The past year has been an exercise in novelty for much of the corporate world, and the VFX and animation industries were no exception. Studios and offices closed down, remote work became the new norm, and companies scrambled to make the necessary adjustments to optimize their workflows to keep up with demand and hit their deadlines.
Makers of the premier production tracking and workflow optimizing software, ShotGrid (previously known as Shotgun Software) has been at the center of many of these dramatic changes, as studios around the world relied on the cloud-based toolset to adapt to the shift of remote workflows. They have drawn upon their experiences and the adaptions of their clients to create a handy list of “secrets” to help other creative studios survive this brave new world of remote work.
And if you’re saying to yourself, “the pandemic has passed its peak, the vaccine rollout is ramping up, and we’ll return to business as usual very soon,” you may want to think twice. While lockdowns and other pandemic safety measures may become a thing of the past, some of the changes made over the last year are here to stay- for the simple reason that embracing them has allowed studios to be become both more efficient and cost-effective.
Here are six key secrets to optimizing your remote workflows.
1. Cloud Computing
Cloud computing was useful before the pandemic, but since the lockdowns began it has become essential. Coordinating work among creative teams is difficult enough when artists are all in the same physical location, but once you have artists spanning across multiple countries, continents and time zones — the complexities multiply exponentially.
“We are seeing a surge of interest in cloud-based workflows and a desire to rethink the production process to see what workflows can be enabled by the cloud and done remotely,” said Colin Cupp, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Amazon Web Services. “The cloud is enabling geographically dispersed remote teams to remain up and running for parts, or in some cases all, of their production process.”
“The cloud is enabling geographically dispersed remote teams to remain up and running for parts, or in some cases all, of their production process.”
Viktorija Ogureckaja, a Visual Effects Producer at Pixomondo, emphasized how much easier it has become to move data via the cloud: “All our cloud interactions – from a cloud-based project management system, cloud email systems, cloud storage, and cloud rendering – in addition to paramount data security, enable us to move data and creative ideas in a much easier manner. Along with faster scalability and instant connectivity, which are vital for our new social distancing reality, the cloud empowers our artists and global productions with the speed and tools required for maintaining high-quality work.”
As the price of cloud storage continues to decline, and as the demands of coordinating workflows across various remote locations increase, we expect to see cloud-based computing continue to play an expanded role in the VFX and animation industries.
2. Prioritize Communication
Communication is one of the obvious hurdles thrown up by remote work. You can no longer speak face to face, walk down the hall to chat with members of another team, or invite the client into the studio to preview your work. And because of the different visions involved, and constant adjustments made between the conception and realization of creative work, that can mean trouble.
Thankfully, this is what ShotGrid was designed to address.
Georg-Sebastian Dressler, CG Supervisor at Axis Studios, described how seamlessly ShotGrid was able to transition his team from on-location to remote work: “Normally, if you’re in the same studio, you would just pull up stuff from the server and go into a room and comment and review. But with COVID-19, all of a sudden we didn’t have that anymore, and we needed a way to look at the work together. I think that’s where ShotGrid really excels. You can just quickly distribute the work and everybody can see it. It’s so fast, you can almost have a discussion on it via the comments.”
3. Pay Particular Attention to Industry Security Standards
One major complication created by the pandemic is heightened security risk. VFX and animation studios are often working with valuable intellectual property, and hackers and other malicious actors have strong financial motivations to steal these assets.
That having been said, studios are discovering that, with the right precautions, remote work can be made safe and secure. Stephen Schick, Technical Art Director at Electronic Arts, shared his company’s experience: “We’ve added layers of visibility protection within our production management platform so that we can have multiple vendors working within a single project who are invisible to each other – for both ethical and legal purposes, when working with IP. By managing permissions, we’ve been able to foster trust and strengthen our relationships with vendors so that no matter their location, they feel a part of the EA team.”
Christian Deiss, Head of Pipeline at Magnopus, is confident that new standards have been reached to enable remote work to continue into the future: “The movement to shift processes and data into the cloud will be expedited now. Remote workflows that have proven security can still be guaranteed. And now studios can save money because they don’t need to have provide as many resources on site.”
4. Take Advantage of a Globalized Workforce
One emergent benefit from a decentralized office space is the possibility of recruiting global teams. Not only does this exponentially increase the size of your prospective talent pool, it gives you round-the-clock work potential, dramatically improving your productivity and ability to meet deadlines.
Here’s Stephen Schick again, describing how Electronic Arts has fully embraced the potential of a global workforce using ShotGrid: “We’ve streamlined our onboarding process for new talent. Whenever we have a new studio join EA or we bring on a new vendor, we share basic documentations and automations so we can immediately set them up on their own ShotGrid site or on our main EA-wide site. Many individuals and teams we onboard have already used ShotGrid or are familiar with it, and it’s an easier learning curve to adopt a tool that is so prevalent in the industry. Our simple onboarding process has also facilitated a seamless transition for teams and vendors who have had to go offline or work from home.”
Learn from EA: taking advantage of a global talent pool doesn’t simply mean recruiting from across the world; it also means making the onboarding process as simple and intuitive as possible.
5. Keep Streamlining Your Production Pipeline Between Client and Artists
One of the pitfalls of having a dispersed workforce is a potential rupture in the vital link between the client and the artists commissioned to realize their vision.
Christian Deiss, Head of Pipeline at Magnopus, oversaw the creation of an automated file caching mechanism. “When artists report slow file transfer performance, their support requests are prioritized.” Will Pryor of Axis Studios used ShotGrid to get regular feedback on the work, negating any concern about severe missteps: “We’re able to get instant feedback on what we’re doing. On our last project, having that close connection with the client on a regular basis really helped with the process and made things much smoother than they might have been otherwise.”
“We’re able to get instant feedback on what we’re doing. On our last project, having that close connection with the client on a regular basis really helped with the process and made things much smoother than they might have been otherwise.”
Dawn Fidrick, a Producer at Griffith Observatory, has taken things even further: “[…] it’s important to look for operational innovation in overcoming the obstacle of physically gathering. For example, at Griffith Observatory, we are very interested in pursuing VR technology in our review and playback process.”
You don’t need to take things that far, but you do need to be aware that the pandemic imposes greater stresses on your productivity pipeline, and that necessitates being proactive about managing it.
6. Don’t Forget to Build Team Spirit
It's no secret that the VFX and animation industries can be extremely stressful, with long hours and tight deadlines, but the traditional antidote to this was provided for by the comradery and team spirit that naturally evolves when a group of people are working in close proximity towards a shared goal.
“Team spirit is vital when it comes to getting the work done. You build a relationship with the team, and that’s really what makes them stand out. You feel more like family rather than coworkers, and I think that’s a very great thing for morale,” said Georg-Sebastian Dressler of Axis Studios.
The pandemic effectively ended the natural path towards team unity, since it’s very hard to feel like you are part of a team when you’re doing all your work from the comfort of your living room. Listen to this personal account from Thomas Rousvoal, a Character Artist at Rousvoal Pictures, of what reduced social contact can do: “While working remotely, my morale is sometimes affected by the lack of social contact that normally provides good energy during the day.”
ShotGrid provides a pathway to maintain that connectivity. Will Pryor, Head of Rigging and CFX at Axis Studios, said that “ShotGrid really helped us come together. It happened about four weeks before the end of a project, and we were delivering our last animations. Major hats off to our IT department, since they pretty much had the entire team up and running within a day of our having to vacate the offices.”
But a pathway alone might not do it. Virtual team lunches, dinners or hangouts are a great alternative to the usual office banter, and offer more genuine opportunities for group bonding. Whatever your approach, treat your team’s morale as something vital to your ultimate success.