As you read this, be aware that my purpose over the past couple of blogs has been to find a few VFX houses that are doing well who were willing to share a bit of information that might help others. I had originally intended to do them all in one blog, but the information was so useful that I decided to expand my coverage. I'm not writing these things to find the flaws in their systems. I'm not attempting to do a thorough analysis of each studio, either. I just thought you might like to know what they think is helping them to succeed in difficult times.
I asked about working conditions because I wondered if these studios were being successful on the backs of their employees. I didn't find that to be the case at all. In fact, the houses I looked at all seemed to have unusually excellent personnel practices, from outstanding catered food for those working overtime to meet deadlines to weekends off and actual vacation time. Most tried their damnedest to keep their best people on full time so they could build a life and a family.
I had originally planned this as a series about five stand-out, thriving houses. I was going to do a few paragraphs about each. It didn't work and would have gone on too long. So I picked the two I had the most information on and that I felt represented two different, yet very successful, approaches to survival. The two studios that worked were Luma and ScanlineVFX. While Scanline is run by my daughter and her husband, I'm writing this article in as unbiased a manner as I can. It's all based on not only my perception, but also on the industry feedback that shows wide respect of Scanline's work. They are my prime example of a thriving high-end house.
While Scanline started in Germany in the 1980s, I've been fortunate to follow Scanline in the US since it opened back in February 2008. Their Vancouver facility was launched in August 2011 and has already grown to about 100 people.
I know Scanline LA very well. It's a great place to work because the owners run the place by a model philosophy. It's actually somewhat similar to ideas I presented in my last blog on Luma Pictures. It seems that some of these core concepts on how to run a VFX house have something to do with their success.
Scanline specializes in "hardcore FX". They built their reputation on fluid simulation, water, fire and destruction, but they have always done the full range of FX. It's my impression that clients go to them because they consider Scanline to be a sure thing when it comes to high-quality, complex FX work.
Recent examples of their work include the heli-carrier rising out of the water and cloaking in The Avengers; the train crash in Super 8; the destruction of Hong Kong in Battleship; the waves sequences that destroy almost everything, including the White House, in 2012; and the River God from The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
I asked how they stay competitive in today's VFX world. Danielle attributed Scanline's success to a combination of specialization in high-end work and smaller teams of high-end talent. She responded: "Complex simulation work at this level is still handled by just a handful of studios worldwide. The work we do not only utilizes our proprietary software, Flowline, but also requires an incredibly strong backbone of hardware and pipeline that we have steadily fortified over the years. With this robust structure, we're able to provide a powerful support system for our team."
I can tell you from personal observation that they don't simply invest in hardware and software, but also invest heavily in their artists and their unique company culture. Which brings me to the next question: What do you think are the key management factors that keep Scanline VFX LA in the running and viable?
Here's what she gave me: “Our overall model as a FX house is unique in that we run lean and mean, with smaller teams of very senior-level artists rather than a full spectrum of junior- to senior-level artists. Our approach is that with a skilled team of ninjas, and our proprietary pipeline, we can efficiently tear through a large volume of complex, high-level shots.”
This is nearly the opposite of what many houses do to survive. I know some houses take the approach of using inexpensive people and charging as little as possible, often to their own detriment. The work is often not of a high standard and it can be done by any other house in town — or in India, China or Australia. Scanline has little true competition because of where they've positioned themselves in the hierarchy of VFX capabilities.
Scanline manages to thrive though a synergy of efforts – by maintaining strong positive relationships with their clients giving excellent value for money, creating VFX that few others could handle, and attracting the cream of the crop in artists. Their parties are legendary, the projects are always interesting, and the work atmosphere is fun and productive. That is a formula for success and growth, in my opinion.
My next blog will be a surprise. I'm working five different stories at the moment. Interesting stuff. Okay, it's about a company that is known for sending VFX work overseas. You'll be surprised at what I found out.
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