The pandemic has forced creative businesses of all kinds to totally rethink their working model: a baptism by fire that has put a new hybrid-working future to the test. When it comes to creating entertainment content, studios packed with state-of-the-art kit with eye-watering processing power suddenly had to decamp and operate remotely – without breaking stride.
“Just because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, studios aren’t getting a pass,” reflects Robert Hoffmann, senior worldwide industry manager for media & entertainment at Lenovo. “Locked at home, we’re still craving new and fresh content. We can’t let infrastructure be a barrier between artists and what they’re trying to create. Regardless of the situation, they need to be able to create and iterate as quickly as possible, and often.”
With a birds-eye view of the media and entertainment industry, Hoffmann has seen the pendulum swing completely away from traditional working over the past year – and he can’t see it swinging back again. “We’ll see a more hybrid production approach,” he says. “Artists have been working remotely and delivering on expectations from both a quality and timing standpoint, and I think a lot of studios have been pleasantly surprised by what’s possible.”
EXCELLING UNDER TIGHT CONSTRAINTS
This is certainly true at Framestore: with a track record of creating award-winning VFX for blockbuster movies, flagship TV shows and best-in-class ads, the global studio adapted quickly to the necessity of remote-working. “The last year has taught us that working from home was more achievable than we had anticipated,” reflects Lottie Cooper, Framestore’s managing director of advertising, TV and immersive.
“Our productivity didn’t dip much, apart from the time it took to get crew online. We were really pleased at the number of projects we delivered remotely to schedule,” she continues. “Once we were back on-set, many of our processes were streamlined as we needed to have fewer people there. That really helped the decision-making and approvals processes.”
“Motion design and animation has been one of the more pandemic-proof areas of the media,” suggests Adam Jenns, founder and director at creative production studio Mainframe, with a 20-year heritage in producing innovative commercials and branded content for global brands. “There have been ups and downs, but we’ve been lucky in the grand scheme of things.”
Much of Mainframe’s 3D work demands serious GPU capability: “That means multiple graphics cards in big black boxes,” says Jenns. Remote desktop solutions have proved invaluable to plug its artists into the studio from afar, maintaining the calibre of the studio’s output with minimal interruption to the process. “It’s interesting going into an empty studio and seeing artists beavering away on monitors on unmanned desks,” he adds.
Mindful of such requirements, Lenovo partners with Mechdyne to offer TGX remote solutions that enable artists to work remotely more easily on high-fidelity creative work – and do so securely. “You can remote into a powerful computer cluster with enormous CPU and GPU capabilities, with latency so low that’s it’s not perceivable,” explains Hoffmann.
FINDING THE PERFECT BALANCE
Another global VFX and production studio at the very top of its game across the full gamut of film, TV and advertising output, Moving Picture Company has put plenty of thought into the ideal sweet-spot to maintain creative excellence in a hybrid-working future.
“We’ve always believed in being together to execute creative work. Meeting each other and sharing thoughts and ideas pushes us all forward,” says Jonathan Davies, managing director of MPC’s London and Amsterdam studios. “We now are fully remote, and still executing at a very high level. But the big challenge is creating something that sits in the middle.”
“The companies who perfect this will be the success stories of the future,” Davies continues. “We’ve found that collaboration has improved over larger projects and initiatives, but smaller executions in a remote world are more difficult. You miss the quick conversations when people are located together.”
Jenns believes three days in the studio would be an ideal sweet spot for most of Mainframe’s artists, with two days working remotely. “It’s not a perfect system, but it means most of the IT headaches are confined to the studio,” he continues. “As we’re still working from a central server, we know that hourly backups are taking place and all the important data is in one place at the end of a job.”
TOP-FLIGHT CREATIVITY ON THE MOVE
As mobile workstations become more powerful, Framestore’s Lottie Cooper believes there may be an increase in the amount of VFX work that can be done on location. “On set we ensure that we capture the best data and images to create the most seamless, high-quality images,” she explains. “Whether on location or on set, we’re already providing assistance to visualise the VFX quickly to aid the director and clients in their decision making.”
As Hoffmann points out, one of the most expensive parts of a big-budget shoot is when 100-plus people are sitting around waiting for the director to make a decision, for the talent to deliver a line, or for a scene to be set up. “Having an office-like experience remotely allows for greater efficiencies at the time when production is most expensive – on set,” he says.
High-end mobile workstations, such as Lenovo’s ThinkPad T15g, now have processing and graphics capabilities that can rival their desktop counterparts, enabling artists to start blocking out VFX-heavy scenes while still on set, making the whole post-production process more efficient and streamlined.
“We can work in any location depending on the demands of the project,” agrees MPC’s Jonathan Davies, although he adds that over the past year the mindset has shifted in terms of how necessary it is to get on location in the first place. “With better technology and communication, I would like to see fewer people flying around the world, when that work can be done to a high standard remotely,” he adds.
BETTER ACCESS TO WORLD-CLASS TALENT
According to Hoffmann, the general shift from physical to virtual collaboration will also benefit both artists and studios in terms of recruiting and retaining the best people for the job. “Artists are a hot commodity,” he says. “Studios compete for the exact same talent, and there are massive costs associated with recruiting them – whether you’re moving them from a city close by, or in some cases halfway around the world.”
“Social distancing has forced studios to explore and implement technologies that enable a remote work environment, and in doing so, they’ve solved one of their biggest problems,” he continues. “It may not be feasible to move the artist to the studio, but you can move the studio to the artist.”
Increasingly remote workflows will also reduce the need for large office space in expensive areas of London, New York or LA. “Out of bad things good things can happen,” continues Hoffmann. “Just because it’s been done this way all along, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most efficient, or the most cost-effective, or the best way for the health of employees.”
“Will we claim that everything’s perfect? No. Production wasn’t perfect before social distancing, and people will always try to increase efficiency and creative capabilities,” he concludes. “But it’s less about tech, and more about the mindfulness we all need to take that leap of faith.”
Read more about Lenovo workstations at techtoday.lenovo.com/workstations/m&e