The Evo­lu­tion of a VFX House

Animation Magazine - - Front Page - By Adam Stern

‘ We might be able to in­clude more pho­to­real el­e­ments in our shots than be­fore, cre­ate higher res­o­lu­tion frames with more de­tail … but in the end, it’s about it­er­a­tion. The more op­por­tu­ni­ties we have to re­fine the work, the bet­ter it will be.’

Adam Stern founded Ar­tifex Stu­dios in 1997. Ar­tifex is a fully-staffed, Van­cou­ver-based creative ser­vice stu­dio that ex­cels at “White Glove” vfx ser­vic­ing for a global TV, film and OTT clien­tele, in­clud­ing Dis­ney, Dream­works, AMC, Blum­house Pic­tures, His­tory Chan­nel, Nick­elodeon, Paramount, FOX, Net­flix and oth­ers. For more info, visit­tifexs­tu­

Is­tarted in vfx in the late ‘90s, open­ing Ar­tifex in 1997 — es­sen­tially as a place for my­self to work. For a few months it was just me, along with an of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tor, as we searched for pay­ing jobs. They came in the form of cre­at­ing com­puter screen graph­ics for tele­vi­sion shows shot in Van­cou­ver, in­clud­ing The X-files, as well as our first full vfx shots for The New Ad­dams Fam­ily.

Ar­tifex has con­tin­ued to grow since then, and re­cently cel­e­brated its 20th an­niver­sary. We have in­ten­tion­ally re­mained a smaller stu­dio, how­ever we gen­er­ally em­ployee be­tween 30 and 40 artists and staff.

My vfx life “on the box” be­gan with work­ing on the Mac in Af­ter Ef­fects, Pho­to­shop, Elec­tric Im­age, and other now-de­funct soft­ware pack­ages. I re­mem­ber show su­per­vi­sors vis­it­ing the stu­dio, see­ing us on Macs and PCS, with looks of shock on their faces. It was an Sgi-cen­tric world, and if you weren’t on a Flame or In­ferno, you weren’t do­ing “real” work. We were asked on more than one oc­ca­sion to never men­tion how we pro­duced our shots.

I went from cre­at­ing shots to su­per­vis­ing, both on-set and in stu­dio, then to vfx pro­duc­ing and stu­dio man­age­ment. I fell in love with the film­mak­ing process and am now writ­ing and di­rect­ing. I’ve al­ways been a sci-fi fan, and along with the team at Ar­tifex have now made two short films in my fa­vorite genre: The Adept and FTL: Faster Than Light, both cur­rently in de­vel­op­ment as longer-form projects.

The cost of en­try into vfx chang­ing so dra­mat­i­cally thrills me. It was frus­trat­ing when some clients didn’t take us se­ri­ously if we didn’t have a pur­ple box on our desks. I also have a back­ground in mu­sic, and have watched the record­ing in­dus­try shift — putting creative power in the hands of the artists and their home stu­dios. To see the same thing hap­pen in vis­ual ef­fects (and film/post in gen­eral) has been ex­tremely grat­i­fy­ing.

Think­ing about where the in­dus­try is headed, I re­mem­ber at­tend­ing my first SIGGRAPH in the early 2000s. It was heady — learn­ing about new ways to use pho­togram­me­try and HDRI from Paul De­bevec, watch­ing how Weta made use of am­bi­ent oc­clu­sion in Lord of the Rings, see­ing sub-sur­face scat­ter­ing at work for the first time, or see­ing a demo on the scan­ning of Neo’s iconic jacket to cre­ate BRDFbased ren­ders for The Ma­trix Reloaded. These tools and tech­niques came trick­ling down from academia as well as from the ge­niuses at ILM, Pixar, Weta, and else­where. It felt like there was some­thing new to try ev­ery time you turned around.

There con­tinue to be fan­tas­tic de­vel­op­ments, but for me, the im­por­tant stuff is now more process-re­lated — work­flow, speed, con­nec­tiv­ity. Tools and sys­tems that al­low artists to work on big­ger and more re­al­is­tic shots are less tied to ge­og­ra­phy by utiliz­ing cloud-based in­fra­struc­ture, while hav­ing ac­cess to faster (and even real-time) ren­der­ing solutions.

A sin­gle artist can ren­der us­ing any num­ber of high-end pack­ages, the same ones used on ev­ery ma­jor project. We used to spend a for­tune on Ren­der­man li­censes, but now Maya comes with Arnold. When needed, one in­di­vid­ual (or a small stu­dio) can ac­cess huge num­bers of ren­der nodes on GCP or AWS to blast off a shot hun­dreds of frames long at 4K, and get it back on the same day — some­thing we wouldn’t have imag­ined pos­si­ble with­out the re­sources of a ma­jor fa­cil­ity only a few short years ago.

Artists, the Big­gest As­sets

As a stu­dio owner, I want my largest in­vest­ment to be in the peo­ple that work here – the artists that cre­ate. It’s al­ways been a strug­gle keep­ing up with in­fra­struc­ture, hav­ing to spend thou­sands of dol­lars up­grad­ing hard­ware, and of course the big­ger we grew, the slower we were able to move. Now, with cloud-based work­flow, I can sim­ply stop adding new ren­der nodes. We have a small farm we con­tinue to use at Ar­tifex, but have em­braced Google Cloud for both burst ren­der­ing (Zync) and near­line stor­age for in­cre­men­tal back­ups. It’s been a mas­sive shift.

I’m also keep­ing a close eye on tech­nolo­gies like The Foundry’s Athera. I love the idea of pro­vi­sion­ing a full vfx stu­dio on the fly and in the cloud. There are still as­pects that I believe need to be worked out, and ben­e­fits in hav­ing a phys­i­cal stu­dio space. But I love the idea of be­ing less tied to site-spe­cific hard­ware, and ge­og­ra­phy over­all.

All that be­ing said, none of these tools and tech­nolo­gies mean the work gets done any faster. We’ve gone from SD to HD to UHD and higher, so ren­der times haven’t changed that much. What these tech­nolo­gies do al­low is for us to it­er­ate faster and more ef­fi­ciently. It­er­a­tion is king in vfx. We might be able to in­clude more pho­to­real el­e­ments in our shots than be­fore, cre­ate higher res­o­lu­tion frames with more de­tail … but in the end, it’s about it­er­a­tion. The more op­por­tu­ni­ties we have to re­fine the work, the bet­ter it will be.

I strongly believe that vfx and post can be made ex­po­nen­tially more ef­fi­cient (thus al­low­ing for more, bet­ter it­er­a­tions and a much bet­ter end prod­uct) by in­te­grat­ing more closely and cre­atively with pro­duc­tion, start­ing with prep. Hav­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of di­rect­ing and shep­herd­ing two of my own projects through the en­tire process from script to screen has been in­cred­i­bly valu­able in this re­gard, and has only re­in­forced how im­por­tant it is to treat all of post as an in­te­grated part of pro­duc­tion. The lines be­tween prep, pro­duc­tion and post should blur, or even (gasp) be re­moved en­tirely. And the new tools avail­able to all of us, from the first words on the page to the fi­nal lay­back, are giv­ing us the abil­ity to do just that. ◆

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