For many of us, the past few weeks have been some of the strangest, most uncertain times in recent history. The Coronavirus has shut us all in our homes and threatened our contract-based livelihoods for the foreseeable future. Movie studios are postponing productions, and VFX vendors worldwide are rapidly adapting both infrastructure and security protocols to enable artists to work from home and finish existing projects, where possible.
For the VFX industry and its workers, these global changes present an incredible opportunity for us to step up, and prove we can do better. Working from a remote location (in this case, home) offers plenty of benefits to employers, employees and our valuable clients. Some industries already thrive in location-independent workplaces, and have made this transition seamlessly, but what about the VFX industry? Working from home has never been an option for us in the past, so why has it taken a global pandemic for this sudden shift in mindset, and how can we make the most of it?
It’s important to recognize that Movie studios, or any company that creates entertainment for profit, is a business first-and-foremost. No matter if it’s an indie flick or a tent-pole blockbuster, that business’ intellectual property is a valuable investment — one that can be risky, and worth upwards of $200m at the pointy end! With this context, it’s pretty easy to see why our clients have such strict security protocols, and water-tight NDA’s. Any leaks, no matter how minor, could change a prospective audience member’s mind about buying a ticket to consume the aforementioned IP. At scale, this would result in a devastating financial loss. Our clients are taking on considerably more risk allowing us to work from home in order to complete their projects on-time, and we must respect that.
What’s interesting is, other tech-based companies that work on high-risk projects or with sensitive data already had remote-work policies in place before the Coronavirus outbreak — and there haven’t been any disasters. The same clients who are enforcing strict security guidelines for VFX vendors could possibly be investing their retirement savings with a Robo-advisor-based investment company, and are likely keeping their personal data with Amazon for the convenience of speedy package delivery. Both are examples of industries that freely allow their office-based employees to work from wherever they’d like! Because VFX artists are primarily sitting at a desk, creating, sharing and organizing digital data, we also have the capability to work from anywhere. We currently have the rare opportunity to earn our client’s trust, as other industries have done in the past, and prove that we are able to work effectively both inside and outside of a physical office, while keeping their valuable IP safe.
The main difference between VFX and other tech companies is, we go through a significant amount more data per employee. We’re not just sending emails and crunching data on the cloud; we’re simulating gigabytes of data per frame, for many minutes in a film, many times a day, and sending it to the next artist in the production pipeline to do the same. The difference in data transfer rate requirements is comparable to the infection rate on day one vs. day fourteen of the Coronavirus outbreak! Data transfer at this scale would require a Herculean network on a VFX Studio’s side to be able to pull off. Thankfully, PCoIP solutions exist, and while they’re not perfect, they do the job pretty well.
So our two big roadblocks are now out of the way: Movie studios have relaxed their strict security measures just enough to allow artists to work from home, and the technology exists to stream a remote-workstation at high-enough quality through existing networks, without bottle-necking bandwidth.
Now comes the scary part — the rest of the weight is on your shoulders… We all have a part to play in how successful the next few months are, and they will undoubtedly challenge the concepts of how we work for the foreseeable future. We have an incredible opportunity to gain more flexibility in our lives which brings many benefits both at work and at home, so let’s do the best jobs we can, and hopefully, we’ll start to see this flexibility become the norm.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll go over some strategies for how you can leverage working from home to increase output, and ultimately help prove that there’s a better way to create ground-breaking VFX.
To wrap up Part 1: IT Departments in almost every VFX facility worldwide have scrambled to make working from home a reality in an unbelievably short amount of time. This is a massive achievement that deserves plenty of praise & recognition. If you haven’t already, I implore you to personally reach out and thank every person at your studio who helped make this opportunity a reality.
Additionally, here are some tips from the VES if you’re not set up to work from home, on how you might be able to.