How digital collaboration works at VFX shops

2024-06-06 17:41:00 +07:00 by Mark Smith

I spent many years working in the feature film visual effects (VFX) industry. There's a huge variety of companies that supply services to film projects both big and small, and that specialise in different parts of the post production process. I've worked for both small and big companies, but also for companies specialising in different parts of the development process. The VFX industry was one of the first to go fully digital, and at scale. Just stay in your seat at the cinema and watch a vfx heavy film's end credits to get an idea of that scale. It's mindboggling. Simply put, they have a lot of experience in digital workflows and collaboration. I thought this might be an interesting topic to cover for others involved in digital transformation across the wider economy.

The smaller companies tend not to have lots of infrastructure and custom workflow above and beyond some large networked storage and high end work stations for artists to work on the high resolution images. Larger companies tend to have much more mature workflow systems that enable them to work on many simultaneous projects, to rapidly hire large numbers of artists, to on-board them quickly, and have them collaborate together on the same visual effects shots.

The typical situation is that there are many artists using different UIs / editing software, all operating on the same data. The data tends to amount to huge volumes. Earlier in the post production process, artists are working on individual shots, churning out many diffetent versions, that get reviewed daily. Later in the film process when the shots have been assembled into the full feature, artists work on reels, of which films tend to have 4-6 reels. Their job is to integrate, color grade and edit the shots into a cohesive hole, to give the film a specific look and style. Reels used to get printed back onto actual reels of films, although increasingly cinemas are fully digital these days, so another final part of the process is to create d-cinema specific digital formats.

Often larger VFX shops will have various collaboration tooling such as review and approve, version control of assets, and lots of custom scripting for working with large amounts of digital sequences of image files. Like for example quickly listing, renaming, creating different resolution test versions. Many of the artist software have both comercial plugins as well as in-house made plugins for modifying and adding effects.

In the places that have extensive collaboration infrastructure, though there are the occasional Windows and Mac workstations, open source Linux OSs tend to be the most popular, because it's easier to build custom workflow tools using scripting languages like Python and Perl, and lots of shell scripting, connecting up to central shot tracking databases. The automation makes it easy for artists to switch between shots, submit sequences to the render farm, and have various resolution outputed to different locations, some ready for review in small theatres with high-end projectors or screens, some for review on web browsers. The tools are seemlessly integrated into the OSs using environment variables, which can be managed with shell environment management tools. Tools are both UI and CLI based.

There are also lots of system tools that automatically backup ongoing work, run machine healthchecks, automate repeatable environment setup, and integrate with production and finance databases.

Though some artists do also write code, especially the 3D artists, most of the bigger VFX shops have tools teams. These are groups of software developers that specialise in different aspects of the development process. They write custom system and workflow tools, as well as effects plugins for the various software tools used by the artists. There are also the occasional web developer for the database collab tools, but most of the GUI tools are written using native OS UI toolkits like QT.

A lot of thought goes into integrating all these pieces of software, so huge teams can be brought together very quickly to work on massive amounts of data, all co-ordinated by producers. I had the chance to see into much of this process when I was tasked with putting together a training program for new artists. It was an enlightening process, and we were subsequently able to scale the teams in a much more flexible way.

At a high level, that's pretty much how they do it in VFX.

Since working in feature film VFX, I've also worked in broadcast TV and software development. I think there are likely a lot of common patterns that can be re-used in many other industries. Digital transformation is the hot buzzword for the process of the digitization of everything. It's a real thing, where companies are mapping out their processes, how they've always done things, and then try to create new and better ways of doing it using digital tools, and it takes a long time, often decades.

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