How the VFX Industry Will Work in 2020
Simon Robinson, Cofounder and chief scientist at Foundry
December 30, 2019

How the VFX Industry Will Work in 2020

The times are changing, as the saying goes—a sentiment that seems to hold special weight as the VFX industry gears up for another new year.

We’re already starting to see certain trends emerge in 2020 that are happily set to shape and streamline artist workflows. These trends include machine learning making faster artists, USD becoming uniform, and iterative workflows replacing those of a more “waterfall” structure.

A different set of complementary trends look to be materializing as 2019 wraps up, with studios as the center focus. These trends come in response to a shift in working dynamics in and across studios, and seem especially aimed at facilitating this.In an increasingly globalized industry, we’re learning first-hand from our customers the trends set to smoothen business operations and decisions, so time zones, data sharing and distance no longer hinder cross-studio collaboration.

Cloud to support decentralized collaboration

The common sentiment is prevailing: studios and artists are waking up to the capabilities of cloud technology. Currently, its usage-based cost model proves attractive to studios wanting to better fit capital expenses to the peaks and troughs of operating expenses. Moving forward, 2020 may see cloud technology become more pervasive as a means of extending the reach of studios with remote, decentralized collaboration.

This comes at a time when public interest and appetite increasingly demands high-quality, episodic media hosted on streaming sites like Netflix (which, by-the-by, happens to be a cloud-native business).As this audience demand has increased, so , too , have traditional ways of working in the VFX industry adapted to meet it. There’s been a recent rise in “nomadic tribes” of experienced artists quitting big studios to go freelance, then loosely affiliating with each other to complete projects.

These same artists form, deconstruct and reform around high-quality episodic streaming-on-demand projects, often working and collaborating remotely across every stage of the production pipeline.The problem arises: No physical studio means no server farm, no IT department, no standardization, uniformity of the production pipeline—so chaos abounds.

Enter cloud technology as a potential means of quelling this chaos. By using remote servers to store and share data in order to complete projects, artists working together from different corners of the world may find it a little bit easier—especially since a simple machine, rather than high-end hardware, is often all that’s needed in this case.

But it’s important to note that cloud adoption isn’t the silver bullet that’ll have studios and artists collaborating instantaneously, with no teething issues. Instead, it’s the thing that the industry is scratching at and applying to solve a macro-industry problem causing a series of business and creative collaboration challenges. We’re still figuring out the capabilities of cloud adoption in easing the ability to remotely collaborate on the types of projects that are in vogue right now.

And as business setups continue to change and evolve, the question begs as to how ready the industry is for full-on, wholesale cloud adoption. Currently, it’s still in hybrid mode, and the challenge in 2020 is to massage out the kinks that this limbo-like state brings.

Foundry’s own efforts in the cloud space extend back six years. We’ve been on the frontlines with studios looking to adopt cloud into their production process, trying to understand and solve their pain points. Our sensitivity to the challenges of cloud adoption extends from first-hand experience of seeing our clients come up against these. Cloud certainly isn’t fun and games—but we remain hopeful that it’ll eventually find its rightfulplace in the industry, not least as a valid means of catering to more nomadic studio setups.

Real-time iteration in pre-production

As the prospect of working remotely becomes more prevalent in the industry, so, too , does the idea of a live timeline make more and more sense. Being able to work on a production from anywhere, and update and save your changes in real time for anyone to see, is the holy grail of big studios—especially as these become more distributed.

Moving over to a live timeline will happen in stages. Its widespread viability and adoption may well rest with pre-production, initially. As the most “fluid” and conceptual stage, pre-production naturally makes it easier for artists and studios to make changes live on the timeline—particularly due a neatness and consistency across the software and file types used as part of the story development process. 

Picture the scene: A freelance artist gets an urgent request from his contracted studio to tweak a sequence during a director’s review happening at that very moment, across the globe. He powers up his iPad, brings up his storyboard, makes the edit—and it automatically updates in the director’s room. Everyone’s happy.

How close are we to this ideal? Well, we’re getting there. Pre-production certainly lays the groundwork for working at the “speed of thought” through seamless creative collaboration between story and editorial, especially as it moves away from paper to the cloud.

Speaking of, there’s no doubt that pre-production—and its potential promise of a live timeline—is very much suited to a cloud-based way of working. Flix, Foundry’s story development software, is solving a creative organizational problem, which makes it more amenable to early cloud adoption. The reason why is twofold: it's a workflow that affects less people—which means less upheaval if adopted wholesale—and it involves significantly less data than a later stage in the production process, like compositing.

The drive for digital transformation skyrockets

Switching gears slightly, our next trend is all about digital design, and what the future holds for businesses—large and small—operating in this space.Most major companies working in accessories, footwear and apparel have implemented, or are undertaking, part of a digital transformation program for new product creation or product refresh.

The numbers speak for themselves: Large footwear brands like Nike have 90% of their refresh line reviewed via digital, and 50% of any new designs visualized in 3D.There are a number of drivers for this shift. Getting products to market 2-4x faster to meet consumer demand for greater ROI is certainly a big one, as well as an ever-increasing focus on e-commerce, sustainability and ease of operation.

Plus, there’s a competitive threat. Analog companies who don’t invest in digital transformation are likely to fall behind due to a slower output with increased spending.

All of the above means that in 2020 and beyond, the industry will see a rising adoption of digital transformation and digital virtual products. It’s already started with footwear, but will branch out to clothing before long. It’s certainly good news for the planet—the need to create fewer physical prototypes means less waste—and we’re completely on board. The future of digital design is green.

Wrapped up in all of these discussions surrounding evolving business operations and shifting working patterns is a greater onus on flexibility, mobility and work/life balance—crucial elements of any modern studio that 2020 looks set to welcome with open arms.After all, if creative studios have access to the same technology, then all that differentiates them in an otherwise level playing field is the culture and how they enhance the lives of their artists beyond just being a source of a paycheck.

And this perfectly aligns with Foundry’s own hopes for the new year, too. Our wish is that the industry is coming to the end of the need for artists to be nomads, uprooting themselves from country to country with their families, just to follow work. Here’s hoping that the industry—and the trends above—fulfill this New Year's wish.