The hybridization of VFX and motion design

Plus the rise of the small studio

By Miguel Lee

There has long been a dichotomy between motion graphics and VFX because they have traditionally serviced very different creative needs. However, with the democratization of tools and the migration of talent between these two pillars of the CG industry, a new “hybrid” field of content creators is emerging. And for motion designers like myself, this trend reflects the many exciting things taking place in our industry today, especially as content platforms increase at an incredible rate with smartphones and new LED technologies, not to mention a renaissance in the fields of VR, AR, and projection mapping, to name a few.

Miguel Lee

I’ve always likened the comparison of motion graphics and VFX to the Science Club and the Art Club we remember at school. VFX has its roots in an objective goal: to seamlessly integrate CG into the narrative or spectacle in a convincing and highly technical way. Motion graphics, on the other hand, can be highly subjective. One studio, for instance, might produce a broadcast package laden with 3D animations, whereas another studio will opt for a more minimal, graphical approach to communicating the same brand. A case can typically be made for either direction.

So where does the new “hybrid” studios fit into this analogy? Let’s call them the “Polymath Club,” given their abilities to tap into the proverbial hemispheres of the brain — the “left” representing their affinity for the tools, and the “right” driving the aesthetics and creative. With this “Polymath” mentality, CG artists are now able to generate work that was once only achievable by a large team of artists and technicians. Concurrently, it is influencing the hybridization of the CG industry at large, as VFX companies build motion design teams in-house, while motion graphics studios increasingly incorporate VFX tools into their own workflow.

As a result, we’ve seen a proliferation in the “lean-and-mean” production studio over the last few years. Their rise is the direct result of the democratization of our industry, where content creation tools have significantly evolved in terms of technology, accessibility and reliability. One such example is the dramatic increase in render power with the rise of third-party GPU renderers, such as Otoy’s Octane and Redshift, which have essentially made 3D photorealism more attainable. Cloud rendering solutions have also popped up for conventional and third-party renderers, which mitigates the need to build out expensive renderfarms — a luxury that is still privy to companies of a certain size.

Otoy’s Octane being used on one of Midnight Sherpa’s jobs.

Motion artists, too, have become far more adventurous in employing VFX-specific software like Houdini, which has simultaneously become far more accessible and egalitarian without any compromise to its capability. Maxon’s Cinema 4D, the heavily favored 3D application in motion graphics, has had a long tradition of implementing efficient software-specific workflows to bridge its ecosystem to other programs. Coding and script-based animation has also found a nice home in the Motion repertoire to create inventive and efficient ways to generate content. Even the barrier of entry for creating VR and AR content has eased quite a bit with the latest releases of both the Unity and Unreal engines.

Aside from lower overhead costs, the horizontal work structure of the “lean-and-mean” model has also cultivated truly collaborative environments where artists of trans-disciplinary backgrounds can work together in more streamlined ways than can be done in an oversized team. In many cases, these smaller studios are forced to develop workflows that more effectively reflect their team’s makeup — these systems often enjoy more success as they reflect the styles and, even, personalities of the core teams, which institute them.

The nature of being small also pushes you to innovate and develop greater efficiencies, rather than just throwing more bodies at the problem. These solutions and workflows are often baked into the core team and rolled out on future projects. Smaller studios also have a reputation for cultivating talent. Junior artists and interns are often put on a wider range of projects and into more roles out of necessity to fulfill the various needs of production, whereas they are typically relegated to a single role at larger studios and oftentimes are not afforded the opportunity to branch out. This conversely creates an incentive to hire artists with the intent of developing them over a long term.

There are downsides, of course, to being small — chief among them is how quickly they reach physical capacity at which point jobs would have to be turned down. The proliferation of small studios equals more voices in the landscape of content, which in turn directly contributes to the greater evolution of design as a whole.

Now that the playing field has been technologically equalized, the key between failure and success for many of these companies lies in whether or not they can craft a voice that is unique amongst their peers in an increasingly saturated landscape.

Main Image: Audi – Photorealism is more achievable in a streamlined production pipeline.


Miguel Lee is partner/creative director at LA’s Midnight Sherpa, a boutique creative studio for brands and entertainment.

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