It’s rumored there exists a bunch of ‘basement dwellers’ with standard computers who made Lord of the Rings-style VFX. This is them.
Back in 2017 we were brought on board the most exciting, and quite possibly the most unique project we have had the pleasure of helping render. What makes this short film quite so special? Well, of the over 300 collaborators that worked on Melbourne-based Snowgum Films’ fan-made adaptation of Troll Bridge, each was sprinkled across the entire circumference of this slightly oblate spheroid we call the Earth, although some would heartily argue it’s far closer to the flat earth of late author Terry Pratchett’s Discworld—supposedly without the elephants and giant space turtle, but I digress. This worldwide smattering of talented volunteers (yep!) could quite possibly be a world record for the most distributed production team in history, and a gleaming answer to the question can it be done, or better, can it be done well?
The answer: hell yes it can.
The tale of a talking horse and a half naked old man, say what?
What is Troll Bridge
If, like myself, you came into this a member of Discworld’s uninitiated, there are a couple things that may come to mind upon first reading the words ‘troll bridge’. To clear things up, it has nothing to do with the popular 180 y/o Norwegian fairytale, Three Billy-Goats Gruff which introduced the idea of a hungry troll lurking beneath a bridge. Instead, this 25 minute short film adapts a 1991 Discworld short story by Pratchett, in which an old barbarian and his Gandalf-worthy talking white stallion embark on a suicidal quest to battle a bridge troll; y’know, the usual. Directed by Daniel Knight, it is a live action/hand animated hybrid, fondly described as a love letter to Pratchett himself; one that he had proudly given the go ahead for over a decade ago and had followed the progress of ever since. With the contract requiring it to be non-profit, any extra money will go to a charity that Pratchett would approve of.
It’s one of those unusual cases of contractual language actually working its way into the spirit of production. We’ve worked hard to honor that & so has his estate, who’ve been unbelievably supportive.
– Ahren Morris, Troll Bridge Producer
Managing a voluntary workforce
There were a lot of elements required to achieve this impressive undertaking, but first and foremost was having the ambition to make it work. The project leads had set the bar high and committed themselves to the lengthy task at hand. In order to achieve this it took a total of about 300 volunteers working on the project at different times, during the course of post-production. Problem was, supervising a team of volunteers is a Discworld away from dealing with a regular post-production team. Volunteers are much more difficult to organise, and their actions far less predictable.
I would suspect a lot our artists would have initially thought we were completely crazy and then realised we were actually getting it done.
– Ahren Morris
The amount of time a volunteer would stay with the team would vary dramatically depending on their personal circumstances – on a regular project this would be one hell of a headache, let alone something so remote; one not even a lifetime’s supply of Aspirin could cure. Then again if you did have such a supply I’d be wondering why you were hoarding so many pain meds, that is… unless you were a certain politician’s social media advisor. Despite this issue it was made abundantly clear to all volunteers that they could leave at anytime, no questions asked. The leads were just grateful for every hour a volunteer could spend on their project. As Troll Bridge VFX Supervisor, Christian Bloch so eloquently put it: life happens. And that’s okay.
Usually volunteers would join the team if they had some spare time and after a short period have to leave for a large variety of reasons. Some left because their dayjob was getting too stressful, while many others were freelancers with a few weeks between gigs, or your humble student looking to polish up their reel, who disappears without so much as an abracadabra when plucked up by a big VFX house.
Preparing for the unpredictable
The positive outlook regarding the unpredictable nature of this peculiar kind of workforce led to what became known as the revolving door policy; the leads simply had to adjust by keeping the sign-up and quitting rate evenly balanced. To greatly reduce the negative impact of a person suddenly leaving an unusual policy had to be enacted from the get go; artists were being assigned one task at a time. While inefficient in a regular setting this method proved to be quite the boon for the team. The standard workflow of an artist being assigned several shots right away would have meant when “life happened” and a volunteer had to leave, they could be left with several unfinished shots. To ask some other volunteer to pick up the slack would have been cruel.
In this hypothetical scenario if an artist had, say, 5 shots on their list, these would be blocked from being assigned to another artist who may have become free or just signed up – trying to resolve this in the wake of a sudden departure would not only waste time, but put unnecessary pressure on the other volunteers. Via negative word of mouth alone this could become detrimental to progress, or worse post-production as a whole. Therefore the standard workflow is not flexible enough to accomodate the needs of a volunteer workforce. Giving every artist one shot at a time, letting them take it through all revisions to completion, and only then asking if they want another task, gave everyone a graceful and guilt-free way to bow out if necessary, while also leaving the team with more finished work; a bonafide win-win situation. But just how does one keep a volunteer invested in the task at hand in the first place?
An avant-garde leadership style
Outside the walls of formal education, generally the primary—or if you’re lucky, secondary—motivation behind continuing with a difficult project is the pot of gold at the end of the productivity rainbow. Without the powerful motivator that is monetary gain, maintaining said motivation by alternative means became essential.
I’ve supervised many projects, and I always found that keeping your team motivated is making everyday life far more enjoyable for everyone. But ultimately, that is a bonus. When push comes to shove, and management calls out crunchtime, people will still do their job. Not so with volunteers. Motivation is the only lever you have.
– Christian Bloch
In the case of Troll Bridge, working with volunteers required a much more nuanced style of supervision. Rather than push the artists, Bloch could only pull. He couldn’t just blurp out notes and expect them to get on with it, he had to sound both convincing and reasonable. To set an encouraging example, and to prove he knew what he was talking about to those looking up to him, he became a frequent poster of shots he’d taken on himself. Further keeping things flowing smoothly demanded the utmost responsiveness from the project’s leaders, which was resolved via a regime of daily review sessions between Christian, Ahren and/or Daniel, during which they’d evaluate the latest submissions together. The purpose of this was to enable management to speak with one voice; immediately afterwards one of them would pop the notes into the project management software Shotgun, for the rest of the team to view (more on that later).
I’ll be ridin’ Shotgun♪
One of the difficulties of collaboration of such a remote nature is the problem of time zones, as well as language and even culture. Problems with time zones were inevitably had to be overcome via lots of late nights and Skype calls at odd hours. As to dealing with the many challenges created by this unprecedented distribution of talent, Shotgun proved indispensable to the studio.
Described by the producer as being like Facebook for production, its tools include a wall for each shot where people can post new versions, annotations you can scribble directly onto the video clips, and a complete history of all notes are automatically kept in case they need to be referred back to in future. Shotgun’s features were especially useful when shots were passed from one artist to another. A strong discipline in how Shotgun was necessary to keep things running as smoothly as reasonably possible.
With a heck of a lot of people working on the same project thanks to their internet connection came the need for a heck of a lot of cloud storage space. Everything from shots and plates to reference clips and model textures was stored on Dropbox, adding up to well over 5 TB of data—that’s a heck of a lot of floppy discs (also known as the save icon). So, more than enough space for my childhood Microsoft Paint drawings then; or more accurately black scribbles with all the colours of the rainbow splashed within, resulting in a kind of poor man’s abstract art.
Order > chaos
To bring order out of what could easily have been chaos, every shot and asset was given its own folder, with a link provided on the relevant Shotgun page. Doing so made it easy for an artist to find and downloaded what they needed, however because every new piece of work needed to be preserved within the cloud, Morris and Bloch implemented a rule that every version submitted to Shotgun would need the actual animation scene or Nuke script added as an attachment. This method made the experience very collaborative and turned Shotgun into pretty much a file browser for the team, who soon found that it was very easy for the next person to pick up a shot where it was left off. An interesting benefit of this was that it enabled them to learn a lot from each others techniques, as they were able to take a peek inside the folder of a playblast or composite they liked the look of. It’s all well and good having these resources for those who know what to do with it, but what about the newbies?
An internal website called Boot Camp was created as part of Snowgum specifically for the purpose of providing newcomers with everything needed to get up to speed. Such extensive documentation included, but not limited to, hours of video tutorials explaining the rigs, all of which were provided in easily digestible bitesize snippets, as well as look templates and techniques for compositors tasked with solving their shots. This all allowed for a streamlined process to welcome new talent into the team, on their own time.
The future of collaboration
Whilst remote collaboration is uncharted territory, it does not mean it is not worth doing. You may be asking yourself what’s the point, and why should you make your work life more strenuous than it needs to be. Regarding this alleged difficulty nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, remote collaboration can be a great asset to your project:
- Distance doesn’t matter
Before the internet access to talent was limited by distance. If you wanted to work somewhere far from home you had two options: either move closer, which required money or spending hours travelling there and back which took time, cost money, and sapped energy that could have been otherwise been put into your work. With web-based remote collaboration you don’t even have to leave the house. So many cool (and not-so-cool) things have already been achieved thanks to the global nature of crowdsourcing, via staples such as GoFundMe, IndieGogo and Kickstarter.
- Access to talent at a (much) larger scale
The immense powerhouse that is social media doesn’t only bring despair and delicious distraction, but also provides access to large communities of skilled individuals (and the occasional talented animal) if you know where to look. Other than the “big three”: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, talent can be found on more dedicated platforms such as ArtStation, Behance and LinkedIn. These can be great for building a team with your ideal skill sets.
- Saves time
You may be wondering how this could possibly be true, what with the problem of time zones. Well they don’t have to be, sorting out an ideal time to contact an overseas collaborator is a piece of cake, thanks to the likes of Time and Date’s Meeting Planner. With this problem out of the way you’re free to share information at any time that suits you, without the need for face-to-face meetings. After all all you need is a phone (Nokia’s iconic “brick phone” not recommended) and an internet connection. Keeping everyone up to date is not an issue thanks to platforms like Basecamp, and our platform of choice, Trello, where tasks are delineated and trackable.
The idea of remote collaboration isn’t solely the realm of studios, industry-types and those who work from home, in fact there’s a significant chance you may be a remote collaborator yourself, without even realising it. Take video games for example, there are an estimated 2.2–2.6 billion gamers worldwide, millions of whom are playing online, and more often than not they’re doing so as part of a team. These teammates are often hundreds or even thousands of miles from each other, all working together to defeat their opponents; unless, of course, it’s a free-for-all – then all hell breaks loose. In other words, remote collaboration is easy, common even, it’s stepping it up a notch and turning it into something cool that is the hard part. Talk of remote collaboration on digital projects goes back to at least 2003, but for a long time this kind of outsourcing was the realm of well-funded studios, whereas this option has not long been an option for your average person. Thanks to the relentless march of time and technological progress this is no longer the case, in fact with the right tools and the right support, anyone can be a remote collaborator. And not only that, they can make it work.
We already live in a world where we perform everyday tasks online without a second thought, take the unstoppable force that is e-commerce for example. The total worldwide retail e-commerce sales is expected to reach $4.5 trillion USD by 2021, a figure I honestly can’t quite truly fathom. At the time of writing, the worldwide box office earnings of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008–) is $17.5 billion, a measly 0.39% of that incredible number. It’s no wonder Amazon managed to become the world’s second trillion dollar company. Not only is the internet a powerful tool for satisfying our many needs and desires but global interconnectivity is growing at an exciting rate. In India alone the number of people with internet access now outmatches users in the UK, US and Germany combined, and yet it only accounts for 42% of the country’s total population, however this is rising rapidly. At least 850 million (69.4%) Indians are expected to be online by 2025. The pool of available talent is ever expanding, one not limited by the cost of a plane ticket; not to mention one arguably better for the environment. What better way for people from across the world to come together regardless of culture, creed, or coordinates to create something awesome. With features like Google Translate and Skype’s real-time translation, even language is ceasing to become a hurdle.
Troll Bridge is not the only project being produced remotely within the CG sphere; in late 2018 an Oscar-qualifying short film known as Sonder saw its release online as a Vimeo staff pick, requiring the collaboration of 144 people from nine different time zones. However while the team did work from home, it had an undeniable advantage in that its collaborators hark from the likes of Pixar and Electronic Arts. Another animated film to look out for that’s currently being produced by artists from around the world is the horror short La Noria.
GarageFarm.NET (2009–): Remote collaborator, before it was cool
As a cloud render farm remote collaboration is in our blood. Our growing team of 30 are based in countries including Australia, Korea, Philippines, Poland and my own home country, England. As part of our collaboration with Snowgum Films, completed shots were gradually submitted to us and rendered on Low Priority over the course of two years. Our 24/7 support team pride themselves on their quick responsiveness, so fast that Bloch thought we were using a chatbot at first!
At times it didn’t even feel like a 3rd party support team, but more like having our own render department. Through the chat we knew them by name, and they knew our scenes, and they would wrangle them properly. That’s exactly the same level of interaction most artists have with in-house IT staff.
– Christian Bloch
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