By PAULA PARISI
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.
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By PAULA PARISI
Whether it’s taking viewers to fantastic environments or creating character effects, Atomic Fiction has established itself as ago-to house that can get the job done. Since opening for business seven years ago the company has worked with directors including George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, J.J. Abrams, Tim Miller and Michael Bay. Compiling an impressive reel at the service of those filmmakers, the company managed to pull off a pretty neat stunt of its own, scaling up to enterprise strength while retaining a boutique feel. “We see Atomic Fiction as a framework for enabling ambition,” Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan Tudhope says. “The journey is just as valued as the destination.”
It’s been a brisk ride for co-founders Tudhope and Kevin Baillie, who launched the company on desktops in their living room in 2010. Atomic Fiction now employs more than 200 digital artists, working from studios in Oakland and Montreal on some of the year’s biggest releases: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales for Disney, Alien: Covenant for Fox, Paramount’s Transformers: The Last Knight, and the fall’s highly-anticipated Blade Runner 2049, set for Oct. 6 release from Warner Bros. Atomic Fiction also has a Los Angeles business office, run by President of Visual Effects Marc Sadeghi, who juggles feature-film projects with TV projects, including AMC’s The Walking Dead and Netflix’s Stranger Things.
To expand quickly, the company relied on its fourth office location, the cloud. Atomic engineered its own cloud-based rendering and project-management platform, Conductor, announcing in 2014 that it would make the technology available for third-party subscription. Companies big and small can use Conductor to cost-effectively access a nearly limitless datacenter. By the time Conductor rolled out in 2015, the system had already racked up more than four million core rendering hours on shows like Paramount’s Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Zemeckis’ The Walk for Sony, and the Fox TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
With Conductor fully implemented, Atomic could scale its infrastructure as needed, drawing on the same resources as the largest studios in the world. Having brought Sadeghi aboard in 2014 with an eye toward expansion, the company was poised for explosive growth, borne out by a flagship 2016, its work show- cased in multiple $100-million-plus U.S. box-office earners: Fox’s Deadpool, Disney’s The Huntsman Winter’s War and Rogue One, Paramount’s Star Trek Beyond and STX’s Bad Moms. Atomic spun-off Conductor Technologies, and in December announced an undisclosed amount of Series A funding from investors including Autodesk, officially launching Baillie, its CEO, and board member Tudhope into the ranks of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
The two have known each other since their days as digitally-obsessed high school students in Seattle, where at age 16 they got their first jobs, working for Microsoft. That helped get the attention of George Lucas, who on graduation hired them at Lucasfilm, where they did previsualization for Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace. From there, they went to work at the Orphanage and then ImageMovers Digital, the studio formed by Zemeckis and later absorbed by Disney. Atomic bootstrapped through its first year with a handful of shots on Adam Sandler’s Just Go With It and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, both out in 2011, as well as heart-stopping facial deconstruction on disfigured war veteran Richard Harrow for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. It was the combination of Zemeckis’ Flight (2012) followed by Star Trek Into the Darkness (2013) that allowed Atomic Fiction to quickly elbow its way into the top tier.
The propensity of A-listers to send repeat business their way combined with an aptitude for technology has kept them there. “We see every show as an opportunity to up the ante for our clients, both creatively and technically,” Baille says from Germany, where he was speaking at FMX2017 in Stuttgart. “We’re steadfast about using the challenges of each project to improve our pipeline long-term, rather than crafting one-off solutions for each film. The all-CG shots of the tropical island town in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales advanced our digital foliage and crowd workflows, while Alien: Covenant yielded big steps forward for our 2.5D character augmentation techniques.”
A lot of it comes down to trust, says Sadeghi, who worked with Tudhope and Baillie for 10 years at the Orphanage before joining Atomic. (In between, he was co-owner of the Boston-based Zero VFX, another company that invented its own cloud-based rendering solution, Zync, later sold to Google.)
“It helps that we can offer Quebec tax incentives through our Montreal facility, but I think at the end of the day most studios, producers or directors are willing to pay a little more for the peace of mind that comes from knowing we’re going to deliver incredible work, by deadline.”
Throughput has been turbocharged by Conductor, Sadeghi says. “It really streamlines our process; it’s completely scalable and cuts our rendering time significantly, freeing our teams to focus on creating excellent shots without worry over whether the work can be rendered in time.” It also allows the firm to be nimble, jumping on shows quickly, without having to expand infrastructure. “We don’t need to worry about the horsepower to get things done,” Sadeghi says, sounding like a true cloud cowboy.
The company’s in-house supervisors work closely with each show supervisor to make creative decisions and come up with solutions. There have even been times when Atomic has taken on supervisory duties for the entire film, managing the other VFX vendors, as Baillie did for Zemeckis’ The Walk and Allied. For Allied, Atomic used Technicolor’s cloud-based Pulse system to manage the live footage trafficked from the set.
“We used Technicolor’s Pulse to automatically generate EXRs from camera footage shot on set, and to store the final VFX results upon completion. From there on out, the final imagery can be sent to DI for final coloring,” Baillie says, noting that the rendering was done using Conductor.
While good progress has been made in format standardization, with EXR, Alembic and USD, one thing that hasn’t been standardized is workflow. The 70 shots Tudhope supervised for Ghost in the Shell saw the Atomic team working closely with lead shop MPC, which created some scaling challenges. “We set new records for the number of dependencies we can handle while rendering in the cloud,” Baillie says, explaining that Atomic relied on the staff at Conductor Technologies for help.
“We’re steadfast about using the challenges of each project to improve our pipeline long-term, rather than crafting one-off solutions for each film. The all-CG shots of the tropical island town in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales advanced our digital foliage and crowd workflows, while Alien: Covenant yielded big steps forward for our 2.5D character augmentation techniques.”
—Kevin Baillie, Co-Founder, Atomic Fiction
“We worked on the digital city scenes, and if we had done them ourselves there would have been 20,000-30,000 files – things like cars, holograms, buildings. MPC, because of their workflow, handed off 120,000 files. As a result of that project, now we’re equipped to handle hundreds of thousands of assets in the cloud.” Conductor is scheduled for commercial release at SIGGRAPH.
The fact that most productions continue to split work among two or more facilities has put increased emphasis on resource sharing and project management.
“Our industry is becoming more intertwined,” Sadeghi says. “For the most part, the days of proprietary pipelines are over,” he predicts, as visual effects studios are required to share assets, shots, and know-how for the greater good of reaching a director’s vision. “The atmosphere is highly collaborative, which is great, because we all just want to create beautiful work,” he says.
Effects shots are increasing in number, as even conventional narratives rely on their accuracy and efficiency. Opportunities for work continue to expand with virtual reality and augmented reality just coming into their own. Even concert touring is getting in on the action. This year, Atomic Fiction created stage visuals for the band Empire of the Sun to use at the Coachella Festival. Atomic plans to grow with the industry, while always remaining true to its founding principles.
“(Conductor) really streamlines our process; it’s completely scalable and cuts our rendering time significantly, freeing our teams to focus on creating excellent shots without worry over whether the work can be rendered in time. … We don’t need to worry about the horsepower to get things done,”
—Marc Sadeghi, President of Visual Effects, Atomic Fiction
“From a technology standpoint, we’ve taken our experience with big-shop CG pipelines, systems architecture, asset management, production tracking, etc. and crossbred it with a small-shop ethos to create an environment that I think is pretty unique,” Sadeghi says. Tudhope seconds that: “This idea of a ‘big-shop capability, small-shop vibe’ is core to our values. People come here for the culture, to work with friends and build something greater.”
Cloud computing, all three principals agree, is going to really change the game as to how things are built. Baillie envisions a not too distant future in which all processing – not just intensive rendering – is done remotely, the pixels streamed to the desktop. Looking ahead, Baillie says the new projects are “geared towards advancing the CG character pipeline we leveraged for Deadpool.” For that film, Atomic was handed an entire motorcycle chase sequence that was originally to have been shot live.
“The car crash and stunts were all going to be shot for real, but when the production realized that to keep the stunts safe was going to compromise the visuals, and also that to make the background unrecognizable as a specific city would require a lot of work, they decided to just move the entire sequence into the digital realm. But the best compliment we get is that people do think it was filmed,” Baillie says.
The filmmaking pipeline is “merging more and more with visual effects to the point that it’s often not clear how the two are separate,” Sadeghi says. “In that regard, visual effects feels less like a ‘post’ phase and more like part of the filmmaking process.”
A recent addition to the Atomic Fiction family, Animation Department Supervisor Marc Chu, will lead that charge in character work, jumping in on Fox’s Shane Black-directed remake, The Predator, as well as the Stranger Things series and Zemeckis’ upcoming The Women of Marwen.
Regardless of where things are headed, Sadeghi says, “It all comes back to our people. And right now our talent recruitment efforts are pretty robust.”