“Pivot.” It’s a mantra and a directive if you want to survive in the entertainment industry during a global pandemic. That turn can mean complex protocols including testing on a daily basis while you load onto a set in a very specific way. For visual-effects companies, it’s reimagining a craft that was already primed to create solutions for the rest of the industry.
Big-name visual-effects houses had projects in the pipeline when lockdowns started all over the world. The first move for many was to relocate workers off site and out of danger with the right equipment and strengthened security protocols. These changes upped costs for some, but didn’t shut them down.
“What happened is on 36-hour notice, we’re all working from home,” says Lon Molnar, co-president of Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (Marz), a Toronto-based visual- effects house specializing in TV VFX that has done work for “Watchmen,” “The Boys” and Season 2 of “Umbrella Academy” (pictured).
“There wasn’t that much of a change except that we weren’t all together in the same room, but were still working digitally so we were able to move into a VPN system where everybody can remote into the studio [from] their local machines so they’re familiar with their local machine. The only thing we had to get over was the lagging issues, which we were able to do pretty quickly and it was business as usual.
“I’d say the other thing is the fact that, instead of everyone heading into a board room or into a screening room, we’re into these virtual rooms with all of our clocks being synched to one another so you hardly had anyone even a minute late.”
Ingenuity Studios, a VFX house with offices in Los Angeles, Vancouver and New York, began to see more requests for set extensions and techniques to keep actors at a safe distance from each other. Short-form entertainment including music videos were also in steady demand. Prior to the pandemic, the studio had developed this part of its business with music videos for Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish.
Ingenuity, which has worked on projects such as “The Good Lord Bird” and “Helstrom,” focused on creating a safe environment for those who might want to work at the offices by installing plexiglass dividers and creating social-distancing protocols. Execs also talked with their artists about how they wanted to work during the lockdown and most chose to do so from home.
“[The pandemic] hasn’t greatly affected our future plans,” says David Lebensfeld, owner and VFX supervisor at Ingenuity. “We’re confident in this industry. We’re confident that we’re not going to be in this forever.”
Saker Klippsten, CTO of Zoic Studios, says many of the tools VFX houses needed to successfully shift to more virtual production were already in place when the pandemic shutdowns started. They simply found new ways to use what they already had.
“We’re fortunate that we were the second or third median entertainment company that used Teradici PC-over-IP [software and technologies],” says Klippsten. “And we’ve been using their technology for almost 15 years now. It wasn’t really for working remotely off-site. It was actually because we had offices in Vancouver and Los Angeles and New York and the buildings that we happened to be in didn’t have a lot of power. And, from a security standpoint, there was no data to be walked off with or stolen or anything like that. We’ve been going with this model for 15 years and then when this went down it was relatively easy to pivot in about a week.”
These tech capabilities and video conferences between co-workers to socialize as well as collaborate on projects, didn’t completely replace what existed before the pandemic — the fun of collaborating in person with a team.
“It’s no substitute for the real thing,” says Tom Reed, head of character lab for MPC in London. “We’re all longing to see each other, go for dinner and go to the pub and share our experiences.”
Adds Chris Gray, MPC’s executive producer for the company’s episodic division: “I think we’ll land on a balanced working week, eventually. We came out of lockdown here in the U.K. so we started to do a return to the studio. Obviously, it’s a COVID-safe environment where people are socially distanced and the capacity is limited. We started to do a very slow return to the studio before the second lockdown. What became apparent was we can get key days where they can get the best of being in the studio, having that face time, doing those more collaborative sessions together on those days and then the rest of the time using the time at home to get stuff done. So it’s finding that balance. I think we’ve landed on something that will work quite well once all the restrictions are relaxed.”
As VFX houses have sent people away from their offices to work from home, some artists left major cities where rent was high to find less-expensive housing or more space, knowing they’d be sheltering in place for some time. This can be tricky if a studio needs to meet qualifications for incentives that exist for a particular city, state or country.
When a project isn’t tied to incentives, VFX houses can be more open to hiring artists in another state or country who might not want to relocate to a costlier city. This could also help some artists find more balance between work and life when they save time their commutes.
Episodic projects and short-form music videos and commercials are ramping up, though occasionally stymied by frequent testing and stringent protocols and the rare production shutdown when someone tests positive for COVID-19. Still, VFX companies that work on motion pictures face the same challenge as any company hoping its project will be shown in a movie theater.
“It’s been a struggle because, of course, all of the big releases that we planned to get through, that would be released through the summer, now suddenly had their release dates much later next year,” says Gavin Graham, general manager for DNEG, which has worked on such features as “Tenet.” “And we had to try and balance that flow of work, knowing that the shutdowns had happened and that there wouldn’t new material arriving anytime soon. So, we did what we could to kind of stretch the deadlines and stretch the schedules to keep people busy.
“We’re now getting to the stage where most of the projects that were in play towards the beginning of the pandemic have wrapped or are in the process of wrapping and we’re getting into the next round of shows. They’re all different. Some of them are trying to do the traditional big blockbuster and everything needs to be shot in the traditional style. You’re reliant on none of those issues coming down. You’re thinking in terms of smaller on-set teams.”
He notes that for his company, “it’s about having visual-effects help with that, whether that is planning to shoot intimate scenes not on location. So, either you shoot them with an LED backdrop or just planning for them to be shot with a greenscreen and then replace the backgrounds or even shooting small groups of actors separately and then combining them later.”