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October 15
2020

ISSUE

Fall 2020

Shannan Louis: Taking on the Challenge of Starting a VFX Studio in 2020

By IAN FAILES

When Shannan Louis launched a visual effects outfit in Vancouver at the start of this year, she had no idea what challenges her new business venture would bring.

It wasn’t only the challenges of crewing up, gearing up or pitching for work in what is generally considered a tough industry; it was also, of course, battling through the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19. The worldwide coronavirus crisis severely impacted live-action filmmaking and forced VFX studios to have artists work remotely.

But Louis’ new studio, FatBelly VFX, was engineered with a ‘working in the cloud’ approach in mind from the beginning, and that enabled it to adapt quickly to the changes that have swept through the industry. Louis shares FatBelly’s and her own VFX origin story with VFX Voice.

Louis did not start out in the creative industries. She had an earlier career in the non-profit sector before shifting to film and television, “an area that I had always been passionate about,” she says.

It was actually acting that Louis had originally pursued as a potential career, in addition to the areas of producing and directing theater productions. “I had always admired the world of TV and film as a way to create emotions or share a story. Television was definitely a way for me to escape when I was a child. I studied documentary film production in 2013 and continue to have an avid interest and involvement in doc making, particularly editing.”

Shannan Louis started FatBelly VFX in early 2020, unaware of the enormous impending impact of COVID-19. The studio was able to continue working from home. (All images courtesy of FatBelly VFX. Photos by Sean Coonce.)

“FatBelly VFX focuses on personalized client relationships, engaging and investing in the crew and creating opportunities for women in creative positions.”

—Shannan Louis, Founder and Head of Studio, FatBelly VFX

FatBelly VFX’s office space on West Pender in downtown Vancouver.

An Australian native, Louis made British Columbia her home and entered the visual effects industry with a role as studio manager at Psyop Film & TV in Vancouver in 2015. “This was back in the early days of the studio, when it had a startup feel and you often wore multiple hats. On any given day, I could be helping out with editorial cuts, or working in a production capacity, in addition to my normal day. For me that was great, providing exposure across the board and a way to learn and absorb hands-on. As the studio grew I was promoted to head of studio operations and my role honed in on higher management and operations including overseeing IT, HR and recruitment.”

From Psyop, Louis broadened her VFX studio experience by first experiencing time with FuseFX through a project in a production management position and then moving onto CoSA VFX as Head of Studio. At CoSA, Louis says that “by implementing strategic leadership, establishing targeted hiring and focusing on advancing technology and streamlining work processes, I took the Vancouver studio from being an internal outsource facility to becoming a stand-alone, high-performance studio for the global CoSA company.”

While gaining that studio experience was vital, there was an entrepreneurial spirit rising. Louis calls this a “desire to create something unique that hadn’t yet been satisfied.” This set in motion a decision to create a new visual effects company, with a particular focus in mind. “FatBelly VFX focuses on personalized client relationships, engaging and investing in the crew and creating opportunities for women in creative positions,” says Louis.

“Tax credits are available in multiple provinces [in Canada], creating enticing opportunities for international productions. And we are fortunate to have such an incredible breadth of talented and accomplished artists available to us at our fingertips. This doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, though. There is always something new to learn and ways to improve. Technology is constantly evolving, and adapting to those changes is how we’ll continue to be leaders in the industry.”

—Shannan Louis, Founder and Head of Studio, FatBelly VFX

The FatBelly VFX crew re-group following the coronavirus crisis.

Taylor LeBlanc works on a shot at the FatBelly VFX offices.

FatBelly VFX crew member Florian Schuck.

Ben Case talks with FatBelly VFX Founder and Head of Studio Shannan Louis.

What makes Louis’ bold move to open a visual effects studio this year perhaps even bolder is that she admits she was not really aware of how prevalent VFX in film and television was prior to her first job in the industry. “I think people assume that VFX is only explosions or dragons, but it’s the subtlety of the work that is incredible,” she says. “VFX is everywhere and people aren’t conscious of it. I’m constantly amazed at the work that is created.”

“Booming!” is how Louis describes the Canadian visual effects industry, a location which houses many large, medium and smaller-sized studios. It means there is also already a large pool of VFX artists who work here, and in a convenient time zone for Hollywood production. Vancouver, therefore, was where Louis decided to start FatBelly, a name, by the way, that was conceived to match the idea of working to keep one’s belly full.

In setting up in Vancouver – where both significant live-action production and post-production occurs – Louis notes that “tax credits are available in multiple provinces [in Canada], creating enticing opportunities for international productions. And we are fortunate to have such an incredible breadth of talented and accomplished artists available to us at our fingertips.

“This doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, though,” adds Louis. “There is always something new to learn and ways to improve. Technology is constantly evolving, and adapting to those changes is how we’ll continue to be leaders in the industry.”

Indeed, Louis saw technology as a crucial part of her start-up VFX studio. “I wanted to ensure that FatBelly had a cost-effective, scalable and current solution. This is where the cloud platform we implemented through Arch Platform Technologies really shines. Arch is a plug-and-play, cloud-based, highly secure VFX platform.” Arch enabled FatBelly artists to access virtual workstations in the cloud, something that could be utilized both for working from home and still in a studio environment.

“As for setup,” continues Louis, “we opened the doors to our satellite office back in February. After fleshing out a unified vision with our core team, and stress testing the pipeline, we moved into our permanent location on West Pender in downtown Vancouver.”

On March 17 of this year, a public health emergency was declared in British Columbia, followed by various states of emergency. As with just about all other locations where visual effects are crafted, businesses in Vancouver began remote-working preparation around this time. The impact was obvious. Whereas crews generally spent time in offices together to work on and discuss VFX shots, now they had to do so in a distributed fashion, from home. This brought up issues of access to files, sharing data and security for the brand-new company.

“Like many other studios,” attests Louis, “FatBelly was definitely affected by the shutdown. But due to our cloud platform we were able to seamlessly commence working from home immediately, without interruptions. Our focus was, and will always be, the health of the crew and our community. And although there’s no way we could have predicted something like this, the crew embraced the challenge of the situation with positivity.”

Adela Baborova at FatBelly’s premises.

Michelle Ross composites a shot in Nuke.

Jenna Sunde and Florian Schuck discuss a scene.

Ben Case and Adela Baborova enjoy some down-time at the FatBelly VFX studio.

So positive, in fact, that Louis notes some of her crew made several innovations during lockdown. “When not working on FatBelly projects, our comp supervisor, Florian Schuck, designed and 3D printed a flight control replica to use for PC flight simulation. And keeping the team connected socially, we delved into the virtual world via games. I’ve got to admit, they even got me slightly addicted to Stardew Valley.”

As a young company, FatBelly has been specializing in 2D visual effects, but is not limited to just that kind of work. In terms of the clientele, Louis advises that “given current market trends, we’re currently focused on streaming content. We are also making connections with independent film companies, ad agencies and local Canadian productions. We believe that we can provide a phenomenal service across multiple media and entertainment platforms.

“One of our active shows is Another Life, Season 2, for Netflix,” details Louis, noting that the show is about the aftermath of an alien ship that lands on Earth. “We’re working with a great VFX producer and supervisor on the client side and have established an amicable partnership with them.”

In these early stages, Louis says one of the most challenging sides of establishing a new company is business development. “Our artists are masters in their domains. However, it’s difficult to showcase their talent in a public way until you have a complete company showreel. That being said, our reputation speaks for itself – the work is coming in and I know it’s just the beginning.”

Louis acknowledges she has developed a certain kind of resilience, something that she’s looking to use in navigating the VFX industry as a company owner/manager as well.

“I’ve learned so much over my career. Establishing trust and maintaining integrity with clients is imperative, as is transparency with employees. Businesses don’t just thrive on their own. It takes the input of every single employee, from production assistants to producers, roto artists to supervisors, to ensure success.”


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