Digital FX Supervisor Andranik Taranyan and Director of Pipeline Chris Reid explain how automation and pipeline efficiencies with Shotgun enables Encore’s episodic VFX specialists to deliver upwards of 10K shots for a single TV season out of its Burbank studio.
The talented artists at Encore create VFX for episodic projects that range from subtle touches for heightened realism to otherworldly supervillains. With VFX teams in its locations in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Atlanta, Encore is part of the Deluxe family, with credits including The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and SEAL Team, among others.
Tell us about your background.
Andranik: I started at Encore about six years ago as a freelance compositor, then grew into taking the lead on shows and became a Comp Supervisor. Currently, I'm a Digital Effects Supervisor and am able to help devise flexible interdepartmental workflows.
Chris: I spent about five years freelancing for Encore, and about a year ago joined full time as Director of Pipeline. Together with Andranik we’ve built an amazing team of developers that really understands production and actively designs and implements our ever evolving pipeline. Shotgun’s simple API allows our code to easily work with the data Shotgun manages.
How does having an artist's perspective influence your approach to pipeline?
Andranik: Having pretty much no pipeline for years made us find workarounds for some of the really simple things. I knew first hand which tasks were taking too long and where we could improve our efficiencies. Many questions and issues had come up over the years and the answers to these questions is what helped shape our current workflow.
What tools make up your pipeline?
Andranik: We primarily use 3ds Max, Maya, Nuke and Hiero, and they’re all hooked together in Shotgun. We also use Nuke Studio, Houdini, Z-Brush and Photoshop, and rely heavily on Encomp, which is something we built into Nuke, to tie into Shotgun, and allows us to reduce file system interaction from a compositing standpoint, and better manage assets for shots. When our artists have Nuke open using Encomp, the things they need, like the latest references, plates, 3D elements or camera track, are right in front of them and they don’t have to be in a file system and hunt through folders. They can view things like the latest 3D renders or latest animation to make sure they’re using the correct assets or see when a shot is due directly in Nuke. All that information is pulled from Shotgun and presented in an easy to use and simple interface.
Chris: Our main platform is Windows, though all the code we write is tested to work across Windows, Linux and Mac. At our pipeline’s core is a Shotgun ORM that handles everything from ingestion to deliveries and everything in between. We can also flip a switch in the ORM to force Shotgun to use our staging server, which allows for quicker, safer, uninterrupted testing through our development phases. Once our code is tested, we can push it to production and back to our Shotgun server without any downtime.
How many artists interact with Shotgun on a daily basis?
Andranik: I’d say pretty much all our artists and production staff across offices use Shotgun daily – over 250 people.
Before we had our current system in place, it was more like the Wild West and every show producer or coordinator would organize things their own way."
How does Encore manage working on so many shows simultaneously?
Andranik: We’ve set things up so artists aren’t show specific, but rather float according to specialty. We like everyone to have a general understanding of all shows and then we can shift talent around based on need. It keeps things fresh for the artists as well so they don’t get bored doing the same thing for an entire season. Before we had our current system in place, it was more like the Wild West and every show producer or coordinator would organize things their own way. It got really complicated and we had to take a step back. We have come a long way in the review process and having Shotgun and RV integration is definitely very helpful. Our review process is based heavily on RV – Shotgun doing all the legwork but RV being on the front end of it.
Andranik: How things come together definitely plays a big role in how fast shots are reviewed and how many shots come in and out of this facility. We’re looking at turning around 10K shots this season, we started with The Flash, then Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow; all these new shows kept getting added so we expanded, but it didn’t happen overnight and that gave us time to really think about how we were going to accomplish everything. With Shotgun, you can track 20 shots or, as we’re tracking now, thousands of shots; it’s great to be able to expand with the workload.
Chris: Every Shotgun project has a set of data that represents its needs and differences such as specific client delivery options, CDLs, FPS and more. At any level in the pipeline, if a tool needs access to this data, it is live and easily accessible. Shotgun allows you to organize and structure your data to work for you and your specific and ever-changing needs.
In some cases, a shot can come in and be back in the clients’ hands within an hour."
Andranik: Our editorial IO department can pull up to 200 shots in one day and it really speeds things up. We can go from having no plates and no shots created in Shotgun one minute to having 30-40 shots ingested a few hours later and we’re ready to go pretty much right away. In some cases, a shot can come in and be back in the clients’ hands within an hour. That’s going through all the steps – clients sending EDL, IO pulling down files, the artists doing what’s needed and publishing to Shotgun. That’s how quickly shots can come in and out with our schedule. That’s not to say all shots are like that; we spend weeks developing some looks, and having Shotgun with all that information readily available is really powerful.
Walk me through how Shotgun is used at Encore.
Andranik: We track pretty much everything from assets to shots through Shotgun. Having the ability to go down to the task level and organize it in that way, is really helpful. For every asset, there’s a specific task that you can add to track it in the database. Reminders come in, and artists and production staff can communicate through Shotgun. We’ll get plates from the client, ingest them into Shotgun and then everything pretty much flows from there. All the artists have what they need as far as what plates to work on and any references sent by the client, and they’ll be able to start Nuke or 3ds Max scripts, which are tracked in Shotgun. Anything published out of Nuke, 3ds Max and Maya, basically all the departments, interact with Shotgun, not just with the UI but also from the backend to be able to publish any assets into Shotgun.
Chris: Every version we create through the production pipeline is tracked in Shotgun along with its dependencies and other valuable metadata.
What are your favorite Shotgun features?
Andranik: I like that I can create custom pages and track multiple shows at the same time. Shotgun is a very good base for being able to expand on.
Chris: From my point of view one of Shotgun’s invaluable features is data modification logging. This is important when dealing with bugs and issues that may arise in production. That being the case, any modifications to your data is logged through a history stack. This allows you to quickly go back and see why something broke and find out where or when it happened. On top of that, fields are easily modifiable to lock, hide or make read-only. You can do this at a group level which makes it ideal for keeping data safe. Shotgun is impressive as to how customizable it is for your specific needs. And there is so much already implemented, such as its connection to RV.
Andranik: We use our assets across shows, maybe 300-400 different assets are being tracked in Shotgun, things like characters, vehicles and props. They can be tracked to a specific show, but we also use them across multiple shows by making simple adjustments. For example, we’ll have The Flash in various costumes or outfits; anytime we make an adjustment, it’s tracked in Shotgun. And we handle a lot of crossover episodes so it’s nice to have all the assets we might need accessible.
Any information that we have from the client or that we’ve figured out internally gets put into Shotgun, because at some point in time, some tool we’ve written or built into Shotgun is using that information. Chris and his guys take care of the backend so artists can focus on completing the work, and not necessarily worrying about the technical issues that come with managing a high volume of shots.
Anytime a human inputs data it introduces a level of error or uncertainty...If you can automate data input and eliminate discrepancies by standardizing different types of data to one convention, your pipeline will quickly become more efficient."
Chris: Anytime a human inputs data it introduces a level of error or uncertainty. A simple typo like a hyphen instead of an underscore, or a misspelling is far too easy. If you can automate data input and eliminate discrepancies by standardizing different types of data to one convention, your pipeline will quickly become more efficient. Once a facility implements these concepts not just to their artists, but to IO, producers, coordinators, developers and optimizes every vein of their workflow, their pipeline will reach its optimal efficiency and reliability from start to finish.
Why is it important to pay close attention to your pipeline?
Andranik: Pipeline helps make everything more automated and efficient. It lets artists be artists – all the relevant information is tracked in Shotgun and fed to them without them really knowing what’s going on behind the scenes so all they’re really doing is concentrating on making pretty images and being able to quickly render.
Chris: Most studios share a very common workflow defined by the standardized needs and timelines of production. 80-90% of the workflows are driven by the nature of the industry, it is that magic 10-20% that defines your pipeline and your effectiveness. Tools like Shotgun seamlessly blend those standards while also allowing you the freedom to work your magic, thus giving you “your” edge.