Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing widespread workplace shutdowns, we at Boxel Studio were planning to go remote. Our Tijuana, Mexico-based animation and VFX studio, which serves a global client list that includes Disney, Nickelodeon, HBO A&E, and quite a few others, faced some difficulty with recruitment, specifically with having to relocate artists based in other parts of the world.
Photo (top): Boxel Studios' Andres Reyes
We launched an initiative called “in-home studio office” to create a better work-life balance and allow employees to work from home, or anywhere else, without compromising quality. The challenge was how to make it work with such a specialized workforce and computing environment.
Boxel maintains a secure, robust infrastructure with high-end workstations — using both Mac and PCs — running software such as Maya, Nuke, the Adobe Suite, Toon Boom animation software, Modo modeling software and many other applications. Security also was a priority, because we work with the valuable intellectual property of major film and television studios.
We tried a succession of remote access solutions and found that, while they were good at what they did, their focus was on remote access, with little thought to the user experience and no support features for IT departments to manage remote users. In some cases, such as with hardware-based solutions, latency also was a problem, especially for artists connecting from far away.
Our team eventually chose a solution from Splashtop (www.splashtop.com) that delivered the flexibility, performance and security we needed. The result has been increased employee satisfaction and productivity, while significantly easing the burden on our IT staff and lowering the costs of our global workforce.
The move toward remote access started pre-COVID, with a rising demand for visual effects and animation work, which required some supervisors and lead artists to work extra hours in the studio. Because Boxel emphasizes work/life balance, we began looking for ways they could work from home a day or two per week. Around that time, a customer asked for a team of 30 VFX artists to be dedicated only to its project. We didn’t have room for 30 more artists in our facility, which was already packed. How do you scale quickly without increasing physical capacity? The answer, of course, was remote technology, but it also had to be secure and able to handle our particular environment.
We were testing Splashtop about six or seven weeks before the pandemic hit, which was fortunate because COVID amplified the challenges we were already facing. Bandwidth was a concern, with 200 remote users requiring at least 20Mbps. Routers, switches and security devices also needed to be upgraded. Those changes were already being planned a year before COVID. Once in place, however, Splashtop’s solution was essentially plug-and-play.
The cloud-based solution provided consistently-fast connections, regardless of a user’s location around the world, with virtually no-compression. The user experience for artists and others was robust and seamless, and adding more users was as easy as a click. Boxel artists have been able to leverage Splashtop’s ‘device redirection’ feature to use their own local Wacom pen tablets, an important tool for artists — and one that requires a very low-latency connection because it captures pressure data rather than keyboard or mouse clicks. We are also testing new integration enhancements via Splashtop that will take Wacom remote performance to a whole new level.
And security is strong, with multi-factor authentication (MFA) and administrator controls on the back end. Artists can securely share files via drag & drop processes, USB keys and other methods. The solution’s remote IT support capabilities also provide centralized, digital controls that have eliminated — literally — 80 percent of the IT department’s manual workload.
Going remote allowed Boxel to actually grow during the pandemic, and we now have more than 350 artists. In addition to Mexico, we have expanded operations to Vancouver, the United States and Latin America. Artists have also been able to expand their toolsets, using Linux systems for some work, in addition to Macs and PCs, and other tools for Windows, MacOS or Linux based computers.
Remote work, whether spurred by work/life balance, pandemic shutdowns or other reasons, is a challenge for studios. But with the right solution, an organization can thrive while improving the user experience, increasing productivity and maintaining security. And in addition to our IT department’s lighter manual workload, Boxel has seen significant ROI in other areas, particularly in the workforce costs of allowing our far-flung artists to work where they are. We’ve been able to increase salaries with the money saved on relocation expenses.
Our artists work in locations around the world, with high-end workstations and specialized tools and software, and our studio requires tight security, but the transition to remote access was fairly seamless.
Andres Reyes is the Chief Technology Officer of Boxel Studios (https://boxelstudio.com).