The pandemic has led to the development of new working practices, security measures and technology that will continue to benefit us all

Faced with the prospect of shutting offices and transitioning to remote working, VFX facilities have risen to the challenge and come up with new ways of doing things that otherwise might never have come about. Now it’s been proven that work can be done remotely and securely, the work-from-home revolution is changing how companies structure themselves, how much office space they have, who they can employ and where those people can live. Staff are seeing an improved work-life balance, and facilities are seeing productivity levels increase or remain stable.

Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Delicata explains that the WFH business model has been feasible for a few years and has been embraced by smaller companies who saw the benefits in terms of work-life balance, convenience for freelancers and flexibility for the client. “But with that came a tiered system where smaller companies were not trusted to take on the big work due to the remote working model, and the bigger mainstream companies were always constrained by the high levels of security that they were held to by all of the studios,” he says. “Overnight the business model has been turned on its head.”

Cinesite were able to set up remote and cloud-based technologies quickly at the start of the pandemic, and have put an ongoing process in place for agreeing on security guidelines with clients and other studios.

“VFX and feature animation were, in the past, never considered industries where work could be done remotely mainly due to security and technology concerns,” says Sophie Hunt, Group Communications and Publicity Manager at Cinesite. “The Cinesite team has been incredible in overcoming these challenges.”

Cinesite’s CTO Michele Sciolette co-authored this Visual Effects Society Technology Committee document on WFH best practices, which shares detailed technical information on working securely and getting different software packages to work remotely. Studios, vendors and facilities have collaborated to develop technological solutions to the work-from-home problem, sharing information to help everyone get their work done.

“The studios working from home technology approach is based on remotely accessing workstations via HP Remote Graphics Software (RGS), recently renamed to HP ZCentral Remote Boost that are still located in the facilities,” explains Michele. “Cinesite’s RV wrapper is used for reviewing and ‘remoting’ into dailies & Teradici and NoMachine solutions are also used to good effect. Additionally, the pipeline and technical services teams created a secure and scalable VPN infrastructure to support the remote access.”

Over the last year Cinesite have finished VFX projects such as Marvel’s Black Widow (above), and Warner Bros.’ Space Jam: A New Legacy while working remotely, and were able to keep going at their usual pace

Cinesite’s dedicated VPN services their 1,400 employees, and they have been using Google Apps to communicate and for video and audio conferencing. “The fact that we are all working remotely and always available for video calls has evened out any geographical differences between our European and Canadian studios,” says Sophie.

Overall Cinesite has discovered a number of positive impacts of remote working and they anticipate transitioning to a hybrid model in the future. A survey of their Montreal office staff found that:

  • 37 per cent of employees feel less stressed working from home and 47 per cent said stress levels have not changed
  • Over 91 per cent of employees have found a way to structure their daily tasks in a work from home environment
  • The majority of employees prefer a hybrid working model where the office remains accessible to them

London-based Rumble VFX were also able to scale up their remote working capabilities fairly quickly when the pandemic started as they already had the systems in place. “We adopted a procedure to mostly work on the machines at the studio directly which prevented us from having to reinvent the wheel and worry about many security concerns with sharing out VPN access to the network on peoples home machines etc.,” says founder Richard Costin. “Ensuring that any assets that are securely worked on off site are all up to date is a challenge sometimes but quickly becomes the norm.”

For Richard, a big disadvantage of remote working was not being able to bounce ideas off each other in the office, but the team have found alternative ways of doing this. The upside of this is that he’s finding there are fewer distractions at home and he’s able to spend what would normally be his commuting time working.

He does fear for new starters, however. “The main pain point I personally believe is for juniors just coming up in the industry. Having that direct contact and camaraderie/support with seniors and veterans is vital to growing as a new artist and is something that would be very hard to replicate remotely.”

Freefolk Joint Managing Director Vittorio Giannini echoed this concern. The team transitioned smoothly to remote working, but it was apparent that they needed to prioritise communication and be vigilant for anyone who might be struggling. “Our mantra during the last 18 months has been to focus on the people and to keep the team together,” says Vittorio. “We were also acutely aware of our more junior teams, their mental health and their training – we’re a company who encourages our staff to progress internally – so we knew that they were missing out on valuable ‘hands on’ experience. We believe that being back together again will help to resolve this.”

Simpler times: office-based working at Freefolk pre-pandemic

At BlueBolt, they’re currently working on more shows than ever before and have grown their operation during the pandemic. “Pre Covid, our growth was capped at the number of seats we had to occupy. We have had the opportunity to rethink our physical office footprint,” says Managing Director Tracy McCreary. “We suddenly didn’t need all of the desk space, so we moved our machine room into a data centre, downsized our Soho office and found an additional space near Victoria Station. At the moment we have more artists than we do desks. Not being limited by physical space has allowed us to really expand.”

Sohonet has also found positives in the change to remote working, which was an easy transition for them as they already had the technology setup and only had to provide staff with furniture and screens. “The vast majority of our staff and managers welcome the change, although the majority would prefer a hybrid world where they can choose to come to the office too,” says COO Damien Carroll. They haven’t seen any drop in productivity during the pandemic, but maintaining company culture and onboarding new team members has been a challenge.

“We believe hybrid working is here to stay and any business that does not accommodate it will be disadvantaged,” says Damien. “I think the challenges for staff and managers will be to find new working patterns so that every individual’s version of their hybrid working works with other staff members and teams. This will be the real challenge of 2022. There is little point in coming to the office if you end up spending hours on Zoom with your colleagues remotely.”

Freelance artists are also set to benefit from the trend towards remote working. “The VFX industry has been a great example of how work from home can be a benefit to studios as well as employers and how productivity in many cases actually goes up with remote workers,” says Allan Torp Jensen, who worked remotely for five years before the pandemic started. While setting up a home studio is expensive in terms of acquiring hardware and full licenses for all tools, like many others Allan has found it very beneficial in terms of work-life balance and a having a tailored, comfortable work environment. “I find that working remotely from my home studio makes me able to produce more shots and be more productive.”

Sohonet, BlueBolt, Freefolk and Cinesite all surveyed their staff and found that when the time comes, most desire a hybrid model that combines remote and office-based working. It’s likely that many facilities will offer this. “Content security was always the biggest hurdle that kept us locked to our desks,” says Tracy of BlueBolt. “There are a ton of systems we have in place to make sure security isn’t compromised, so as long as the studios and content creators don’t place a mandate on working from the office, then flexible working is something we would really like to continue with.”

The current talent shortage in the industry gives even more reason to offer flexible working. “People are now expecting more flexibility and I do believe that studios will offer – and already are offering – this to remain competitive and attractive places to work,” says Vittorio at Freefolk.

According to Damien at Sohonet, the pandemic has merely accelerated an existing trend towards remote working. “There was already a shift in the talent market before C-19 where remote working was becoming a differentiator,” he says. “We saw it in the recruitment of software developers where our move to remote working pre-pandemic was a bonus for recruiting. We saw customers doing the same with creative talent. The advance of cloud workflows was making so much more possible, with talent being able to work remotely from anywhere and new studios emerging with the majority of their infrastructure being cloud based. The pandemic has significantly advanced that trend. All businesses need to adapt to the fact that in a connected world, the talent they are struggling to find is available to them but not within a regular commuting distance.”

Rob Delicata notes that this shift may reshape the physical office landscape in terms of where people need to be and the square footage needed to do the work. “It will benefit the client in terms of the price point and productivity. Remote working is here to stay. If people can make some bold decisions it could be a new creative and productive dawn in our industry.”

For now though, the facilities we spoke to are prioritising health and safety and being cautious about returning to the office. Currently, most allow staff to come into the premises if they choose and/or it’s necessary. Some are tentatively looking to phase in a gradual return while monitoring the situation over the coming weeks. The timeline for returning to offices is uncertain, but it’s clear that remote working has become entrenched and even when it is safe to go back we’re likely to see a much more flexible working situation than we had before the pandemic.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.