Everything about the production house Oats Studios seems designed to flout Hollywood creative norms. The Vancouver-based studio, brainchild of South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, releases its experimental short films online, for free, but their production values and visual effects rival many big-budget studio films. They also do almost all of their creative work in-house, giving them maximum control over the look and direction of their work.
In his own words, Oats VFX Supervisor, Chris Harvey, gives us a glimpse into exactly what makes this (very small) studio so unique.
My background, joining Oats
My background in VFX goes back more than two decades, but my breakout work as a supervisor began with TRON: Legacy and Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty. A turning point, for me, came in 2015, when I met Neill Blomkamp while working on his movie, Chappie. That was the start of our friendship.
After Chappie, I worked very briefly at Industrial Light & Magic, as the Creative Director in their Vancouver office, before Neill called me up and shared his idea of starting an independent studio “outside of the typical Hollywood system.” And that’s precisely what we did.
Most of our team is made up of people I’d worked with before. We had the luxury of choosing the very best of the best, but because we had this huge mandate and limited resources, we had to be smart about who we picked. I couldn’t load our team with uber-specialists since we knew from the start that everyone would have to fulfill multiple responsibilities. Our ideal candidates were artists with a generalized skill set, and maybe one specific area of expertise.
Earl Fast; Maya and Shotgun VFX for Chappie at Image Engine
One look at our big warehouse space explains why that’s necessary. We do everything here: shooting, visual effects, production design, editing, sound, coloring – everything – under one roof, the way films were made 40 years ago. We have a mocap stage; we have standing sets for return shoots; we’ve got a photogrammetry booth for doing actor cyber scanning, and we've got a physical workshop where we make practical effects and prosthetics and fun things like that. And then, of course, there's office space for editors and artists. It's all under one roof.
Oats' goal from the start was simply to be as creative as possible. A big part of that means doing things differently, rather than just following the same old scripts. The idea was, “Let’s tear everything down and then rebuild it,” because maybe there are different ways to do things; perhaps we don’t have to be rigid in our approach or do things the same way they’ve always been done.
"...our studio absolutely pushes to 95%, but then we let go. This frees us up to move on to new challenges, and we can be as creative as possible while pushing out as many ideas as we can."
There’s a common joke within the film industry that you spend half your time doing 95% of the work, and the other half doing the final 5%. Well, our studio absolutely pushes to 95%, but then we let go. This frees us up to move on to new challenges, and we can be as creative as possible while pushing out as many ideas as we can. Of course, that means we always have multiple projects going on at one time, but that’s part of the challenge, and it helps keep our work exciting.
Making that approach successful involves getting our employees to see beyond their four walls. So, for example, we'll get their input on the early drafts of whatever script we’re working on, no matter what their role in the production. This paints a complete picture of what we’re trying to achieve, and they’re able to give creative input over and above their disciplines. And their input does translate into script adjustments. Someone will say, “This is cool, but this would be a better way,” and we'll make the changes. And because there are always multiple scripts and stories on the go, when something urgent comes up, we might say, “Okay everyone, we’re switching gears and focusing on this for the next couple of weeks, and then we can come back to our original work." It’s a very fluid, fast-paced environment.
Autodesk tools have played a part every project we've done, across the board. We use Nuke for comp, FX in Houdini, but Autodesk is the backbone of our CG pipeline. Even for our Unity projects – ADAM, for example – Unity is where the end result is, it's where the lighting is done because it's a real-time engine, but all of the asset builds are all Max and Maya; all of the animation is Maya.
"We employ the full Autodesk Media and Entertainment Collection...to have an entire software suite that worked out of the box wasn’t just helpful, it was necessary."
We employ the full Autodesk Media and Entertainment Collection. When we started, we hired ten people – we’ve never had more than 20-25 – and that’s a very small team to be handling as many shots as we handle or to be doing full creature creation. We didn’t have an R&D department, we didn't have the time to write our own stuff, so to have an entire software suite that worked out of the box wasn’t just helpful, it was necessary.
I’m a big proponent of not mandating what software people use. If someone is better with one program, then use that. For example, you would probably guess that our main organic modeler, Ian Spriggs, uses Zbrush, but in fact, he’s Mudbox all the way, and I’m great with that. If it gives you results, use it. The Media and Entertainment Collection means we have it all at our disposal.
We’ve also made great use of Autodesk subscriptions to get our employees whatever tools they when they need them. So our dedicated Max guys and dedicated Maya guys work in tandem, and everyone is up and running immediately. We’re constantly moving stuff back and forth between Maya and Max, mostly using Alembic, and it works very well. For motion capture, for example, we’ll start in MotionBuilder, and then that moves into Maya, and eventually, that will branch into Max and Maya running in tandem. Our assets are built in Max, Maya, and Mudbox, and those will branch back together in the final rigs.
And I can’t leave out Shotgun. Given our insane workload, and how many projects we take on, we needed some kind of asset management software, and Shotgun has been huge for us. We were able to hook it into Max, Maya, Nuke, and all those different tools. We hired a freelancer to do a bit of custom coding, just to make sure it was hooked up exactly as we wanted it, and it handles all of our dailies, our asset management, and that kind of stuff. It’s helped us streamline our pipeline, and that has saved us a ton of time and energy.
The last thing I should say on this subject is that we’re against an uber-rigid pipeline. Flexibility is our mantra, and we gravitate towards tools that offer us the freedom to experiment. So, say someone comes up with some weird, free tool, we’ll grab it and test it and run it through its paces. If it works, we’ll incorporate it into our pipeline. We can be very nimble regarding adopting new things or trying out new techniques. Being a very small company, we’re able to be light on our feet, adaptable, and that’s a massive advantage for our creativity.
Rakka, was our first major project. It’s set in the near future, when aliens have invaded Earth and are attempting to terraform, to transform our atmosphere into one favorable to their life and not ours. From a visual standpoint, there were a few one-offs, but the main effect was the alien creatures. The total running time is only about 21 minutes, but there are about 250 VFX shots contained within that, so it’s very CG-heavy.
We used a small team for that project – maybe two animators and three or four lighters, a handful of compositors, one rigger, three FX artists and a matte painter. Quite a small team. We settled on a creature design, which was based on an initial physical maquette, and then we built some texture variations and modifications, to alter the creature between shots – all pretty standard. Shotgun came in handy here: We had just the one alien but multiple texture sets. It helped us keep a handle on everything.
The next project we did was Firebase, which is a 22-minute, fictional take on the Vietnam War, involving this skeleton-like creature and something we called the Spiderman, which rips out of the skin of the people it targets. From a CG perspective, there were other small things and a few larger one-offs, too, but that was the main part of Firebase: four or five different sequences, each requiring different assets, different look dev. So that was its own challenge.
Finally, we get to Zygote. The main creature was incredibly complicated; he was so complicated that he was actually seven different assets. There was a separate asset for his right side – for each arm and leg – and for his left side, as well as for his torso and his head. These seven different assets would then be merged, and the reason for that was that he was just too heavy to work with as a single asset.
"The main creature was incredibly complicated...In total, I think we scanned about 63 different people to make up [him up]."
The animators could load in individual main rigs to focus on that animation, and then the proxy would reload there, in high-res, and the other side would work on that. We’d take all of these caches and recombine them so they could light render the final full asset. And that final creature is made up cyber scans of people at the office and their friends – arms, legs, bits, and pieces of different faces. In total, I think we scanned about 63 different people to make up this one creature.
It was quite a challenge for Eric, our rigger, because all of these different limbs had to be able to grab each other, and then let go and open up or fold into each other again. And we wanted the physics of this to be accurate as if each arm had a bone inside it. In the end, we had to bring in extra animators – five total – because he was such a heavy creature to animate. And then we had five separate damage scenes, where he gets shot, loses limbs, breaks a bone, so we had to do damage takes as well. All of that, the cyber scanning, and subsequent detailed modeling was handled in Mudbox, as well as the various damage textures. To coordinate all of this, we’d make custom fields in Shotgun, corresponding to the different damage states. That way, you could just pull the right rig in, and people would know what they’re supposed to load.
Working with Neill Blomkamp
Neill and I get along well. He comes from a VFX background, so we have that in common, and it gives him a better knowledge of that area than most directors have. The big thing, though, is that we’ve been working together for a few years now, and we’ve established a certain amount of trust. We can be very direct with each other and we speak in a good shorthand without misunderstandings.
"Neill gives simple, honest, real opinions and he expects the same back from his team so that there’s no wasted time trying to figure out what people mean."
Neill gives simple, honest, real opinions and he expects the same back from his team so that there’s no wasted time trying to figure out what people mean. I think that’s crucial, and that approach is a big part of what makes our team successful. We encourage that from everyone. Give us your feedback because maybe you see something that we don’t.
Anti-Hollywood and proud
We’ve learned a lot by doing things our way, rather than just accepting how things have always been done. When I look at how the typical Hollywood movie is made, I see so much waste, and at some point, something has to give. Hollywood keeps getting bigger and bigger, but the box office returns don’t necessarily support that. Take Blade Runner 2049: It was very well received and looked incredible, but it hasn’t had the kind of financial return to justify its budget.
"We’ve learned a lot by doing things our way, rather than just accepting how things have always been done."
In Hollywood, everyone is isolated; there isn’t as much coordination between departments or artists or technicians. Someone will make a choice, and it might be a valid choice, but it might not serve the larger story, and it could well have ramifications far outside that one person’s area of expertise. With everything under one roof here at Oats, we are forced to have those conversations, forced to identify those key choices, and get on the same page about what we’re doing and why.
And we think our final product reflects that.
Massive thanks to Chris Harvey and the entire team at Oats for sharing your story. Your creativity and against-the-grain approach is inspiring.
Visit the Oats Studios site to view their projects for free, including, "Kapture," "Gdansk," and the "ADAM" series. You can also purchase Oats' assets over on STEAM.
To learn more about the toolkit Oats relies upon, see our Media and Entertainment Collection.