Before 2020, a whopping 46% of the VFX industry didn’t promote a work from home policy or have a technology setup to support remote workflows.
For many in CG, remote working was unfeasible, whether due to security concerns, or lack of equipment, or the desire to keep a daily face-to-face connection.
Attitudes at the end of 2020 couldn’t be more different. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced profound digital transformation throughout the moving image industry. Indeed, remote work became a necessity almost overnight, as productions stopped and entire countries locked down. All over the world, studio MDs, pipeline TDs, post sups, and IT professionals worked tirelessly to transition their teams and adapt to a new status quo.
Making the change wasn’t easy. Unlike other industries, going remote in animation or visual effects wasn’t just a matter of buying a laptop or installing Zoom and Discord. Completing ingest, file management, and rendering—and handling the vast amount of sensitive data inherent to CG workflows—required a much higher level of security, connectivity, and processing power.
Despite these challenges, going remote proved a considerable success, even for an industry previously so resistant to the change. Indeed, within months, only 5% of creatives said they would prefer to return to the office in the future.
So how was such an unprecedented cultural shift achieved? To find out, we spoke to industry experts at Bait Studio, Blue Zoo, dupe VFX and Cloth Cat Animation to learn about the tech and techniques they used to keep their studios working over 2020.
Security vs trust
Security was a significant issue faced by studios looking to go remote in response to COVID. NDAs didn’t take remote working into account; many artists weren’t able to take materials home to avert leaks and copyright theft.
Nevertheless, artists launched a barrage of criticism against the system, including a change.org petition from Morio Rokicki, a color supervisor at Double Negative, who demanded VFX artists be allowed to work remotely.
For some studios, upgrading pipelines to attain a TPN (Trusted Partner Network) certification helped to reassure clients. TPN, a joint venture between the Motion Picture Association (MPA) and the Content Delivery and Security Association (CBSA), provided vendors with a standard for content protection approved by companies such as Netflix, Disney and Marvel. Becoming a TPN trusted partner vendor meant modifying pipelines with tools that prioritized security, like VPN, which are then annually assessed. (Learn more about ftrack’s TPN assessment.)
Clement Poulain, Pipeline TD at dupe vfx
Pipeline TD Clement Poulain instantly added a layer of security via a VPN at the London-based boutique, dupe VFX. “Implementing these measures helped artists to work from home on a private network,” he says. “We’re also working toward TPN guidelines as standard. Not every project requires TPN, of course, but it’s still important to guarantee security for all clients in this new remote landscape.”
Both Clement and Jon Rennie, MD of Cloth Cat Animation, agree, however, that the most crucial ingredient in secure work isn’t ultimately VPN or TPN. It’s trust.
As Jon explains: “You can have all the security you like, but it does all come down to trust. Even with all the right software in place, you could still have someone grab a phone and take a picture of their screen, whether they’re in the studio or not.
“Think about the hundreds of people working on a big project. The reason you don’t normally see leaked materials is trust. We’ve had a lot of productions going on through the pandemic now, and we haven’t had any breaches. Trust has been key in operating effectively in this remote era.”
Another early pipeline problem arose when adapting to COVID-19: how to handle the large number of assets required on a CG project. “When you’re working from a home computer, you need to assess how connected your project is to both the facility storage and a render farm,” adds Jon.
For many studios, remote access systems provided the answer. Remote access allowed artists to go from their home computers to professional cloud or office-based machines in just a few clicks. CG software could run from a personal laptop with few performance issues, as artists took advantage of studio workstation-level graphics acceleration hardware and rendering power.
“Different departments had different needs, so required different setups,” adds Francesca Pesce, Post Supervisor at Blue Zoo. Blue Zoo went for a combination of two systems that have since won Emmys for their contribution to creative workflows throughout the pandemic: Teradici and HP RGS.
Clement reveals the team at dupe VFX also opted for a combination of Teradici and HP RGS. He selected software based on each workstation: the latter didn’t require a license on select HP machines, making it a no-brainer.
“NoMachine was also very useful,” says Clement. “At dupe VFX we work on Linux with GeForce RTX as well as Quadro K2000 and K5000 graphics cards. Teradici wasn’t yet officially compatible with RTX, so we couldn’t use Teradici for non-HP workstations. We used NoMachine as it was a free alternative.”
The dupe vfx team connecting over Zoom—another pivotal piece of tech in the year of 2020.
Setting up synchronization
Remote access workstations aren’t a one-size fit all solution, however. For Jon at Cloth Cat, remote access came with several potential problems. “I looked into virtual machines, but they were too expensive. I also explored remote access without a virtual machine but felt this was too reliant on domestic internet connections and could get bottlenecked. We decided Google Drive File Stream was the answer, instead.
“Drive File Stream is kind of like Dropbox; it synchronizes files between locations,” Jon continues. “The software downloads the files artists need, caches them onto their local hard drive, and synchronizes with our render farm-connected storage in the studio. If someone submits their scene, Drive File Stream automatically synchronizes the file back to the studio to create a PNG sequence.
“This workflow is fast, efficient, and incredibly light. Currently, our entire file stream folder is just 7TB.”
Synchronization could capably connect files with farms, but another type of sync also became a crucial necessity in 2020: real-time person-to-person communication.
In-studio rounds, media reviews, dailies, and approvals are all key to the production process. These discussions are when the human connection in creative work comes to the fore, and people work together to highlight, discuss, and solve artistic problems. The conversations can be as abstract as they are specific, and cannot be accomplished effectively in an email thread. When COVID-19 hit, meeting rooms and over-the-desk chats had to come online.
Although media review software, like ftrack Review and cineSync, are standard in an already-distributed industry, they came to the fore when the pandemic hit. Artists, supervisors, and producers relied on remote synchronized media review to share ideas, provide feedback, and communicate as a team from their home offices and bedrooms, just as if they were still in their studio meeting rooms or catching up over a coffee.
“We introduced cineSync for synchronized videos,” reveals Francesca. “Normally we’d do comp or editing reviews in the edit suite, but with the pandemic, we couldn’t. We used cineSync to download the Avid we’re working on and sync it. Everybody could stop the video or mark it up with notes in real-time. We’d all see the same frames, annotations, and comments at the same time.
“There were many benefits to working this way. When we were performing reviews in the studio, only the editor would move the timeline and just show us what we need to see, and we’d comment on it. Working with cineSync is more collaborative. I think everybody is a bit more involved. Going remote revealed this benefit.”
Lucy Lawson-Duckett, VFX Production Manager at Bait Studio
Changing an industry
Improved reviews weren’t the only benefit uncovered by going remote. For Lucy Lawson-Duckett, Bait Studio’s VFX Production Manager, the transition has improved both communication and work-life balance in a very tangible way.
“Using video apps like Microsoft Teams has actually increased communication between departments,” she says of Bait Studio. “It’s so much easier to shoot someone a quick message, even when you don’t know them. Regular video meetings also promote group interaction and have increased department morale, as we’ve had daily meetings to say hello, catch up, and plan our days with more frequency than we ever did when we were in the office.
“Personally speaking, I also used to have a two-hour round trip commute to get to work and back every day. In lockdown, I’ve gotten those two hours back. An extra hour in bed and an extra hour with my family has made a huge difference in keeping us all buoyant!”
Lucy Lawson-Duckett’s WFH setup. Scroll down for some of her top tips for remote work!
These benefits to the individual could have enormous repercussions for the entire CG industry and how it operates. The creative sector is often stigmatized for late crunch hours, or artists forced to uproot their families to work in new cities or even countries. These issues could be at minimized or even eradicated by the dawn of achievable remote workflows.
Companies like Bait Studio have shifted to hiring more workers from all over the world, says Lucy, as they are no longer restrained to local workforces or navigating the nightmare of a visa application. “The days when artists needed to relocate to where the work was could now be over. Everyone’s on an even playing field, wherever they are.”
Jon adds to the thought: “The other great thing I’ve noticed: when I’m doing an industry meeting, I no longer feel as though I’m a second-class citizen. All of us, no matter whether we represent a large or small facility, are in the same video call together. And everyone takes up the same size box on the screen.
“Remote workflows aren’t just democratizing what we do, but how we work. We’re living through an exciting new era; one that will change things for the creative industries significantly in 2021 and beyond.”
ftrack’s team saying hello one of our many 2020 global team meetups!
Lucy Lawson-Duckett reveals her top tips for WFH:
Search for positions far and wide
We used to hire people as local to our base as possible so everyone could come into the studio. Since we’ve gone all-in on remote, however, we can hire anyone across the UK, and even across the world. So, if you’re looking for your next job, don’t be afraid to search further afield than you usually would.
Don’t neglect your health
Be careful with your activity levels. When WFH, you can be less active for more extended periods. I’ve definitely been sitting down too much, so I make a conscious effort to move around. I even started using a stand-up desk, which has helped a lot. Also, be careful of over- or under-eating. Snacking is so much easier to do when you’re in your home. Many have noticed the gained lockdown pounds; it’s something to be mindful of.
Zoning your home
Having a home office is something everyone would love to have, but many people don’t have that luxury. I’ve taken to designating a specific space for my office space: my dining table. As much as I’d like to sit in bed and work, I just can’t get into that work mindset without at least socks on and a cup of coffee in my hand! When I’m at the dining table, I know it’s time to get going.