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June 16
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Working Remotely: Digital Domain, The Molecule and Important Looking Pirates

By IAN FAILES

Part 2 of VFX Voice’s special series on the response different visual effects studios have taken to the COVID-19 crisis continues with representatives from Digital Domain, The Molecule and Important Looking Pirates.

DIGITAL DOMAIN

With locations that include Greater China, where quarantine and social distancing had occurred at early stages in the crisis, Digital Domain soon realized that similar actions might need to be taken in its North America offices.

“Our biggest priority, after getting our employees to safety, was making sure that our artists were able to continue working with the same speed and fluidity as if they were in the studio,” says Digital Domain President John Fragomeni. “We have very strong systems and pipeline teams who were able to quickly prepare all of the necessary hardware/software with the type of security and connectivity they’d need to get everyone ready for daily operations.”

John Fragomeni, President, Digital Domain

All North American Digital Domain studios transitioned to a work-from-home paradigm. Teradici Zero client software and remote VPN access were relied upon to establish user connectivity into the studio’s server.

“As you’d expect,” details Fragomeni, “our infrastructure had to meet our clients’ stringent security protocols, so we worked hand-in-hand with them to design solutions that would allow us to stay both productive and highly secure. As we scaled the operation to meet project demands, we initially split between Teradici and VPN to expand our utilization. Teradici allowed us the most fluid connectivity access with zero latency. In both instances, we used multi-factor authentication to remain in compliance with MPAA and Disney/Marvel.”

In terms of communication, team reviews and production discussions, Digital Domain has been using LifeSize and Zoom. Adds Fragomeni: “Every team has different ways to keep in touch, whether it’s Friday night drinks or daily debriefs, which has been important for morale. We also produced our own employee handbook ‘Working From Home and You.’ According to staff feedback, this was really well received and appreciated.”

THE MOLECULE

As the extent of the coronavirus crisis became clear, VFX studio The Molecule – with bases in New York and Los Angeles – had already for several months been working on its own incarnation of a remote platform that would allow crew members to work from home. They’d also been testing the system. Things ramped up in February and March as the studio began offloading crew to work remotely in batches.

“Our platform runs through AWS, although we host the files,” explains The Molecule CFO/Executive Producer Andrew Bly. “In the morning, the workstations will fire up Teradici instances on AWS and reference tasks in Shotgun. It will pull up footage from our server and then localize it to the machines the crew are working off of so that they have a fast experience.”

Andrew Bly, CFO/Executive Producer, The Molecule

“At the end of the day, when the machines get turned off, everything gets wiped and nothing’s on AWS anymore – it’s all back in our server in New York. It was a way to save money and have an extra security step.”

The crew has been staying in touch primarily via Slack, along with phone and Zoom calls. Teams are encouraged to use whatever tool lets them work together, be it Google Hangouts or other software. The remote communication was something Bly was initially most concerned about at The Molecule.

“When you have the physical office – when I would walk into the office before all this – I would just feel the energy.” Now, of course, that was not possible, but an early eagerness to keep up the connection resulted in the realization that, shares Bly, “how disruptive we were being staying in touch and bothering everybody all the time. So we’ve been reining that in and finding a balance.”

IMPORTANT LOOKING PIRATES

Stockholm-based Important Looking Pirates had seen the dramatic impact COVID-19 had on Europe when it began to transition its crew to a work from home arrangement. “As we had been expecting and preparing for this since the outbreak got serious in Italy, it was relatively fast for us,” states Important Looking Pirates Head of VFX Pietro Ponti. “Of course it helped immensely the fact that we were already working on Teradici system in our office, so each artist already had remote machines assigned to them.”

In addition to this Teradici setup, Important Looking Pirates has also been running dailies through remote RV sessions. “This helps greatly, as it delivers a great quality that no screen sharing solution can achieve,” says Ponti. “Then, as all of our employees have Google accounts, Hangouts is one of our most relied on communication systems. We also have Rocket Chat for all the specific project communications that is ring fenced and limited to our network.”

Pietro Ponti, Head of VFX, Important Looking Pirates

The biggest challenge for Important Looking Pirates, however, came in the form of communication. “We rely heavily on artist interaction above all,” notes Ponti, “and we always try to create an environment that helps people discuss and get together over any and every issue. Working remote, especially in a security-oriented setup, heavily clamps communication tools and reduces spontaneous catch-ups. So those have been a bit more of a challenge and we have been focusing on resolving those issues primarily.

“At the beginning we overdid the chat and call systems, so we had to reduce those to two,” acknowledges Ponti. “A safe channel was to discuss ongoing projects, but limited to the office’s network, and a more open one to just get hold of peeps even if they were not connected to the VPN.”


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