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Keys to Improving VFX Business

Janet Hetherington checks in with vfx companies to ask about key trends and challenges, and how firms plan to improve their business this year.

Vfx pros have to stay on top of new developments in technology and business to improve their companies performance.

The VFX business is a skillful blend of art and commerce, and companies have to stay on top of new developments in technology and business practice. From balancing budgets to content development, new technology to customer service, here are observations from professionals on the trends and challenges they plan to tackle to improve business.

Investment in America and Technology

Carsten Sørensen, ceo of The Orphanage, says the development or trend most important to The Orphanage is fighting against foreign subsidies of the vfx business (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K.) that continue to threaten companies in the U.S. To improve business, the company plans to increase efficiencies through investment in various technologies.

Carsten Sørensen of The Orphanage sees foreign subsidies of the vfx business as a threat to U.S. vfx businesses.

Desktop Revolution, More Talent

Michael Caplan, exec producer, Engine Room VFX, says that the most important development or trend for his company is the ability to compete and execute high-end-visual effects. In the current market, with the acceptance of desktop technology (such as After Effects) as standard and with an ever-growing community resulting in cross-intellectual exchange and a larger overall knowledge base, boutique companies like Engine Room can now compete for and execute high-end visual effects.

The desktop revolution of the last few years has leveled the playing field in terms of technology so that the most important asset a company has is its talent, Caplan adds. By staffing a core team of great artists and supplementing with freelance hires as necessary, our talent and flexibility afford us unlimited opportunities and this is already yielding some truly rewarding opportunities.

On a basic level, by implementing custom production management software and toolsets in an effort to streamline project, data and creative content management to keep our pipeline as efficient as possible.

In much bigger terms we are soon going to undergo some significant changes that will take the company to the next level, he adds. We are going to add some fantastic talent and expand our capabilities. And though we cant talk specifics yet, we anticipate a very exciting second half of the year.

For Engine Room VFX, the acceptance of desktop technology is the most important development. The firm recently completed work on the trailer for The Da Vinci Code. Courtesy of Engine Room VFX.

Content Creation and Delivery

Francois Wolf, director of marketing, BOXX Technologies, sees the 64-bit ecosystem, HD, devices for viewing content, the publics appetite for vfx and the creation of content as all key developments and trends important to BOXX.

The 64-bit ecosystem has finally matured, says Wolf. The 64-bit OS (Linux, Windows Server 2003) and major 64-bit applications in the vfx space are arriving in 2006. Most devices have 64-bit versions, and both AMD and Intel have high-performance 64-bit processors. For BOXX, this development drives demand for high-performance workstations with high-memory capacity designed to allow smooth work with very large models.

The 64-bit workstation and continued development of multi-processor architectures are the way of the future. All processor roadmaps show more cores per processor. BOXX is at the forefront of this movement to drive more multithreading in major applications designed for vfx work, which means vfx professionals can expect more performance out of vfx workstations for greater creative freedom and higher quality of output.

In addition, HD is real in 2006, Wolf stresses. Many U.S. households can receive high-quality HD programming even over the air. HD televisions are everywhere, with all major screens manufacturers already offering a broad range of HD TVs. For BOXX, this development drives demand for high-performance workstations like APEXX 8, which is designed to handle HD resolution material with ease.

Wolf notes that devices for viewing content are proliferating, Music players, cell phones, PDAs can all view multimedia content. For BOXX, this development drives demand for content creation workstations (3DBOXX) and encoding solutions (RenderBOXX).

Plus, as the public's appetite for visual effects keeps growing, vfx work has become part of all types of content today. Expectations of quality of fx keeps growing and the field of vfx is rapidly growing to meet demand, Wolf comments.

Wolf says that content creation is becoming more democratized, and a small team of professionals can produce content that can rival the productions of much larger companies. These small teams are proliferating and are at the forefront of innovations in vfx, Wolf says.

Francois Wolf of BOXX Technologies sees its new APEXX 8 as key to the companys growth. It is a top-of-the-line personal workstation engineered to maximize the productivity of the vfx pro.

BOXX is improving business by focusing on offering high performance workstations and rendernodes specifically targeted at the vfx professional. BOXX Technologies new APEXX 8 is a top-of-the-line personal workstation specifically engineered to maximize productivity of todays vfx professional, Wolf offers. It is the only personal workstation with an unprecedented eight Dual-Core AMD Opteron processors and is specifically engineered by BOXX to optimize the performance of todays professional animation, modeling and effects software.

Keeping Pace, Increased Customer Contact

Nick Tesi, vp of operations for Eyetronics, a 3D scanning company, says that the most important trend or development for his firm is the constant change of business. This is a trend that is very important to us because not everyone will strive to keep up with it, or find ways to make your service better to stand out as the demands from the market grow, Tesi says. We are constantly looking for ways to make our service, more extensive to keep the look of seamless visual effects. Eyetronics is developing better-looking models faster for our customers to put in their pipelines.

In order to improve business, Tesi suggests that Eyetronics is offering more extensive services to make its models animation-ready with photo realistic texture maps. We have put on more people to deliver faster, he adds. Our reaction time to probes for quotes and answer questions is fast and efficient. We are trying to be customer- and more service-oriented. We have participating in more shows, send more mailers to get the name our there, advertising in select magazines and calling our past customers.

At Eyetronics, Nick Tesi aims to offer more extensive services to make its models animation-ready with photorealistic texture maps. © Eyetronics.

Multi-Format Delivery and More Service

Eric Hanson, co-founder/ceo, Spy Post Digital Corp., says that the business development or trend that is most important to Spy Post is the transition to high-resolution mediums such as HD for broadcast. This is probably one of the most important changes in our industry right now, Hanson says. Our business is about creative services and what our talent offers our clients does not change at any resolution or in any media format. However, the infrastructure and tools that support the artists in their creative process will make the difference for the seamless delivery of projects.

By participating at an early stage of the creative process and allowing our artists to work closely with directors, whether the project is a commercial or a feature, Spy Post is able to develop new techniques that support the vision of a given project, Hanson says. We combine some of the best creative talent with some of the best technology know-how and an infrastructure that permits the company to flex with the direction of just about any project while enabling the artist to focus on what they do best.

I believe that companies like ours that are quick and agile in their ability to deal with the changing world of delivery formats while not allowing it to distract from the core focus of providing creative services, will be the ones that are successful in todays media industry, Hanson continues.

To improve its business, Spy Post wants to be more involved. We want our clients to look to us for direction creatively and technically for the execution of their vision, Hanson adds. At Spy Post, we have focused on investing in talent and the tools to support that talent. We have one of the best creative staffs on the West Coast. We are the only postproduction facility to my knowledge that combines the talent of a creative staff including compositing, design, visual effects, editing and color grading in Northern California.

Eric Hanson of Spy Post Digital Corp. sees the transition to high-resolution mediums such as HD for broadcast as one of the most important changes in the industry right now.

We will continue to push technology to its limit in order to provide new and unique workflows in our production pipeline that will allow us to do things that few are doing creatively, Hanson says. For example, we have been developing a cost effective workflow to provide a true tapeless, digital intermediate pipeline with color grading for just about any format. We have been successfully providing this service with source including film, tape, and digital media such as QuickTimes, pushing them through our pipeline with visual effects, editorial, and color grading with a DaVinci 2Kplus, and outputting to digital file and/or SD/HD tape. I know of few, if any, places north of Los Angeles, on the West Coast, that can provide this type of service. This has proven to be a big differentiator for us in the film community in San Francisco, and I suspect it will become more and more important to other segments of the industry as they are faced with the challenges of multi-format delivery and universal mastering.

Our plan is to continue to expand in the areas that make sense for our market. We will continue to evaluate offering services such as 3D, visual effects editorial, and design, as well as the infrastructure to seamlessly integrate these offerings into our pipeline.

Creativity, Technology and Expansion

Jon Damush, vp and general manager of Vicon Motion Systems entertainment division, says that the development or trend is most important to his company is allowing creative professionals to work in a way that is intuitive and familiar to those creators. He cites the following trends:

  • A) Realtime animation: Realtime motion capture is allowing directors to direct performers and extract emotion and energy from the talent rather than waiting for the turnaround on previs animations. Seeing the motion applied in real time to digital characters enables the director and talent to tune the performances and make the characters come to life.

B) Facial and hand capture: Advances in motion capture technology have made capturing face and hands a possibility, which is adding to realism in animation.

C) Layout and Previs: Directors now are asking to use motion capture to preview a live-action scene prior to shooting it. Directors now even want to track a handheld camera to ensure that the videography matches the vision in their heads.

For Vicons Jon Damush, realtime animation, facial and hand capture, and layout and previs are the trends he sees. The Vicon MX is part of the companys line of MoCap products.

Damush says Vicon is improving business by increasing capacity; the company is adding stage space. Weve been improving our facilities to mirror those of the finest production houses. Weve also been putting our creative staff in roles where they can fully leverage their creative experience.

Vicon is additionally designing and providing services that help our clients develop their pipelines to reach beyond just the motion capture portion of the project, Damush adds. And we are creating and using custom workflows for our clients to match the way they want to work.

Online Communities and Customer Service

Brad Peebler, president, Luxology, says that social networking and the dis-integration of the production pipeline are Luxologys most important developments and trends.

Social networking is getting a lot of lip service lately due to sites such as My Space and the various players of MMOs who are meeting for social purposes as well, Peebler contends. At Luxology, we see significant value in the burgeoning online communities. From the inception of our company we have focused on building an active online community years before we had a product we had an online community of artists. The benefit of this 3D community to our technology is multi-fold. Having a rich community has allows us to have unfiltered communications with customers so that we can make product decisions that are more indicative of what our users want to see.

Luxologys Brad Peebler notes a trend toward the dis-integration of the production pipeline. Studios use micro-apps, an application designed for a specific purpose like his companys modo.

Further, the community helps us to provide a higher level of support to the community as we can share ideas and solutions with end-users and often they give us even better solutions than we suggest, Peebler continues. No one knows our software better than our customers, not even us. Thirdly, this community functions as a method for new users and enthusiasts to mix it up with the professional users and on many occasions this mash-up has resulted in new careers for our end users.

Another interesting trend is the dis-integration of the production pipeline, Peebler suggests No more are studios reliant on a single application. Most studios will use whatever tool is best to finish a job. This is somewhat facilitated by lower prices of so-called high-end applications. Perhaps a more significant, yet subtle effect is coming from what I refer to as micro-apps. These are applications designed for a specific purpose modo, ZBrush and endorphin all come to mind. If an application can easily drop into a pipeline to relieve certain pain points without causing more than it resolves, it is a simple economic decision for the studio.

The application dis-integration phenomena couples with the online community aspect in an interesting way, Peebler adds. More and more we see artists located all over the globe servicing major studios as contract artists. We have several modo artists who work remotely and simply pipe their final data set to the client in Hollywood or Vancouver in the pipelines format of choice. Take the film Serenity, for example. The fx facility Zoic based in Hollywood contracts out some of the most detailed models to an artist residing in Florida (Jose Perez). Jose uses modo to build out several of the requested models and simply saves it from modo in Zoics format of choice. Zoic gets beautiful models from Jose in a format that drops right in and Jose gets to live wherever he wants. Its a win-win situation facilitated by pipeline friendly modo and the ever increasing effects of increased bandwidth.

Peebler says that his firm will continue to service customers and the online community to improve business. With the upcoming release of modo 201, weve continued to follow our two key objectives, he offers. These may sound simple but sometimes it is the simple things that have the most impact. First we strive to deliver our customers with software that is truly designed to facilitate more productive users and higher quality work. Secondly, we strive to provide the most dynamic and informative online community possible. The modo online community is perhaps our single most important asset. By providing our customers with the highest quality, most productive software possible and a rich online support network we can help to build more power users which in turn makes us a healthier company.

The pipeline-friendly modo and increased bandwidth allowed for the global servicing of Serenity. An artist out of Florida worked for a Hollywood vfx facility. Courtesy of Zoic Studios; Studio: Universal.

More Games, Shorter Work Days

Loni Peristere, creative director of Zoic Studios, says the merger of visual effects production practices with game development is most important to Zoic. This intersection will inform the way most media will be created in the foreseeable future, Peristere suggests. We are currently quite happy to be working in advertising, motion pictures, television and games. By having an intimate part to play with the best of this work we are able to help define the trend towards cross-pollination through our creative and business relationships. In fact, we are pushing our creative partners towards cross-platform ideas with the hope of maximizing their viewing potential.

We are improving our business by focusing on creating a better and more productive working environment for our staff. We are committed to shorter days with higher productivity. This will be achieved through continued focus on optimizing our technical and production pipeline. Zoic needs to be a company built by artists for artists supported by smart management. This environment will allow us to continue to do the best work, for the best price, without the cost of lifestyle.

Torsten Reil of NaturalMotion also sees games as an important business development. His company created the software endorphin, which uses artificial intelligence programming. © NaturalMotion Ltd. 2005.

Consolidation and Structured Growth

Torsten Reil, ceo, NaturalMotion, also sees games as an important business development or trend. The most important trend for us is the consolidation amongst games developers and publishers, Reil says. Rather than dealing with a fragmented client base, software vendors can now introduce their products to multiple teams, allowing the publisher to reap the benefits of synergy.

To improve business, Reil adds, We are growing very quickly at the moment, and have started putting processes in place that allow structured growth. These range from internal training programs to recruitment incentives. The trick is to keep the informal atmosphere whilst getting ready for larger number of staff.

Focus on Clients and the Bottom Line

PipelineFX ceo Troy Brooks says accountability is most important to his company as in budgeting. Across all types of digital media (e.g., gaming, visual effects, animation), there is an increased focus on efficiency and controlling costs, Brooks says. While the quality bar gets moved higher every year next-gen gaming platforms, feature film quality effects shots for television shows, and the ever-increasing expectations of audiences budgets are decreasing. Companies are looking for ways to control costs, by outsourcing or subcontracting and by examining and refining their production pipeline, their processes, and their workflow. That's our business our render farm management software Qube! helps studios utilize their infrastructure more efficiently, helps artists do their work more easily and helps production track the costs.

Brooks says that the company is working to improve business by focusing on the clients. Were listening more to our customers; theyre using our software in ways we hadn't thought of, and we're extending it to support them. That's getting us new markets and more customers. Support is a big part of what we do, and while providing that support is costly for us, we see it as an investment in our customers success.

Side Effects Softwares Kim Davidson points to three areas needed to improve his business: partnerships with customers, fostering and encouraging Houdini talent and to never stop innovating.

Kim Davidson, president and ceo, Side Effects Software, says that the recent explosion of all-3D-animated features is the development or trend most important to his firm.

At Side Effects Software, we are very excited by the recent explosion of all-CG feature animated films, especially those being created by smaller studios that are just breaking into the feature film market, Davidson says. There are 12 CG animated features set for major release in 2006 and many more on the way. Recently, C.O.R.E. Feature Animation completed work on Disneys The Wild using a production pipeline built around Houdini and we feel that other studios will be interested in the results. C.O.R.E.s experience with Houdini shows how a studio can ramp up a Houdini pipeline quickly and create world-class results.

Houdini offers an open and flexible base that is ideal for creating the kinds of custom tools needed in a CG feature film pipeline, Davidson explains. Traditionally, CG features were developed using proprietary systems but Houdini gives the same flexibility without requiring an army of programmers. Technical directors can build many of the production specific tools using Houdinis procedural networks and digital asset technology.

Of course, we also appreciate the current trend towards CG features because we love the movie-making process, Davidson adds. We enjoy rolling up our sleeves and helping our customers ramp-up a project. By working with our customers early in the process, we can lend our knowledge and expertise wherever it is needed. We have helped customers with such diverse activities as pipeline analysis, technical assistance and training. With The Wild, people are now starting to understand that Side Effects and Houdini can do much more than effects shots. This is why the CG feature explosion is a perfect trend for us.

Davidson says that there are three main focus areas for Side Effects Software to improve business. The first one is our partnerships with customers. Our production consultants and other staff spend a lot of time at our customers listening, consulting and sharing production ideas. Another focus is on fostering and encouraging Houdini talent. This is done in many ways, including on-line tutorials, information evenings, training boot camps and working closely with our many education partners. Lastly, we never stop innovating. Right now we are excitedly advancing Houdini 9, and while it is too soon to go into any details, I will say that there will be amazing innovations for both artists and technical directors, no matter where they work in the production pipeline.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist living in Ottawa, Canada. She shares a studio with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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