We recently had the chance to chat with Gavin Greenwalt of Seattle-based animation, motion graphics, and VFX shop Straightface Studios. The boutique shop uses Shotgun to keep project management quick, easy, and intuitive so that artists can spend more time being creative.
What is your title?
We’re not big on formality here so my “official” title is Executive Vice President of Pixel Merges and Acquisitions, but basically that translates into being a CG and VFX supervisor. I work both on set and on the post side doing a lot of compositing, lighting and CG supervision.
How big is Straightface Studios?
We have a core team of 5-6 people and then we scale up based on projects. That’s one of the best things about Shotgun and why it’s so important to our pipeline - we can bring in freelancers quickly and get them going without a lot of orientation. We also need them to be able to work collaboratively, so if we work with artists in LA or New York we have that framework where everyone can be on the same page even if they’re not in the same office.
Tell us about Straightface and the type of projects you work on.
We were founded 16 years ago by Don Lange who was a lighting director for film and TV but wanted to expand into post. 3D was a natural extension for him to be able to apply his existing on-set lighting skills to the virtual world. Regardless of whether you use a V-Ray light or an Arri light on set, it’s all about creating great imagery by placing and shaping light. I started here ten years ago, and we’re a loyal group so most of our employees have been here at least 10 years which is incredibly rare in this industry.
We mostly do commercial work. Our reputation was really built off of product lighting for T-Mobile. At one point our work was featured in every T-Mobile TV-spot on-air. Keeping up with the pace of new product and campaign updates literally every week gave us the opportunity to demonstrate how CG could dramatically accelerate schedules over photography while simultaneously increasing the quality.
We also do production work, and recently finished a series of commercials for GlaxoSmithKline. We handled everything from pre-production and filming, all the way through editorial, post and finishing. We have great production and post foundations, so we can find the best looking and most cost effective solutions whether it’s practical or CG. We also do a lot of work for local Seattle companies like Amazon and Microsoft.
We just finished an all-CG animation for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. After over 30 years of using Maurice Sendak’s Nutcracker sets, PNB decided to redesign their sets with Ian Falconer, illustrator and artist for the “Olivia the Pig” books. As part of this whole re-concepting of the show they wanted us to set the stage with a new opening overture. Where normally the Ballet would open to a painting on a curtain, we created three minutes of animation to set the tone and context for everything to come. Shotgun was essential on this because we had so many assets – over 1.5 million 3D trees, 8,540 3D bushes, 287 3D buildings, and 7 3D mice – so there were a lot of moving pieces to keep track of. Everyone was working in parallel on the project – I was working on lighting and look dev, someone else was working on fluid sims, someone else was modeling assets, and someone else was creating trees. Just to be able to see across the entire project where everything was, the latest versions, and comments specific to each asset in the entire giant landscape, was really useful.
We’re currently working on another curtain call with more animation and some live action as well; we'll be filming some of the dancers on stage and compositing them into this virtual landscape to further connect the ballet to the animation.
Is your team working in multiple locations? If so, where are they based? How many people are using Shotgun?
Everyone in the company is using Shotgun to some degree. Our core team is in Seattle, but we have worked with freelance artists plugging in remotely throughout the US, Vancouver, and Mumbai. We want access to the best talent regardless of where they call home. We give someone a Shotgun login, assign them tasks, and they can see notes from anywhere. It's a nice, easy way to keep track of 20 artists around the world.
What are your favorite features in Shotgun?
We make great use of the web review tool. Before Shotgun, we were relying on email, so being able to remove all the ambiguity by commenting directly on a specific video is really helpful. Instead of referencing “frame 236” in an email and trying to describe a proposed revision, I love being able to just go to frame 236, add a note, and mark up the frame. Then, the artist receives an image right in their inbox of that frame with the exact comment that applies to their shot. It saves a great deal of time and prevents errors and miscommunication. That’s my favorite Shotgun feature right now.
We have an unusual Shotgun deployment because most people are usually asking for more features, but we’re a smaller facility and have users with a wide-range of technical backgrounds, so more often than not we prefer things to be simplified and streamlined. A day for us is very fast paced with quick turnarounds, so everything we do with Shotgun has to be unobtrusive and fast. One of the nice things about the Shotgun team is how responsive they are to customer needs. They really do take studios like us into consideration when they’re developing their product roadmap.
An example of that would be when the media playback software was released. Initially, you had to sign up for an account through Shotgun and enter a password to view media. Our feedback was that it would be too large of an obstacle for our clients. So, Shotgun offered us a password-free option where people can open a link in an email and look at the media immediately. That’s an example of offering a simpler solution than some customers might need but still servicing everyone.
What content creation tools do you use in-house?
3ds Max and V-Ray are our bread and butter on the 3D side, and then Nuke for compositing. We also use Maya, Mari, Photoshop, and Deadline. We don’t want to dictate what software our freelance artists use; we want to be flexible on our end so that we aren’t cutting off any portion of the population just because they’re more comfortable using a different tool. We’re also in the process of integrating Shotgun's Toolkit into our pipeline to take advantage of the interface for 3ds Max and Nuke.
What makes Straightface Studios tick?
I think what really defines us is that we are a bottom-up company that focuses on the artists who do the work. We just want to create cool work and have fun doing it with a good work-life balance. We’re a 9am-6pm company, we don’t book a lot of overtime and we don’t have a lot of crunches, and we feel that tools like Shotgun are essential to that. Usually overtime and crunches aren’t from the project itself but from failures at the project management level, so we believe that with good planning we can work smarter. We’re not trying to dictate our vision to the world, we want to collaborate with our clients and help realize their visions.
Why is it important to pay close attention to your pipeline?
Time is money, and every minute an artist is focusing on project management or looking for an email is a huge waste of money. Shotgun helps us manage that straight out of the box. We’re paying people because they’re amazing artists, not to hunt for feedback in their Outlook inbox. We’ve made investments in great artists and that’s what we want them to be doing, creating art.
What do you do to stay connected to the artist community?
We’re members of a number of user groups and frequent the 3ds Max and Shotgun forums. There are also some good Facebook groups out there like the Nuke group. It’s good to remain in touch with these web communities because you meet great new artists and connect directly with companies and can bend their ear, like Shotgun. I also go to tradeshows like NAB and SIGGRAPH. Both are great opportunities to meet up with people and just have good one-on-one discussions about what they’re looking for and what we can do to help them get there.
What is your favorite thing about working in Seattle?
It’s a gorgeous city, we’re surrounded on one side by mountains and on the other by ocean. It’s green and alive, you can go skiing or wakeboarding, there’s a vibrant art scene, great food, and just generally a good culture. I think we reflect that laid-back culture in our company.
What led you to visual effects?
I spent a summer in Singapore when I was in middle school. My dad was teaching there for a semester, and I wanted to make characters for a game. Someone online had posted a tutorial using the Rhino3D beta, so I spent a lot of that summer in the computer lab learning how to create game assets. Once I got back I continued pursuing it. I was really inspired by the MechWarrior 2 opening cinematic and wanted to make my own but the final cherry on top was when I saw the Star Wars special editions, which I know are much loathed, but the shot where the new CG X-wings fly past Yavin and you see the pilots’ heads looking around—that was it, I was hooked, I just knew that that was what I was going to do.
What is the biggest challenge in running a studio today?
The biggest challenge is that timelines are getting shorter, expectations are getting larger, and budgets are shrinking as advertising moves away from TV. We’re facing pressure on all 3 sides of the fast/good/cheap triangle. Where on a TV-spot, companies will have pretty reasonable budgets and longer timelines, now the focus seems to be on cranking out something for social media by the end of the week. That’s where Shotgun and other tools like it come into play. We have to keep finding ways to work more efficiently so that the quality of our product doesn’t suffer. We’re constantly working to find ways to bring film caliber VFX to YouTube or Vine budgets.