Leading VFX executives are hopeful there will be a safe return to production in many places by late summer in order to keep workflow at capacity, as they tentatively eye a return to office life around the same time following life under lockdown.

Speaking on the latest Screen Talks webinar, Framestore’s Fiona Walkinshaw, Weta Digital’s David Conley and Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) Rob Bredow addressed a broad range of topics as each of their companies continues to work on multiple major projects.

The session confirmed that production on the Avatar sequels is set to resume in New Zealand shortly, while effects work on The King’s Man and No Time To Die was delivered from home-based platforms.

“The sooner production resumes, the better it is for everybody”

Production stoppages on films like Warner Bros’ The Batman, Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Warner Bros’ Fantastic Beasts 3 has created the potential for a gap in the coming months, however Walkinshaw, the London-based managing director, film, at Framestore, remained positive.

“We’re lucky in that we’ve got a lot of shows and we’re very busy so we’ve got work going through over the next six to seven months,” she said. “But we definitely have capacity opening up in quite a major way September onwards and, like I’m sure everyone, we’re having really positive conversations with studios.”

“The sooner production resumes, the better it is for everybody,” echoed San Francisco-based Bredow, executive creative director and head at ILM, where current work includes Black Widow and the second season of The Mandalorian. “We’re tracking some shows that we are hoping will shoot in July, and we’re doing everything we can to provide them tools to be able to achieve some of their production goals in terms of social distancing, in terms of reducing the headcount on set in every possible way to help facilitate and do anything we can.”

Matt Reeves’ The Batman starring Robert Pattison was one of the higher profile projects to go on hiatus that Weta Digital has been working on. The same fate befell the Avatar sequels, although Weta Digital’s executive visual effects producer Conley said shooting on James Cameron’s sci-fi epics is scheduled to resume in mid-June in New Zealand.

While anticipated production starts vary around the world according to regional guidelines, New Zealand has drawn wide praise for the manner in which it has contained the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Work is underway [on the Avatar sequels],” said Conley, adding: “There were already two rounds of filming [prior to the hiatus] and so we’ve got a number of minutes already in-house… I can’t wait for the world to see the work, it’s beautiful. We’ll expect another couple of months of shooting before they go back to Los Angeles and continue on with the posting of the sequels.”

Resilient teams

Walkinshaw said delivery dates for effects work remained in place on Suicide Squad 2, the second season of His Dark Materials, and four or five projects for Netflix. The executive added, “I’m amazed at how resilient and hardworking people are… We delivered the work on The King’s Man and No Time To Die from the working-from-home platform. It was pretty amazing.”

The executives also recounted in Thursday’s (May 28) session how they set up committees and task forces as they scrambled to move teams out of offices and equip them to work from home with high-tech equipment and IT support. Thanks to forward planning prior to lockdown restrictions taking effect, the processes took a matter of days or weeks.

“What we thought would be a four-week phased plan of getting all of our artists out of the facility into their homes turned into a three-day plan including drive-through windows for anybody who had forgotten that monitor cable, they could just drive up to the building and grab something,” noted Conley from Wellington, New Zealand, where the company works with a team of 1,500.

For Walkinshaw, the process involved coordinating moves for 2,500 workers across sites including London, Los Angeles, Montreal, Mumbai and Beijing. 

Adapting tools for remote working

Bredow and his ILM colleagues were racing to set up some 2,000 workers to work from home in five countries.

“Fortunately we had some technology that was designed for use in-house for things like collaborative reviews that work very much like web streaming technology,” said Bredow. “It ends up being very applicable to this situation where you can securely view pixels, as if you’re watching YouTube or something on a conventional bandwidth, and we can use that both in the office but of course in a situation like this, those kind of tools are really valuable.”

“For us, it was more about workflow than it was about technology,” noted Walkinshaw. “As Rob said, we’re used to multi-site reviews. We have a big office in Montreal, we do mixed reviews every day where our supervisors are working in London with supervisors in Montreal, so we had tool sets that enabled that communication and screen-sharing in a secure way all set up. So we were lucky in that sense.”

The lockdown has forced the executives and their teams to think outside the box, and this has had an impact on the development of virtual production techniques. Each executive offered insights into that process.

As to when they hope teams can return to their facilities, Framestore and ILM are roughly looking at August onwards, while Weta Digital has begun to move artists back to the office and, Conley said, will be “beta-testing what that world looks like” over the next four or five months.