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October 15
2020

ISSUE

Fall 2020

Working Remotely: Home Rules for the VFX Industry

By TREVOR HOGG

A weekly remote meeting being held by SideFX. (Image courtesy of SideFX)

Working remotely is part of the regular routine for the visual effects industry; however, with the global lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the sheer number of individuals requiring offsite access has been unprecedented. Initially, impeding the remote solution were studio concerns about security, which led to an online petition from 10,000 visual effects artists to the Motion Picture Association of America and the Visual Effects Society releasing a statement in support of allowing artists to work remotely. For expert insight into the logistical challenges of relying on local Internet providers to having to balance domestic and professional lives within the same space, VFX Voice “traveled” to New Zealand, U.K., Canada and U.S. via video conferencing, phone and email to learn about the short and long-term impact of relying entirely on a remote workflow.

Decorating his basement office in Atlanta with self-made woodcarvings is Aldo Ruggiero, Visual Effects Supervisor at Crafty Apes. “It wouldn’t work so much if one person was remote and everyone else is in the office, but this strangely works well. We’re pushing 450 shots for a Netflix show. Nobody got furloughed in my office. Crafty Apes is a smart company. They do half movies and half television shows. The companies that are having the biggest trouble are the ones working in TV because it’s week by week. You shoot something, edit, and four weeks later you’re doing visual effects. We are using a system called Teradici and connecting through VPN. I do ask people to be available between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., and to communicate. We video conference every day. My colleagues and I know more about each other’s lives than we ever did. It actually has become a more intimate type of work. It goes back to artists working by themselves. You miss not having the expertise of the people around you, and sharing ideas and opinions.”

Lost Boys Studios conduct a remote 3D tracking lecture for compositors in Montreal. (Image courtesy of Lost Boys Studios)

His backyard in Los Angeles serves as the conference area for Cody Hernandez, Postvis Supervisor at Day for Nite. “I was on another show on set. I would get up in the morning, go into work, login into my computer, see what the notes are for the day from production, and go from there. It’s really the same thing here. I have an extra hour of sleep and then I start my same routine. At the end of work, instead of driving for an hour I can go for a walk or run with my family. The only trouble my wife and I have is keeping the dogs quiet when we’re in meetings. I give the dogs a bone and they’re good for the next couple of hours! If you have an artist in Spain who is an amazing animator, you can use him now as long as he has an Internet connection. It’s all going to work out to the artist’s favor.”

A family expansion occurred in Vancouver for Chris Downs, Visual Effects Supervisor at DNEG. “Our second daughter was born in early March, and we’ve been home between maternity leave and lockdown since then. The biggest challenge is trying to entertain the four-year-old given that with the newborn we’re less mobile to begin with and the playgrounds are shut down. Our garage has been converted into an in-law suite, so I’m set up in there with my own workspace which is quite nice! Week one was an eye-opener with where things actually were with the Internet. We ended up upgrading our home Internet so I could review the final comps at an appropriate quality level and reasonable frame rate. We never had planned to be using the garage this frequently, so I had to add a Wi-Fi booster to make sure that we got it all the way out here.”

Residing in the English countryside and London are the Framestore trio of Jonathan Fawkner, Creative Director of Film; Fiona Walkinshaw, Global Managing Director of Film; and Alex Webster, Managing Director of Pre-Production. “From March 16, we had a third of our people already working from home for various reasons and everyone from March 23,” notes Walkinshaw. “It took about two weeks. For film, that was 1,600 people, but for the company as a whole it’s about 2,500. Our American offices in New York City and Los Angeles operated on Teradici anyway and are smaller, so it was easy for them to take their things and go home. For film, about 60% of people needed individual configurations or kits. Our systems teams were unbelievable and went into military mode. It was one of those instances in the horrible circumstances that we found ourselves in what was quite a positive thing. Everyone wanted to make it work.”

Webster was in the midst of establishing a new department when the lockdown occurred. “We had to push pause on the postvis projects that were shooting at that time. Simultaneously, we were delivering previs, character modeling and development, and lightweight virtual production in terms of virtual location scouting and camera sessions for other projects. We focused on getting those artists working remotely and provided them with Teradici in most instances. What complicated that is we had to get the vis and visual effects networks talking to each other for the first time. At the same time, we’re working in Unreal as well as Maya.”

Facility and remote workflows are quite similar. “I can drive the pictures and get full access to all of the dailies that we’re producing,” states Fawkner. “We use G Suite and have Google Meet. We have permanent meeting rooms which you can jump into. People are sticking much more to schedules because you’re not having to literally walk out of one meeting room and go around the building to another one. If I’m late to a meeting and we can’t start, then everyone else can carry on working. The rhythm of the day hasn’t changed at all. We are keeping to the same time slots that we had before going virtual. The interfacility communication has skyrocketed. I now talk to the other facilities around the world way more than I did before. It’s much more fluid and that has surprised me. It’s something we’ll want to keep going.”

Sequestered in Los Angeles with seven dogs is Sam Nicholson, CEO and Founder of Stargate Studios. “We’re seeing a huge upswing of interest in virtual production, which is predictable. It happened after 9/11. We built the whole virtual backlot and started to realize it was a lot cheaper to bring the location to the actors than the actors to the location. It could potentially replace 50% of the greenscreen work, if not more. But be careful if you can’t make up your mind in pre-production as to what you’re going to get on set. There is no alpha channel. We’re working on that. The Mandalorian took care of that by floating a greenscreen behind the people so it looks great, but you have to fix it in post.”

With support from the New Zealand government, Weta Digital was able to protect its employees and business. “We were able to shift 1,500 crew to ‘Work from Home’ status with minimal impact to our shot production capabilities,” remarks David Conley, Executive Visual Effects Producer. “We also benefited from some good fortune by having a strong slate of shows that were already in-house and from a bit of hustle on our side to secure additional work based on the strength of our response so far.” The next step is shifting the workforce back to the facility. “We’ve already moved our first group of about a dozen artists back in with proper social distancing and it has worked out well. We want to make sure artists feel comfortable returning and we are able to create a new environment that supports a mix of crew who are at home and others who are in the office.”

Seven weeks were left in the production of Soul when the entire workforce at Pixar Animation Studios had to switch to a remote workflow. (Image courtesy of Pixar Animations Studios)

Some shots for Wonder Woman 1984 had to be completed remotely. (Image copyright © 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

“It wouldn’t work so much if one person was remote and everyone else is in the office, but this strangely works well. We’re pushing 450 shots for a Netflix show. Nobody got furloughed in my office. … We are using a system called Teradici and connecting through VPN.”

—Aldo Ruggiero, Visual Effects Supervisor, Crafty Apes

Connected was completed remotely during the quarantine. The animated adventures of the Mitchell Family feature the voices of Maya Rudolph, Abbi Jacobson, Michael Rianda and Danny McBride. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation)

agora.studio recently completed work on The Witness. (Image courtesy of Netflix and agora.studio)

“We are reasonably fortunate to have a good internet infrastructure here in Wellington,” remarks Sean Walker, Sequence Visual Effects Supervisor at Weta Digital. “Fiber is available in most places, and the remote working software from Weta isn’t data-heavy. I’ve found that I can even conduct dailies with little preparation [not pre-downloading clips], and it does not negatively impact on our reviews. This is something I thought may affect our workflows, but hasn’t at all. Last-minute dailies additions are definitely still an occurrence. Having most of our communication through a single app [Microsoft Teams] has made keeping in touch very easy.” Shifting to a remote workflow occurred during the final weeks of delivery for Black Widow. “Amazingly, we only lost about half a day to a full day for the transition, and in a miraculous fashion we had already made up for the lag by the end of the week.”

Post-production on Over the Moon, directed by Glen Keane, was impacted by the coronavirus. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks)

DNEG worked remotely on the highly anticipated adaptation of Dune, directed by Dennis Villeneuve. (Image courtesy of DNEG and Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Our systems teams were unbelievable and went into military mode. It was one of those instances in the horrible circumstances that we found ourselves in what was quite a positive thing. Everyone wanted to make it work.”

—Fiona Walkinshaw, Global Managing Director of Film, Framestore

The final two episodes of Space Force were worked on remotely by Crafty Apes. From left: Jimmy O. Yang (Dr. Chan Kaifang) and John Malkovich (Dr. Adrian Mallory). (Photo by Aaron Epstein courtesy of Netflix)

The post-production process for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was impacted by the lockdown. (Photo by Film Frame copyright © 2020 Marvel Studios)

Straddling the worlds of visual effects and animation is Sony Pictures Imageworks, with the remote strategy coordinated by Michael Ford, Vice President, Head of Systems & Software Development in Los Angeles. “On the animated side it is very much business as usual because there isn’t a dependency on shooting. We’re taking it day by day on the visual effects side waiting for what the filmmakers and studios are able to do. You can replace things that were going to be photographed with CG and augment it or get it to a point where you’re ready for whatever the film elements are going to be. One of the unique things about us is that pre-COVID-19 we operated out of a single data center. We were using the same process already. All that we had to do was to get those users to take a ‘portal’ using Teradici to connect into our data center and put them in their houses. The configuration was the only difference, along with making sure that it was secure and matched the requirements of our client.”

Pixar Animation Studios does not have a history of working remotely. Entering into this unknown territory were Jim Morris, President; Pete Docter, Chief Creative Officer; Steve May, CTO; and Dana Murray, Producer. “We got things up and running to 75% efficiency fairly quickly,” remarks Morris. “We have five movies at some level of production at the moment plus different shows for Disney+, and we’re able to keep forward momentum on all of them. Those of us who do our work on computers have an advantage in this tough situation where we can keep working. Some of the challenges were not the ones I was thinking. People have families while others live by themselves. Just coming up with ways to keep connectivity and esprit de corps around the work we’re doing has taken some thought.”

“We’re our own client so that makes things simpler, because I could say we’re only going to worry about supporting artists, animators and production staff who are on our highest priority show, which was Soul,” notes May. “A few years ago, we moved the artists and animators to virtual workstations that consist of Teradici being connected to our onsite data center. Fortunately, we already had high-capacity incoming network bandwidth. With Soul, we had over 200 people on the crew at the time this happened, and to get them working remotely when they’re at the final crunch of production felt like a major accomplishment. It went so well that within two weeks we had all of the other productions up and running. We had to change the ways that some people were used to working. Editorial had used Avid on the Mac since the beginning of time, and in order to remote in we had to ask them to switch to Windows.”

Docter has been impressed by the resourcefulness of his colleagues. “People are finding ways to record actors in their closets and to do these big editorial sessions that we normally do in a room with everybody connected separately. Animation dailies are tough. Animators can work well from home, but when it comes time to show other people, we usually sit in a screening room and turn to each other and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ There are a lot of suggestions and solutions. That’s a lot harder and slower this way. If you’re just starting a project, working from home might actually be an advantage because you’re less distracted by people knocking on your door and talking to you. But if you’re in the middle, like we have with two or three films, that’s the most difficult because of lack of being able to work together.”

Seven weeks were left in the production of Soul. “Sound and post have been delayed, but since our release date has been shifted, it’s all fine,” remarks Murray. “What was cool is that John Batiste actually recorded our end credit song in his home.” Fortunately, Soul composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as sound designer Ren Klyce, have home studios as well. “The hardest part is some people have good Wi-Fi and others don’t. Also, people with kids have to figure out teaching and cooking while also still managing the work on their plate, so we’ve been flexible. For the most part, people appreciate having something to focus on.”

Classrooms became a virtual experience for visual effects schools and programs. Such is the case for Lost Boys Studios in Vancouver and Montreal, as well as Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. “Every student’s workstation was rebuilt to operate independently of our network,” explains Mark Bénard, Founder and VFX Director/Supervisor at Lost Boys Studios. “Software, licensing and data all had to be localized. Additional storage was installed. Wi-Fi adapters compatible with Linux were sourced and tested. In tandem with our workstation prep, our other instructors began researching the best tools for remote instruction and student support. We are creating more pre-recorded lessons which can be more efficient than large group lectures that are prone to tangential discussions. One-on-one support has become a larger priority with sessions taking more time than in person. Since many of our alumni are also working from home, this has provided an opportunity to involve them in guest artist discussions, allowing more interaction between students with professional artists.”

“This is an ongoing process. We turned around effective technical solutions for emergency remote teaching within a couple of weeks of being told we were not allowed on campus,” remarks Noel Hooper, Program Coordinator/Professor of Computer Animation, Visual Effects, Digital Creature Animation at Sheridan College. “We were in the later stages of production in our programs, so it was primarily the review/critique process that we had to move online, which has methodologies already established in the industry. As a contingency plan, we are preparing all the curriculum for online delivery in case we’re still remote this fall. The challenge is to now truly convert our programs into effective online learning. I anticipate that if we are back on campus there will be recommended social distancing in place. In that case, fewer students may be allowed in each space, so we’ll have to develop a hybrid system to keep class sizes the same.”

Software developers are implementing measures to ease the transition, whether it be Ziva Dynamics in Vancouver or SideFX in Toronto. “At Ziva, we have always had a significant contingent of remote workers, and we have prided ourselves on our ability to work effectively with a distributed team,” remarks James Jacobs, Co-Founder and CEO at Ziva Dynamics. “Amidst all of this, we are also trying to recognize the unique challenges our users may be facing as they transition out of the studio to home-based work environments. As such, we’ve made our academic licenses free, waived the wait time between free trials, and offered free remote licenses for all of our studio customers. Ziva is proud to say that many of our customer relationships have been strengthened as a result of these measures.”

Pixar Animation Studios Producer Dana Murray supervises the final sound mix for Soul while working remotely at Skywalker Ranch. (Image courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios and Dana Murray)

With the help of Teradici, Mike Accettura, who is a lead compositor for Crafty Apes, was able to work remotely. (Image courtesy of Crafty Apes)

Pixar Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter has been impressed by the resourcefulness of his colleagues. (Image courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios and Pete Docter)

An example of a remote copy of Ziva VFX being utilized. (Image courtesy of Ziva Dynamics)

One of the projects that Weta Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Walker had to finish remotely was Black Widow. (Image courtesy of Weta Digital and Sean Walker)

Sony Pictures Imageworks Animation Supervisor Alan Hawkins gets creative in finding an appropriate office space to finish his work on Connected. (Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks and Alan Hawkins)

Sheridan College student Xiao Yang balances home and academic life. (Image courtesy of Sheridan College and Xiao Yang)

“As developers of software, we have been less impacted than our customers,” notes Kim Davidson, President and CEO at SideFX. “We’ve worked closely with our customers to help them with remote licensing. Additionally, we’ve focused on delivering more learning and training to all customers including studios, schools and self-learners. The biggest change has been the suspension of in-person industry and Houdini community events. Instead, we have reorganized to run online Houdini events, training and summits, such as the Gamedev Hive 2020 and the Houdini Hive Worldwide. These have been successful as they allow for a broader range of presenters and participants and still allow for extensive two-way interactions. We still like to meet in-person with our customers, but connecting more online may be the most significant adjustment that will continue for SideFX post-pandemic.”

An interesting postscript is whether there will be a rise in and growing acceptance of virtual companies. “We’re mostly doing character animation and rigging,” remarks David Hubert, Founder and Creative Director at agora.studio, from Montreal. “Data is transferred on Nextcloud servers. We have a programmer who builds custom tools for the pipeline such as in Maya. We’re also using a lot of software like Slack and Zoom that allow us to properly manage all of this. Everyone has their own computer.” Reviews and notes are conducted through SyncSketch. “We push an update to the cloud and it automatically goes to their machine,” states Jacob Gardner, Animation Director at agora.studio, who is based in Chicago. “When people are working locally, they’re not having any issues with fiber optics or Internet connections.” A financial hurdle to the virtual process is that cloud rendering remains expensive. “I don’t think that everyone is going to go back to the studio or everyone is going to work from home,” notes Hubert. “Having a computer at home that you can work on and one at the studio will become the norm.”


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