By CHRIS McGOWAN
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By CHRIS McGOWAN
The VFX boom goes on, and it is a shared surge. There has been continued growth in the visual effects business, with vendors from many different countries working together on movies and series. And often the individual VFX companies themselves have multiple facilities located around the world, including ILM, Wētā FX, DNEG, BOT VFX, Technicolor Creative Services, Streamland Media, Pixomondo, Digital Domain, Outpost VFX and Framestore. The collaborations range across North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South and East Asia, with more participation on the horizon from emergent visual effects houses in Latin America and Africa as well. Consequently, great opportunities and new challenges have emerged with the increasing cooperation between geographically distant studios.
Says Jeanie King, ILM’s Vice President of Production, “The entertainment industry is far more globalized than it has ever been in the past, and it is to everyone’s advantage to spread the work. It gives us all more capacity to get all the work done. Also, we are able to access more talent in different regions, which benefits everyone. Effect vendors and clients alike need to be more flexible and organized now because everyone is spread [over] more time zones.”
King adds, “Due to the high volume of projects requiring VFX throughout the industry, studios have had to spread the work around. Many projects have had 10 to 20 VFX studios involved. Vendors need to have a diversified portfolio as do the studios/clients in order to protect themselves for their deliveries.”
“On Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, we worked with multiple vendors sharing assets, environments and FX in order to complete the work on shared sequences. This was also true on Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” remarks King, who adds, “Most recently, on Avatar: The Way of Water, ILM collaborated with Wētā FX, which had created the majority of assets for the show. So, we were ingesting and manipulating all of that data into our pipeline so we could work efficiently on the sequences we were contracted to create.”
On The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, ILM and Wētā also collaborated with a stellar group of VFX studios that included Rodeo FX, Method Studios, DNEG, Outpost VFX and Rising Sun Pictures. King sees the movement of the work around the globe as an advantage. “The sharing of work between companies has become easier due to increased standardization in process and technology,” King comments. “Companies have had to evolve as more of the studios engage multiple vendors on one project. Vendors are partnering with each other more than ever before. We all want to get the work done as efficiently as possible. It’s a competitive market out there, and each vendor wants to make sure they are working as productively as possible.”
Using multiple vendors is about resource availability and identifying the right artists for the right work, according to Patrick Davenport, President of Ghost VFX. “We’re very much a global industry now.” He feels that the increasing spread of VFX work around the planet has been an inevitable process. “The industry has been headed in this direction for some time. The work follows artist resources, tax incentives, etc. And now with work from home and hybrid models, it allows artists to work anywhere, anytime.”
Davenport continues, “From a client perspective, it’s about getting the work done on time, within budget, and mitigating the risk of having all your work with one sole vendor, which may end up struggling to deliver. From our perspective, by having a global studio it allows us to operate 24/7 and identify talent in different locations that are best suited to the work.”
A scenario of multiple VFX houses on bigger shows “can enhance important creative factors that come from having different supervisors and production teams with different strengths and specialisms overlooking different sequences on a show,” affirms Rohan Desai, Managing Director of ReDefine, part of the DNEG group.
There can also be downsides. Desai explains, “It can add overhead in terms of managing multiple vendors. Asset sharing is also a hurdle with increased costs. This can create additional work for vendors when they are required to use assets made by other vendors as there can be duplication of effort. Finally, consistency in look can be an additional challenge as each show has a certain aesthetic, and this needs to be matched by all vendors. Different teams may approach aesthetics differently and this can result in inconsistencies.”
To achieve a high standard across all sequences and studios, “I have found that communication and collaboration is the best way to make this work,” comments Christian Manz, Framestore’s Creative Director, Film. “I have had as many as five companies working on a shot/sequence in the past, and in that instance I brought all of the key supervisors together to discuss approach and kept them communicating with each other. I also find that by showing early WIP as soon as possible to the filmmakers and [having] frequent reviews keep the work on track to a fantastic, consistent final result.”
Some recent multi-vendor projects led by Framestore include Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (for which Manz served as Production VFX Supervisor), His Dark Materials Season 3 and 1899 (these were almost entirely Framestore, but involved multi-site work across the firm’s London, Montreal, Mumbai, Vancouver and New York studios), Top Gun: Maverick (completed as Method Studios, now part of Framestore) and Wheel of Time Season 2.
Jabbar Raisani was a VFX Supervisor for the Stranger Things Season 4 series, which he says utilized over two dozen studios from around the world. Raisani comments, “Stranger Things S4 was challenging due to the high shot count, high complexity and short delivery schedule. We made it work by spreading the work over numerous vendors in order to maximize throughput.” The VFX studios involved included Rodeo FX, Important Looking Pirates (ILP), Digital Domain, DNEG, Lola VFX, Crafty Apes and Scanline VFX, among others.
To help studios communicate, says Raisani. “One piece of software we used extensively was SyncSketch, which allowed us to visually communicate notes to vendors in an interactive setting. SyncSketch uses cloud-based technology and our VFX team collaborated daily using shared Google documents. We also used Evercast for daily remote VFX reviews and PacPost.live for editorial reviews.”
The sharing of assets between VFX studios is often a challenge. “I think it is getting better, but it is still challenging,” comments Niklas Jacobson, VFX Supervisor and Co-Founder of ILP. “Different companies have their own toolsets and workflows, and many companies use proprietary tools. In some cases, there could also be licensing issues due to the use of third-party texture or model services.”
Jacobson notes, “Even with different techniques, there are some generally accepted techniques for texture channels and shaders in particular that all the big vendors especially converge towards. With the development of standards like USD and MaterialX, and as they become widely adopted, hopefully sharing will be easier.”
Sharing work can also be quite challenging from the bidding side. Explains Jacobson, “Clients and vendors will want to be as efficient as they can, but in particular sharing hero assets means that one vendor will generally not be able to anticipate the requirements of an asset across other vendors’ sequences. This tends to leave both parties guessing a bit at the planning stage and definitely requires some out-of-the-box thinking.”
ILP has had positive experiences working with its peers and colleagues. Jacobson observes, “We try our best to be good creative partners with everyone we work with, and it’s satisfying to feel that the vast majority of vendors we work with tend to have this stance as well. Stranger Things S4 is a great example – the season finale was such a massive episode and had to be split between vendors. We did a sequence featuring the Demogorgon, a creature which was created by Rodeo and even featured in an earlier episode in the same environment and lighting conditions. Our collaboration with Rodeo was very smooth, and we had no trouble ingesting their creature into our pipeline.”
The dreaded Demogorgon for Season 4 of Stranger Things. Among the many VFX providers were Rodeo FX, ILP, Digital Domain, DNEG, Lola VFX, Crafty Apes, Scanline VFX, BOT VFX, Clear Angle Studios, Rogue One VFX, The Resistance VFX, Cadence Effects, Jellyfish Pictures, Alchemy 24 and FutureWorks Media. (Image courtesy of Netflix)
“The sharing of work between companies has become easier due to increased standardization in process and technology. Companies have had to evolve as more of the studios engage multiple vendors on one project. Vendors are partnering with each other more than ever before. … It’s a competitive market out there, and each vendor wants to make sure they are working as productively as possible.”
—Jeanie King, Vice President of Production, ILM
Pixomondo and various other vendors worked together on the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds series. Pixomondo Virtual Production and Visual Effects Supervisor Nathaniel Larouche notes, “Vendors have been able to coordinate their efforts through the use of a variety of software and hardware solutions. At the top of this list is Unreal Engine, an industry-leading 3D game engine with powerful tools for creating realistic, high-fidelity 3D environments. As well as enabling vendors to create detailed and realistic scenes, Unreal also features tools which allow vendors to quickly and easily collaborate on a project in real-time. Furthermore, Unreal’s system allows for cross-platform compatibility across platforms such as PC and Mac.”
Continues Larouche, “In addition to Unreal Engine, Arnold Rendering is another popular software option among vendors. By using Arnold’s advanced ray-tracing capabilities, 3D artists can achieve incredibly lifelike images without having to spend much time tweaking lighting and textures. Additionally, Arnold supports common image processing formats such as OpenEXR and HDR (High Dynamic Range) formats which allow for greater flexibility when it comes to sharing shots between vendors.”
In addition, hardware also plays an important role in helping vendors coordinate their efforts, according to Larouche. “For example,” he says, “computers that are powerful enough to run both Unreal Engine and Arnold Rendering are essential for ensuring smooth collaboration between different teams working on the same project. High-end graphics cards are also beneficial in providing faster rendering times, which can help reduce wasted time spent waiting for updates from other parties involved in the project.”
The Cloud is playing an increasing role in helping VFX studios interact. “The Cloud has had a significant impact on VFX so far; it enables storage and backup of assets in a secure environment that can be accessed by multiple users at any time,” Larouche explains. “It also allows for real-time sharing of files and data between members of a production team, allowing them to work more quickly and efficiently.”
The Cloud offers other advantages as well. Larouche comments, “Cloud-based solutions provide scalability options tailored to specific teams or businesses’ needs. For example, if a vendor’s workload grows unexpectedly over time, they can easily scale up their storage on the Cloud without needing to purchase additional hardware or software licenses.”
Continues Larouche, “Recently emerging technologies in the field are further enhancing our collaborative capabilities when it comes to virtual production pipelines. In particular, cloud-based platforms such as Shotgun allow studios to track progress across all departments in real-time while providing customizable tools like asset management and review functionality that help streamline processes, while maintaining complete visibility into projects at all times. This allows vendors greater control over their workflow while cutting down costs associated with manual processes that tend to slow down progress significantly when attempting larger productions spanning various remote locations.”
States ILM’s King, “Even though pipelines may be different from company to company – because we have had these conversations over the years and work has passed back and forth – we have developed in-house tools to make it easier. Also, due to the remote work situation that many VFX studios are still working in, more people are able to connect via video conferencing, which makes the entire process more efficient, productive and also personal.”
Clients are more open now to vendors talking between themselves than ever before. Comments King, “Because we have been sharing work over the years, conversations have taken place and processes have developed to make ingesting work easier. Also, relationships have formed. Supervisors and artists have worked together at the same facilities and friendships are made, which makes it easier to discuss workflows and have much more helpful, in-depth conversations.”