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Quick Chat: VFX Legion’s James Hattin on his visual effects collective

By Randi Altman

While VFX Legion does have a brick-and-mortar location in Burbank, California, their team of 50 visual effects artists is spread around the world. Started in 2012 by co-founder and VFX supervisor James Hattin and six others who were weary of the old VFX house model — including large overhead and long hours away from family — the virtual studio was set up to allow artists to work where they live, instead of having to move to where the work is.

VFX Legion has provided visual effects for television shows like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, as well as feature films such as Insidious: Chapter 3, Jem and the Holograms, and Sinister 2. We recently reached out to Hattin to find out more about his collective and how they make sure their remote collaboration workflow is buttoned up.

Sinister 2

Sinister 2

Can you talk about the work/services you provide?
VFX Legion full-service visual effects facility that provides on-set supervision, tracking, match move, animation, 3D, dynamics and compositing. We favor the compositing side of the work because we have so many skilled compositors on the team. However, we have talent all over the world for dynamics, lighting and animation as well.

You co-founded VFX Legion as a collective?
Legion was started by myself and six equal partners. We are mostly artists and production people. This has been the key to our early success — the partners alone could deliver a significant amount of work. Early on, Legion was designed to be a co-op, wherein, everyone who worked for the company would have a vested interest in getting projects done profitably. However, in researching how that could be done on a legal and business level, we found that we were going to have to change the industry one way at a time. A fully remote workflow was enough to get VFX Legion off the ground. We will have to wait for that change to take hold industry wide before we move into 100s of “owners.”

You have an official office, but you have artists working all over the world. Why did you guys opt to do that as opposed to expanding in Burbank?
The brick-and-mortar office is for the management and supervision. We have an expandable team that handles everything from IO to producing and supervising the artists around the world. We could expand this facility to house artists, but the goal of the company was to find the best artists around the world — not to open offices all over the world. We want people to be able to work wherever they want to live. We don’t mandate that they come in to the office and work a 9 to 5. Artists get to work on their own schedule in their own offices and personal spaces. It’s the new way of giving talent their lives back. VFX can be insanely demanding on the people who work in the industry.

What are the benefits?
The benefits are that artists take control over their lives. They can work all night if they are night owls. They can walk the dog or go out to eat with their families and not be chained to a desk in one of the most expensive cities in the world — which is where all VFX hubs are based. It takes a certain kind of artist, with a certain level of experience, to manage themselves in this atmosphere. Those who do it well can live pretty well by working full time for Legion on projects.

Are there any negatives?
If the artist isn’t the kind of person that can start and finish something, if they can’t manage their time very well, or don’t communicate well, this can be very challenging. We’ve had a few artists bow out over the last few years because they simply weren’t cut out for the type of work that we do. Self management is very important to this pipeline, and if someone isn’t up to it, it can be frustrating.

What kind of software do you use for your VFX work?
We use Nuke and Maya, along with Redshift and VRay for rendering. We also call on After Effects, Mocha, Zoom, Aspera and Shotgun.

With people spread around the world, how do you communicate and review and approve projects? Can you walk us through a typical workflow, starting with how early you get involved on a project?
On many projects, we start at the very beginning. We are there for production meetings and help drive the visual effects workflow so that it is easier to deal with in post. Once we are done on set, we work with the editorial staff to manage shot turnovers and ingesting plates into our system. Once we have plates in our system, we assign the work out to the artists who are a good fit for the work that needs to be done.

Jem and the Holograms

Jem and the Holograms

We let them know what the budget is for the shot and they can accept or refuse the work. Once the artist is kicked off, they will start sending shots through Shotgun for review by a supervisor in-house in Burbank. We generally look at the Shotgun media first to see if the basics are in place. If that looks good, we download the uploaded QuickTime from Shotgun. When that is approved, we pull the synced DPX frames and evaluate them through a QC process to make sure that they meet the quality standards we have as a company.

There are a lot of moving parts, and that is why we have a team of trained coordinators, project managers and producers here in Burbank, to make sure that we facilitate all the work and track all the progress.

Can you talk about some recent projects?
We have been working on Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder for ABC Television. There are a number of challenges working on shows like this. The schedule can be very tight and we are tasked with updating many older elements from previous vendors and previous seasons.

This can also be a lot of fun because we get a chance to make sure that the effects look as good as possible, but we slowly update each of the assets to be a little more ‘Legion-like.’ This can be little secondary animations that weren’t there originally or a change in seasons of a set extension. It is all very exciting and fast paced.

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For more on VFX Legion, check out James Hattin’s LinkedIn blog here.

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