VFX studio discusses its pre-pandemic move to a cloud-based pipeline, including establishment of best practices and standards, and how they will continue to invest in and expand their virtual, remote production efforts company-wide.
A go-to studio for high-end commercial finishing since the 90s, Nice Shoes holds a reputation for stellar work and a unique company culture. Given its track record in the commercial industry, the studio expanded into film and episodic VFX two years ago with the launch of Break+Enter, which has since seen steady growth after acting as the exclusive VFX partner for Oscar-nominated director Benh Zeitlin’s critically acclaimed Sundance feature, Wendy. Earlier this year, under the leadership of executive producer Joyce Boll, Break+Enter strategically began developing a cloud-based pipeline for remote working, just before the pandemic struck. In the last nine months, the studio has extended its pipeline development, establishing new best practices and standards for remote working along the way. Given the success of the workflow on recent film and episodic projects, including upcoming feature The Humans, Break+Enter plans to expand the strategy company-wide for future projects.
The cloud advantage
As many studios hunkered down at the start of the pandemic to ensure financial health in a time of uncertainty, Break+Enter doubled down on its infrastructure investment. “Our industry is constantly evolving, and the management team here is always keeping an eye out for areas where we can improve,” shared Break+Enter head of VFX and creative Dave Zeevalk. “Pivoting to a remote workflow made sense, even before the pandemic, as it positions us to take advantage of emerging opportunities, better serve clients, and become more profitable.”
Scalability was a deciding factor in the studio’s move to a remote pipeline, especially given the ebbs and flows of production and increasingly tight deadlines. “VFX production is unpredictable, and at any time you may need to add talent to your team,” he continued. “With the cloud, if we’re working on a project with a dozen artists, but need to bring on a hundred more, we can do so quickly, and without buying any hardware or leasing additional office space.”
For a studio like Break+Enter – known for its diverse staff of artists and technologists – having that scalability is essential to attracting talent. It opens up new opportunities for talent who may have previously been inaccessible because of geographic location or work from home constraints. “VFX is a universal language, but each market varies slightly, and we’re now able to tap into all of that potential regardless of an artist’s proximity to our office,” Zeevalk explained. “It allows us to onboard the best people for the job and open our doors to artists who really want to be a part of our team.”
Cost was another consideration in the transition, but Zeevalk cautioned that tapping into the financial benefits of the cloud requires research and technical savvy. “The cost savings potential for the cloud is huge compared to on-premises workflows, but most companies don’t realize that it’s not necessarily cheap out-of-the-box,” he said. “We’ve been able to save by investing in proprietary automation across every part of the pipeline, from load balancing to virtual workstation access, data management and beyond. These efforts have been instrumental in streamlining client collaboration and accelerating production.”
Break+Enter’s cloud pipeline examined
Combining cloud-based tools with creative ingenuity, Break+Enter built its pipeline with Amazon Web Services, Teradici PCoIP, and Aspera under the hood. Using virtual workstations, Break+Enter teams can collaborate seamlessly across projects using tools like Autodesk Maya and Arnold. “We can now get artists from anywhere in the world up and running online in their preferred creative application in no time,” noted Break+Enter executive producer Joyce Boll. “Take Maya, for instance. With our new pipeline, and Autodesk licensing, we can easily get artists set up in Maya in virtually no time, which is great because Maya is the bread and butter of CG production and an industry standard. Having that flexibility is crucial from a financial and operational standpoint.”
Adapting to a new normal
When the pandemic hit, Boll already had ample experience with remote working, and knew what was possible as well as what it would take to make it work. For others at the studio, the transition to working from home without in-person face-to-face communication was more of an adjustment. For this reason, at the start of the lockdown, Boll insisted that everyone turn on their cameras during virtual meetings to create a sense of connection, and to help her get a feel for how everyone was coping. Drawing on body language and facial cues, she could gauge the temperature of the team and follow up with team members as needed.
Boll likens the team’s experiences during the pandemic to their personal experiences. “Early on, there was so much anxiety, but the realization set in that this wasn’t going anywhere, and we needed to settle into our new normal and make adjustments,” she said. “We also had to grapple with the worldwide production shutdown, and what it meant for the future of the company. Thankfully, Break + Enter and its parent company, Nice Shoes, charged ahead and made smart infrastructure investments with the hope of coming out the other side thriving, a bold move in such an uncertain climate.”
Curating a virtual company culture
Break+Enter and Nice Shoes have worked hard to build a company culture and work environment where employees are encouraged to have a voice, recognized for their talents, and inspired to achieve their goals. Translating that culture to a virtual environment, however, proved challenging at first. But, with time and creative thinking the studio has kept up its culture through virtual check-ins, happy hours, and encouraging team members to share the things they’ve learned in weekly tutorials.
“When it comes to our team, we want to make the work fun, nurture their desire to build new skill sets, and show full transparency. We aim to be the party that artists never want to leave,” Zeevalk noted. “There was this initial fear of that culture being lost at the pandemic’s onset, but thankfully we were wrong. We’ve adapted, and quickly, to create a collaborative virtual environment in which we all have each other’s backs personally and professionally.”
Preparing for the future
As the future comes into focus, Break+Enter plans to continue investing in its remote pipeline and develop a hybrid approach to its work that will allow it to reap the benefits of remote working, while also maintaining the team comradery and company culture on which it’s built its business. Boll concluded, “From an infrastructure standpoint, the cloud is our path forward, and while we’ll continue to support remote work setups, as it becomes safe, we’ll find ways to come together in-person. There’s just something about being able to sit in a room with the people you’re working with every day and connect in person that just can’t be recreated virtually.”
For more details about Break+Enter’s move into the cloud, check out their Autodesk Vision Series presentation on Thursday, September 10th at 1pm PT. Register for the free event here.