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ScanlineVFX LA and Vancouver: Where the Sky Meets the Sea

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.

-P-

12 Comments

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  • client

    Looks pretty impartial…. as impartial as an advertisement can be… They do do great work, though, that’s indisputable.

    • Peter Plantec

      It’s interesting how those of you who want to take a shot sign in as “Client” or “Anon” Why? I can take a shot. Let’s discuss it. Anyway, it’s not an Ad, it’s my honest impression. You can see some important commonalities between Luma and Scanline. Sure I said nice things…that was the point. These are houses that are thriving in difficult times. They have great personnel policies, and they have ways of working that are keeping them on top. Sharing those things just may help other smaller houses to make adjustments and stay alive. Mentioning the fact that Scanline does high end work that most other houses can’t do, is one of their secrets of success. The point is, it pays to develop specific abilities to do the very difficult or the unique, as long as it is in demand. Then you’re no longer competing with China and India and Indonesia, etc.

      • Chris

        “Mentioning the fact that Scanline does high end work that most other houses can’t do” You really make yourself look silly with these comments. Scanlines flowline is a great (hard to work in) tool but anything that DD,weta,sony or ILM brew up can do what Scanline does. just not at their pricetag. this does not take away from their quality. its high but not unique.

        • Peter Plantec

          It’s interesting that you mention his. One of us might look silly, but it would not be me. You just mention the biggest houses…sure…they can match some but not all
          Scanline’s capability and as you point out they’re far more expensive. Anyway you look at it, they’ve narrowed down their competition to just the few top houses in the world. That was the point. And you seem to be an expert on Scanline’s Flowline…but I think you’re a few years off.

          The whole point is that if a house can develop special skills in high demand and short supply, they have a leg up in this industry. Look at how some houses that specialize in advanced Previz have carved out a secure chunk for themselves.

          • Dan Supko

            Peter,
            The blog you wrote on Luma was insightful and inspiring. Knowing that there are people out there running businesses with a consideration for their employees happiness and success is encouraging. It seems the normal way to do business in any creative field has turned into getting the maximum output for the minimal input, regardless of quality.

            I am a sound engineer with experience in music recording as well as sound designing/editing/mixing for post. I reside in Los Angeles. If I were looking for employment in post sound work, are you aware of any smaller firms doing post sound who operate with similar structures to Luma and Scanline?

            Sorry for the long message, I just thought you may be a good person to ask, as I really have no contacts in the post production field. Maybe there is a directory or industry list that I am not aware of that you could hip me to?

            Thanks, Dan Supko.

          • Sammy

            After reading these two articles, I’ve realized no one will ever interview the artists. I mean it makes sense. No artists is going to come out and blast whatever company they’ve worked, or are working for I guess (which is too bad). There’s a sense of knowledge and experience that artists carry around with them that spreads like wildfire. For example, the horror stories I’ve heard and interview experiences I’ve encountered from the said companies is enough for me to never want to work at either of them. Whether it be money, overtime, or how you’re treated, artists talk to eachother and in a sense look out for eachother. I just think you might get a little more of a story if you actually interview some of them and not the supervisors or even leads that have been at the company for years. I’m talking the contractor that comes in for 3-5 months to fix things and afterwards wants to get the hell out of there, or is let go immediately after because they’re too expensive compared to their junior artists. I’m not singling out these two places, but the 3-5 month contractor interview might be a little more accurate to what the audience is experiencing on a daily basis as opposed to the cinefx “this place is a dream to work for” interview we’ve all heard over the years.

  • Antonio Neto

    Thanks for share this information with artist community. I’d like to hear also about the others companies that you have acess and information.

    • Peter Plantec

      Hi Antonio, I decided not to post about the other studios and took the two extremes as I see it. It would just have been too long and the commonalities among them that are working are illustrated by comparing Luma and Scanline. I can tell you that the others I spoke with all have really nice personal policies, do exceptionally fine work, are not usually the lowest bidder and have worked to developed good client relationships. Since there are very few major clients, it’s important to know and work well with the studios. Find out what it is that they look for in VFX houses. Jenny Fule, former VP at Sony and head of Creative Cartel is going to share her thoughts on what Studios look for and how she selects where she sends work.

      • Chris

        Luma is among the lowest bidders actually. ask DD by how much they were underbid by Luma on the destroyer sequence of thor…

        • Peter Plantec

          I don’t have the info that you apparently have, but again you make my point for me. Luma can bid less and deliver great work because they keep their overhead under control. Pay fair, but not exorbitant salaries and keep a tight control on the work. But notice they’re bidding against the big boys and can do outstanding work for far less. They have a solid rep for delivery, so naturally studios will give them work. And thus they are thriving.

  • Dan Supko

    Thank’s for the link Peter. Every little bit helps. Keep up the good posts. Dan.

  • sageface

    Hey Antonio, maybe I can at least shed some light on how Luma handles job postings from your other post. Most of the Job boards operate like blogs with more recent content shown first, and older content eventually getting moved off of page one. We will often re-post for the same position several times until that position is filled in order to keep our posting current and not buried on the last page. This is a pretty common practice and doesn’t mean that we are hiring/laying people off all the time.