jump & find your calling by trying new things and start experimenting.
Since 1998, I have been working as a successful freelancer — without interruption. It was definitely one of the best decisions in my life.
Can you tell a little about what you have been working on in the past years?
Amongst others, I have worked in Blockbuster productions, like War for the Planet of the Apes — Part 3; Avengers: Infinity War; Iron Man 3; and Harry Potter — Parts 2, 6, and 8.
“…worked in Blockbuster productions, like War for the Planet of the Apes — Part 3; Avengers: Infinity War…”
How is the market environment in your industry today?
Globally, there are 8–10 large companies in the Blockbuster visual effects production industry.
One example is Weta Digital, based in New Zealand, for who I’ve worked for. Weta Digital is a Visual Effects company awarded for productions like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Avengers.
Around the world, there are approximately 3,000–5,000 professionals with my expertise worldwide.
When you count in the number of Blockbuster productions concerning the number of professionals in my industry, you can only imagine how big the competition is.
Why don´t we hear & read more about people with your expertise?
In my industry, one key code of ethics is confidentiality about the production. We all have to sign an NDA.
Even my showreel (my references) is only available to clients & prospects during the recruiting process.
Share a little more about your experiences working in Blockbuster productions!
The most memorable experiences are not related to a specific movie or an effect I created.
It is more the cultural environment within the companies of my industry.
For example, working for Weta Digital was a genuinely fantastic experience. It felt like a university campus with an excellent team of creatives — all with a similar spirit and passion for delivering the best results.
“… working for Weta Digital was a genuinely fantastic experience.”
Weta Digital has successfully established a cultural environment in their organization that mobilizes talent, gives room for creative working processes, and values each team member. I have met some really unique skilled & inspiring people during my two-year assignment at Weta Digital.
What is your motivation to work in this industry — is it passion, or would you rather define it as your professional calling?
It’s a combination of both. It definitely started with passion. There was something that kept me on track to continue pushing my career forward.
But the main driver through significant challenges and difficult times was the awareness of how blessed I am to live my dream. In short: It feels like my professional calling.
Consistently delivering good quality, overcoming challenging phases in projects & the discipline to stay on track is mainly driven by the awareness of a professional purpose for me.
“Purpose kicks in when passion expires, and in the end — that’s what makes you successful in what you do and motivates you to continuously move forward.”
How would you describe the process of finding your professional purpose — do you have a prescription?
For me, it was a combination of different things. For one, I had a deep connection to myself and dared to listen to my intuition.
Then it was people in my surrounding who helped me turn in a particular direction. They pointed out areas that might suit my capabilities (e.g., my uncle, the taxi-ride with my colleague).
Another factor is that I never thought about the monetary output.
I had no idea if I would be able to make a living off of my career. I took the chance and made it happen for myself.
In the end, it was also the discipline to stay on track, especially in difficult times.
Here is my recommendation of this you shouldn´t do:
- Choose your occupation based on a checklist of predefined requirements.
- Choose a profession with the goal of prestige or popularity — that’s a goal for insecure people.
- Choose your profession based on factors like making quick & easy money.
- Never forget that in 98% of cases, your accomplishments will come by walking on a stony path with many ups and downs.
Base your goals on finding an occupation that feeds your inner-needs for self-fulfillment, and you’ll be fine.
You have been working & living as a professional global nomad for decades. What are your experiences as a “world worker”?
In the first five years, it felt incredibly awesome. Airports, Business Lounges, living in corporate apartments, and enjoying the lightness of minimal furnishings, diving into various cultures, enjoying different places.
After five years, I slowly started to feel uncomfortable.
It was getting tiring to adjust to new environments, having to get to know the next postal office or supermarket around the corner, and most of all, continually being far away from people I love, as close friends and family.
“It was tiring … continually being far away from people I love, like close friends and family.”
What was your most significant experience working as a global nomad?
It was during an assignment in Beirut, Lebanon, at a time when war broke out.
That was a moment of truth in my life. I will never forget how fast a “normal” life turned into a war zone with bombings at individual urban districts nearby.
At first, I thought this is just one incident; it will pass by. Calming myself with thoughts like, I will be fine as long as the airport is functional. But, when I heard that the airport was bombed and destroyed, I realized that I couldn’t leave the place by plane. That was frightening for a moment.
“But when I heard that the airport was bombed and destroyed, I realized that I couldn’t leave the place by plane.”
It felt bizarre that residents were so relaxed, sitting in cafes drinking their coffee as usual.
The situation started to become worrying to everyone when supply chains were cut off (food, electricity, etc.).
While finishing the project I was working on, I contacted the German embassy and followed the evacuation instructions.
The meeting point for evacuation was Beirut Harbour. They brought us to an area close to the Turkish Syrian border with the end-destination Damascus.
It was a truly chaotic bus ride, caused by a highly frequented border-crossing from Lebanon to Syria. There were an incredibly long queue and hours of waiting to cross the border finally.
When we arrived at the airport in Damascus, we were happy to see an airplane waiting for us.
We were ready to fly back to Germany. After the last evacuees entered the plane, we took off. It felt damn good, secure & relieving.
How did the Corona Pandemic change your life since March 2020?
Before the Corona crisis, Visual Effects artists were strictly prohibited from working remotely from home (due to internet security concerns).
Since Corona, most companies have had to rethink and redesign operational concepts and integrate remote workplaces via secure VPN connectivity. That has been a game-changer for my industry and for me.
The trend of work turning into an integral part of our lives has accelerated through Corona.
Working from home is becoming a standard working model for us and maybe stays in the future.
Working remotely comes with one drawback for globally working professionals like myself, though, restrictions due to global time zones.
Due to remote work, companies started to limit their tenders from global to regional.
“Working remote comes with one drawback… restrictions due to global time zones.”
Working with clients based in countries with more than 3 hours of time difference is challenging if you exclusively work from home.
Do you have any particular inspirational sources?
The key inspirational source I would like to point out is traveling, for me.
A couple of years ago — after separating from my spouse and moving from London back to Cologne, I decided to take a break to reflect on my life by taking a world trip.
It was initially planned for four months and ended as a world trip for eight months.
I visited Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Bali, Hong Kong, South Korea, back to China, Japan, Canada, Iceland, and back to Germany.
It was a hell of a trip, and as one inspirational takeaway (amongst others), I got a spiritual tattoo engraved by a spiritual “leader of faith.”
After the tattoo ceremony, the spiritual leader taught me that my tattoo’s spiritual energy unfolds when I follow specific principles, which I have been following since.
“I got a spiritual tattoo engraved by a spiritual leader of faith … spiritual energy unfolds when I follow specific principles…”
How do you protect your positive mindset in bad times without project assignemtns?
I protect my mindset by imagining the worst that might happen. That quickly relieves me from negative thoughts.
Let me explain:
Usually, I work 9–10 months a year, and the rest of the time, I’m off a project, intentionally or unintentionally.
In the last 20 years, the concept of working as a self-employed freelancer has worked out perfectly for me.
“Start living from day to day — deeply trust in life …”
My intrinsic belief (which my daily trained mindset follows) is that none of us has any control over our lives. You can always set yourself up for bad times, but you cannot control what will happen.
Once you understand that, you start living from day to day, deeply trusting life, and believing in the fact that only good shall come your way.
To date, it (most of the time) has worked well for me.
For anybody who has difficulties keeping a positive mindset: travel (after the Corona pandemic ends, of course). For me, traveling the world put most things into perspective.
What is your next career move?
I want to become a VFX producer, steering & managing the Visual Effects part of productions.
It is the natural evolution of my career and would utilize my experiences from the last decades. Working in production, understanding its pitfalls, and leading teams by applying new leadership methods, budgeting, production processes, and technical requirements.
My vision is to make the entire production process more effective, efficient, and fun for each team member.
Do you have a life mantra you live by?
I try living here and now as much as possible — without worrying too much about what tomorrow may bring. Not in an irresponsible manner,
I’m very traditional when it comes to securing my future. What I mean is more in the direction of going with the flow of life without resistance.
“…going with the flow of life without resistance.”
行雲流水 (pronounce: “koh oon ryu sui”) is a Zen saying that literally translates as
“Clouds move. Water flows.”
A Japanese saying summarizes what I mean perfectly. Rivers flow, and clouds move: both elements smoothly move around obstacles.
If you would like to see more of Martin Ofori´s (Ofi’s) work and have a look at his references.