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How VFX house Phosphene has been working remotely

By Randi Altman

In our ongoing coverage of how studios are working remotely, we reached out to New York City-based visual effects house Phosphene. Founded in 2010 by Vivian Connolly and John Bair, Phosphene specializes in photorealistic VFX for film and television, and is particularly known for their detailed CG environments and set extensions.

This four-time Emmy-nominated (Mildred Pierce and Boardwalk Empire Season 3, Season 5, Escape at Dannemora) studio’s more recent work includes The Plot Against America, The Hunters, A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood and Motherless Brooklyn.

The Plot Against America

Like many others, Phosphene tasked with developing secure remote workflows, so we reached out to director of IT Jimmy Marrero and head of operations and strategy Beck Dunn to find out more.

How is Phosphene weathering this storm? Do you have most of your folks working remotely?
Beck Dunn: We were fortunate to be able to switch to remote work very quickly and are extremely grateful for our team who had been preparing for this major change. We are grateful we are in a position to support staff and productions who are able to continue working remotely.

Can you talk about what it took to get artists setup from their homes and walk us through that workflow?
Jimmy Marrero: Luckily, we’ve had experience with using PCOIP technology in the past and were in a good place to transition smoothly to remote work. We had a good number of workstations already set up with PCOIP remote workstation cards. We also leveraged AWS to create cloud workstations that are connected to our office via a VPC (virtual private cloud). This gives us the capability to securely increase our capacity for work way beyond any physical hardware limitations.

What tools are you using to make sure these folks stay connected?
Marrero: We all communicate with each other via chat using an open-source tool called Rocket.Chat. Producers connect via BlueJeans video conference.

For anyone setting up a remote pipeline, I would also recommend taking advantage of cloud-based software like Slack for communication, Trello for organization, and AnyDesk to allow IT to help troubleshoot any issues that might occur during the setup process.

What about security and working remotely?
Marrero: Security was the driving force for us to investigate the advantages of PCOIP technology. Having remote workstation cards installed at the office allows us to stream encrypted screen information directly to the artists monitors and eliminates the need for any data to be hosted outside of Phosphene’s internal network.

Using PCOIP combined with only being able to access our network via VPN with two-factor authentication, we were able to address many security concerns from our clients, which was a key factor in our being able to work remotely.

PCOIP technology also allows us to easily use all the tools on our internal network, with no change in set up, or compromise to security. Once logged in, artists are able to access Nuke, Hiero, 3dsMax, Houdini and Deadline as though they are in the office.

What types of work are you guys doing at the moment?
Dunn: We can’t talk about any of our current work, but one project we recently finished is HBO’s The Plot Against America, created by Ed Burns and David Simon. The show is based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel depicting the lives of US citizens in an alternate history where Franklin D.Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh.

Phosphene worked with show-side VFX supervisor Jim Rider on a wide range of visual effects for the show, including creating period-accurate aerial views of 1940’s Manhattan, exteriors of Newark Airport and a British Navy base, and extensive crowd duplication shots inside Madison Square Garden. In total, Phosphene delivered 274 shots for the limited series.

The Plot Against America

Any tips for those companies who are just starting to get set up remotely or even those who are currently working remotely?
Marrero: Be nice to your IT department. (Smiles) Working remotely has many moving parts that need to all work perfectly for things to go smoothly. Expect delays in the beginning as all the kinks are worked out.

What has helped staffers get settled into working from home?
Dunn: I’ll let them speak for themselves.

VFX producer Matthew Griffin: I found it really helpful to set up a dedicated mini-office rather than just working on a laptop from the couch. When I sit down at my workspace, I feel like I am still “going into” the office. Holding team meetings via video chat and maintaining rituals like having my morning coffee at the same time also helps me to stay in a familiar rhythm. We also have a dog, so walking him at the end of the day makes the workday feel complete. I close the laptop, walk the dog, and once I’m home, it’s like my commute is over and it’s time to relax.

VFX producer Steven Weigle: Producers are used to working remotely for short stints, so this hasn’t been an entirely foreign experience. I did recently add a KVM switch to my home setup, to use my full-sized keyboard, mouse and monitor to control my work laptop but be able to switch back to my personal machine with the click of a button. It’s a small, basic upgrade but it helps me maximize my desk space while still separating my “work brain” from my “home brain.”


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 


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