VFX Legion has the unique distinction of being a virtual visual effects company. While maintaining a small office of production staff in Burbank, California, the company’s expanding and contracting team of between 30-50 artists are spread across more than six countries. James Hattin, founder of VFX Legion, explains the benefits and unique challenges of operating under this business model and how having Shotgun at the center of it all is instrumental in keeping the company afloat.
Tell us about your company.
We started the company in 2012 as a television and feature film visual effects facility. Our work leans heavily on the compositing side, and we’re also starting to grow our 3D pipeline. Our claim to fame is that we are entirely remote, and all of our artists work from their homes or personal studios from locations all over the world. We have worked on television shows like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and feature films, which include Insidious 3 and Jem and the Holograms.
How many artists do you have on staff and how do you recruit?
We have between 30-50 active artists at any given time and mostly recruit through referrals and word-of-mouth. We maintain an office in Burbank, California with a staff of 10 production managers, coordinators, VFX supervisors and producers.
How did the company get started?
The concept for a remote or virtual VFX company originated when I used to live in Sacramento while maintaining a visual effects job in Santa Monica, and it was in 2001 when I set up a rudimentary version of our current model. Due to the technology limitations of the times, I was duplicating data in Sacramento and Santa Monica, keeping After Effects composites and Electric Image renders in both places to always have files available because back then, the Internet speeds couldn't adequately transfer large QuickTime files. This set up enabled me to do screen shares with directors and supervisors from wherever I was at any given time. I later spent some years working at Zoic, and it was there that I first started using Shotgun. When it came time to start my own company, I knew that Shotgun would be a key part of making our model work. Our first movie at VFX Legion was Stretch from Joe Carnahan, we had 400 shots to complete and ended up delivering them after a long hiatus in just 10 days. That helped us prove that we could do anything with this model.
Unlike a traditional facility with one server in a room, we are wholly dependent on our pipeline to communicate with artists to make sure that naming schemes and workflows are the same, so that to the outside world we are indistinguishable from a traditional VFX facility."
Why is it important to focus on pipeline, and how much time do you spend on development?
It is the most important thing for us, because unlike a traditional facility with one server in a room, we are wholly dependent on our pipeline to communicate with artists to make sure that naming schemes and workflows are the same, so that to the outside world we are indistinguishable from a traditional VFX facility. We actually have to be extra buttoned up! We mostly use what Shotgun has to offer off-the-shelf, but are also working to get Toolkit’s integrated with Nuke and Maya tools configured into our pipeline. For security purposes, we’re also working on encryption for our users and a new way to control assets.
What role does Shotgun play at VFX Legion?
It’s the lifeblood of this studio. On the front end, we use it for shot assignments, shot reviews, and always do a first pass review to make sure artists are getting their shots right in the first place. The artists publish to Shotgun from wherever they’re based and we review everything here in Burbank. We’ve also been building tools to leverage the Shotgun API so that we can automate Aspera transfers without artists having to do anything manually. We also have an artist portal website where they can input their availability and schedule, and can also see their latest tasks and shot assignments. All of the information on that portal comes through Shotgun, and anything additional added by artists is collected from Shotgun in the background. It’s an essential part of how we do business.
[Shotgun] is the lifeblood of this studio. On the front end, we use it for shot assignments, shot reviews, and always do a first pass review to make sure artists are getting their shots right in the first place."
Tell me about the artists at VFX Legion, where they’re based and how they get up and running.
Some of our artists are full time staff, and for some of them this is a nights/weekend freelance job. When we get stellar artists we do our best to bring them on full time. We have several on staff now who work on our TV shows where deadlines demand having accessibility during normal business hours. Our artists are based in New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Canada, Germany and all across the United States. We have a standard operating procedure for bringing new artists on board. Once they’ve signed an NDA, they get a login for Shotgun and Aspera, training on our naming conventions and how we work and pretty soon we start assigning them shots in Shotgun.
Does this model allow you to work more cost effectively?
Absolutely, our overhead is hands down much lower than a traditional facility. I don’t have to buy machines because artists use their own hardware. Most of them also own software licenses because they’re used to working as independent contractors. In a traditional VFX facility model, you need a massive network and overhead. With Shotgun, Aspera and good communication, we don’t need any of that. We use cineSync and Zoom to stay in touch and have regular meetings on long-term projects.
What tools do you use in-house?
We use Maya, Nuke, Adobe Creative Suite, DaVinci Resolve, Avid for editing, SynthEyes for tracking, though some of our overseas guys use 3D Equalizer, Modo and Redshift for rendering, it’s an amazing GPU accelerated renderer. Maya, Nuke and After Effects are our primary creative applications though.
What is the biggest challenge in running a studio today?
Our biggest challenge is managing the work—it’s having a tight enough control over the work itself and knowing who is doing what at all times;, that will never not be the most important element of our success. Our artists are great and we have a lot of amazing self-starters. The struggle and ongoing challenge we face is staying on top of each and every detail, deliverable and timeline. Other VFX companies have tried and failed at this ‘virtual company’ model but luckily our recipe and process seems to be working!
What led you to visual effects?
I found out I could do it! When I was about 25, my high school buddy Jason Hill, who is at Blizzard now, told me to get a Mac. I got a Power Mac 7500, an early version of ElectricImage and After Effects, and figured out pretty quickly that I could make cool things in 3D. I’ve been doing it ever since!
What’s a day in the life of like for you?
I start reading emails at 7AM and stop reading them at 10PM. I’m generally at the office by 9:30 and do my best to manage our 24-hour workflow in a reasonable 12 hour day, but all of our people are wildly connected. You never stop being aware of what’s going on. Right now we have nine projects we’re working on simultaneously, and I’m looking at nine tabs open in Shotgun. When I get in each morning, I go over emails, and then start going through Shotgun to see what was published overnight, start reviewing shots and give notes, and then approve what’s finished to deliver. In that case, I’ll flip shots up to RV, load up the DPX frames to do a final QC pass. Typically there’s a meeting or a lunch, then back to keeping an eye on Shotgun, meetings with production staff and the occasional diversion into Twitter and Facebook to stay on top of the latest news.
What are the three most important things in your office?
My office houses the firewall and the drives—so those are pretty high up there!
Top three though are my Aeron chair, my standing desk for when I’m not sitting and my computer.
What inspires you?
I love visual effects. I love the magic of the craft, the fact that we are magicians, changing what people see, faking people out constantly. Even simple things like rig removals or green screens, people can’t tell what’s been done to bring a scene to life and that’s really cool.
How do you do to stay connected to the artist community?
Twitter and Facebook! I personally don't make it out to user group meetings very often.
When you aren’t working, what’s the ideal way to spend a day in your city?
An ideal day not working is hanging out with family, taking my kids to Disneyland, bowling, or going to a movie at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks.