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Quick Chat: Atomic Fiction’s Kevin Baillie on recent expansion

By Randi Altman

Last week, Oakland-based VFX house Atomic Fiction announced they were expanding with a 15,000-square-foot studio in Montreal, taking advantage of the large talent base of visual effects artists in the area. The first project in that office is The Walk, a feature about French high-wire artist Philippe Petit. It is co-produced, co-written and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Atomic Fiction co-founder and VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie worked with Zemeckis on the film Flight, creating the inverted airplane sequence and landing, among other shots. The work was nominated for a VES Award.

Best known for its visual effects work on movies such as Star Trek Into Darkness, Transformers Age of Extinction and Need for Speed, Atomic Fiction has two Oscar-noms for its VFX work: Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger.

The company embraced cloud-based workflows early on — using the cloud-rendering tool Zync on Flight, which saved a lot of time and money during production. They’ve since developed their own in-house cloud rendering system called Conductor that is tailored to their specific workflow needs. “We saw an opportunity to take cloud rendering to a scale that simply wasn’t possible using any off-the-shelf solutions and have succeeded at building a system that’s many, many times more scalable than anything else out there. We’re really excited to continue developing Conductor.”

Atomic Fiction's Montreal studio.

Atomic Fiction’s Montreal studio.

After hearing the news of Atomic Fiction’s expansion, I decided to reach out to Kevin, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing over the years.

How did you decide that now was the time to expand, especially since the VFX industry has been in flux of late?
Atomic Fiction’s expansion comes at a very natural time in the growth of the company. We’ve been super successful in the San Francisco Bay Area and are nearing capacity there, so we decided that it was time to parlay that success into an office in one of North America’s coolest cities: Montreal. Serendipitously, and further bolstering the momentum we’re building there, we were selected by Robert Zemeckis to helm the VFX for his upcoming film, The Walk, which filmed in Montreal this past summer.

We don’t really see the VFX industry as being in a state of flux — it’s in a state of maturing. Every industry has it bumps and bobbles, and the companies who are innovative and flexible tend to come out stronger than ever. We think, of course, that we’re one of those companies.

Our use of cloud computing is just one example of how we’re thinking outside the box. Since we’re able to scale our infrastructure to suit the job at hand, whether it be a small flick or a massively complex studio tentpole, we’re able to give our artists access to massive amounts of computing resources but only pay for what we actually use. This helps us tackle one of the business problems that have been plaguing the industry as of late: how to deal with the inherently “spiky” influx of jobs.

Will the work on the Zemeckis film — and other films you take on — be split between the two facilities?
Which office does work on a movie will depend entirely on the individual project. The Walk, for example, will be split between Montreal and Oakland. We have a very talented character team in the Bay Area who will be doing digital face replacements and digital doubles. The Montreal team will be handling the environment work and FX animation.

For future shows, the decision of if and how to split work depends on our staffing capacity and the needs of a show. We’re fortunate enough to have extremely talented artists in both places, which is thanks to our talent-forward staffing approach, so the decision is really a win-win for clients.

We feel that teams comprised of talented artists can easily be two to three times (sometimes 10 times-plus) more efficient than those that aren’t, which means that the crews are ultimately far more important, both creatively and to the bottom line, than any tax incentive could be!

What are you using to connect the two studios for collaboration purposes?
We’ve developed a cloud management solution called Conductor, which leverages Google’s cloud services, to facilitate all of our rendering and data synchronization needs. With the help of the Shotgun production tracking and asset management system, it makes collaboration between the two studios pretty seamless.

Communication is, of course, a big challenge too, so we spend a lot of time video conferencing to make sure everyone is on the same page on both coasts. So far, I think it’s safe to say that the Atomic culture has taken hold nicely in Montreal. I couldn’t be more proud of the team that we’ve assembled there, with a big helping hand from senior producer Julie Cardinal and CG supervisor Laurent Taillefer.

Finally, how do you feel about collaborating with Robert Zemeckis once more?
Given that Robert Zemeckis made some of my favorite childhood movies — ones that inspired me to get into the movies to begin with — it’s a total dream to be working with him again!

Every movie we do with him is so satisfying. He has an extremely strong vision, isn’t scared to take risks and has a real knack for communication. Those things combine to makes him a pleasure to work with, both on a personal level and professionally, and inspire Atomic Fiction’s teams to perform at their very best. It’s both humbling and energizing to be his go-to on the VFX front, and I think that The Walk is going to be a real career highlight for everyone involved!

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