Is The VFX Industry Ready For Remote Working?

VFX Legion is a postproduction facility unlike any other in that, strictly speaking, there is no actual facility. Read on to learn how the world’s first fully remote visual effects vendor operates, and how tools like cineSync ensure a harmonious workflow, no matter the geographical distance.

It’s no secret that the VFX industry has received its fair share of public attention in recent years, its foundations shaken by internal discord and turmoil that has gradually bubbled to the surface. Studio closures, redundancies, and reports of unreasonable business practices has tarnished what is otherwise an incredibly creative, inventive and innovative industry – one bursting at the seams with raw artistic talent.

While it can sometimes feel like real solutions are held at bay by the industry’s massive, unyielding infrastructure, there are some postproduction studios that are finding ways to buck the trend and operate completely outside of the setups that have come to be regarded as the norm.

One such studio is VFX Legion, a division of Legion Studios, LLC – a studio that’s trying something new. Founded by VFX supervisor James Hattin and a team of like-minded individuals, Legion is a ‘studio’ like few others. While its HQ rests against the mountainous backdrop of Burbank, California, Legion’s collective of 50 artists are distributed across the globe, contributing to each new project from wherever they may be in the world. Here, creativity and collaboration does not take place over desks, but over vast expanses of continent and ocean; a truly digital workspace replacing a physical one.

And it’s not just new technology that has allowed for this breakthrough in remote collaborative workflows. It’s Legion’s profound passion for bringing the power back to that one core element that remains unchanging and unflinching in an industry otherwise in constant flux – the artist. “What we’re doing at Legion is empowering a new way of working for those on the frontlines of the creative industry,” says Hattin. “There’s no reason why, in the next five years, what we’re doing won’t be the standard. It makes sense on so many levels – it’s just the way things are going.”

Worldwide working

In the visual effects industry – or any industry, for that matter – there’s long been a standard: people group together in one physical location where collaboration and communication can be achieved quickly, easily and efficiently.

Today, that same collaborative effort no longer requires physical proximity – Moore’s Law, technological innovation, and the uptake of superfast broadband are allowing for a new way of remote working; one that Legion has grabbed by the horns.

“I remember going to the Epcot Center at Disney World – the area of the park dedicated to technological innovation and human achievements,” begins Christopher Sinnott, VFX producer at postproduction studio Legion. “One of the first things you walk into is a bunch of kids going to school on a computer – instead of walking to school they’re sitting at home, interacting with the teacher on the screen. It was ‘the future of schooling”. I still remember seeing that because, without sounding too cheesy, that future is now – it’s the reality of visual effects today.”

But Legion was not solely born out of the fact that a VFX facility could work in such a way – more to the point, that perhaps they should. “Legion started from a desire to be able to work where you live, and not have to be tied down to some of the most expensive cities in the world,” explains Sinnott. “Being in visual effects is incredibly hard, because it’s such a specific industry. Our skill set is so niche that in order to grow and improve – while making enough money to feed your family – you have to go to wherever the work is, which might be India, Vancouver, or San Diego. These places are pretty darn expensive, and can leave a lot to be desired for the VFX artist just leaving university.”

Legion was the solution – a disruptive model that goes against the accepted industry trend. At Legion, artists work wherever they may be – whether that’s at home, or from a small shared office in their hometown – contributing to projects via the internet and working to their own self dictated schedules.

“It’s about getting the best talent available,” explains Hattin. “Whereas people in the past may have wanted to leave the industry because they would prefer to move to Kansas and be with their families, rather than slog away in a far distant land, there’s now another option; a way of leveraging that skillset wherever you are in the world.

“This is something that the industry has consistently grown towards and the technology is finally there to support it. This is the disruptive model to what we’re living in, and I think it’s what VFX needs.”

A true VFX legion

Although this distributed model helps Legion save vast amounts of money that would otherwise be funnelled into infrastructure, the company’s philosophy is grounded on more than simply making a profit. Legion’s true raison d'être – one to which it prescribes a great deal of import – is the empowerment of those responsible for the innovation and creativity so important in the world of visual effects.

“There’s a book about the finance industry called Let My People Go Surfing, but it might as well be for the VFX industry at this point,” says Sinnott. “Being a part of your family’s lives is so important. At Legion we allow a system where you can see your family and afford to live too. All over the world we have people creating VFX for us, while also being able to walk their kids to school every day. We’re allowing that flexibility, and that’s important – being artistically creative is not a science; it has to happen organically, not according to some strict schedule.”

Legion’s model has been set up to ensure that if they find an artist who is gifted at a particular skill set, they can continually go back to them, rather than losing them to a better paid job or a round of redundancies.

“If an artist has a busy schedule, we work our pipelines around them†, not vice versa,” explains Hattin. “Our system allows for night and weekend work; it allows you to have another part time job; it allows you to work around your spouse’s schedule. And, importantly, underneath it all, these are people that we don’t necessarily have to lay off when we don’t have any shows. Giving our artists that time, flexibility and security is what truly engenders a creative atmosphere.”

This approach to artist empowerment is the name of the game at Legion. Here, the whole business model has been built with artist creativity at its beating heart, and Legion is keen to point out that the studio will always give credit where credit is due.

“What we try to do at Legion is bring the significance back to the artist,” says Sinnott. “We have a compositing team that has four artists in New Zealand that just dominate. Thanks to the way we work we can bring that back to them directly every time. When talking about the work, we don’t say ‘Legion worked on these shots’. No: it’s those artists that did it.

“Bringing that significance back to the artist – giving them the spotlight – that’s what we truly strive for.”

Establishing structure

Legion personifies a vastly different approach to approaching high quality VFX, but it’s an approach that’s undeniably working. The way the studio brings artists into its system, and how it looks after them once they’re in it, all plays into that success.

“We have a bidding process for offering work, wherein we assign a number of hours or man days to shots, and the artist is given the cost of those hours or man days that we’ve bid,” explains Hattin. “However, if it’s bid for a day and they complete the work in two hours, they still get a day’s pay. What we strive for is that everyone comes in at least under, if not significantly under the specified time, so that they make a substantial living.” This system means that artists aren’t being undercut – this is an artist driven model, not outsourcing as a means of cost cutting.

“Everybody benefits,” says Hattin. “It’s not just the studio making all the overhead or the producer: it’s spread out on a global scale. Again that plays back into the significance of the artist that we continually try to work towards.”

Legion, being a relatively new company, is continually moulding and shaping its business, looking for the best way to enable the remote working setup that remains so centrally important to its overall ethos. And like any new company, Sinnott and Hattin are finding this shape is revealing itself organically throughout each new project.

“Like any other business, the process of growth is like building a sculpture,” says Hattin. “The more you work, the more the form of what you’re trying to create starts to gradually reveal itself. What starts to rise out are the nuances; the character that defines the business.

“At Legion, what we’ve found is that our freelancers tend to bond together, almost like molecules interacting,” he explains. “There will generally be a strong, lead, central artist – the nucleus of it all – who oversees the work of the four-five mid to senior artists who form around him from across the world. They’ll start to work as a pod, collaborating across the vast spaces that separate them. It’s been really interesting to see that happen. We now have pods all over the world that we can consistently go back to and use for each new project.”

Of course, communication is hardly as easy as leaning over a desk or chatting by the water fountain when you’re separated by rolling land masses and countless miles of ocean. To ensure a herd mentality at Legion – one where everyone involved in the project can run at the same speed – the use of technology is vital. These worldwide artists may not have a supervisor constantly watching over their shoulder and telling them how to improve a shot, but with a host of the most up to date tools, they have the next best thing.

Worldwide synchronisation

Without the most recent remote working technology, a truly global setup like Legion would simply not be possible. Email, spreadsheets and shared documents can get you some of the way, but when working in an industry as artistically nuanced as visual effects, no 1,000 words of Email feedback are going to be as helpful as a single image that says it all at a glance.

Thankfully, using its host of bleeding edge tools, Legion is able to keep its workforce up to date and on point, no matter how dispersed they may be. Along with Google Hangouts, Aspera and a robust Shotgun-based pipeline, VFX Legion also makes use of the remote review and approval tool cineSync. 

For Hattin and co, it’s been vital in keeping artists on the same page when it comes to relaying director feedback. It was on recent project Jem and the Holograms that Legion first identified the need for such a solution.

“Jem really pushed our use of cineSync – it’s what started it, really,” begins Sinnott. “Our supervisor moved to Colorado at the start of the project, and we wanted to remain engaged and creative. The only way to do that was get the director, the editorial team and him talking. cineSync was that solution.

cineSync allows Legion to review work in progress remotely, with anyone, anywhere in the world. They can watch clips interactively, play, pause, draw on the screen, all in perfect sync with everyone in the review, Essentially, Legion are able to take the potential miscommunication out of remote collaboration by being able to simply share notes with their artists, with everyone looking at the same thing at the same time.

“Between Colorado and here we were able to do full reviews, animation playblasts, drawing on frames, and generally getting feedback from the director, as well as discussing subtle changes to elements like the main robot character’s ears,” explains Sinnott. “Given the way we operate, our workflow is huge on supervisor to artist communication. We’re working across so many different time zones, so we have to manage our database based on who’s getting up when.

cineSync allows us to have that conversation in the most simple and straightforward way. We can jump on with the artist, have half an hour and get through everything, and get as detailed as we need to be with the annotations and notes.

“And now – and this is really important for us – following the session we can publish the notes into production tracking and asset management platform Shotgun directly from cineSync. That provides the artists with a consistent database they can refer back to. People can be offline but still see everything that was discussed and the results that are required. That’s really changed everything for us.”

The importance of this new Shotgun/cineSync integration cannot be understated for Legion – a company that relies heavily on Shotgun to carefully manage each of its projects. It’s nothing less than a complete game changer for the studio and the manner in which it operates.

“The new integration with Shotgun has changed the way we use cineSync, period,” says Hattin.

“Shotgun is our digital backbone: we track everything through it, from artist hours to bid hours, statuses and QuickTimes. We build everything that we do off of it, so having cineSync integrate with that is amazing, especially when it comes to things like bringing the notes back in, having the artist look at an annotated frame and being able to reference back to that, even if they happen to be offline.

“Without that system we would be sending Emails by hand and that really sucks: it just doesn’t work,” continues Hattin. “Also, with other solutions you often have to bring in an IT guy, and that would be impossible for us. We need as much of the process to be managed by the software as we can, because our artists come from artistry; these aren’t people you can sit inside a box and have them programme their way out of it.

“cineSync is definitely the turnkey solution for us. Our system is totally based on the software getting us there, and cineSync has been vital in that regard.”

Let my people go surfing

What was once an idealistic daydream witnessed only in the realm of science fiction is now a day to day reality. Thanks to the power of tools like Shotgun and cineSync, remote VFX is more than just possible – it’s happening today, all across the world.

In the eyes of Sinnott, Hattin and the rest of the VFX Legion, it’s a new way of working that might very soon become the status quo. More than that, it could stand as the solution to many of the industry's woes…

“In any industry, success rests on how far you can look ahead,” says Sinnott, ruminating on future possibilities. “Already, thanks to constant improvement the technology we use, we’re starting to be able to work in a way that wasn’t previously viable. You’re starting to see the larger studios trying to do it, but they’re having trouble because they have a huge infrastructure in place already: they’re not maneuverable. But Legion started out like this, and our flexibility and size, our ability to tack and turn as we need, far exceeds the larger companies out there.”

It’s because of this that iterations at Legion can be completed more quickly, work pumped out to a better standard, and turnaround time made much faster. ”On Jem and the Holograms there was a large amount of CG content, but there was no reason why we couldn’t turn around a sequence in a week or less,” says Hattin. “We could easily hit the show on deadline. That’s something that we can do that other people haven’t be able to figure out.”

On the basis of this success, Hattin believes that in five years’ time the industry is going to look very different indeed: “It would be naive to think that in the next five years we’re not going to have some kind of a system that allows for the same collaborative environment of a traditional facility, but on a remote scale,” Hattin ruminates. “Looking at our system, we’re at the front of that wave. We’re paddling as the surf is coming in and there’s no reason why, in those next five years, the entire landscape of visual effects won’t be based on what we’re doing right now.”

Posted on December 2, 2015 and filed under vfx, technique.