The Evolution of a VFX House
‘ 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, visit www.artifexstudios.com.
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. ◆