I joined Triggerfish in 2019 as Stereoscopic Supervisor during production of Seal Team. However due to Covid-19 and the closure of 3D-Theaters the demand for stereo films dried up over night. The final nail in the 'stereo coffin' came when Netflix bought the rights and all stereo work was halted. Triggerfish asked me to oversee the production as CG Supervisor and as I began chatting with supervisors & artists I discovered that the current pipeline was extremely outdated and required many hacky & manual steps to keep productions flowing. Many artists did not know where to find assets they required to do their work, and many hours were lost digging through the network. Many tools and DCCs had been bolted onto the pipeline as stop gaps, such as Houdini. Everything had to be managed by hand and tracked by production, from artists manually caching animation to edit not knowing which video capture they should bring onto the timeline. I could sense the production delays were mounting and the artists becoming extremely frustrated.
Retrospectives & Project Goals
In Oct 2020, I was able to convince the owners that the time had come for a comprehensive overhaul of the pipeline. Running roughly 3 months of retrospectives, whilt wrapping Seal Team. We met with each department and delved into the intricacies of inputs/outputs and workflows, pinpointing areas of success as well as where they had struggled. I had made sure to ask the same set of questions to everyone, and from this I distilled all of my notes down the fundamental needs and requirements of the studio as a whole.
It was a prime opportunity for the company to relook at all of its processes, as well as software choices and data formats. We researched many options from Opensource DCCs to Proprietary Renderfarm Management tools, many formats such as USD and Arnold Standins.
One key mentality that I began to use as the moto for our pipeline was, Let Artists be Artists. Many of the grievances we heard were from artists struggling to get their work done were due to the tools and the complications of the legacy pipeline. I firmly believe that artists should channel the majority of their energy into their craft, unburdened by the pipeline & technical hurdles.
The adoption of the guiding principle Let Artists be Artists steered all of our decisions:
- Integration of the Edit Department: For the first time in the companies history, we seamlessly integrated the Edit Department. This integration aimed to enhance collaboration and workflow continuity. Keeping the artists, edit & the director in sync.
- Unified Shot & Asset Management System: Recognizing the need for a streamlined workflow, we developed a unified Shot & Asset Management system. This system not only addressed existing inefficiencies but also seamlessly interfaced with Shotgrid, allowing production better management over sight.
- Task Automation: This encompassed the automation of shot builds, publishes, and caching processes, allowing artists to focus on their creative endeavors.
- Asset Validation: With more automation we needed a robust method to verify that models, animation, fx assets, ect all met specific criteria before being handed onto the next department. The asset validation served as an automatic quality control or tech check, ensuring that assets met predefined standards and minimized discrepancies throughout the pipeline.
- Always Rendering: I really wanted to have more departments rendering asset turntables & shots. Since we had automated shot builds & caching it was now possible to build a shot at any point and kick off a render through what became known as ARC (Automated Render & Cacher). This allowed layout to begin reviewing camera's with depth of field before set modelling or the final animation rigs had been completed. This proactive approach expedited the review process by allowing the directors to view increments and variations rapidly, ensuring a continuous exchange between artists and directors.
We began full-time development in January 2021 with a tight deadline of June 2021, when the first of our next production slate was scheduled to kick off. This gave us a 6 month window to prioritise and iterate as quickly as possible. We began targeting a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) build of each tool required for the departments at the start of the pipeline.
The targeted departments for this initial phase included Storyboard, Edit, Asset Build, Layout & Animation. Two tools became our main focus, the Edit Decision Database (EDD) and the Shot & Asset Manager (SAM).
EDD represents a paradigm shift in our approach to the edit department, serving as an integrated build & publish system powered by the capabilities of Pixar's OpenTimelineIO (OTIO) which we integrated into premiere. EDD acts as a digital assistant editor, streamlining the editing workflow by automating administrative tasks, editors can focus on the artistic aspects of their craft. EDD introduces a comparative analysis feature, enabling the scrutiny of previous edits in contrast to new changes. This functionality facilitates the generation of comprehensive lists detailing sequence and shot changes, with the added capability to seamlessly publish this data directly to Shotgrid. The versatility of EDD extends beyond the edit department, making publishing XMLs/OTIOs usable throughout the entire pipeline. Notably, in Maya for Layout & Animation, EDD became instrumental in synchronising sequences and camera data across departments.
The Shot & Asset Manager became the core artist facing tool of our pipeline, available across our core DCCs from Maya to Nuke. Where many of our artists work in more than one department it was refreshing to have a standardized and integrated approach to shot and asset management. It empowered Layout & Animation Artists with the ability to autorig props to work without requesting prop rigs, and allows Modeling & Set Modeling to effortlessly import and publish models, where they could initiate automated shot renders and turntables. Its functionality extends into Houdini allowing Lookdev artists to load assets & publish their shading networks, FX to access Animation & Sets and Lighting to build shots and publish light data for reuse in similar shots.
This system, seamlessly triggered by SAM, loads published assets into Houdini, initiating render turntables & shot renders heedlessly from any department. Once a render is complete it is colour corrected from ACES to sRGB where an .mp4 submission is automatically uploaded to Shotgrid ready for reviews.
Reflections on a Dynamic Journey
The past six months had a lot of ups and downs as we tried to break new ground. I believe we successfully hit our goals. Some development time did overlap into the start of production as new artists & team members discovered bugs along the way. Each day is an opportunity for refinement as we consistently incorporate improvements & new technology.
It is time to begin Retrospective's again, to gain more insight into how EDD, SAM, ARC and every department specific tool performed over the last 14 months. I am very proud of what we’ve achieved in our new pipeline, and have so many more new ideas to explore as we move forward.