The Entertainment Pandemic Plan: FuseFX and Sohonet on Security, Scale and The Shape of Things To Come 

LBB talks to Jason Fotter, CTO at FuseFX and Sohonet CEO Chuck Parker to share a frank discussion on what VFX really needs now and what might happen as we emerge from lockdown

In the current climate, with every studio going remote and all further productions on pause, the VFX industry is tackling new challenges that it has never faced before, the biggest of which is running an entire visual effects studio from everyone’s remote locations. 

Over the past few weeks we have heard a lot about how companies are adapting and continuing with work, but the swift shift into working from home has reared several challenges for many who are working with highly confidential entertainment and brand content. Not only must connection speeds be fast within VFX companies themselves but they must have a fast connection to their client. Alongside this, security measures have come under question. Most of the quick-fix remote video link and data storage solutions don’t necessarily adhere to the usual security standards upheld by many in the film, entertainment and advertising industries. 

A still from The Orville, VFX by FuseFX

“The biggest challenge for us in VFX is that all production has stopped now. Unless you’re doing a fully CG piece of work, you still rely on productions to be running,” states Jason Fotter, CTO at FuseFX, an award-winning VFX studio responsible for some of the biggest feature films, commercials and television series in the world. From the likes of Ozark, When They See Us, Mad Men and Annabelle, to ads for Marlboro, Geico and Pacsun, their work holds numerous awards including HPAs, Golden Globes, and Emmys.

For now, FuseFX, like the rest of the industry, is getting to grips with working from home and tackling the obstacles – both expected and unexpected – that appear in their path. “The idea of remote workers in VFX is not a new thing. We’ve been testing this at a small scale for quite some time now so when COVID-19 became a growing concern and we started to realise that everyone will have to be working from home, we already had the playbook in motion and then it was just a matter of scale and implementing it across all three offices,” Jason says.

“If you have a job right now and you’re continuing to work and get paid, that’s a bit of a luxury in today’s world and we should be happy for it” – Jason Fotter, CTO, FuseFX

“People have actually been adapting very positively at FuseFX because everybody realises that if you have a job right now and you’re continuing to work and get paid, that’s a bit of a luxury in today’s world and we should be happy for it.”

Now that remote working is the crux of their business, one of the services that Jason’s team is relying heavily on is ClearView Flex, a remote collaboration tool from Sohonet – renowned as the media and entertainment industry’s leading provider of secure networking and seamlessly connected cloud services. 

“ClearView is a critical system for VFX reviews,” Jason explains. “When we were all in the office, we would schedule reviews in a screening room and you’d have the shots up on the screen to comment and approve. That was initially the biggest hurdle in going to a remote workflow because we knew we could do remote and secure access and run the software we needed but real-time, high-quality reviews were the main issue.”

He continues: “We tested some screen sharing apps and those were less than ideal because you don’t get real-time playback, it’s highly compressed, and not secure. ClearView Flex allows us to run a secure, real-time review whenever we want. It’s very easy to use and you can send requests to join a session. It would also be very easy to include clients in those sessions too. All the employees that have used it so far have told me how great it is and we are so thankful that this product exists so that we can continue to do our shot reviews.” 

“We’re trying to be as responsive as we can to help keep people employed” – Chuck Parker, CEO, Sohonet

Sohonet originally created it’s networking services to allow secure and high-speed transfer of critical content in a manner that had not been possible before. Today, hundreds of media and entertainment leaders count on them to keep redefining what you can get from your network.  For a major feature film today, an average 42% of the budget is spent on VFX. Productions are using globally distributed VFX resources, and need efficient tools for real-time remote review of VFX shots as they’re developed. Artists will need to share their work across the wider VFX team, senior production crew and execs and potentially external clients.

For a quick review between team members, Sohonet’s ClearView Flex’s HDMI desktop sharing option provides an ideal way to view shots remotely without having to render the content and export your work prior to sharing. This can save hours of render time across a project as well as reducing your compute requirement. 

A still from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., VFX by FuseFX

CEO, Chuck Parker says: “A third of our business directly supports production and the majority of production is on hiatus right now. We don’t know if we’re going to be on pause for a number of weeks or much longer. Having been designed specifically to aid remote working, our products such as ClearView Flex can help answer current production problems. We’ve had a huge surge in orders and we actually shipped the entire year’s plan of CVF in just the first two weeks of lockdown. We typically wouldn’t include a HDMI cable or an ethernet cable with these but since we’re now shipping to people’s homes we’re including these additions in our shipped units.”

To help support the industry further, Sohonet have also been offering their file transfer product to all their production clients on hiatus for free so they can send their work to their remote locations. Chuck says: “With a wide user base of people now working from home dealing with the issue of security over NDA content as well as struggling with their home bandwidth, we’ve gone through a huge learning curve on how we can better help our customers.” For those products that are super in demand, Sohonet have cut prices by 35% for the next few months as a way to give back. “We’re trying to be as responsive as we can to help keep people in our industry employed and projects moving forward to completion.”

“I’d encourage everyone in the industry to only use tools with ’gold standard’ level of security in the most vulnerable moments like this. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your end-customer’s intellectual property.” – Chuck Parker

The company has also introduced a useful series on how to Flex from home, sharing their best practises and tips. Chuck describes that “there was some urgent buying to begin with where we saw a surge of orders on VPN to securely and remotely access offices. The majority of our customers use more private networks than they do the internet because they are talking to other industry members. No surprise when all their employees go to work from home they have an opposite problem – everyone needs the internet to access the office from home. So we also had a surge on internet bursts where we can push up capacity for a limited amount of time.”

He adds: “In terms of security concerns, our products have been approved by all the studios with industry ‘gold standard’ for security audits. I’d encourage everyone in the industry to only use tools with that level of security in the most vulnerable moments like this. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your end-customer’s intellectual property.”

But it’s not just security concerns that Sohonet services can help with. There’s the issue of quality too. When reviewing 3D renders of a new CGI character, the careful composition of a fantasy landscape, or the huge explosion pivotal to the plot, the quality of the image is of huge importance. You don’t want to lose a single pixel of your artist’s work. For this, ClearView Pivot provides high-quality JPEG 2000 compression so you can ensure none of the fine detail will be lost in translation. The data is delivered over the Sohonet Media Network for high-speed, ultra low latency connectivity and ensures you experience minimal packet loss or jitter, even when reviewing across continents. 

“It all comes down to communication – this is a collaborative environment and we all need to be on the same page.” – Jason Fotter 

When the pandemic first hit, many thought that this would be a short-term problem. Now, as we begin to come to terms with the fact that this is more of a marathon than a sprint, businesses across the globe are having to come up with more long-term solutions to the crisis.

Chuck advises that now is the time to “ensure that you have reviewed your security measures and get set up with all the gear you need to fix anything that is slowing your workflow down. Figure out your rhythm and find the best ways to stay efficient.” 

For Jason, it all comes down to communication. “The tech is there but you have to be able to communicate – this is a collaborative environment and we all need to be on the same page. Nothing is better than all standing together in a room and talking about something. While technically you can do that remotely, there are disadvantages to doing that. It’s about recognising that and doing everything you can to overcome the gap there.”

He continues: “Planning and anticipating contingency plans is now more important than ever. If you would have asked me a few years ago whether I had a pandemic plan, I would have shrugged it off and thought, why does a VFX company need a pandemic plan when we’re not in the hospital industry? But fast forward to now and our pandemic plan is working, we’re in business and we’re rolling along.”

A still from LoneStar, VFX by FuseFX

As many businesses wonder about life beyond the pandemic, perhaps more employers will start to see remote working as a workable solution to some of their business challenges. “I think we’re going to see a reduced footprint of on-site working,” says Chuck. “It’s going to be natural now for people to request this more when it’s been proven we don’t need to be on-site all the time. We should also now have improved guidelines on working from home especially when it comes to security.”

And what about the positive lessons we have learned from this difficult time? Jason believes that although challenging, the pandemic has also “posed some interesting opportunities. It may help us think more flexibly on whether or not someone needs to permanently be in the office at all times. It will be interesting and exciting to see how this process changes our business. What will we learn from this and how will we all pivot to what the new normal will be? I don’t think anyone right now knows what that will be, but I’m sure there are plenty of lessons to take away.”