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Tips on Running a Remote Animation Studio

Agora.Studio co-founders David Hubert and Jacob Gardner discuss work-for-hire dynamics and strategies for building viable remotely connected teams.

With social distancing still widely enforced throughout the world, working remotely has gained a foothold as a viable, and necessary alternative to heading into an office every day. Safe, remotely connected teams have enabled many creative companies to continue production on projects without a centralized studio. 

Modern digital communication methods adopted for remote working may offer studios benefits that will endure far after the lockdown’s end. This is certainly true of Agora.Studio, an example of a VFX and animation hub that was well-ahead of the work-for-hire curve; the studio is built entirely using a remote workforce. Co-founder David Hubert describes Agora’s web of creative talent as a global “ecosystem.” The studio has expanded to the point that it’s able to manage 100s of employees remotely at any given time. AWN spoke with both Hubert and fellow co-founder Jacob Gardner about how they managed to build Agora’s success with remote freelancers. 

AWN: How did the idea behind Agora.Studio emerge?

David Hubert: We started Agora four years ago, when I was working at a studio and a lot of other studios were asking me for my availability. Gradually, I asked if they would be open to working with freelancers. I reached out to a few contacts over the weekend – Jacob was one of them…we’d met at DreamWorks a few years prior – and by Monday, we were ready to go. We had no workflow, no pipeline, just an understanding of the tasks we had to do and the money available for the project. One thing led to another, and now, we have a group of a little over 650 freelancers in our pool of resources. We work on 10 or 12 projects simultaneously, and at the moment, we’re hiring between 40 and 50 freelancers at all times, so we are ready to scale up as projects come in.

AWN: How difficult is it to work out contracts and NDAs when managing multiple freelancers in multiple locations? 

DH: For contractual work, all our freelancers have already signed an NDA and contractor master agreement with us, so they don’t have to sign a new one for every new project they work on. We discuss the salary with each freelancer ahead of time to improve efficiency when casting on a new project. We also have a hub where the artists can log in and input their hours for the given day, which are then compiled for invoices. We try to automate and standardize these administrative elements so it’s simpler for all the freelancers.

AWN: How do you maintain clear communication across remote teams?

DH: When we started, we had two or three freelancers, so we could effectively use email for communication. Now we can have a dozen projects with 40 people at one time, so we need to hire supervisors and email is not really a viable option anymore. If we didn’t handle our comms with the right tools, it would take up half of our time.

Jacob Gardner: We use Slack as a primary communication tool, but our use has evolved so we don’t lose important information in a sea of comments. To do this, we create a new workspace for each client we work with and create dedicated private channels for each production. For projects that involve different departments, we create sub-channels for each production step: character work, rigging, and animation. The goal is to standardize the structure within Slack and avoid confusion when freelancers jump from one production to the other while also allowing the freelancers to communicate efficiently.

We’re continually thinking about how to work most efficiently with people across the world. Some people are working while I’m asleep, and vice versa. We’ve also tried to bridge the feeling of loneliness from working at home by having Slack communities and virtual rooms in Jitsi that people can access whenever. We have learned that having informal methods of communication can help freelancers feel less lonely working in their own house. 

AWN: How is work reviewed?  

JG: Having sourced such a large network of freelancers, we soon identified that we needed a solution for reviewing media that wasn’t just me recording a video and sharing. We found that solution in the collaborative review tool, SyncSketch; it’s the ideal tool for notes and annotations. Being able to roll back and forth across the frames we’ve worked on is essential to our work, and it works so well.

When we have lots of projects on the go, we can switch between them with ease in SyncSketch. This really simplifies everything, and a lot of the tools are convenient for doing things remotely. 

AWN: What tools have you built or modified to increase efficiency?

JG: We found we were doing the same things over and over again for each project, so we wanted to simplify these processes and mitigate tasks such as manual clicking. We built some custom tools that have helped us a lot. Any time we’re building a tool or finding a solution, we’re thinking about how to make this universal enough to work on other projects or clients in the future. We want to be able to build something that accepts many different requirements; we’re always aiming to think much broader. If our tools can be easily adapted to each client’s requirements, then we save time and expand our capabilities. One example is our own data transfer solution called NextCloud. It’s like FTP but much more versatile.

AWN: What other tips can you share about the dynamics of a remote work-for-hire lifestyle?

DH: We know everyone goes through the same struggles when they start working from home. And suddenly, artists around the world have found themselves in this new situation. We’ve had artists asking lots of questions, from what computer to buy to how do I deal with my kids? Having a routine is a common tip: get dressed like you’re going to work and take a regular lunch break. You need a work structure to make sure you have separation. You need a good computer, internet connection, headset, and webcam. Physical exercise is also especially important. It’s easy to just move between the couch and the computer if you’re not careful.

We started to produce video clips with the freelancers we work with, sharing tips and tricks for artists who have just started working from home. You can find them all here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/6972970. We had a lot of freelancers that were eager to share their thoughts. We are aiming to produce between 50 to 100 videos of tips ranging from 15 seconds to 2 minutes. We’ve started sharing these already and are getting a great response. Some of them are funny and entertaining, while others are more factual and great for new remote workers. We hope by sharing our experiences that we can help other artists and studios out there adapt and thrive working remotely.