With VFX boutiques closing left and right, why would a new startup believe it has the recipe for success? Well, Emeryville-based Atomic Fiction, comprised of refugees from Robert Zemeckis' defunct ImageMovers Digital (Mars Needs Moms), believes it has just the right combination of digital talent and modern savvy to pull it off. We spoke with Kevin Baillie (co-founder, president, vfx supervisor), Ryan Tudhope (co-founder, creative director and vfx supervisor) and Anton Dawson (creature supervisor) about their roadmap, which includes embracing such new technologies as peer-to-peer data synchronization, Amazon EC2 cloud rendering and a completely web-based production tracking environment.
Bill Desowitz: So tell me about Atomic Fiction?
Ryan Tudhope: The company's been around since 2010 but we have really been reinventing ourselves in 2011 trying to figure out how we do our work and best apply our experience.
BD: What's your roadmap for being leaner and meaner?
Kevin Baillie: That's actually a great question because there's quite a bit of stuff that we're looking to do both in the immediate term and two years down the line. Really, right off the bat, what we've been trying to do is take all this big and medium size company experience that we all have and putting it to use in a way that is more affordable to clients. We are low overhead and are able to communicate more efficiently and share ideas back and forth. We've got a lot of ideas about how to keep that vibe as we go but right now it's inherent in the structure of the company. Things like digital environmental work and face replacement -- one of Anton's specialties is making insanely awesome digital faces -- we're able to do things that only a handful of other companies can do but at a price that's far, far lower. And the same goes with digital environments: Ryan and I have a lot of experience with that and can do them as well as anyone else -- we think. And so that is one of the main advantages we offer today. Down the line within the next one to two years, we're working on two major things that are going to keep overhead low and continue to grow.
RT: One thing we believe in is that the traditional model of the 120,000 square- foot facility with all of its overhead and huge render farm and everything that goes along with supporting that infrastructure is an antiquated business model in our industry, and is really putting a lot of money in places that don't end up on the screen. And so everything we are trying to do is to model the business in a way that looks at every possible way to be modern about the infrastructure and smarter about where we're spending our money.
KB: Two really key ways of doing that are distributed technology and distributed departments. One distributed technology is doing more work in the cloud as its capabilities become more accessible and cheaper and more powerful.
RT: And from a standpoint of a company like Atomic Fiction, it's really a no brainer to go in that direction, we believe, because it was only a couple of years ago that a company needed to make a huge capital investment just to be able to have the firepower to behind this level of work that we're able to do. And by treating the render farm as more of a utility, it really gives us the opportunity to scale up an ILM-size render farm one minute and then scale down to basically nothing the next. It's a pretty huge advantage to us and our clients.
BD: And where are you in this process?
KB: We are talking to several other companies as far as that goes and we'll be able to say more in the very near future.
RT: But the main thing is that there are ways to distribute the infrastructure and the technology and then down the road the same thing goes for the teams that are actually working on the projects.
BD: And how would that work?
Anton Dawson: There are a couple of companies out there that are actually working on developing platforms to do this by. They take into account data transfers and security and have bundled that into a product that will be accessible, much like Shotgun. They have done a phenomenal job of making a web-based method of having distributed access to production tracking information. So the idea would be, whether it's one guy sitting in a room or a small pod of five artists working in a remote location, to make sure that they have access to the data they need, and that the actual infrastructure is able to scale with the bigger projects we get. And also to make sure that security is a part of that, which is a major concern of the studios. A lot of these systems are using bank level encryption: they have very tight access control so if somebody is behaving badly or they quit or are worried about a drive getting stolen, you can shut it off instantly.
RT: Also, when you talk of distributing work like this, where the industry is heading is actually more secure in some ways when you realize that at a large facility an artist literally has access to the entire film, sometimes five or six films, depending on how large the facility is. Having finite control is really essential.
BD: And what about satellite facilities, either in the U.S. or Canada?
RT: Yes, that's part of the distributed model, which supports, as needed, projects of various sizes. We're basically able to open up small pods -- as we're calling them -- in various locations, whether they're tax incentivized or aiming at a particular market or talent base, and really being very nimble about our actual square footage: breaking it up, as it were, into small areas that can move with markets, move with tax incentives and move with talent as it is needed.
BD: What's it like for you now in Emeryville?
KB: The facility we're at in Emeryville right now is just under 3,000 square feet and can support about 25 people. But Emeryville actually has an amazing technology infrastructure. One of the reasons why we picked it as our home base is that there's fiber corking through the streets here. It took us less than two weeks to get fiber to the office and get it hooked up with the co-locations around the world we're using right now as our data center. And we're pushing 200 megabyte bandwidth right now, which is something that we've never had at any other small studio. Just by leveraging the technology infrastructure that's in Emeryville right now, we're way ahead of the game.
BD: You did some transparent work for Just Go For It and you have some music videos in the works. What else?
KB: We have a feature with around 200 shots that we're going to be working on in February…
RT: Lots of digital characters and environment stuff that we're in the bidding and planning stages on, really trying to leverage a lot of the experience that our core team has over the years, and, again, to bring that to bear on the market with a price that hasn't been seen before at a company of our size.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.