By IAN FAILES
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 IAN FAILES
Framestore was only weeks away from delivering its visual effects for the Netflix film Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like just about all VFX studios, it moved to a work-from-home model, with artists in London, Montreal and Pune having to complete the final shots from home.
To get a sense of how Framestore managed that transition process for the superhero film, several lead members of the team revealed what going into lockdown required from a technical point of view, how shots continued to be worked on, and how those last crucial weeks of delivery were managed remotely.
THE MOMENT THINGS WENT REMOTE
Coline Six, Visual Effects Executive Producer, Framestore: “We were six weeks away from delivery when the lockdown happened. Everything happened very quickly, as it did everywhere in the world. From one day to the next, we had to leave the office and adapt to the work-from-home reality. We re-worked the schedule to accelerate and absorb the delay created by the crisis. We talked to Netflix who understood the situation, and we managed to deliver the show on time. Project Power was the first show that Framestore delivered during the pandemic.”
Ivan Moran, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor, Framestore: “We were incredibly fortunate that we had already completed shooting and were into our final VFX delivery. By then, we all had such an innate trust and working relationship with each other, and our communication had developed a kind of shorthand which was enormously helpful. Having said that, hundreds of people on our VFX crews had to pivot to a work-from-home scenario in a matter of weeks, which was a mammoth undertaking from a technological and psychological standpoint.”
João Sita, Visual Effects Supervisor, Framestore: “Framestore quickly adapted to the technical changes, providing artists with the necessary hardware to connect remotely, and the Systems team were heroes in staying up-to-date with artists’ requests regarding technical issues. As we moved to the work-from-home setup, maintaining our regular daily schedules as if we were back in the office was key to ensuring artists were engaged while upholding the established delivery rhythm.”
Kevin Sears, CG Supervisor, Framestore: “We had a consistent small crew that bonded for at least a year prior to the pandemic. This was certainly an advantage with the tight communications in the FX and Assets teams as we began developing the VFX-heavy finale toward the end of 2019. Work from home was implemented at the beginning of March 2020. The facility teams and senior managers at Framestore took it very seriously and somehow got the entire studio in Montreal, where I’m located, remotely working in less than two weeks.”
Matthew Twyford, VFX Supervisor and Head of 2D London, Framestore: “Unfortunately, a few members of our crews were ‘trapped’ overseas, so this required further management protocols to get them up-and-running wherever they were. When communicating with these artists it was amazing how the video calls had such varied backgrounds, from the misty Scandinavian rains to the glorious scenes of a sunny Mediterranean!”
TECH SOLUTIONS FOR A REMOTE DELIVERY
Coline Six: “Framestore’s Systems team did an incredible job, and in a couple of weeks Project Power’s team was fully set up with Teradici, a technology which allows us to see our remote computer screen in a secure and encrypted way, and ready to deliver.”
Matthew Twyford: “Project Power was a multi-site show for Framestore, so the disruption was staggered as the London, Montreal and Pune lockdowns came through at different times. The technical setup between sites meant we used different solutions for some of the artists and this allowed us to work multiple options to get the best artist setups worldwide.”
João Sita: “Framestore deployed tools to allow for screen sharing in a secure environment so we could continue our reviews as in the office – running Framestore’s SRP review tool – and share that with the artists. SRP also proved to be really robust as a group reviewing tool, as we could have multiple artists connected to the same session, which allowed them to make annotations and load new versions on the fly.”
Kevin Sears: “We use a screen-sharing software at Framestore called Trumpet to assist shared sessions, but also with a combination of RV syncing as well. Immediately we noticed some differences in the traditional dailies review process! Artists would have working files up and be giving real-time feedback on the state of a situation in a file, or in some cases we had notes for Lookdev and would see the new take at the end of a 30-minute review session. The dynamic of team members in a dark theater setting was the same, but the information accessible and the feedback loop therein was greatly improved.”
Matthew Twyford: “Most artists were doing everything from home as if they were still working in their respective studios. They had to overcome a few challenges with calibrated monitoring and blacking out rooms, but although the quality of the hardware and software PCoIP solutions was extremely good, it was not good enough for our final QC checks. This meant that some of the firstteam members returning to the offices in London and Montreal were the 2D supervisors to utilize the calibrated 4K suites to approve final deliveries.”
A CHANGE IN COMMUNICATION AND WORKFLOW
João Sita: “Keeping our VFX crew informed was the main priority in combating potential confusion, doubts or worries. The first few sessions of dailies from home were mostly spent answering questions, sharing experiences, chatting and maintaining team spirit. We were continuing to use our existing structure of Google Suite, but there was a much heavier emphasis on video chat than previously used at Framestore. Once the communications were set up, the processes of tuning and tweaking all the work from home procedures, hardware and software were greatly accelerated to get back to our targeted 100% productivity.”
Jonathan Opgenhaffen, Art Director, Framestore: “I was lucky that I was able to take my work machine home with me about a week before the whole company went home. Once I had a secure connection to our art department server, it was pretty much business as usual. We conducted our regular reviews and meetings through Zoom, and in a way, being able to screen share really helped speed things along and kept discussions flowing. I could prepare a reference board and even keep my Photoshop 3D scenes open in the background, and if needed, I’d screen share those to discuss various aspects of what we were working on.”
Coline Six: “In terms of communication and tools, Shotgun has always been our go-to, but even more so since working from home as we are not in the office and able to easily communicate with our colleagues. The show is clearly driven by the schedule, which is necessary, but sometimes you also need to brainstorm with people and reassess work, which is less straightforward than before. Not sharing the same office space and being able to have meetings on the fly, and not asking questions in person has really changed our way of working.”
João Sita: “We established a very direct communication flow, as we could squeeze a review between other meetings without having to check on room availabilities and the artists were just a click away. Another interesting aspect of the work-from-home setup was that it allowed artists to listen to feedback regarding their sequences while waiting for their shot and keep working on their own shots. In many instances, they were able to answer questions regarding a missing element in their setup and make changes on the spot.”
Kevin Sears: “I directed my energy from physical meetings with multi-department input into having dedicated chat rooms about sequences or shots with all people involved and saw clarifications and focus come into action. We implemented fun Friday night socials with the Production team to take the stress off.”
Matthew Twyford: “Viewing dailies ran close to our original schedule, but we soon realized that without the need to book a viewing suite we had the flexibility to expand, move or continue scrutinizing our dailies. This freedom gave me more valuable time to interact with the team, which is something I still enjoy about working from home. With everyone then joining in on chat video after a few days, it started to feel like we were back in familiar territory and, more importantly, back on track. Our presentations to the directors were largely unaffected as Henry and Ariel were based mostly in New York throughout the post-production period and we just continued to use cineSync for our regular sessions.”
João Sita: “One thing that we really put a lot of attention towards was how we would complete the ‘final tech checks’ and latest reviews of the shots before sending them to the client. For the final tech checks, for example, we created a two-step process with a first pass tech checking the shots from home, which would get the majority of major issues still existent in a shot and later – after the government allowed certain employees to access the building – going to the office to have the final review with the shots in our screening rooms. We also needed our 4K projectors in an accurately calibrated environment for the final nuances.”
THE TOUGHER PARTS OF REMOTE VFX DELIVERY
Matthew Twyford: “In terms of actual tough shots to pull off from home, the ‘Man on Fire’ sequence was particularly challenging, as smooth playback and image quality for the fire and smoke detail tested the compression algorithms of the PCoIP tools well beyond their limits. Therefore, there was a great deal of work approved on ‘trust’ where our artists used their collective experience to know the completed work was in line with our high standards of excellence. Having this talented and experienced crew was key in getting many of our shots approved, and this in turn allowed me to speed up our operations by offering our artists more responsibility for fine-detailed decisions.”
Ivan Moran: “I did have Chinook helicopters flying outside my window while on reviews during the New York city protests though, which was a touch distracting. I think if we were still in VFX design mode early on in the project, it would have been far more challenging. That kind of brainstorming and ‘brain trust’ relies heavily on face-to-face human interaction, creative dialogue and debate. We are social animals – solitude is inherently difficult for us.”
Coline Six: “Obviously, we also had to adapt to this new way and new world of working remotely. This involved more catch-ups with the team to maintain connections, more recaps from everyone in all departments to make sure we didn’t miss any information, resulting in more and more emails to read. One of the biggest challenges at the beginning of the pandemic was to prevent consequences that could occur from isolation. Young artists or production members living on their own without a family nearby can easily feel very isolated and demotivated, so our Production and HR teams are constantly working on providing employees with resources for mental health and suggesting tips and tools to maintain contact with everyone.”
Jonathan Opgenhaffen: “Of course, I miss the social aspect of being able to sit around with the team and share ideas, techniques and stories, but in terms of work and productivity, it was as good if not better than normal. I was also nervous about what it would be like working from home, but it felt very natural and timekeeping wasn’t really an issue. If anything, the opposite – I have to remind myself to take a break and stop working at the end of the work day!”
Coline Six: “Indeed, we have also noticed that artists in some departments are more efficient working from home. They can address notes in real-time during dailies, since they are in front of their screen while receiving notes from the supervisors. Other departments are slower, so it compensates. We will see what happens in the future, but like many other industries the VFX industry is undergoing a small revolution. And we will adapt, as we always do.”