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The Dos & Don’ts of Remote VFX Production

COVID-19 caused massive disruption to VFX production workflows. Learn the dos and don’ts in this article to bring more efficiency to your remote process.
Virtual Production
September 24, 2022
The Dos & Don’ts of Remote VFX Production

During the beginning of COVID-19, over 10,000 visual effect artists petitioned to work remotely.

To put this into perspective, seven weeks were left in the production of Soul when Pixar Animation Studios had to switch to a remote environment! But they adapted and added technology-enabling remote workflows, proving that it was possible. Many VFX teams ended up moving to working from home, and realized that they could do so while still developing jaw-dropping effects.

Now, working remotely has become a regular environment in the VFX production industry. So, how can VFX teams, from independent contractors to major studios, continue to streamline their remote production pipelines to prepare for projects across the slate?

Let’s look at three techniques to streamline your VFX production workflows while working remotely. Then, we’ll dive into three common pitfalls we see happen in the media and entertainment production industry.

Three Dos of VFX Production

1. Create a culture of reviewing only when necessary

Depending on the project, there are countless VFX effects to review during pre-production, production itself, and post. This is true while on set or while working remotely. That’s why it’s crucial to create an environment that focuses on reinforcing the goals of VFX production in pre-production.

For example, don’t just ask directors to review things for review's sake. Only ask for critical reviews that NEED to be approved to advance visual effect production.

“What’s certain is that the [COVID-19] crisis is going to radically change how we do international productions. [Remote] Flexibility in everything — financing, shooting and post production — will become key.” - Ulrich Schwarz, Head of Production at Rise Pictures

Always remember to leave buffer room for crucial production assets or other visual effects. This leaves you plenty of time to address any feedback that's given. Even in pre-production, supervisors, directors and coordinators are extremely busy, so leaving approvals until the last minute is not recommended.

Even if you have a solid review process, any time you're circulating files to be reviewed you open yourself up to security risk. Which brings us to our next point…

2. Secure VFX production assets when coordinating with vendors or departments

While remote, VFX teams need to keep security top of mind. Whether you’re using Box, Cloudfront, or ShotGrid to send visual effects over for approval, there's a security risk. You don't want to send the actual visual effects shot to too many people that are outside of the trusted circle.

“[VFX production] wouldn’t work so much if one person was remote and everyone else is in the office, but this strangely works well.” - Aldo Ruggiero, Visual Effects Supervisor at Crafty Apes

You only need two or three necessary eyes for those final VFX approvals. Before you finalize the scope of the shot, you only need someone higher on the chain to make sure everything looks right, or that the scene plays out correctly. They should have the proper permissions and security mindset to approve what you need to continue moving things down the pipeline.

While you might want to just throw those higher-ups a transcoded QuickTime video for review, your visual effects will be more secure with a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system.

With VFX employees working remotely, concrete NDAs for all members of the household is a part of internal security for most major studios.

3. Make sure you’re using the right technology

In every VFX production process, remote or not, there is a tradeoff between fidelity, precision, and the friction of approval. There will always be a hassle factor to get the right people to review the right things at the right time, and technology is a huge aspect of that process.

“Working remotely is never ideal. You can’t beat having a VFX supervisor 10 yards away where you can walk over to discuss a shot.” - Peter Hampden, Owner of London-based LipSync Post

A creative executive in a major studio will not learn a whole new tool just to see your visual effects. It all comes down to the decisions that need to be made in the pipeline, and using the right technology to get to that decision.

You might be using a normal video collaboration tool, but you need to pick the right tool for the tradeoff between speed, high fidelity, low friction, and precision (like 5th Kind). The most important aspect of remote VFX production is that you want to make sure that everyone's looking at the exact same thing on their screens so there is no difference.

Ask yourself these questions to evaluate whether your current technology is right for your remote VFX production:

  • Who is the audience you’re reviewing with at this point?
  • What tools are they familiar with?
  • If they need a new tool, is it easy to set up?

While there are many tips out there that can give you an advantage on scaling your remote VFX production, there isn’t as much advice about what your team should avoid.

Three Don’ts of VFX Production

1. Don’t send VFX assets to everyone

Ask yourself, “Who REALLY needs to see this?” By limiting the number of people who have access to shots, your security risk decreases. If an EXR file is sent to someone, and they leave their laptop in an airport, you’re in trouble. That’s why only the vital approvers should get the highest resolution version of your visual effects.

You can avoid giving people the high-resolution files by having production review tools that have high enough fidelity for what you’re doing. The lower the fidelity, the less concern there is about leaks. Only share files with the needed resolution for what you’re trying to do.

Some shots in Wonder Woman 1984 had to be done via remote control.

More than a month before the official premiere of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a DVD-quality workprint leaked. Many pointed fingers at the special effects house in Australia that worked on the film, but they claimed innocence. The source was never found, but the film still grossed more than $150 million on its opening day.

2. Don’t stay on course if it means you’ll crash

An experienced captain of a ship will course correct when they see a storm on the horizon. Visual effect teams are no different, except that they’re working remotely and can’t physically see the approaching issue.

If you’re making a VFX production schedule, try your best to stick to it – but only if it works. Get rid of unproductive visual effects pipeline workflows.

The saying “fail fast” applies to your overall VFX pipeline. Cut losses when it’s revealed a workflow, technology platform, or something else isn't working. Don’t be afraid to try a new tool, as long as you can ensure it’s been put to the test.

3. Don’t choose tools that haven’t been battle-tested

Once a production plane takes off, you can’t make changes. Many editors are loathe to even update software until production wraps.

A VFX production needs to have tried and true backup processes to prepare for the worst. No one has the time to relearn new processes or software applications! That’s why many VFX studios are stuck using outdated technology because they were afraid to test out new tools during their workflows.

To approach this anxiety of trying a new tool when everything is on the line, especially if it's remote, you must battle test your technology. If you can’t test it out, make sure they have been tested by others.

Testing new tools and workflows is what you must do to make new VFX productions a little bit less scary. If you’re unsure about what new tool would work best for your remote production pipeline, try out a DAM platform that lets you review visual effects with high fidelity and low latency.

Streamline Your VFX Production with a DAM

Remote visual effects production is not a new process. However, COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of remote production workflows and technology in the film industry, creating the new normal we're working in today.

Whether you’re a VFX vendor or a studio, these three dos and don’ts will help you focus your production goals, avoid mishaps, and bring efficiency. Media collaboration has never been easier with new technology, especially platforms that offer high fidelity, limit security risks, and lets you set it up in seconds.

There’s a reason major studios choose 5th Kind to handle their VFX assets and more. Our platform integrates with Box and many other remote tools you may be using during remote VFX production. Schedule a demo of CORE to see for yourself how our platform can live stream with high fidelity and low latency!

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