How do you run a tight team on a 2,200-shot epic when separated by time zones and a global pandemic? We spoke with Walt Jones – one of the three founders of Rhythm & Hues Malaysia descendant, Tau Films – to find out.
Remote production of visual effects is more common than ever. As visual effects technology and communication software continues to bridge the physical gap between creatives, studios are more willing to expand operations across the globe.
Tau Films – formerly Rhythm & Hues Malaysia – is one such studio. The company, co-founded by John Hughes, Mandeep Singh, and Walt Jones in 2014, aims to continue the artistic heritage of its progenitor. And it’s more than ready to take on the challenge, with a core creative and supervisory team in Los Angeles/North America and a global production team working in Kuala Lumpur, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Vancouver, and Beijing.
We spoke with Walt, also Tau Film’s VFX Supervisor, about managing Tau’s remote teams, working across boundaries and cultures, and navigating the impact of COVID-19 – and how Tau is tackling it all on the upcoming Chinese feature film, Shi Shen Ling.
Please tell us a little about Shi Shen Ling and the work delivered by Tau Films so far.
Shi Shen Ling is a reimagining of the popular Onmyoji mobile game developed by NetEase Games. The film combines elements of fantasy, action, and adventure in an epic battle to save both the human and demon worlds from destruction. Fans of the game will recognize much from Onmyoji, but we’ve taken the film into new places way beyond the initial audience.
By any measure, everything about this film is big. Eight vendors are handling Shi Shen Ling’s visual effects, comprising 2,200 total VFX shots and 90% of screen time. Tau is one of two primary studios, the other being WYSIWYG Studios. The scope of work covers the whole gamut, from CG characters to environments and FX.
It’s a massive undertaking, both in terms of numbers and ambition. There are 53 unique CG characters in Shi Shen Ling; 20 have significant roles. Only one character has spoken dialogue, which is a challenge, but nearly every character we’re doing relies on the nuances of facial performance to convey emotion, create empathy, and carry the story forward. We have some shots where a single look from a CG character has to say everything about what’s happening in the moment.
Can you discuss the setup of Tau Films and the other facilities working on Shi Shen Ling?
Work on Shi Shen Ling spreads across facilities in Kuala Lumpur, Hyderabad, and Los Angeles. A large group of Tau artists also contribute remotely. Tau’s Beijing facility is the primary interface with the director, Li Weiran, and the film’s production team.
Seven other VFX studios are working on over 1,800 shots that must cut together seamlessly with Tau’s work. These studios operate out of China, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea.
As you might imagine, managing Shi Shen Ling’s workload over multiple studios is a significant undertaking. We achieved it using a single, central tracking interface through which we can track who’s doing what, how work is progressing, what each studio’s target dates and work dependencies are, and what versions are available of the work created. We share asset work across all studios, so different teams can use work produced by another facility.
The production team in Beijing manages and coordinates the work, but we’re still reliant on regular communication between the visual effects studios. We depend on instant messaging, email communication, and, of course, video conference calls and cineSync.
How has cineSync helped to reinforce and streamline such distributed workflows?
cineSync is critical to our process on Shi Shen Ling; a production of this scale would not be possible without it, given the spread of people across multiple countries and continents.
All reviews and creative discussions run through cineSync. Tau Animation Director, CJ Sarachene, runs most reviews from Los Angeles, with the director joining from Beijing. A typical director review session will see at least five countries connect via cineSync. I’m on cineSync regardless of where I am, be it Beijing, Los Angeles, or Seoul.
We build playlists in Shotgun before any cineSync session. cineSync’s Shotgun integration makes it easy to pull together all of the required information, and we can even live-update the playlist mid-review if required. The integration also enables us to link session notes and annotations right back to the original version. This approach creates a paper trail of every comment and request throughout the production process.
Of course, cineSync’s best feature remains the synchronization of playback and sending real-time sketches across continents. We also use the color correction tools to explore adjustments on concept art and shot composites. Still, the ability to quickly pull in curated playlists, to view mini-cuts via the sequence feature almost on the fly, and to push all of our notes right back to Shotgun for immediate sharing with the entire team. The cineSync integration is a game-changer for remote review.
Such a distributed team must present other non-technical challenges, like working across different time zones?
The challenges are too numerous to discuss in one go. Tau alone has more than 150 artists spread across three continents. (And in the case of Shi Shen Ling, artists on five continents.) We have a lot of time zones to deal with!
The key to making everything work is coordination and communication. Everyone must know what needs doing, when it needs doing, and where to find feedback when elements must be clarified or adjusted. If we don’t tackle things correctly, work within the pipeline can completely stall out, or even vanish temporarily. It’s critical to keep iteration loops as tight as possible. Doing so ensures that artists aren’t waiting for work from other artists, from the render farm, or from the supervisors. The whole process could fill at least a couple of interviews and whitepapers!
Speaking in the context of overall production on Shi Shen Ling, nearly all work funnels through CJ, me, and one of the assistant directors focused on visual effects. We strive to understand the challenges of each team. We bundle work as much as possible. We present things to the director and production team with consistency. And we always try to get all teams pulled into reviews to collaborate with the director, so they receive unfiltered feedback first-hand.
Does working across different cultures present any communication challenges on a project as complex as Shi Shen Ling?
We expect plenty of room for interpretation, even when everyone speaks the same language, as so much of what we do is highly subjective. Some concepts simply don’t exist in different cultures or translate differently, so we spend a lot of time educating one another. Sometimes, it’s as simple as discussing the difference between something “slimy” and something “sticky”; which we discovered translate to approximately the same idea in Chinese.
How to get around such issues? You have to understand it isn’t about forcing your way of working on everyone else; it’s about finding common ground and building something new from there. Try to understand everyone’s unique perspective. Take all of their experience and knowledge and figure out a way to bring everyone together to get things done. You will need to be flexible and continually adjust as you proceed; it’s always a work in progress. The main thing is to have an open mind and dedicate yourself to the cause of working together to overcome challenges, no matter what.
We’ve conceived many new ways of communicating with culturally separated artists on Shi Shen Ling. Providing clear, visual reference is essential, as everybody understands an image. Another critical component is discussion. We’ve spent much more time talking about our motivations for doing things a certain way on Shi Shen Ling. We don’t just tell artists to make something bluer, we go back to the story and the characters and discuss why the creative choice is important for the film. The why is just as important as the direction, and it helps to cross otherwise challenging communicative barriers.
Regardless of the challenges discussed, an international team also introduces enormous benefits to a production. Shi Shen Ling is a truly worldwide collaboration: every artist brings their voice to the table. Those unique viewpoints have fed into something with a universal language.
I give a lot of credit to our director Li Weiran. Weiran has seemingly unlimited patience and energy to explore ideas and provide everyone with an opportunity to engage in the process. No idea is too big or too small to consider. Shi Shen Ling has been one of the most collaborative projects on which I’ve had the pleasure to work.
COVID-19 had a considerable impact on the way the visual effects industry views the current structure of post-production. How has this impacted on Tau Films?
The visual effects industry was more prepared for remote work than any other part of the film pipeline. Visual effects studios have performed cross-location production for some time, with projects straddling continents and time zones. Tau Films is an anomaly in visual effects as we worked towards remote production from our foundation. We could quickly react and weather the storm.
I’m aware this isn’t the case for all studios. Some visual effects studios in Los Angeles engaged remote work but with limited hours and capacity, and the expectation that production work will take two to three times longer than usual. Getting the visual effects industry as a whole to function at full capacity through remote work will require extensive retooling of pipelines and workflows.
Still, I hope the COVID-19 situation will open eyes to the opportunities remote work offers. Setting up and running a remote studio at the efficiencies required for large-scale production is a challenge, but removing geographic and temporal constraints means you can bring on artists at any time and anywhere. You can work in a highly flexible way.
Remote work possesses the potential to revolutionize what visual effects are capable of, the speed at which creatives can create, and the flexibility of the whole process, even if it’s achieved only within isolated parts of the pipeline. The studios that can embrace a distributed, remote model during COVID-19 won’t use the approach purely as a temporary measure; it will become part of the very fabric of how they handle production.
Do you have any other tips about working remotely in visual effects, given your extensive experience in the area?
I could write a whole book on this subject. It’s tough to distill my thoughts down to a few tips, but here we go.
The key to remote VFX work comes down to communication and follow-through. A virtually scattered team means no way to pull people together, to confirm that everyone is physically present, or to ensure everyone knows current project status. How to solve this? In the six-plus years since we launched Tau Films, I’ve discovered that everyone needs to be ridiculously proactive in asking questions, clarifying questions, and understanding expectations. Doing so is a necessity for every role and discipline.
Production managers and coordinators must check in with every artist multiple times a day and repeatedly ask the same questions to ensure they are on task and progressing toward common goals. Artists must regularly check-in with leads, supervisors, and production managers and coordinators to not only ask questions, but to update on what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and when the next iteration will be ready. Leads and supervisors should check in with everyone to ensure they know and understand the creative and technical targets, the deadlines, and when to expect the next presentation.
When your team is remote, so much information can slip through the gaps. If you’re to avoid information loss, everyone has to micromanage everyone else, both upstream, downstream, and up the chain of command. It’s a lot of work, and some people take it the wrong way, but it’s the only way to ensure teams move together, in unison, toward the right targets.
The right software facilitates the above, but cannot replace proactive communication. Production tracking, dailies, notes, and scheduling should all exist on a single online platform like ftrack Studio or Shotgun. Centralizing these production processes ensures the most up-to-date project information is transparent and available to all team members at the same time.
You must also be able to run real-time reviews with teams and individuals using tools like ftrack Review, Zoom, and cineSync, the latter of which integrates fantastically with ftrack Studio or Shotgun to keep the latest production information in sync.
With the above in place, artists can focus on creating images rather than managing data wherever they happen to work.
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