|A Creative COW Magazine Extra
Hollywood, California USA
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After winning an Academy Award® for his VFX work on "The Golden Compass," Mike Fink's next direction could have taken him literally anywhere in the world. Here is the story of how a man who helped invent the concept of freelance visual effects supervisor found himself part of a company that is helping invent new kinds of global collaboration. It's not outsourcing. It's WORLD-sourcing.
[Ed note: Mike was so articulate in his telephone conversation with us that we're happy to present this to you as he told it to us.]
I started my career working on crews, more as a special effects guy than a visual effects guy, including for Douglas Trumbull for a while when I was just starting out. I wound up freelance and, along with one other guy in the business, pretty much invented the category of digital freelance visual effects supervisor. At that point, really didn’t exist.
In 2008, I joined Prime Focus, which is based in Mumbai. The branch here in North America was originally Frantic Films, and it was founded and run by a fellow named Chris Bond. I worked with Chris and his team while I was the Visual Effects Supervisor on “X-Men 2.” This was for about a year and a half, spanning 2001 to 2003. Frantic did almost all the pre-viz in the movie, as well as a number of complete sequences for the film, so I gained some appreciation for the company, and stayed in touch with Chris.
When I finished “The Golden Compass,” I came back to the US. I was working on “Tropic Thunder” when Chris gave me a call, and he told me that his company just got bought by Prime Focus, that things were getting really exciting, and what do I think about going back to a facility again and doing that kind of work. I said, “Actually, I’m really thinking about it.” For some reason, so were a lot of other people were also asking me the same question. There was a point where I had a chance to pick-and-choose, but because Chris was a friend, and I trusted his abilities and the people that he had built at Frantic, and I love the idea of a global visual effects facility, I joined Prime Focus.
|Some Prime Focus projects. See here for more.
My role is basically to be everybody’s conscience, and to keep people focused. It’s difficult when you’re working globally across cultures — and when I say “cultures,” I don’t just mean North America and India, which is what everybody thinks. There are also differences between the United States and Canada, differences between the United States and the UK, the UK and India…and yes, between the United States and India.
Part of my job is managing people’s expectations, getting them to understand what’s necessary. Really, my job is to try to frame all of that in a program that moves us forward, and lets us become the global company we want to be. Sometimes I’m recommending a certain software or hardware infrastructure. Sometimes I’m just saying that we need this person in this country, and that person in that country.
I was hired by Namit Malhotra, who’s the founder of the company, and the CEO of the global operation. He said, “We want Hollywood work to go from the United States to India, or Canada to India, or from the UK to wherever.” That’s great, I said, but before we do anything else, we have to make sure we can actually send the data back and forth — because at the time, we couldn’t do that.
It was very important to me that we have the basic infrastructure in place, because you don’t want to start recruiting artists, and training them to work globally, only to have them defeated by the network. That makes no sense at all. You want to have the network in place so that when these people start to crank out shots, you can work transparently between any offices in the world.
It took very little time to get our bandwidth up, because that’s fairly well-known technology. But to get everything in place around the world, getting all the software that we needed to talk to each other, and get people used to using it — it’s been a process over the last year and a half. We’re now at the place where we’re freely sending data back and forth between any of our facilities. We’re also starting to send much more work to India, because now we can.
3D FUZZY CRITTERS
It used to be that a lot of things got tried in commercials or music videos, and if they worked, then they would migrate into film. That was true until probably 10 years ago. But now the pipelines are so different now that there’s probably less migration from commercials to film, and more film development finding its way into commercials.
An example of how it used to work: the phrase “bullet time” is actually a trademark of Warner Bros., but the first bullet time shots were not done on “The Matrix.” We tested it when I was running Warner Digital in the mid-90s, and we used it on “Batman and Robin,” the last Batman movie that Joel Schumacher directed, which was released in 1997. Arnold Schwarzenegger played Mr. Freeze, and froze people while the camera kept moving – only nobody noticed because the people were frozen! Nothing was moving.
But BUF Compagnie in Paris was doing some really innovative stuff with the technique in the mid-90s, in commercials and music videos. That’s where people started to notice it, and that BUF technique is what migrated into “The Matrix” in 1999.
Another example: I directed the first Coca-Cola polar bear spot in 1993 -- which actually had nothing to do with the polar bears I worked on in “The Golden Compass.”
Courtesy New Line Cinema. Click for larger.
When I first started working on that movie, I went to dinner with one of the producers. In the middle of dinner, out of nowhere, she asked, ‘Who did those Coca-Cola polar bears?’ I said, “I did the first ones,” and she said, “Oh, that figures.”
Courtesy, The Coca-Cola Company.
When I did those Coca-Cola commercials, nobody had really seen 3D furry critters before. Rhythm and Hues had done some tests, and seeded the few bits of that into some movies, but there had never been a full-on furry 3D CG character. If you look at the spot today, it's laughable. It looks like pre-visualization! It’s so rudimentary, it's awful. But in 1993, it was absolutely groundbreaking.
A VERY INTERESTING SOUP
In the meantime, I was invited to come to India to direct a commercial. I directed the live action in Mumbai, and worked for about a week with the animation team there to make the CG characters in the commercial.
Click image for larger
I came back to the United States and continued to review work wherever I was. With less than two weeks to deliver the spot, I was in London, and I was still trying to get a certain kind of animation out of this one character. I was giving them notes while I was actually reviewing the animation on my iPhone. To be honest, I downloaded the spot and was sending notes back to Mumbai while my son was playing his jazz recital in London!
This process helped the team in India to realize what they were going to have to do to reach a certain level of quality and finesse for Western market. It made them appreciate a certain kind of workflow that they weren’t as familiar with. For a project now, we’ve actually sent three people to India, working with the teams there on software, production, and everything else to make sure that work on the project goes smoothly back and forth.
We’re about to start another project which will be much bigger, which will have a major Indian participation in visual effects and that’s going to be coordinated mostly between Vancouver and Mumbai. We have a team leaving next week for Mumbai and they will be working for about a week or two with the team in Mumbai getting all the last bits tied up on coordinating who does what, and when, and what happens between Mumbai and Vancouver.
It’s a complicated process and requires teams of people traveling from one place to another and it’s really starting to bear fruit. It’s exciting.
Beginning in 1997 with four core team members in a garage in Mumbai, Prime Focus has grown into the world’s leading Visual Entertainment Services group, employing over 1,200 staff in 15 offices, three continents and five timezones. Work includes film VFX and post, commercials, broadcast, music videos, corporate video, restoration and digital.
The first port of call was the UK, through the acquisition of VTR plc for GBP 4.7 million. Three more companies were also acquired and consolidated in the UK – Clear Post Production in the summer of 2006, then Machine and Clarke Associates in January 2008.
In 2007, Prime Focus expanded its reach into North America with the purchase of Post Logic Studios and Frantic Films for USD 43 million. These acquisitions allowed Prime Focus to offer cutting edge services and technology in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Prime Focus VFX software tools, developed in North America to solve complex production challenges on feature film VFX shots, are in use in many leading 3d animation and VFX facilities worldwide.
Prime Focus has North American offices in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Projects in these offices includes Avatar, Clash of the Titans (featuring the Prime Focus technology, View-D), The Twilight Saga, Tooth Fairy, I Am Yours (Beyonce), GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Storm (NBC), Who Was Jesus? (Discovery), No Fry Left Behind (McDonalds, DDB Chicago), and the restorations of Hondo and The Rules of The Game. Here are many more US examples.
UK offices include 37 Dean St. Soho, 58 Old Compton St. and 64 Dean St. Work done in UK offices includes: Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 28 Weeks Later, The Last King of Scotland, Kingdom of Heaven and 28 Weeks Later in film; Wonders of the Solar System, How Earth Made Us, Poppy Shakespeare, Channel 4 idents, Superstorm, and Lost Cities of the Ancients; spots for Stella Artois (Mother), Battersea Dogs Home (The Love Commercial Prod. Company), and Canon EOS 7D ‘Take Stories’ (Dentsu London). Here are many more UK examples.
Prime Focus has Indian offices in Mumbai (4 offices), Hyderabad, Chennai, Goa and Bangalore. Film work there includes Paa, Kurbann, Wake Up Sid, Love Aaj Kal, Luck, Kambakkht Ishq, Tales of the River, Chandi Chowk to China, Ghajni, and Blue. Commercials include Volkswagen Beetle ‘Valet’ (DDB Mudra), Minto Fresh (DraftFCB Ultra), Bingo ‘Flying Kiss’ (Olgilvy & Mather India), and Champions League Twenty20 (JWT India). Here are many more examples from India.
And it’s not just one way. We are also learning from India. First of all, Prime Focus has a very large software development team in Bangalore, so on the technical side, there’s quite a bit of help that we’ve gotten from them. We also have a software team in Winnipeg as well, and we’re starting to bring those teams together so that they become more powerful by actually working together.
We are working on bringing teams of artists from India to the United States and Canada to work here. That is only difficult because all the visas are required, but everybody is eager to do it. The difference between artists in North America, London and India is really one of style — and their level of experience. That’s why getting people together really works, because people glean things from each other when they work together. “Oh, you can do that? I never knew that!” That often happens when we work with people from India. There are people there doing things we never knew could be done, because nobody told them that they couldn’t do them!
In North America, we have Siggraph, we have courses and papers. We hear, “This is the way you have to this.” And so our TDs often begin, “No, no, you can’t do it that way. You have to do it this way.” But the guys in India, they just do it their way, and it has worked. They tend to be bigger risk-takers. They’ll dive into a project or develop a look that’s different from anything we’ve seen before. We find the same thing whether you work in the UK, or Canada — the artists there have a different mindset than artists in the US, and so all of us have been learning from each other. It makes for a very interesting soup.
I’ve worked on big pictures, like “The Golden Compass,” that were global enterprises. It doesn’t get bigger than something like that, not really. The difference at Prime Focus is just that it never stops. It’s not just one project. It goes on forever.
That’s why pipeline and infrastructure are insanely important in this business. If you can’t move data efficiently between artists and between facilities, you’re not going to succeed, because you don’t want to be wasting artists time while they’re waiting for material to render, or while we’re waiting for material to transfer from one place to another. You simply don’t want them waiting. The biggest single cost we have is labor, and these are creative, innovative people. They don’t like to sit. They don’t want to be held up by their machine. They want to get iterations out. They want to see changes.
Prime Focus software, "Deadline." Click image for larger.
Data management often comes down to maintaining enough space on your servers, and maintaining enough access on your servers, that they aren’t being hit so badly on the network that the servers actually go slower, which can happen. You also have to have enough render nodes, and manage them so that you don’t wind up with a render queue 6 miles long. Otherwise, an artist puts a shot into render, and by the time it finishes, he forgot he was even working on that.
And then, when you’re trying to manage it internationally, it’s the same thing on a much larger scale. Prime Focus has a product called Deadline, a tool for managing renders and data flow. We sell it, and it was devised by Frantic because of the headaches in trying to keep all this stuff coordinated.
We used it on “Avatar,” along with some other software we developed. We did these rooms with huge numbers of graphic displays, huge numbers of elements within any shot.
“Avatar,” photo by Mark Fellman, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
These shot could easily have a hundred or more rendered elements composited into it, so to know what to put up on what screen, at what time, down to the exact frame — we developed software for that. Otherwise, you would have a person assigning assets to every screen, maybe 50 of them, with the camera moving through the room, and multiple takes. The software that we wrote manages that, keeping track of continuity so that graphics are updated properly. Computers are great for mundane tasks, so we try to get them do that.
For all of the processes and products we develop, the goal is to let the artist be the artist.
Mike Fink is President, VFX Worldwide at Prime Focus, and works with VFX production on three continents, in five time zones. Mike was recognized in 2008 for his role as Senior Visual Effects Supervisor on “The Golden Compass” with an Academy Award®, a BAFTA award, and a VES nomination.
His award-winning career spans over three decades with a BAFTA nomination for “War Games" in 1983, four nominations for the Saturn award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, and BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for “Batman Returns” in 1993. He is also a founding member of the Visual Effects Society, and a member of the Executive Committee of the Visual Effects Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Mike Fink will also be participating in the panel discussion, “Complex and Competitive: Creating Visual Effects in a Global Economy,” at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, Monday, April 12, 2010 5:00 PM. This session is presented in association with the Visual Effects Society.