WORKING REMOTELY: HOME RULES FOR THE VFX INDUSTRY

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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.”

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