BUSINESS: VFX Legion's new studio model
Issue: October 1, 2017

BUSINESS: VFX Legion's new studio model

James Hattin (pictured below) is the co-founder of Burbank, CA-based VFX Legion (, a provider of visual effects services for the film and television industry. Hattin's career as an artist and VFX professional includes time at Luma Pictures, Zoic Studios and Industrial Light & Magic. When he launched VFX Legion in May of 2013, he rejected the traditional VFX vendor-meets-sweatshop setup, opting instead for a forward-thinking approach that prized one thing above all else: the artist. 

Today VFX Legion operates a global remote workforce, with creatives contributing from one side of the world to the other. Legion artists can be found all over the globe, working on projects such as How To Get Away With Murder and El Chapo from the comfort of their own homes. 

We recently caught up with Hattin to discuss why such disruptive approaches are required in today's post industry, and how they can result in great work, a happy workforce and business sustainability. 

Why did you choose to set up VFX Legion and what was it a reaction to?

“We built Legion to attract the artists that were senior, experienced and tired of running around the world for jobs. Nothing says ‘burnout’ like moving across the country, chasing tax credits, and trying to raise a family – all while working 16 hours a day. 

“There's a whole group of very talented mid- and senior-level artists that want to contribute to the VFX industry, but also want work/life balance, and that’s unfortunately so rare. Legion was established to tip the balance of scales in their favor. Over the years, we have built a community of incredibly talented artists, from all over the world, who can work from the comfort of their own locations while still contributing to amazing VFX projects. It’s been an incredible journey and we’re still going, bringing the experience to more and more talented people.”

Andrew Turner working in the Burbank studio.

What projects stood out for Legion in 2017?

“ABC’s Scandal comprised our biggest work in 2017. There were explosions, whole new Washington, DC, environments that we hadn’t tackled before, and this is the first time Legion was tasked with a number of Marine One shots. This was exciting as we came onto the show early in the fifth season, and we saw a great opportunity for Scandal to up its visual effects game. We got to be a part of that evolution and it's been a very successful process. We’re really proud of our crew on-set, as well as our talented artists that made it all happen.”

What benefits does Legion’s approach offer over traditional VFX workflows?

“We’re 24 hours a day, for starters. We can turn around more work of higher quality, faster than most brick-and-mortar VFX shops. With artists on a global stage, the work never stops, yet no one is working crazy hours. In a traditional facility, there's about 16 hours a day that they can push artists to do for weeks or months at a time. I’ve been there — it's draining and soul consuming. 

“At Legion, we are not limited to how widely we spread the shot load because we have a very solid system of supervision and quality control. The work comes in faster and looks better. We've turned 120-shot episodes of a show over in a few days with no diminished quality. Of course when that happens it's never ideal, but when a company has to work with air dates in mind, sometimes it comes down to needing to get it done fast and at quality. Our remote, distributed model massively helps in facilitating that. There can be some argument that VFX can be a commodity, or even that we could be treating it like that. We can assure our clients that all the effects we do are bespoke and designed by some of the best veterans in the industry. This isn’t about volume — that’s an added benefit. It’s about talent and reach.”

Has anything surprised you about Legion since you founded it in 2013?

“Running a business is a lot like being a parent. Making the baby is easy, but the first 18 years can be tough. But Legion really has become its own living, breathing thing. The super-talented support staff of production managers and coordinators we have today are amazing, and keep everything on track.  

“That certainly wasn’t a part of the process when Legion started in my backyard nearly five years ago! But when I was sitting in a shed pulling down DPX files and reviewing them, giving notes and getting 20 to 30 shots out every other day, that was when I first started to realize all of this was possible. That's when it clicked just how viable the model was. Low overhead, crazy talent, great people to work with – and very good clients. There was always a plan to have a structure and a core team. That’s what really worked. {There are] so many people in garages doing some pretty great work, but they’ve got no pipeline, no real transfer system and no way to manage hundreds of shots. That’s what we put into it from the beginning. One guy in a shed, building a whole pipeline that would support 100 artists and 20 production people. It was a vision then and it’s a joy to watch it become a reality now.” 

Where do you want to take Legion next?

“Global. We've got a sister company in Kelowna that we work with, so we can supervise and mange Canadian talent and offer the BC tax incentive for producers. However, we would really like to tap into the UK market. There are so many artists there that are trying to get out of Soho and live proper lives. We have a very solid interest in working with them and starting a small empire there to affect great change and get that talent working for Legion. 

“Broader picture, however, we’re looking to work with teams all over the world, to be full-service and fully capable in any market, natively, in the world.”

Have other studios/projects caught your attention?

“It’s great how many mid-sized studios are doing top-notch work. Today’s output, both in features and episodic, is really just amazing. Gotham won the Emmy this year, and they've got a stellar team working on the show that really deserved the award. CoSA, among others, house a number of people I call friends, and they are fantastically talented and deserving of the award. Some of the feature work this year and late last year has been some of the best to come out of Hollywood, London and BC.”

What do studios need to think about in 2018 to ensure continued success?

“The biggest issue is going to be, as it has been, the tax credits and the forced migration of work. There's such an interest in not paying a premium for solid visual effects. Bean counters want to hit a number or see a rebate for the work being done, and they don't really look at the final quality of the work. This puts directors, show runners and other creatives in a precarious position of simply not being able to do the work to the level that they would love. 

“There's so much talent out there, but VFX is not a commodity. It can't be done on an assembly line. Studios are going to have to adapt and continually produce increasingly involved work. For Legion, this means finding more talented artists around the world. For the brick-and-mortar facilities, it will mean getting more butts in seats that can learn as they go, and hopefully turn out a highly prized product. 

“And you have to care. The constant lamentation we've heard at pitch meetings from clients on smaller projects is that the company they went to originally simply didn't care, because they weren't 'big' enough. That’s insane. It's this indifference that leads them into our open arms. 

“The fact is, many VFX studios will not invest as much time or energy into the projects they deem 'unworthy' of their talents, and this can lead to the client feeling as if they're not getting what they paid for, which is particularly true when they're working with a smaller budget. You need to care to avoid this — to treat every project as if it were a triple-A blockbuster.

“Finally, as many companies grow, the little guys fall through the cracks and work starts getting cast off to B teams and C teams, but that's something we want to avoid doing at Legion at all costs. We’re all about the artist, and improving quality of life both at work and at home. Everyone is important, bigger isn't always better and there is no B or C team. It’s A team all the way!”