Outlook 2020: The next generation of VFX collaboration
Sarah Hodges
Issue: November/December 2019

Outlook 2020: The next generation of VFX collaboration

There’s no denying both the volume and production standards of film, TV and streaming have reached an all-time high. In 2018, 10 out of the 10 highest grossing films in the US were either visual effects (VFX) movies or computer-animated films. And from 2011 to 2018, the episodic TV industry experienced an 85 percent increase — many of those series relying heavily on VFX.

No matter the medium, today’s content is expected to transport audiences to alternate worlds dominated by immersive 3D audio and visuals, predictive and intuitive artificial intelligence, and fantastical virtual and augmented reality. What’s more, the streaming revolution has increased the appetite for high volumes of this consumable media and is simultaneously challenging the Hollywood status quo. After all, after every TV binge comes a terrible case of ennui — for which the only cure is to self-submerge into another multi-season nail-biter. Now fans of visual effects and animation can see the latest two-and-a-half hour epic film and achieve a subsequent fix from its accompanying choose-your-own adventure video game — simultaneously merging the worlds of film and games into one and expanding the audience exponentially.  

Under constant pressure to improve quality and increase cadence, today’s studios are challenged by even tighter budgets and shorter timelines. As a result, the complexity of modern production multiplies with every new project. For example, to attract and retain the best industry talent and win better projects, studios must recruit from every time zone. And to increase already razor-thin margins and churn out more content, producers must also be ready to follow tax incentives to any location. Unless some basic operational issues are addressed head-on, the current boom in the production industry may be destined for a creative crash. 

Adapt Or Die

Studios that survive and thrive in this environment will adapt to this new normal by using technology to make the substantive, systemic changes necessary to handle the complexity of how their teams collaborate on all levels. These improvements can be easily addressed by taking a closer look at how quality and cadence are hindered by inefficient workflows, wasted resources, poor communication and inability to scale that plague many studios today. If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, you may want to make some adjustments. 

- Are artists’ efforts — locally or globally — being duplicated by versioning issues? 
- Are there time-wasting bottlenecks in review that prohibit speedier iterations? 
- Are artists involved in operational busywork instead of innovating? 

Fortunately, technology used with a well-structured pipeline is the key to breaking down the collaborative barriers that impede production.

A Sustainable Solution

If technology has made our world smaller, then the cloud has put it on the head of a pin. In fact, the cloud has the power to bring entire studios together on the same page creatively regardless of where they sit on the org chart. It also can keep communication flowing in realtime across continents and time zones. 

By harnessing the complexity of an entire modern production — from pre- to post and even distribution — into a cloud-based platform, pipelines can be created with open standards and every project can operate from its own customized wheelhouse. When a creative team works from a single source of truth — with one set of assets and permissions-based version control — supervisors can conduct reviews from anywhere and make in-context annotations, directly on artwork. Without troublesome operational issues, traditional roadblocks to innovation disappear into thin air. Inevitably, the quality of the work improves and its cadence and scope can expand without breaking the bank or missing deadlines. 

The future of VFX and animation calls for an industry standard — a production tracking and management platform that links cross-team collaboration to keep everyone along the production chain in the loop. The most successful productions of today (and tomorrow) use a platform that helps manage multiple users, projects, locations and assets. Managing productions in the cloud allows for agility and scalability to handle from two to thousands of users, and facilitate millions of tasks each day. What’s more, a production management industry standard can act as conduit between the top creative software applications to customize each pipeline without needing to reinvent the wheel each time. 

To be fully effective, VFX and animation teams need to review and collaborate on shots with clear direction using tools that work on both mobile devices and at sophisticated screening rooms. Producers, supervisors and artists need the freedom to work both on-prem or in the cloud, and their solutions must uphold to the most stringent third-party Hollywood studio-vetted security standards. And a successful production management platform must embrace a community of pipeline engineers who share best practices in an ongoing feedback loop allowing artists to focus on making the best creative without worrying about production management and task tracking.

As we head into 2020, it is crucial for studio heads, producers and supervisors to work toward an industry-standard that’s inherently built to improve quality, increase cadence, and address the complexity of modern studios. A solution that provides out-of-the-box flexibility and scalability will ensure the innovation of VFX we know today continue into tomorrow. 

Sarah Hodges is the head of business strategy at Shotgun Software at Autodesk. Shotgun is a production management platform used by more than 2,200 facilities and studios worldwide. During her time at Autodesk, Hodges has lead teams across the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) and production planning industries. She has spent countless hours with customers across the globe to understand their challenges and requirements.