Case study

Rocket Science Scales for Episodic VFX

Studio: Rocket Science
Visual Effects Supervisor/Producer: Chris Nokes
Artists: 85-90
Specialty: Episodic TV
Marquee work: Hannibal, The Expanse, Into the Badlands, The Boys

Shotgun Customer Q&A: Chris Nokes, Rocket Science

Founded by visual effects supervisors Tom Turnbull and Anthony Paterson, VFX studio Rocket Science works mostly in film and TV. From the outset, the founders’ established their studio as specialists in photo realistic visual effects (VFX), supervising teams with an emphasis on agility, adaptability, and storytelling continuity. This means when Rocket Science takes a project their supervisors and artists often take responsibility for the details but also for the broader contextual storytelling. Rocket Science creatives are known to produce shots that not only innovate but provide a deeper understanding of the project at large. That approach to differentiation has helped them grow as a studio: Since opening in 2003 with 20-30 artists, Rocket Science has gained recognition as a leader in the episodic TV boom, expanding to as many as 100. According to VFX Supervisor/Producer Chris Nokes, their development and strengths as a company comes from their ability to maintain a deep connection to the work while they continue to improve operational processes, rising to specific challenges on marquee shows like Hannibal, The Expanse, and Into the Badlands, The Boys, and Halo.

The challenge

Having been at Rocket Science for 10 years, Nokes remembers the growing pains well: “As we grew, each project brought an interesting combination of organizational issues—increased complexity of lighting and animation, a larger scale and greater volume of shots —that have brought us to where we are now,” he said. “Shotgun allows us to work smarter, not harder. That’s how we maintain and exceed quality in what we deliver. It’s all about communication and task management.”

Coming from feature films, Nokes first needed to adjust to Rocket Science having as many as 12 overlapping projects, all in different stages. At the time, the process was managed through Excel spreadsheets, FileMaker databases, picture boards, and a totally decentralized system of communications. And from his past experience with two other studios, he knew spending time and money on project management design was not a good use of their expertise. “Ultimately, my recommendation was to get an agile production management system.”

Adopting Shotgun

When the studio owners decided to test out Shotgun, Nokes understood there was a lot riding on its success. As a supervisor, he knew getting the most out of Shotgun right away meant asking artists, producers, leads and owners what would most help them. Within two months a natural buy-in from the studio took place with Shotgun at the center of it all, “Shotgun allowed us to automate and streamline the whole process.”

“For example, with Shotgun, we started the adoption process with client notes; and the team got used to getting notes and then sending them back. Within a month, we added another layer of complexity; and that’s how we build a project—no matter how complex—to this day,” he remembered. In fact, Nokes appreciates that Shotgun is a customizable production platform that has so many useful out-of-the-box features: “There are a lot of different people and teams using Shotgun, so it’s important to carefully choose which functionality is going to work for your studio and then introduce it gradually. It wasn’t long before everyone started taking it for granted that it wasn’t just magic happening.”

It’s important to carefully choose which functionality is going to work for your studio and then introduce it gradually. Then it isn’t long before everyone takes it for granted that it's just magic that's happening.

Key Features and Functionality

As the main Shotgun admin, Nokes insisted the tech remain as low-maintenance as possible. And now with departments for IT and technical direction, Nokes appreciates that the basic features of Shotgun have penetrated both Rocket Science, but also the rest of the industry, making onboarding new employees much easier. Here are some of Nokes go-to features:

Notes

Because Rocket Science was not starting out with a robust review process, it was logical to start with notes: “It immediately added some formality to the process. So a week later I could say, ‘What was that note again?’ and go back and discuss it with the artist." Now that the studio has grown, having one place for notes across multiple projects, multiple vendors, and multiple supervisors is very valuable.

Review

Next Nokes started introducing plates directly into Shotgun. “Before we’d be putting plates online and then we realized—since our intake process had gotten faster and tighter—we could actually add a step and generate something that's easily readable by Shotgun.” That means the minute an artist is assigned a task, they can click in it and see a Quicktime version of the plate right in Shotgun.

Tasks

Assigning tasks was the next layer Nokes added and with that came an observable window onto the whole process. “Centrally, I could see how many shots each person was assigned and—based on the expected workload and timeline—I knew when I’d need to talk to a producer about resources.”

Data Management

When pressed about his favorite feature, Nokes says he can’t live without Shotgun’s ability to help him manage data: “Shotgun lets me move data in and out of the database into an Excel sheet, so I can do what I need to do.” Now Nokes can take his budget and quickly add and update data directly from Shotgun: “When you're talking about complex projects and working with other companies, we can connect those Excel and Filemaker sheets very quickly—that makes Shotgun better than any system I could think of or design. To me, that's the killer app right there.”

Shotgun is a vital tool for internal and external communication, delivering quality work, and exceeding expectations with every project. Even now as a far more complex operation, RSVFX regularly reviews internal processes and finds new ways to use Shotgun and set themselves apart from the fierce competition. “If some aspect of a production is not meeting our high expectations, we use data from Shotgun to solve any problems we’re having within our process,” Nokes said. “This helps us adapt and avoid becoming siloed and slow like some of the bigger studios.”

With Rocket Science’s continued success, their goal is to stay agile and continue to “do things faster and better than the big guys.” Nokes pointed out that rising up to the constant pressure for regular deliveries and high expectations of episodic TV means “you can't wait. You have to be fairly aggressive and assertive in your approach, and that’s one of Rocket Science’s strengths. The amount of work that we're doing now is more than double than what we started—Shotgun has allowed us to scale up while maintaining high calibre work for clients without losing a connection to the work.”

Shotgun lets me move data in and out of the database and an Excel sheet, so I can do whatever I need to do. That makes Shotgun better than any system I could think of or design. To me, that's the killer app right there.