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Working From Home: VFX house The Molecule

By Randi Altman

With the COVID-19 crisis affecting all aspects of our industry, we’ve been talking to companies that have set up remote workflows to meet their clients’ needs. One of those studios is The Molecule, which is based in New York and has a location in LA as well. The Molecule has focused on creating visual effects for episodics and films since its inception in 2005.

Blaine Cone 

The Molecule artists are currently working on series such as Dickinson and Little Voice (AppleTV+), Billions (Showtime), Genius: Aretha (NatGeo), Schooled and For Life (ABC) and The Stranger (Quibi). And on the feature side, there is Stillwater (Focus Features) and Bliss (Amazon). Other notable projects include The Plot Against America (HBO), Fosse/Verdon (FX) and The Sinner (USA).

In order to keep these high-profile projects flowing, head of production Blaine Cone and IT manager Kevin Hopper worked together to create the studio’s work-from-home setup.

Let’s find out more…

In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, what were you doing to prepare?
Blaine Cone: We had already been investigating and testing various remote workflows in an attempt to find a secure solution we could extend to artists who weren’t readily available to join us in house. Once we realized this would be a necessity for everyone in the company, we accelerated our plans. In the weeks before the lockdown, we had increasingly larger groups of artists work from home to gradually stress-test the system.

How difficult was it to get that set up?
Cone: We were fortunate to have a head start on our remote secure platform. Because we decided to tie into AWS, as well as into our own servers and farm (custom software running on a custom-built hypervisor server on Dell machines), it took a little while, but once we saw the need to fast-track it we were able to refine our solution pretty quickly. We’re still optimizing and improving behind the scenes, but the artists have been able to work uninterrupted since the beginning.

Kevin Hopper

What was your process in choosing the right tools to make this work?
Kevin Hopper: We have been dedicated to nailing down TPN-compliant remote work practices for the better part of a year now. We knew that there was a larger market of artists available for us to tap into if we could get a remote work solution configured properly from a security standpoint. We looked through a few companies offering full remote working suites via Teradici PCOIP setups and ultimately decided to configure our own images and administer them to our users ourselves. This route gives us the most flexibility and allows us to accurately and effectively mirror our required security standards.

Did employees bring home their workstations/monitors? How is that working?
Cone: In the majority of cases, employees are using their home workstations and monitors to tap into their dedicated AWS instance. In fact, the home setup could be relatively modest because they were tapping into a very strong machine on the cloud. In a few cases, we sent home 4K monitors with individuals so they could better look at their work..

Can you describe your set up and what tools you are using?
Cone: We are using Teradici to give artists access to dedicated, powerful and secure AWS machines to work off of files on our server. This is set up for Nuke, Maya, Houdini, Mocha, Syntheyes, Krita, Resolve, Mari and Substance Painter. We spin up the AWS instances in the morning and then down again after the workday is over. It allows us to scale as necessary, and it limits the amount of technical troubleshooting and support we might have to do otherwise. We have our own internal workflow tools built into the workflow just as we did when artists were at our office. It’s been relatively seamless.

Fosse/Verdon

How are you dealing with the issues of security while artists are working remotely?
Cone: Teradici gives us the security we need to ensure that the data exists only on our servers. It limits the artists from web traffic as well.

How is this allowing you to continue creating visual effects for shows?
Cone: It’s really not dissimilar to how we normally work. The most challenging change has been the lack of in-person interaction. Shotgun, which we use to manage our shots, still serves as our creative hub, but Slack has become an even more integral aspect of our communication workflow as we’ve gone remote. We’ve also set up regular team calls, video chats and more to make up for the lack of interpersonal interaction inherent in a remote scenario.

Can you talk about review and approval on shots?
Cone: Our supervisors are all set up with Teradici to review shots securely. They also have 4K monitors. In some cases, artists are doing Region of Interest to review their work. We’ve continued our regular methods of delivery to our clients so that they can review and approve as necessary.

How many artists do you have working remotely right now?
Cone: Between supervisors, producers, artists and support staff in NY and LA, we have about 50 remote users working on a daily basis. Our Zoom chats are a lot of fun. In a strange way, this has brought us all closer together than ever before.


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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