We had the opportunity to speak with Ahren Morris, producer for indie film group Snowgum Films based in Melbourne, Australia. Snowgum produces corporate videos, commercials and music video projects and most recently started working on Troll Bridge, an adaptation of the Terry Pratchett story of the same name.
Tell us about Snowgum and the type of projects you work on.
Snowgum is a true indie outfit. When I joined it was pretty much a group of people who got together on weekends and shot crazy short films involving unusual situations and lots of fake blood. We were moderately successful at some of this, but Snowgum was formed to tell the stories we wanted to make.
That’s why we decided to make Troll Bridge. Its theatrical cut is a 30-minute blend of live action photography, digital characters and a digital set. We shot plates on the Southern Alps of New Zealand, in a studio in Melbourne and a dried up lake bed in as close to nowhere as we could get. It’s a mostly crowd-funded project and we usually describe it as ‘epic’.
Is your team working in multiple locations?
Our Troll Bridge volunteer post-production crew is one of the most distributed VFX teams in history. We are split across 17 countries and to my knowledge none of the approximately120 members share a work location with anyone else. Every discipline is represented from concept art through to color grading. Right now, this production pretty much lives and breathes on Shotgun. For Snowgum Films, Shotgun is the perfect blend of workflow management tooling and a collaborative, creative environment. Our artists enjoy working with it and anything they enjoy doing, means our content looks even better.
As our crew doesn’t get to see each other face to face, having a place online where they can see what everybody else is working on is incredibly motivating."
How did you first hear about Shotgun?
I have to give credit to our VFX Supervisor Christian Bloch for this. We knew we were going to have data and management issues with post on Troll Bridge, but Christian was equally concerned about his artists having a collaborative environment to work in. He’d worked with it on a previous project and was impressed by the interaction and almost social nature of it. As our crew doesn’t get to see each other face to face, having a place online where they can see what everybody else is working on is incredibly motivating.
What tools do you use in-house?
A sewing machine, heat gun, Makita cordless, 2 meter step ladder, paint brushes (everything from ultra-fine to roller) every so often a scissor lift, but I don’t have a license for that, I just borrow a friend’s. In the digital field, aside from Shotgun, we use a lot of The Foundry software to make Troll Bridge. Our digital trolls are all done in Modo and we use Nuke for all our plate prep and comp work.
What are your favorite features of Shotgun and what do you primarily use it for?
I’ve described accessing the Overview as being like Christmas, every day. As a Producer, being able to regularly monitor as bits and pieces come in is extremely rewarding as I know that each version of each task brings the project that much closer to delivery.
The Shots page is a great way to take the temperature of where things are at, at a quick glance. We use a lot of color-coding on our task status, so a lot of green is obviously good. As a lot of our crew is volunteer our timelines are rather fluid, so I’ve not yet been able to get into Scheduling much, but the OCD part of me is hankering for the next project so as to map that functionality out in detail.
What makes Snowgum interesting?
Snowgum always tries to push just pass the edge of what should be achievable with our people and resources. It means the crew working with us are likely to have their boundaries stretched, but nobody ever seems to back down from that challenge. As they excel, so do we.
What’s a day in the life for you like?
I wake up and check my phone for overnight emails or anything urgent. Then it’s off to my day job where I’ll log onto Shotgun when my boss isn’t looking, then giggle with glee for five minutes. Lunch break is a good time for a phone call to my Director Daniel Knight or an email to a department head. During the afternoon I’ll sneakily start making a list of things I need to do that night. Home from the day job, dinner and quality time with my very understanding wife, then it’s Shotgun on one screen and email on the other. A Producer’s job is not glamorous, it’s all about keeping the ball rolling, removing blocks and making sure that information is getting to where it needs to go. Our crews are in wildly different time zones so evening tends to be the best time to communicate. Rinse and repeat.
What are the three most important things in your office?
My phone, my workstation and my beer fridge.
How much effort do you focus on building out the pipeline?
My Director Daniel and I are practical filmmakers so coming over to the world of high end digital post was a huge jump for us. Getting the first pass of our pipeline up involved a lot of conversations with some very smart people, but it has been an iterative process. Several months ago we realized some aspects were misaligned. Shotgun gave us the flexibility to re-design our approval gates and workflow, without losing the existing data. Our artists (apart from some new mandatory fields) barely noticed the changes, but it gave the Production Team exactly what we needed.
Why is it important to pay such close attention to your pipeline?
The aspect of digital post that I’ve found most challenging is scale. The raw volume of things that need to be tracked and reviewed and made to work together is pretty eye opening. Life at Snowgum has always included a fair element of learning on the go, but when you’re dealing with hundreds of shots and thousands of tasks, keeping everything moving requires constant attention.
What inspires you?
Seeing people achieve things they didn’t think they could.
What is your favorite thing about working in your city?
Melbourne is easily recognized as Australia ‘arts capital’. There are people involved in out-there/experimental art and there are highly skilled professionals earning their coin creating stuff they love. It can be a crazy mixed up place sometimes and there is always something new out your front door if you’re ready to go look.
When you aren’t working, what’s the ideal way to spend a day in your city?
At a BBQ with my friends dreaming up Snowgum’s next big adventure.
What led you to visual effects?
As a filmmaker I feel VFX should be about taking something that started out looking pretty great and pushing it into awesome.
What is the biggest challenge in running a studio today?
The biggest challenge for Snowgum and Troll Bridge today actually stems from our recent past. The work delivered by our cast, production and post-production crews has exceeded our wildest expectations. Our task is now to see that carried through to delivery and a completed film they are as proud to see, as we have been in making.