Outlook: What can the industry expect in 2021?
Simon Robinson
Issue: November/December 2020

Outlook: What can the industry expect in 2021?

2020 will go down in history as the year that changed the way the world worked — whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen, but all signs point toward the latter. Industries, businesses and corporations across the globe have all been affected, not least media & entertainment. VFX and animation studios have had to swiftly adapt to remote working set-ups and production schedules have ground to a halt amidst a global pandemic that continues to affect us in unprecedented ways. 

Despite this, slowly but surely, the gears are starting to turn again, with production picking back up and prospects for cinema looking better for next year. Now more than ever, the hope for a better 2021 sustains morale for many, both in a professional and personal sense.

With all the above in mind, what’s on the horizon for next year? What trends may gather steam and arise in response to, and as a result of COVID-19, and what trends have been ticking along in spite of it?

The mass move to remote, the shift to cloud infrastructure, more CG productions and indeed a reliance on full CG. COVID-19 certainly accelerated the need for these. And with this acceleration came an influx of incumbent challenges, all happening at once and on top of each other. The coming years will see the industry start to sift through and sort these, with 2021 acting as the linchpin.

Decentralized labor: The workforce of the future?

The dawning realization of the capabilities of cloud technology was something that’s been happening for a while, but no-one could have predicted the part 2020 would play in projecting us further along this trajectory. The resultant shift to remote working and decentralized labor is something that will no doubt continue on into next year, as the sentiment prevails: working remotely works.

Yet decentralized labor is more than just remote work. It’s a complete rearrangement of resource, infrastructure and technologies away from one specific location or ‘hub’. Pre-2020, tailwind factors like tax credits and incentives, advances in cloud infrastructure and new ways of working marked by shorter production cycles and smaller teams went some way in driving the trend toward decentralized labor — but this year saw things shift gears drastically as it speeds into next.

There’s no doubt that the move to decentralized labor has certainly been a long time coming. With so much work involved in any one production, this necessarily needs to be spread out across vendors, studios and artists — wherever they may be. Whilst it’s hard to say whether decentralized labor will be the ‘silver bullet’ to end the trend of nomadic workforces (especially if tax incentives still require people in-country), the question nonetheless remains as to whether we pursue ways of making it more practical and sustainable over the coming years, given the inherent benefits it presents: lower overhead costs, well-being gains, and so on.

By charting this course, the industry faces a challenge of navigating creative reviews when not everyone is physically there. We’re seeing on-set work adapt by becoming more lean and investing in technologies like realtime, LED screens and 5G. But review at a distance remains a challenge — one that requires tools to make smarter use of cloud to bring content closer to those needing to review it.

Increased appetite for animated and episodic content

Live-action production ground to a halt this year, for obvious reasons — and visual effects suffered as a result, thanks to a dearth of footage or plates to work with. Cue animation - something that can be worked on independently of what’s going on in the world outside.

The shift to animation isn’t something that could have been forecast, yet as many studios realise the inherent advantages of this type of production — not to mention the demand for animated content from audiences — its upward usage may endure into 2021 and beyond. This will mean a mindset shift for those studios that typically do VFX work — the management and flow of tasks through a pipeline for animation at scale is typically quite different.

And then there’s episodic content — again, a firm audience favorite, made more so by streaming services that kept so many of us company during the pandemic. TV shows and series filled the huge void left by feature films, themselves paralysed by cinema closures and a lack of audience. It was certainly a bad year for the box office.

What’s more, shows typically enjoy smaller budgets per minute of production compared to films — just another reason why we may see more studios shifting toward this type of content over the coming years.

The rise in animated and episodic streaming content, accelerated by COVID, has led to the appearance of tech trends tailored towards facilitating the fast, rapid workflows needed for these sorts of productions. Studios and artists are looking at how they can automate things and reuse tools, scripts and assets across production to make the whole process more efficient.

In 2021, we can expect a more hastened approach to developing and advancing technology that enables this. Realtime iteration, virtual production, machine learning and cloud infrastructure - each will certainly have their part to play.

Advances in HDR bring a brighter tomorrow 

High Dynamic Range imaging promises an unprecedented degree of image luminosity, far exceeding what is possible with standard digital imaging or photographic techniques — and 2021 might just be its year.

No longer exclusive to the realms of the big leagues, more and more studios are integrating high volumes of data capture and HDR into their production pipelines. Meanwhile, more TVs than ever now have HDR compatibility, providing the perfect conditions for a wider adoption and experimentation of HDR imaging over the coming years.

There are some challenges, of course, namely how exactly one can work in HDR, especially remotely, given that many desktop monitors and DCCs don’t currently support it. Creating and delivering HDR content comes as uncharted territory for many. An artist can’t knowingly predict or anticipate how the end result will look — either for peers during the review process, or for the end consumer, whose TV may very well be HDR-enabled. Their only recourse to solve this is to invest in a broadcast display monitor for a better approximation of the final result, but these are traditionally very costly.

But as technology advances, displays get smarter and streaming services push for studios to deliver HDR content to futureproof the next generation of TV, next year will see the industry tackle these challenges better armed than before. Software vendors like Foundry are working hard to build tools and features that allow artists to work in HDR through a unification of standards, software and hardware. And with OpenColorIO V.2 set to be in the VFX Reference Platform for 2021, the promise of never-before-seen color on our screens might be made reality before too long.

Rapid, realtime visualization in design

When it comes to consumerism, ‘Moments of Truth’ (MOTs) are defined as those points in time when a customer forms an impression of a brand or product — whether that be positive or negative. The Second Moment of Truth, for instance, describes the ongoing relationship a customer has with a product and how this influences their future purchasing decisions, and the Ultimate Moment of Truth is marked by the customer sharing their positive experience with others.

Yet it’s the First Moment of Truth that many product designers and marketers focus their attention on. It’s the instance when a potential client first comes into contact with a product, and the impression they form thereafter. As the saying goes, first impressions count for everything here. 

Recent advances in digital product design go a long way in ascertaining the outcome of this First Moment of Truth much earlier in the design process. As more and more products shift to a digital over analog design process, the opportunity for realtime visualization skyrockets. Whole teams can visualize new designs, in context, in realtime, and put these same designs in digital storefronts and on virtual shelves before physical prototyping occurs. Test consumers can then feedback on what catches their eye the most — and designers can, in turn, find out which potential product design leads to a positive First Moment of Truth.

This burgeoning approach to product design has clear advantages. Time to market reduction; a quicker, live review process; and inherent sustainability gains are just some of the benefits that will no doubt drive wider adoption over the coming years, with design tools like Foundry’s Modo and Colorway responding in kind with features to facilitate stunning, 3D renders and rapid realtime iteration. 

Looking ahead

Here’s to a brighter 2021. Honorable mentions of trends that we’ll no doubt see more of include distributed asset management, AR-and AI- assisted video streaming to reduce bandwidth consumption, and of course Universal Scene Description. Whilst the battle for standardisation and uniformity continues for USD-based pipelines, it’s no-doubt the single biggest solution to streamlining production pipelines and reducing a scene into a file and format that can easily be shared across applications, artists and departments. No doubt it will remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of what’s on the horizon, the shock of 2020 has happened and what we’ll see next year, as the dust settles, is a codifying of how best to utilize all of the trends listed above in a way that makes sense. 2021 certainly holds a lot of much-needed promise — now, the industry needs to make this ‘new normal’, including its incumbent technology and trends, work in a way that’s sustainable.

Simon Robinson is the Co-Founder of London-based Foundry (https://www.foundry.com).