Brandon Schaafsma, co-founder and head of production at Herne Hill Media on kickstarting a VFX studio mid-pandemic to cutting through the noise in tool choices and optimizing remote operations with ClearView Flex
Despite or perhaps because it launched in the tailspin of the pandemic in September 2021, Canadian VFX boutique Herne Hill Media has grown rapidly with more than 100 full time staff supporting features and high-end TV for all major studios and streamers including Disney and Netflix. Herne Hill’s considerable talent works across art, editorial, and VFX departments on projects at any stage of development, from original concept to photo-real characters and complex digital environments. Setting up shop in Toronto, Herne Hill’s co-partners Dennis Berardi and Brandon Schaafsma knew they wanted a model that would operate as a hybrid with both studio based and remote workflows with a seamless interconnect between the two.
Schaafsma: “Most of our team, including myself, had previously worked at a larger VFX shop where the workflow was traditional,” explains Schaafsma, who is also head of production at Herne Hill Media. “We were used to viewing everything on a giant screen equipped with 4K DCP projector. We’d sit down in a studio and do reviews in person with artists and supervisors.
“We started Herne Hill when the world was still not out of the pandemic. We knew from the get-go that at least half of our workflow was going to be remote. We set up our big screen viewing suite in the studio in order to have that traditional dailies experience where people can come in and collaborate in a single space for the ultimate level of quality and critical evaluation. But with half of our workforce working remotely at any one time we also needed a remote solution.
“There is a lot of technology on the market that offers solutions, and we pretty much tried them all,” Schaafsma continues. “Each of them claims to have real-time playback and to deliver high-quality streams. ClearView Flex was the only one that actually followed through on the promises.”
Schaafsma says the biggest plus with ClearView Flex was the ability to get a session up and running without fuss. The technology faded into the background, just as it should.
“A lot of the time when people were working remotely, the tech was getting in the way of us doing our work. We’d spend time at the start of every session with people asking, ‘Where is my screen share?’ or ‘Who has control?’ or ‘I can’t see you.’ It was always those problems we had to deal with just to start a meeting, but with ClearView we got into a very smooth workflow where we issue a link and in a few moments the session is up, and everybody is connected to it. It’s just so fluid and we can get right into doing our work.
“People now ask ‘Can I get my ClearView?’ It’s a very common shorthand now.”
Herne Hill relies on ClearView Flex all day every day to review work in various stages of progress. It runs two boxes, one for each of its screening rooms.
“We use it the entire day for half-a-dozen ClearView [Flex] sessions. We’re constantly sending out links so it’s just a natural part of our workflow that we go to daily. ClearView is literally an extension of our theater”
“We’ve actually sped up our workflow since using ClearView. We can click on a link and be in dailies immediately rather than having to get up and walk down the hallway and sit down in the screening room.
“It took us a while to get into the flow, but I feel like we’ve improved upon where we were prior to Covid where everyone had to go to the big screen. We still have that option but now people have the option to click and join in.”
“Sohonet is great because they give you baseline recommendations that are achievable. When we know we’re going to be doing a ClearView with a critical evaluator such as a director we make sure that we prioritize their viewing environment. We would give them and their assistants guidance so that they are viewing the session on as big a screen as they have access to and in a dark room.
“We’ll make sure they have a laptop or an Apple TV or something connected to a big display that has been calibrated. It may not be the exact same level as our screen here, but we’ve effectively created a pair, so the viewing environment becomes as close as possible to a match.
“What’s great is that when we have clients who are traveling or in a meeting and they just want to see a reference for what is being talked about then they can jump onto a smaller device like their laptop or phone and participate in the session via ClearView that way.”
Schaafsma manages the VFX teams across multiple projects, but he is also a VFX editor (contributing to Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water, and Nightmare Alley.)
“We send out ClearView links to everyone who needs them but there needs to be someone in the studio to do that and I’m one of those guys. I still like to be in the big room with all the gear, but it has been exciting to see people be successful at home. The VFX industry has grown up and those who started in the industry 10, 15 or 20 years ago now have families. So, what’s great is that there is now technology that can give them the time and space they need to be with their families while being able to produce consistent high-quality work to meet our deadlines from home.