While many studios and VFX houses were already moving to more flexible working practices, the advent of COVID and subsequent lockdowns accelerated these changes. Today, as the global pandemic subsides, the enforced move to remote and hybrid working remains in place. And this brings with it both benefits and challenges.
For post-production supervisors, the world of video production has changed dramatically. “I think it’s fair to say that, before COVID, people tended to work fairly locally,” says Stephen Willey, director of technology at DNEG in Vancouver. “You would have the data in-house. You would display it on something in-house, and people would gather in screening rooms, and look at the stuff.”
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“And if you needed to work in a more international way, it would be done in kind of an offline fashion, where you would take your ISP WAN links, which would probably be provided by Zayo or Sohonet or somebody similar. You’d do some work in location A, transfer the results to location B, do some more work on it in location B, and then transfer it back. And that cycle would carry on.”
Willey explains that while the industry was already moving away from this linear workflow paradigm, COVID has forced its hand. “There’s much more of a desire for simultaneous work without these large turnaround times. And so, all of a sudden, a lot of the responsibility for coordinating that kind of stuff across time zones, across multiple offices and distances, became something that your visual effects supervisors, your production people, would have to deal with – seemingly with near-zero notice. It went from this local model to very much a multiple-office model very quickly.”
Quick Change for VFX artists
Jessie Amadio, a visual effects supervisor at The Mill, agrees. “For me – well, I think for a lot of people in post – it was sort of an overnight thing. They just sent everybody home, and the engineering team somehow managed to set up remote receiver machines for everybody within a weekend, which was incredible.”
It’s been a marked change from Amadio’s previous way of working, when she was based in an office in New York. “We would be sat in either suites or open floors – we would usually try to sit with our project teams – so there was a lot of unofficial communication happening. Obviously you’re walking past people’s screens. You’re seeing what they’re working on. You’re overhearing other people’s issues that they’re working through, and chiming in.
“And then there’s also the aspect of being in the suite when you’re in delivery mode, where you have clients coming in, and they’re sitting on the couch, and you’re watching stuff on a monitor together, saying, ‘What about this? What about that?’ and making these kinds of tweaks together. There are parts of that that were a lot of fun and also very beneficial.”
New tools for a new workflow
When lockdown hit, some of the bigger facilities were able to deploy their own in-house systems, but off-the-shelf collaborative tools still played a key role. “Certainly we try our best to be as consistent as possible globally,” acknowledges Willey. “It makes doing remote support much easier if the guys and girls in Mumbai are using exactly the same stuff as the people in, say, Vancouver.
“And of course we’ll try to use off-the-shelf tools, like Shotgun, like Teradici, like Sohonet’s products, in order to reduce the dev time and the dev work, and to be able to have a phone number that we can call when it goes wrong.”
Amadio explains that collaborative video platforms aren’t just useful for reviewing dailies and final approval. “We did have to do virtual shoot attendance through the height of the pandemic, which would be giving the agency and the effects supervisor a ClearView link, and then everybody gets on a party line phone call. I’ve been on shoots since [COVID] regulations were reduced, but the eight people from the agency didn’t feel like flying to LA that week. I think that ClearView and these other systems can make virtual shoot attendance effective and clear – like who’s speaking, the ability to annotate on the frame, those kinds of things.
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“I think it’s going to be important going forward,” she adds, “and I hope that we see more of it, so we can reduce unnecessary air travel and business travel and the environmental impacts of that. I think it’s a great way for the advertising industry to reduce their carbon emissions. If we can all feel more comfortable attending shoots virtually when we don’t need to physically be there.”
Moving to a remote collaborative workflow provides other benefits, too, suggests Willey. “When everyone was in the office, you used to call in a bunch of artists, and they would sit and sort of wait for their turn to review their work. Whereas I think one of the big productivity increases that’s happened as a result of remote working is that you can somewhat instantly invite somebody into that sort of meeting, and so there’s less waiting around.”
Addressing quality issues
So what are the key features that a post-production supervisor looks for in these kinds of collaborative platforms? “Obviously, if you’re using it for a remote grade, colour accuracy is going to be really important,” says Amadio. “And as far as HDR, I think that’s going to become more and more important. I’m not a technical expert by any means, but I think that most people’s displays – the average consumer display – are going to be your major limiting factor. Obviously you would strive to transmit as much data as possible. But more now than ever, we’re combatting the fact that everything is being consumed on a [portable] device, not a super-fancy, calibrated monitor in a suite.”
- Read more: Reviewing Colour Grades Remotely
“Certainly a lot of our shows are delivered in HDR,” adds Willey, “and that comes with its challenges – one of the biggest challenges over the last few years being that HDR is very much a moving target. Some people want a particular bit depth, other people want something different. The definition of HDR changes from client to client. A lot of the tooling that is out there for remote work does not fully support an HDR workflow. Sohonet’s tools do.”
In reference to frame rates and resolution, Amadio remarks that they occasionally shoot at 8K to accommodate push-ins or crops, but typically conform at 2K or 4K. “We’re aiming to use as little space as possible when it’s not necessary to do otherwise. And I don’t know it’s so important; I feel like at the end of the day, there’s always going to be a file that people can review locally, right? And the experience that you want when you’re streaming is to not feel frustrated or feel like you cannot see what’s happening. If that means that everything is down-res-ed to HD, but it plays back smooth and the colours are right? That sounds like a win to me.”
Sohonet ClearView Flex Glow enables real-time creative review and collaboration in HDR. To see how it can benefit your own remote workflows, contact us to book a demo.