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Maggie · April 14, 2005
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Put This in Your Pipeline and Smoke It: Reimagining Your Production Processes

Whether you’re a large studio or a small boutique facility, the demands placed upon you are roughly the same -- you're asked to produce more technically challenging shots for less money.

If you’re a larger studio, you already have the resources and a tested pipeline to handle complex CG effects. You may, however, feel competition from some of the smaller studios as film and broadcast productions seek more from their reduced VFX budgets. In response, large studios may find themselves adjusting in a variety of ways to adopt some of the leanness and flexibility often associated with smaller CG production environments.

Smaller studios attempting to take one more complex work find it necessary to increase in size but may not have an established pipeline to ensure that they can deliver the quantity and quality demanded of them.

Says Bradley Gabe, Senior Director, Technology at CG Soup, “These days, it’s like cats and dogs living together. Everyone’s competing for the same work now.”

Big or small, the way you work and are organized is challenged and it’s time to take a look at creative ways of ensuring you continue working on projects that engage your imagination and produce quality you can be proud of. It all begins with an assessment of your pipeline.


Pipelines? What's the Point?

“A good pipeline is your single most important asset,” says Andre DeAngelis of Ubisoft’s Montreal studio. Ubisoft’s Montreal facility uses SOFTIMAGE|XSI to create the cinematic sequences and trailers for titles such as Prince of Persia, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Rainbow 6, and Far Cry.

DeAngelis speaks from experience, “You can put a team of great people together, but if you don’t have solid infrastructure, or agreed work methods, it’s really hard to get things accomplished. A team of talented artist all bring unique talents and experiences to a team, but this doesn’t always guarantee that things will work from day one--a pipeline is unique to every studio. But some people, particularly in small shops, are reticent about spending the money upfront to set that up because they don’t see the initial value. CG Soup have the expertise – they will save you more money in the long run, believe me.”

While it seems that small studios could learn a lot from the larger players, given the economic demands of “more for less”, it may well be that a convergence of organizational and working cultures may be necessary to ensure the survival of the felines and the canines of the CG world.

Working as a TD at small studios and the mighty ILM, Bradley Gabe has been implementing pipeline solutions that have facilitated the success of projects for more than a decade. The birth of this expertise surprisingly began not at ILM, but at Quiet Man, a small boutique in New York where he was Senior TD. “We developed a lot of tools that worked on multiple projects. For example, we developed a system for fitting pre-built character rigs to our geometry. This was done mostly out of necessity, as our clients would often change character designs well into the animation phase of a project. Not surprisingly, a rig that can be readjusted on the fly to fit an evolving character can also be adjusted to fit new character designs. This kind of setup made it easier to work non-linearly regarding animation and creature design. It also made it possible to get bids out the door faster, which leads to more work.”

With this experience in mind, Bradley Gabe undertook an analysis of what makes large and small studios tick, with an eye to discovering changes that each can implement.


Small and Lean

Here’s a typical production pipeline for small studios:


Click for larger image

A small studio is a tight knit group with many overlapping and mostly complementary skills. Between them, there is enough production knowledge and experience to cover every step required to take an idea from concept through to rendering. Thus the pipeline is less structured as work moves between artists. This setup means that smaller studios can be more flexible and experiment with different approaches to problems, often being far more innovative than the stricter pipelines associated with larger studios. Pipelines in these environments evolve and devolve quickly to meet the demands of the project.

The same things that give smaller studios an advantage over larger ones are the very same things that work against them, particularly when they take on more ambitious projects. Artists communicate verbally, leaving no paper trail or accountability in the event something is forgotten. While they can experiment with methodology, the work still needs to get done. Excess experimentation can go down the wrong pathway and lead to missed deadlines.

When smaller studios encounter problems to which there doesn’t seem to be a ready solution, they may not be able to solve a problem just by throwing resources at it in the same way a larger studio can. Says Bradley Gabe, “When everything else isn’t working, when the sims can’t simulate it, and time is running out, larger studios have the luxury of resources to painstakingly get the effect with frame by frame shape animation and post processing. Smaller studios can’t brute force solutions–it’s draining on the artist and expensive to the production facility, so it’s simply not an option. They survive on always having to figure out a workaround. This can also eat into production deadlines and may not produce the results they want.”

But, large studios don’t necessarily provide the right examples for smaller studios attempting to step up to the major-league plate.


Big and Bold

Here’s a typical pipeline for a larger studio:


Click for larger image

Larger studios consist of anywhere from 50 people to several hundred. Each person is more specialized and focused on a smaller aspect of production and may lack experience in the other areas. As a result, the pipeline is more linear and structured as it moves from one department to the next.

Because larger studios have more resources, they can have each artist specialize in a particular area and take on larger projects. Their pipelines, like their communication styles, are linear and far more structured than that of a smaller studio. The pipeline lends itself to expanding and contracting with the demands of a project and the production cycle. Their pipeline evolves within an existing framework and is more likely to be backward compatible. In the event things go wrong, it’s easier to revert to trusted techniques. An assembly-line mentality is what enables large studios to ramp up and down as more or less work comes in. Since tasks are compartmentalized, they have defined rules and conventions that can be passed on easily on to new resources.

Of course, more resources mean bigger stakes and potentially far bigger losses if things go wrong. Specialized artists are less flexible. Depending on the work in-house, demand for specific tasks such as modelling, simulation, or lighting may vary from one month to the next. Controlled evolution is slow and slow evolution is not competitive. Brute-force solutions, while more viable, are draining and expensive and usually a last resort. “And,” Brad reminds us, “Let’s not forget that artists are creative people and may not take well to being compartmentalized into an assembly line task.”


Hot and Bothered?

So, production practices in both large and small studios are double-edged swords. All studios want to survive, and survival means growth. Growth means change. But, what kinds of changes?

For small studios, part of the solution is to commit to developing processes and systems that enable you to repeat successes. Without a pipeline, you cannot scale up to larger production work. DeAngelis points to CG Soup’s pool of expertise as a way for studios of any size to get their projects started off on the right track. “CG Soup’s approach is the right one: to build a solid, scalable pipeline first. Without that in place, there’s no room for growth. And in my judgement it’s much harder to scale ad-hoc tools up than it is to scale a well-designed pipeline down!”


Advice for Small Studios

Here are some specific things small studios can do:

Think Bigger

  • Define standards and conventions. Standardizing something as simple as naming conventions, for example, allows for easier automation when searching, selecting and replacing nodes in scene assets.
  • More rigid steps between processes, sanity checking, and built-in approval stages. Building in check points and procedures between processes means that you’re checking as you go and avoiding the need to send work back up the pipeline when you discover – often too late – that it’s not right.
  • Asset management. You’ve got many people working on many things. Be sure you know who’s worked on what and that you can go back a couple of versions if something breaks. Know where to get the latest version of shots and scenes without waiting for a colleague to get back from coffee.
  • Superscene asset awareness.
  • Renderfarms. An efficient rendering, submission and frame checking system will save you time and costly mistakes.
Systems integration
  • Construct efficient networks and directory structures. This is extremely important: Make use of things like intranets, automated email notification and databases. These are all freely available and will help you improve your efficiency in the long term.
Start building libraries of ready-to-use assets
  • Poses and animation
    Materials and textures
    FX – hairstyles, particle types, etc.
    Rigging components
Communicate
  • Don’t rely entirely on talking around the coffee machine as a method of keeping people up to date. Make use of email and asset tracking.

Advice for Large Studios

If you already have a more linear pipeline in place, it's hard to make it non-linear without a pipeline re-design. There are things that larger studios can do to regain some flexibility:

Make sure you use XSI in a non-linear fashion. XSI is different from other programs and is not non-linear by default. Scenes and model assets must be constructed in a certain way to facilitate a non-linear pipeline. Keep the following in mind:
  • Naming conventions on geometry, rigging, UV maps, shaders, etc. are important. For example, if every hair item has a ‘hair_’ prefix, it's much easier to subsequently strip through the entire database and change hair colour.
  • Rigging techniques.
  • Material setups for optimal render pass flexibility.
Think smaller
  • Cross-train your specialists. There’s a tendency for large pipelines to hire and encourage specialists because it streamlines and scales up so efficiently. However, if your modeller understands some of the limitations or requirements of texturing, rendering, hair or lighting, he or she can build appropriately.
  • More outside-the-box thinking. Small teams have to think on their feet and have to look for creative solutions from necessity. A larger team might be tempted to throw science at it, which may not be the shortest route to a solution.
  • Strike teams. Develop and support teams of multi-disciplined artists who can complete jobs within the framework, but outside the structured pipeline.
  • Think more about systems than assets. For example, rather than building show-specific rigs or models, develop rigging systems and adaptable topologies.
Communicate
  • Do talk around the coffee machine; you can relay more in a ten minute conversation than you can in an email.

Bright and Beautiful

Concludes Brad, “As small studios grow and large studios adapt, the future (and some present) production pipelines will be an amalgamation of the small and large. Because artists may be forced to be more multi-disciplinary, production pipelines must facilitate broader, less linear connections from one phase of production to the next. This will take advantage of what works in small and large studios alike, but reduce the impact of what works against them. Both will reduce costs, increase flexibility and allow artists to be artists.”


Click for larger image

I’ll leave the last word to Andre DeAngelis: “What CG Soup propose is eminently practical – it’s a bit like getting audited, if you don’t have things in order, you’re going to find out the hard way. If you’re spending time and money customizing or writing tools mid-production, that’s a huge drain on resources. Collectively, they simply have an excellent track record. Brad and Kim are highly respected in the XSI community for their experience and skill, and they are those rare people that understand what creatives want and how to translate that into technical terms. As a company, what they do is unique, and also really necessary.”

Click here to learn about an end-to-end pipeline Brad designed for a US-based studio for their full CG feature production.

Comments

Great article! Do you have any example of image sequence naming conventions? I'm looking for a solution that is easy to understand and not too long. FFI, After Effects have issues with long string names. Thanks.

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