What does going global mean for a VFX and animation studio?

Cinesite has done it, here’s how it offers clients and crew a whole new range of choices.

If you’ve been following along with the visual effects and animation industry over the past few years, one surprise may well be where Cinesite has landed.

The company, now in its 30th year, has expanded its London head office with studios in Montreal and Vancouver, and further extended its reach with partner facilities in Berlin and Munich, with Trixter, and Vancouver, with Image Engine.

Cinesite’s new global reach–across both VFX and animation–is significant for the multiple time zones, specialities and incentive availability it offers clients, and the locations in which its crew members can work (which is itself also changing in the current work from home paradigm).

Already the studio has delivered or has embarked on a diverse set of projects amongst these diverse studios, including the 6-part afrofuturism animation series for Walt Disney Animation Studios and Kugali called Iwaju, and the Netflix German-language original series Dark (season 3) and Tribes of Europa. Then there’s The Witcher, also on Netflix, which embraces the cultures of Polish and Slavic lore. Other projects that echo this disparate nature are Riverdance: The Animated Adventure and Respect, the film based on the life of Aretha Franklin.

To make these different projects, Cinesite has leveraged a raft of artistic and technical know-how to work across borders to bring different pipelines together, while still allowing its different studios to work independently. Cinesite has also, in some ways, changed the way it looks at crafting content to match the explosion in demand of feature films, animated features and streaming content.

To get a sense of all these changes at the studio, and the new wave of globalization in the VFX industry in general, befores & afters spoke candidly about the state of play at Cinesite with Drew Jones, Chief Business & Development Officer, who has previously worked at VFX studios such as Method Studios, MPC and Framestore.

b&a: How big is Cinesite right now?

Drew Jones: We’re looking at around 1200 people at the moment across the Cinesite group on the visual effects side. And, if I took an average of 250 to 300 per site, that would be pretty much what we are. It’s interesting that we’re almost similar sizes just naturally, in that respect. I think that means that we’re still able to keep an element of nimbleness about the group, in the sense that we are not so huge that we really need to just be moving work through, simply to keep the fire burning.

Drew Jones, Chief Business & Development Officer at Cinesite.

We do have an opportunity to mix and match projects and make a choice about what we want to work on, which of course is important, not just for the company’s outside vision, but also for the crew as well, so that they’re getting a sense that we are very willing to tackle many different types of work and not just fixate on one avenue.

In animation, having two teams, one based in Montreal, one based in Vancouver gives great opportunity. And, in effect, it sees us probably on the books as a 50/50, in terms of work and revenue coming through from animation, versus VFX.

b&a: What are the hard things–the main challenges–of having so many people across different borders and timezones?

Drew Jones: One of the challenges always when you have a global group is communication. So, each of those locations, in effect, operates autonomously. Part of the reason for keeping Trixter and Image Engine branded under their original names is that they have a following. And they have specialities in their own right. And, as much as, some groups may look to just instantly rebrand a company and bring it under the mother emblem, the notion was always taken to ensure that there was offering and choice for productions and clients.

A still from ‘Tribes of Europa’.

Sometimes that can feel like it works against you, because some people will perceive that you’re not actually as big as you appear to be, because we’re seen as the Cinesite group, but then often there will be separate conversations with Image Engine or Trixter. That’s really part of my role and position, which is to ensure that the message gets out, that we are connected and we communicate.

Even if we are three brand names, we come under one holistic group. Therein lies the challenge to ensure that the key players in those locations, the general managers and the key heads of production, are able to communicate easily with each other to get ideas across, whether they agree or they disagree. It’s very much a group approach to what we think is the best way to move forward on a particular project, or a particular idea. And I think we have a great communication line that runs between those operations.

b&a: I talked to the technical leadership at Cinesite recently for a podcast episode. From your perspective, what are some of the pipeline challenges having different studios within Cinesite in different places?

Drew Jones: Right now, London and Montreal are seamless. We are working towards bringing the Cinesite group, generally, closer in terms of its technical working operation. Whether that’s introducing lighting tools, such as Gaffer, or just engaging more closely on the base set of underlying tools.

But, from my perspective, when it gets down to a project management level, it’s like any project, you cut your cloth according to how you want to work. It’s very easy sharing assets across companies. There are always proprietary instances with aspects like rigging for instance, but every production, every studio, deals with multiple, multiple vendors. So, in a way, everyone has their bespoke pipeline, feeding into a delivery specification, which, ultimately, is the common ground.

We just try and work the most effectively and efficiently we can within the setup that we have. So, if we’re sharing work with Trixter from Cinesite in London, we’ll ensure that the relative technical conversations are had and we carve out that work according to the most efficient way forward, really, to take advantage of the pipeline as it exists, and where it is most malleable.

b&a: The work has changed, it feels to me, although in a different way. It feels like the quality you deliver for TV or streaming needs to be pretty much equivalent to film quality. How has that impacted Cinesite’s work in all these different locations?

Drew Jones: It’s interesting that the words film and TV have, perhaps, been moved aside and have been replaced with words such as feature and episodic. That’s really to encapsulate the fact that everything’s going to be seen on a screen. I also don’t think there’s ever been a notion to cut quality. The bar’s always been set high, and whether you’re working on an episodic project or a feature project, one is always aiming at that same bar. It’s just that perhaps you are driven by slightly different schedules, usually being a little bit tighter on the episodic work, which means that the interactive process perhaps goes through a few less iterations.

Cinesite is now a truly global visual effects outfit. Download a PDF version of this infographic here.

So, that old adage of, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s only TV.” Or just, “We’ll only take it so far.” That doesn’t really sit with anybody’s vision, because everybody, every single artist, every single supervisor, producer wants to deliver the absolute best work they can within the framework of time, schedule, budget.

It was, of course, the episodic work, which started to push everybody to work in 4K, because of the Netflix Originals contractual requirement to be delivered like that. It’s taken that we’ll be working in 4K in the majority of cases. That’s challenging in its own right, because it’s not always been easy to adjust the price point. And yet, we’ve had to take on the aspect of eight times the increased storage and render needs and so on for these projects. But, having all of that product out there, having the number of productions that are being shot increasing, offers so much more choice as well, which is great for everybody.

b&a: I was thinking, also, that the amount of work being done at the different locations means that there’s a really wide variety of work in terms of English language, German language, French speaking, which is interesting in itself for the crew at Cinesite.

Drew Jones: Yeah, there’s a huge variation of projects and language content that spans the globe. And I guess, within the language content and the localization of certain projects, comes a different storyline that maybe is attached to a certain region in the world, but has a global presence or an ability to travel globally. Projects such as Iwaju with Walt Disney Animation Studios, being the very first time in its 100-year history, that Disney is partnering with an independent production company (Kugali) and vendor (Cinesite) to create an animated television series like no other. And being able to share that with the world, and wonderful for us to be involved with. Also, series such as Dark and Tribes of Europa, German language shows, which were actually worked on in Montreal. I think that opens a lot of people’s eyes up to something bigger than just the industry that we’re working in. I find that always refreshing.

A first look image from ‘Iwaju’.

b&a: My final question is about your general thoughts on the globalization of the VFX industry, COVID threw a curve ball a little bit because it showed the industry that VFX artists can pretty much work from anywhere. It’s now clearly a globalized industry, but what does that mean? 

Drew Jones: That’s an interesting question really, because the pandemic has definitely thrown a few curve balls our way, for sure. We’ve had the dissipation of crew across the world. It hasn’t meant that those crew are not accessible. But, the location in which they are accessible has a counter effect on the financial side of things. So, in terms of qualifying labour in Canada, if you suddenly have half your original crew now based in Europe, they’re not qualifying. We’ve got this tenuous link between, well, they’re working for the company, but they’re remote, so they’re not paying their taxes in Canada, or they’re not located there. So, that has meant a shift in trying to understand how to build the teams, because productions are still wanting to chase those tax incentives.

Also, I think, there’s a challenge with the remote working. There is a whole slew of people who really enjoy working from home, but this is a community, we need our creative teams to be together. It’s great talking across a Zoom call, or a Google Hangout, or whatever. But, you and I both know, you don’t get the same sensibility that you do if you’re sitting in the room, talking to that person. And I have definitely found that when I’ve been into the office recently to have client meetings. It’s just been a joy to meet and talk.

We’re also constantly working to understand how to readjust to remote working. To ensure that people don’t burn out. It’s very difficult not to just keep working when you’re at home. There are no boundaries. That boundary of getting in a car and going to work, or on a train, sets your day and determines the parameters, which we no longer really have. But I think, it’s opened all of our eyes up to the fact that this is going to be the way that we’re going to be working in the future, in part. I think most companies are looking at hybrid solutions in some instances, and that’s certainly what we will be looking at.

Brought to you by Cinesite: This article is part of the befores & afters VFX Insight series. If you’d like to promote your VFX/animation/CG tech or service, you can find out more about the VFX Insight series here.

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