Working from home. Sitting in your dressing gown, looking out to the garden, whilst clacking away quite productively is a pleasure that has long been denied to those working in post production and visual effects. But thanks to broadening bandwidth and mighty processors being packed into smaller boxes, even that highly technologically reliant industry is finding new flexible ways of working.
“You can do a lot with a laptop these days and as technology becomes lighter, cheaper and easier to transport then that makes it easier to be more agile when it comes to post,” says Sophie Hogg, EP at Jogger, who reckons that post companies like hers can be more accommodating and adaptable than ever. “Coupled with the sophisticated tools that allow for seamless remote working in real time for grading and online it does mean that we can move with the fact that directors and agency aren’t always able to be there in the room for post.”
Remote working – bending the rules of time and space
Absolute Post is one of the pioneers on this front; nearly two years ago
they moved their data centre and render farms offsite, outside of London, and connected to their main locations by a dark fibre cable. At the same time, Absolute reconfigured their workspaces and infrastructure to be fully flexible, meaning that artists can access their workstation remotely from more or less anywhere.
“The days of machine rooms located in basements for Absolute are truly gone; we were the first to move the entire post infrastructure off site to a data centre,” says Phil Oldham, who is Creative Director at the company. “As for the future of artists working remotely that is happening already. As the cost of living in London increases and the demand from artist to be untethered from central locations we have full time staff that work hundreds of miles away and the systems in place allow for totally seamless integration.”
In fact, one of the companies senior CG artists, Matt Burn, has recently relocated to Wales. He heads back to London once a week but for the most part, with a 50mb downstream Internet connection, he can access his work station as if he were in the office. A number of compositors do the same when working in the evening or at weekends. Absolute’s Chief Engineer Tom Spenceley says that they can tap right in. “Crucially - because they are accessing the very same infrastructure regardless of their location - there is no change of workflow or compromise on performance. A compositor working from home still benefits from an incredibly powerful server-format workstation, high-bandwidth storage and access to all resources we provide in-house.”
As for Matt, currently in Wales, he acknowledges that certain tasks and projects lend themselves more easily to this way of working. “Standalone tasks that require input from only one artist are the easiest to achieve due to their self-contained nature. A lot of CG tasks work perfectly; preparation of assets (models, textures, rigs, camera tracks, simulations) to be included in projects of any size can all be completed by artists remotely and supplied to all other members of the project team in near real-time, as can the compositing of standalone shots,” he says. Things get more challenging when there are multiple artists involved and the workflow is more intricate, though he reckons that platforms like Slack and Shotgun makes even these projects perfectly manageable.
Talking of technology and tools, secure private networks are more accessible than ever too. Ian McCarthy is the Technical Marketing Manager at Sohonet. “Our historic flagship service, the Sohonet Media Network (SMN), is the largest global private network for media and entertainment companies. We connect the sites and facilities for ‘the storytellers of the world’ across the whole media production lifecycle: studios, production companies, post houses, VFX shops, advertisers, etc. By skipping the public internet — with all of the associated contention, security risk, speed limits — the digital distance between collaborators’ offices and facilities is considerably decreased, while reducing the risk of leaks. In a world where people are still shipping hard drives, this strengthens and opens doors for increasingly sophisticated global collaboration.”
Ultimately different post companies are finding different ways to make all these new tools and technologies work for them. With somewhere like Glassworks, which has three international offices (London, Amsterdam and Barcelona), remote doesn’t necessarily mean operators working from home (although they do use Remote Login if they need to, for example checking results of render processes late at night). They also use these tools to link up teams in these separate offices, explains Duncan Malcolm, Head of 2D at Glassworks London.
“We use fast links between our three international offices to share assets and setups for almost every part of our pipeline,” he says. “Even now with the 4k format being more popular it is possible to quickly sync rushes and have them available in multiple locations almost immediately. Our job structures are visible through shared servers and setups can be amended and shared. With longer jobs it isn’t unusual to have the director and agency reviewing offsite. This process has become so much easier and with faster connections and optimised reviewing tools, we often talk face to face, whilst sharing live annotation sessions. The excuse that was often used against remote re-viewing was a lack of eye contact and creative people’s heavy use of gesticulation to get their message across and these are less of an issue now.”
Escape to the country
Some companies have opted to swerve a base in a central capital altogether. Outpost is a five-year-old company that was founded in Bournemouth – a seaside resort town on the south coast of England. It’s a smart location as the local university has well-respected VFX and animation courses and it’s under two hours from London via train. They use tools like Cinesync, a real-time review software to collaborate with directors and most days have a producer up in the city. The regional location hasn’t scared off huge projects – they’re currently working on Jurassic Park: The Fallen Kingdom.
“I think our industry is becoming more global by the day!” says Head of Production Gez Hixson. “Clients are getting more and more comfortable with briefing us from their offices and work being done wherever the talent is. If you look at some of the most successful companies, you can see that work is done across multiple time zones. Our company takes that model but applies it just outside of London. Our USP doesn’t entirely come from our location but it certainly plays a massive part in it.”
There’s a lifestyle benefit too – staff don’t have to battle the same sky-high property prices and lengthy commutes that their city peers have to deal with and so get to spend more time with their mates and families. Plus there’s the beach. “We try to operate a seven-hour working day when projects allow, which is one of the founding principles of Outpost,” explains Gez. “Our CEO Duncan McWilliam’s belief is that you get more out of seven hours of legitimate focus rather than much longer hours of dragging yourself through the day, and then you can spend the afternoon making the most of the outdoor lifestyle that Bournemouth can offer. The idea then is that you come back to work the next morning feeling refreshed, motivated and creative.”
For the team at Sohonet, they’re seeing better collaboration tools and increasingly competitive tax incentives and lower costs from unexpected regions driving a new breed of media cities outside of the major capitals. “We used to say there were roughly ‘ten media cities’ that mattered around the world - London, LA, NYC, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Atlanta, Sydney, Auckland, Paris - but now there are a ton of cities that are gaining real ‘media scale’ for production in TV, Film and commercials - Chicago, Miami, Barcelona, Munich, Denver, Beijing, Shanghai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Singapore, Johannesburg, Nashville…” muses Chuck Parker, Chairman and CEO of Sohonet.
Of course, you can have all the slickest tech and speediest connections in the world, but if your clients are uneasy and unwilling to give it ago… then remote working is nothing more than a remote possibility. However, it seems that clients too appreciate the flexibility and access to talent that these new set ups give them.
“People are also a lot more comfortable doing their post remotely,” says Duncan Buxton, Head of Production at Glassworks London. “It’s now so easy to review work and conduct meetings via the web, that clients’ confidence commissioning and monitoring projects from afar has grown. E.g. our London office can be the remote studio for an LA-based director who wants a specific kind of grade or VFX, rather than everything being tied to the place they are. The same flexibility and competitivity that helps us build a global VFX team is being enjoyed by the clients that commission us. It opens up a world of opportunities - if you’re on top of your game!”
Stars on set
Faster pipelines and remote logins are not only shaking up the concept of a post house, they’re also liberating artists and freeing them up to go on set. Whilst editors doing quick cuts of the dailies and VFX supervisors are a pretty common sight, crews are spotting even more VFX specialists during the shoot.
“Alongside editors, it’s fairly common to have a compositor on set too - someone to previsualise comps immediately to test what’s being captured. Higher-spec laptops and fast transfer from cards have made this possible in a way that wasn’t feasible five years ago,” says Duncan Buxton.
You will also often see VFX teams capturing valuable locationdata to help the team back at base, such as HDRI (high dynamic range imagery) and LIDAR scans (Light Detection and Ranging).
“Faster processing power, and greater Internet bandwidth has certainly allowed us to work remotely. Back in the day when compositing on set we used to have to digitise the analogue feed from the camera, which was pretty unwieldy, now we can ingest full resolution footage directly from the DIT without too much drama. We'll also have access to a range of meta-data that will help us integrate CG,” says Ben Robards at Absolute. “Additionally, we have a number of options to capture HDRI, some of which are becoming very portable and quick to use, and LIDAR scanning is also becoming more prevalent for capturing location detail. We're keeping an eye on some emerging technology that will allow us to capture depth information from the camera.”
Duncan Malcolm also points out that it’s easier than ever for directors to see the coming together of live-action footage and CG elements whilst on set. “Virtual CG sets, which take camera position data and can be overlayed live on set (even just for framing), animated characters driven by live voice control, laptops with the power to pre-visualise and even final comp are all things of today. To use them more productively will take a change in the way people see the role of VFX in projects and crucially the introduction of a VFX company much earlier in the creative process,” he says.
All together now
Not every aspect of post and VFX is suitable for remote or flexible working – and real face-to-face interaction is still important, as Matt Turner at Absolute points out. “Not only does professional grading require a very specific environment - calibrated monitors - appropriately lit daylight balanced room, it’s a discipline that fundamentally requires face to face interaction, although remote grading has been a useful and widely used tool for some years now, anyone who has experienced it knows that there is a level of communication that doesn't exist whilst physically apart. It’s likely that the remote trend will continue to expand over the coming years and perhaps for some types of work it may become the norm, but top end highly creative grading will always need a degree of face-to-face interaction that cannot and must not be achieved exclusively remotely. “
On the other hand, even when it comes to things like grading there are no hard-and-fast rules, explains Sophie Hogg at Jogger, who can see both points of view. “The most challenging elements to do remotely are always those that require a lot of input from creative voices and those where the final output is a subjective view. Often this requires a certain agility that works best when all voices are in the same room. That said, I have found that probably one of the most subjective parts of the post production process, colour grading, actually seems to work remarkably well if the remote grading set up is done properly and technology is really helping us in that respect. It will never 100% make up for being in the same room but it gets really close!”
What’s more, argues Aleks at Glassworks, the spontaneity and interaction that arises when people are together physically is always a plus when it comes to creativity. “Pretty much every creative process benefits from a group of people working together in person. Almost everything we do is a team effort. Projects benefit hugely from the sharing of ideas, thought processes, discussions, techniques and R&D. This becomes even more apparent as the scale of the project increases.”
His colleague Duncan Malcolm reckons that as long as there is communication and trust between the production team and operators, then even a fully remote operator model of post can work well and prove much more comfortable for the team. That being said, the shared, singular goal and sense of camaraderie is essential to creative companies. “The shared vision is often fed by a type of environment, decor, music, conversation, industry gossip. The embodiment of the companies ethos,” he says.
“The success or not of the remote concept, of course, comes down to individuals and how motivated they can be when the structure of a studio it taken away. It would be interesting to see how a common goal would work if all of the work colleague “glue” were to be removed.”
So it seems that there is still value in real face-to-face interaction, but VFX companies have more options around how they set up and how and whether to operate remotely. So does all this mean that the traditional post and VFX companies, with big fancy facilities, are soon to be a thing of the past? Well, not necessarily. But they will be able to be more adaptable and nimble.
“There will always be room for scale economies, whether people or computing resource. But more and more, the machines will be in some other “nearby” facility - close enough to allow real-time remote computing. The artists will similarly continue to have the ability to ‘work their magic’ from just about any location, subject to latency and content. The better-quality experience they require (more bits, more colour depth, HDR, etc.), the more low latency, uncontended bandwidth they will require combined with the right tools to facilitate their magic,” says Sohonet’s Chuck Parker.
Speaking from Bournemouth, Gez at Outpost says that the big city-centre facilities will continue to have their place. “I personally think there will always be the big facilities full of machines and suites as the model fits, and the work coming out of the big houses is nothing short of breathtaking. Remote working can be tricky as much of the work we do is extremely collaborative. For instance, in grading you will have a firector, DOP and agencies all working together. That may be tricky to organise in a bedroom.”
For Sophie at Jogger, it’s all about people and relationships and having the flexibility to be able to coach a client through the process in person, or hook up with the best talent in the world. “Sometimes it’s hard for a client with a limited understanding of the VFX pipeline to get why things need to be done in the way they are being done and also why they may take longer than they would expect. I find that getting the clients in to see everything really helps with their understanding of the process and also makes things flow a lot better through each stage of feedback,” she says. “That said, I think we have to be more flexible in the way we work. The way the world works now demands it. That could mean having CG artists working remotely from a remote cabin somewhere in Finland or having a Nuke team in Bangalore that supports the main compositor in London. It could even mean having your Flame artist working on set using a portable Flame. The key is setting up the right team that works best for the job.”
Ultimately, technology is changing the way post operators work. They are free to work flexibly and to work from anywhere in the world… well… almost. Ben Robards muses that though the possibilities are becoming endless, we might find that the reality of remote working does not always match the fantasy…
“The dream of working from the beach is now only spoiled... by the reality that actually working on the beach might not be such a good idea…”