While the VFX industry has shifted rapidly to remote access during the global pandemic to keep content pipelines churning, thousands of practitioners have been forced to remain in their offices, putting themselves at risk. That’s because of pre-existing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) designed to protect intellectual property. As of Monday, though, nearly 10,000 VFX artists have banded together in support of working remotely, signing an online petition to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), launched by Mario Rokicki, a color supervisor at Double Negative in Vancouver.
“The NDAs that are forced on VFX Studios put artists and [staff] at [their] peril,” wrote Rokicki. “What was [a] minor inconvenience before is the major life risk situation with Coronavirus outbreak. VFX houses have or can quickly deploy secure technology solutions to allow work from home on the projects that with the magnitude of the pandemic will probably be delayed. All I ask is to put aside often legal misguided IP protection measures and harsh NDAs and allow tens of thousands of dedicated artists to work from home and prevent total VFX studios shutdown and layoffs.”
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In response, the Visual Effects Society (VES) lent its support through the following statement on Monday: “The Visual Effects Society wants to encourage all employers — large or small — to grant permission for their employees to work remotely during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. We understand the concerns around security to protect proprietary work product, but right now is the time for the utmost flexibility towards VFX artists and all practitioners as we try to figure our way through this crisis. Many companies are trying to take action, and we are optimistic that studios and vendors can find and enact workable solutions.”
Additionally, the VES Technology Committee issued a series of best practices guidelines for working from home, culled from studios, vendors, and facilities. These cover secure remote desktop solutions, bandwidth comparisons, cloud solutions, and, most important, secure file transfer solutions.
Indeed, security file transfer solutions remain the biggest concern for allowing employees to work at home, while the high cost of remote software makes it difficult for contract artists to do the same. However, some staffing is required at studios and smaller companies to keep the IT going and to move files. “Most of the studios have been amenable to it, in concept, but some companies have not been able to sort out how to let artists work from home because of the security aspects of it,” said Mike Chambers, visual effects producer (Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” still set to open July 17) and chair of the VES.
“In my case [with ‘Tenet’], we’re trying to move forward, but we’re doing a film finish and, visual effects wise, we only have one [vendor], which is Double Negative. Obviously, we’re dealing with the labs, FotoKem and IMAX, and other sundry vendors — film-based stuff — which absolutely affects our workflow.”
Meanwhile, IndieWire reached out to several VFX studios to get status updates, including Double Negative, which issued the following statement but did not specifically address Rokicki’s petition: “Our industry, like most other industries globally, is facing considerable challenges in responding to the new realities ahead. Our priority is always to provide a safe and sustainable workplace for our artists and employees across the world, and we are responding by deploying remote working for all those who can work from home, and following local government advice to ensure that we are always responsive to fast-changing priorities.
“Our Los Angeles team is fully remote working. All of our teams in North America, the UK, and India are already partly remote working, and those that can in our Vancouver, Montreal, and London teams will be fully-enabled for remote working in the next couple of days, allowing thousands of people to be safely at home with their families. The challenges are many, but we are making great strides forward, with the full backing of our clients.
“These uncertain times call for community, creativity and collaboration. Throughout our industry, remote technologies are being developed and tested on an unprecedented scale….We remain committed to responding with urgency to the challenges ahead, and we will continue to prioritize the security and health of our talented teams, keeping them protected and enabled at all times.”
Framestore (“The King’s Man,” “Tom & Jerry,” Wonder Woman 1984″), located in London, LA, New York, Chicago, Montreal, and Mumbai, is fully operational and working remotely. “Given the size of the workforce and the global dispersal of our offices, scale has been our biggest challenge,” said Fiona Walkinshaw, Framestore’s global managing director, Film. “Those who use laptops were able to work from home almost instantaneously, while a phased, strategic approach was required for teams who require specialist equipment.” Systems and support handled roll-out, calibration and acquiring new hardware. “Everyone is now out of the offices and we continue to work remotely on de-bugging and ensuring the teams are able to work,” she added.
Industrial Light & Magic is up and running at all five studios (San Francisco, London, Vancouver, Singapore, and Sydney), secure and delivering work as remotely as much as possible on 10 projects (including “The Mandalorian” Season 2, “A Quiet Place: Part II,” “No Time to Die,” “Jungle Cruise,” “Black Widow,” and “Space Jam 2”).
Sony Pictures Imageworks (“Connected,” “The Boondocks,” “Vivo”), headquartered in Vancouver, with an additional office in Culver City, is ensuring that everyone has the flexibility for remote work, social distancing, and family scheduling. The studio is now 90 percent transitioned and, last week, rolled out an updated remote solution on top of employees’ standard workstation setup at their desks. Imageworks also implemented strict social distancing efforts in office, and enacted enhanced facility cleaning regimens, including door handles, bathrooms, kitchen, and desks.
The Third Floor (“Black Widow,” Artemis Fowl,” “Jungle Cruise”), the industry’s busiest visualization studio (previs, postvis, VR), headquartered in LA, already had an advantage working remotely with filmmakers on location with real-time tools and virtual workflows. “When this crisis began, we initially faced the challenge of protecting our staff in Beijing, who were in the midst of launching our first permanent office in China,” said CEO/co-founder Chris Edwards. “When the virus started spreading beyond Wuhan, the first thing we did was send everyone home and connect them virtually. As a company, we learned a lot about the procedures for mitigating the risk of spreading the virus that we began to apply to our other offices in London, Atlanta, and LA.
“At our [LA] hub, we didn’t want to take the risk of being unprepared, so we authorized our IT team to increase our internet bandwidth tenfold, and build an advanced remote login system that could enable our artists to work fluidly and securely from home,” added Edwards, who worked with IT chiefs at major studios for advising and approving their comprehensive work-from-home solution. And the transition to a completely virtual studio became possible with the help of industry colleagues and suppliers when California Governor Gavin Newsom and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti issued the stay-at-home order.
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