I hesitate to begin writing this editorial because I know the information that's current today will be totally different tomorrow. Yes, change is occurring at a pace that's difficult to keep up with, thanks to the virus sweeping the globe. And in all likelihood, I will have updated and revised what I have written here many times before it is published. (I will post it online, which will allow for constant alterations, but keep in mind that once I send this to be published in our print magazine, there is a time lag - much wider than is typical, in all probability, as those involved in the production chain (prepress, the printers, the post office…) also adjust to their new, altered situations.
3/6. For the past several days, our staff wrestled with whether or not we would attend the annual NAB conference in Las Vegas. Many large industry conferences were being canceled, moved to a future date, or held virtually (GDC, SXSW, and so many others) as the coronavirus swept the globe and began arriving in the US. NAB held fast, maintaining the show would go on. That is, until it wouldn't, as that conference, too, fell to the concerns associated with COVID-19. Prior to that decision, however,
CGW and its sister publication,
Post Magazine, decided to go forth with CGW-TV and Post-TV, respectively, only instead of doing interviews from the show floor, we would offer remote video interviews for companies opting not to attend, so they could get their message out and non-attendees could keep up-to-date on the latest industry news.
3/9. Conferences are just one of the many casualties during these times. Cinema closures in China, at the epicenter of the virus, were closed, resulting in big losses to the global box office (an estimated $2B at the very beginning of March) and in delayed openings of new films there. It didn't take long before studios began moving release dates (mostly those scheduled for March and April), initially in the hard-hit areas and then in the US due to low attendance at theaters. Among those films being reshuffled are
Mulan, No Time to Die, A Quiet Place Part II, and
Peter Rabbit, to name but a few. Even some summer releases, such as
Fast and Furious 9, are being pushed down the road even as far as 2021.
Productions are also impacted, as filmmakers and crews fight against infection and struggle with quarantines - whether self-imposed or required. For instance, Italy was particularly hit in February (and is still under siege from the virus), forcing Paramount to alter production plans for a three-week shoot in Venice for the upcoming Mission: Impossible 7. It didn't take long for other productions - cinema projects, and network and streaming titles - to temporarily pause. The current list of movies and series is long and is continually changing. In fact, fast forwarding a bit to around St. Patrick's Day, in addition to all those celebrations and parades getting canceled, Universal Pictures announced that it was temporarily closing its Illumination Mac Guff studio in France in accordance with French government guidelines. As a result, work on the Universal film
Minions: The Rise of Gru will cease and not be ready for its planned release this summer.
On a positive note, TV shows like Grey's Anatomy and
The Good Doctor are donating their supplies of medical masks and equipment. Also, 3D printing companies are stepping up to fill the void in production of much-needed medical supplies, particularly personal protection gear, such as face masks, for health-care workers.
In mid-March, Universal Pictures announced that it will make its major movie releases available on home entertainment on the same day as the debut in theaters, starting with Trolls World Tour (April 10).
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker also was added to the list of available films for purchase on most digital platforms - four days earlier than planned. (While four days does not seem that long, for many stuck at home, those four days are very much welcomed!) And a big kudos to Disney+ for releasing
Frozen 2 three months ahead of schedule! Moreover, Disney•Pixar's
Onward, released in US theaters March 6, became available for purchase two weeks after its theatrical debut. And less than 30 days after hitting theaters, it became available on Disney+.
3/11. In the US, government leaders began to show concern, followed by warnings against unnecessary travel and so forth. Nearly immediately came warnings against large gatherings: first no more than 50, then no more than 10.
3/16. States across the nation began getting serious, taking matters into their own hands by closing theaters, dine-in restaurants, government offices, and more. In a matter of hours came the order for areas in and around San Francisco to shelter in place until April 7, in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Other cities followed.
In days, people have rushed to set up home offices and home schooling. Students from college level to kindergarten have been schooled in distance learning. Animators and visual effects artists are establishing remote setups that are enabling them to continue working on current projects for as long as possible.
3/19. Many of the DCC studios in our industry have multiple offices around the globe, including Pixomondo. Right now, all of its eight global offices remain open. Here is their situation. "Pixomondo operates on three continents and in four countries, each with their own local regulations and guidelines - and now - restrictions on movement. We have taken steps to operate within these guidelines (including the closure of our two China offices for a while last month - although they have now reopened) and have empowered our studio heads to make the right decisions locally, in real time. We were actually able to learn from our experiences in China and prepare for the current situation in Europe and North America - we had already researched and started to implement solutions when the current restrictions began," says Jonny Slow, Pixomondo CEO.
"We are in active communication with all our clients to match their needs with our ability to execute work on time. We are also adhering to the operating policies that we have put in place in each facility designed to protect the well-being of all of our employees. In some cases, that means relocating workstations internally to increase the physical distance between artists, or working from home through Pixomondo's Remote Work Plan, which we have designed, tested, and executed wherever we can. The latter is only in place, however, where we have full understanding and cooperation from our clients. Internet bandwidth is also proving to be a constraint, and we expect this to remain an issue as more and more people stay home to work (and stream!)."
Slow, like many others, is hopeful that the disruption will be relatively short-lived. However, Slow points out that the studio is a little concerned that the delays in live shoots will also impact them later in the year. "We predict that there will be increased demand for virtual shoots during the second half of the year, and are gearing up to execute this in the coming weeks," he says.
To this end, thank goodness for the technology that the M&E industry has advanced over the past years. Many artists are connecting to servers, while others are using powerful mobile workstations. And, more and more studios have instituted a cloud-based infrastructure using Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud Platform (GCP), for instance, enabling them to continue with their tasks no matter how complex, such as rendering or even simulations. Even software is available in the cloud or accessed remotely.
It is early times, and companies are still in the process of getting settled into this new norm. And no doubt we will see many software and hardware companies adjusting their compasses to support this new workflow.
ftrack took the lead and began offering its remote collaboration tool ftrack Review, used by many, for free through May 31 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, as the company "hopes to encourage business continuity in the creative sector through the current unpredictable situation." Others are doing so, too.
Foundry, for instance, has closed all its offices and moved its staff to a work-at-home model and stated it does not foresee any negative impact on its support service. It also published an article (www.foundry.com/insights/cloud/working-remote-foundry-tools) to explain options while facilities transition their artists to a remote workforce. (Foundry is suggesting that for most studios, the easiest solution is to use a VPN, which requires no change to their Foundry licensing.) It has also reset its trial database, enabling all to access a new 30-day trial for all its products, and continues to offer unlimited non-commercial uses of its Nuke and Mari software. Students unable to attend school or can no longer access school facilities, meanwhile, can get a year of free access to Nuke, Modo, Mari, and Katana. Lastly, Foundry is switching many of its planned events to online.
Digital Domain, meanwhile, has implemented a Work From Home (WFH) initiative across its three North American studios, to be a fully operational remote visual effects studio. "Currently, all productions are carrying on, and our DDers are committed to producing the caliber of work we are known for and expected by our clients. Our teams have worked tirelessly to deploy secure software and hardware solutions that will allow all of our employees in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Montreal to work safely from home," says John Fragomeni, Digital Domain president.
Indeed, our industry is very fortunate to be part of the tech evolution, putting us ahead of the curve compared to many other segments of the workforce.
3/20. Perhaps some of the brightest news for the industry came when Netflix announced that it has established a $100 million fund to assist workers of film and television productions that have shut down due to the outbreak, as many cast and crew members have lost work and income during this time.
5/1. Who knows what will be happening at this point in time. Until then, be a good friend, neighbor, and colleague. We will get through this. Will working remotely be our new norm? Perhaps. And if so, we will adapt, as we have over the past several years with our ingenuity and technology. Be safe, and be well.
Keep up to date as the industry adjusts to the pandemic, with ongoing coverage at www.cgw.com.