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VFX Cloud Houses, Part 3: Growing Opportunities

Here are two more cloud houses that are, indeed, quite different. One is based in Vancouver and another in Albuquerque. Yup…in old New Mexico. They each work with remote artists. Both work major motion pictures, commercials and music videos, etc. And one is working on games. And, get this, each has slots for character animators! They are The VFX Cloud and Cosmic Forces.

The VFX Cloud
Let's start with The VFX Cloud. It's a perfect name for this series. Brett Keyes, CEO, talked with me about the cloud house, which has been in business for close to five years. They have worked on about 50 feature films and a dozen or so TV shows, including movies of the week. The VFX Cloud is Vancouver-based but uses VFX artists around the world.

The VFX Cloud is like a one-stop shop, because they handle everything from basic clean-up and wire removal to full-on virtual humans and CG creatures. I'm pretty sure they are the largest cloud house I've found, with about 100 freelance artists working for them. A few are actually full-time!

Although The VFX Cloud will soon be launching an online recruiting service, you can submit your resume and demo reel right now to vfxcloud.jobs@gmail.com. For now, they are looking for senior-level freelance VFX artists. Don't expect to get primo assignments right off the bat. Unless you are well known, you will have to prove yourself by establishing that trust that is so essential to VFX houses working with remote artists. You do that with excellent on-time deliveries. Also note that they are happy to work with anyone who can deliver the goods, including the disabled, who may need to work their own hours.

As with other cloud houses, you are expected to bring to the table not only your talent but also your tools, which include high-speed Internet access and key software. Brett said: “We feel that in order for a freelance artist to be successful, they need to invest in their own hardware, software, and internet connection.”

I would have to agree. Virtually all cloud houses expect this. However, they do provide project management: “We have spent years developing our own proprietary online project management and collaborative work environment.” I suspect this smooths the workflow and collaboration between artist and supervisor. They also use Cinesync.

I was curious how they bid for their core work. Much like other cloud houses, they bid based on their knowledge of what each piece should cost. They figure in their overhead and the overhead the artists need to support. I don't know the intimate details of how they cost everything internally, but since they've managed to keep a stable of talented artists coming back—and they are still in business after four-plus years—I'd say their system is well proven.

I also asked Brett about their shot distribution process. Here's his response: “We pay by the task. Tasks are bid out to multiple artists and the project supervisor picks who he thinks best fits the job. We also offer an online task bidding platform where artists can bid on various listed VFX tasks.” He also told me that you won't know about these offerings until you have established yourself with the house—they are not public.

Exactly what all this means, you'll have to discover for yourself. I suspect it means the house knows what they will be paid for the job, the artist knows what he or she is willing to do it for. They do not go for the low bidder, by the way. They want you to bid intelligently, and they will take a higher bidder if they feel that person is better equipped to do the job. Lowball bidding is not encouraged. Smart bidding is. Any difference goes to support central operations.

Brett Keyes: “We are integrating Bitcoin and other digital currencies into our pipeline. We are the very first VFX Studio to offer our artists the option to be paid in Bitcoin. Our plan is to deeply integrate Bitcoin so that artists can be paid instantly for tasks as they are approved. This ultimately puts more money in the pockets of the artists and less in the hands of banks through FX conversions and global transaction fees.” Very cool, say I.

Although they do not supply software or hardware support at this time, they are in the process of creating cloud workstations for their artists. I don't know how these will work because it's proprietary technology, like their virtual work environment. I have to give these guys a lot of credit for investing so heavily in their infrastructure. In the long run it could give them a significant leg up on the competition.

Cosmic Forces
Cosmic Forces is a private spin-off from Sony Pictures Imageworks in Albuquerque after its shutdown. Like most cloud houses, they tend to work only with senior artists who have a solid track record. Many of my readers fit that bill. But these guys tend to have a broader range of work. They are involved in creating their own work as well as partnering with other producers.

They actually have an animation department headed by Shawn Clark, who came from Sony Pictures Animation. Most of their senior crew is based in L.A. Amazing! They get to live in L.A. and actually work in animation and visual FX. What could be better, especially for those senior people who have settled there and have families and ongoing expenses.

Much like the other houses, Cosmic Forces uses what they call their “flex-work schedule,” which artists love. Oh, and before I forget, they are actually looking for people as we speak, so If you are a senior artist currently looking for work, take a look at the cosmicforces.com Jobs section, and good luck. When you prove yourself with them, you start getting first dibs on work. They are expecting to have a very busy spring and summer, so apply now.

One of the reasons I believe these guys are probably very good is that Don Levy, formerly of Sony Pictures, has joined them, and he is a man of vision. He's also my friend, so take that into consideration (grin).

The founder of Cosmic Forces, Ziad Seirafi, seems to be a pretty sharp fellow. Although they do flat contracting with studios, this doesn't mean they let themselves get trapped in bad contracts. If there is a change of scope they bill for it. They also protect their artists from unfair exploitation.

Much like Legend, they have their professional VFX people cost out each job and bid it. Once acquired, they notify their stable of artists and distribute the work to the appropriate artists at a fixed price. If you think you can do it, you take the offer. Here too, artists are expected to calculate their actual costs and overhead to produce the shot. Seasoned artists can do this well in most cases. It all depends on how skilled you are at both your craft and at time management. If you are an OCD artist who takes forever to complete a shot, you're not going to do well at Cosmic Forces. On the other hand, if you are efficient and know your tools, you could do quite well.

I asked if they have any way of protecting their artists from unreasonable re-dos, delays and do-overs. Ziad told me: “We do protect our artists and ourselves from producers or directors who are trying to take advantage. If the work was well done and within the scope of the work technically and creatively as described but changes are requested, we do not shy away from discussing that with production and creating a change or add work order.

“I have seen VFX producers become afraid to draw boundaries with production. It's prevalent in all kinds of business that, when the client perceives they can get away without paying for something, they do it over and over.”

Like The VFX Cloud, they use Cinesync to coordinate with their artists and discuss shots, and occasionally Zoom.

Here's another unusual thing about Cosmic Forces. I can't say if it's good or bad. They definitely feel it is their way to go. I got it in Ziad's own words:

“In addition to providing VFX and Animation services, we have been raising capital to produce projects with filmmakers and brand owners on VFX, animation and game projects. Our involvement on the investment level has given us some say on where the work goes. I was inspired by the success of Veronica Mars and other projects that were crowd-funded. We are raising funds through traditional sources and additionally will be launching our first Kickstarter campaign in a few weeks in partnership with Tokyopop to develop a game based on their hit graphic novel series, Bizenghast. We are in discussion to launch another Kickstarter campaign shortly with director Josh Michael Stern (Jobs, Swing Vote) to raise funds for a VFX heavy film that we are partnering on.”

I no longer recommend Kickstarter projects after my fiasco with Space Command. But if you're interested, you can sign up for their newsletter at cosmicforces.com. They will let you know when the campaigns launch.

Wrap
Although I can't know all the particulars, It seems to me that these forward-looking pioneers are on to something. I do not think they will replace the big houses with the massive infrastructure and proprietary production software needed to create the most advanced and difficult visual effects. But I do believe they are providing a way to level the playing field for artists worldwide. So far, I haven't had an opportunity to talk with the folks at the Spanish cloud house. I understand they hire abroad, as well. Clearly, this new trend is growing and may one day provide the bulk of VFX work for a world of entertainment that is becoming increasingly dependent on fantasy and illusion—the very stuff of VFX.

Next Time
While looking into cloud houses, I discovered that one very critical issue is the ability to supervise remote artists effectively. I've run across some software systems that will help with this task. They run from fairly expensive to completely free. Basically, they let you upload a clip to the cloud, which provides simultaneous access by artist and supervisor with a chat window and the ability to notate the clip. Combining one of these systems with Skype or Zoom provides a powerful management pathway for remote VFX. More to come.

8 Comments

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  • Paul Jenkins

    Peter, another great article. Thanks for posting. I looked at one of the companies you listed – Cosmic Forces – and on their website, they state that one of the benefits of being in New Mexico is access to the 25% tax rebate. Reading this set of posts, something that has perplexed me about cloud houses is how they are able (if at all) to access tax rebates – with artists located around the world working from home, how do you qualify for a rebate in one city? It appears though that Cosmic Forces has resolved this – I’m curious how!?

    • Peter Plantec

      You raise a good question Paul. Since the idea of rebates is to provide local jobs, this is something I have to investigate. Legislators are notorious for writing poorly worded laws. It is possible that the New Mexico wording has unexpected loopholes allowing in state companies to employ out of state people…even out of country artists! We shall see.

    • http://www.cosmicforces.com Cosmic Forces

      Peter thanks for including us in your series.

      That’s a good question Paul. Only the work we do with artists and managers in New Mexico qualifies for the 25% rebate. The work we do with LA artists does not qualify for those incentives.

      Our cloud model allows us to be competitive without having to rely completely on incentives so we do a considerable amount of work with LA based artists and managers.
      Ziad
      Cosmic Forces

      • Peter Plantec

        Thanks Ziad, I was wondering about how that worked. I imagine that the Vancouver rebates work much the same way. So if an artist moves to New Mexico it helps the studio…but does it help them? Do you have any incentives for the artists to move there?

        • http://www.cosmicforces.com Cosmic Forces

          Peter, All the rebates I know of are tied to where the person is working and paying taxes. If we recruit to New Mexico it would be for the duration of a show and we would be upfront about that. If possible we would cover some moving expenses.

          We have chosen though to work in the cloud to stay competitive rather than rely on tax incentives. We have benefitted from the New Mexico tax rebate but we feel that working in the cloud has a great advantage in being able to access talent pools where they want to be located. The increase in productivity and cost benefits make us competitive with any tax incentive.
          Ziad

          • Peter Plantec

            That answers a few questions I had. Especially the one about: can a cloud based operation working with remote artists and low overhead compete with heavy subsidies? …you can. Bravo.

        • http://www.cosmicforces.com Cosmic Forces

          Peter, All the rebates I know of are tied to where the person is working and paying taxes. If we recruit to New Mexico it would be for the duration of a show and we would be upfront about that. If possible we would cover some moving expenses.

          We have chosen though to work in the cloud to stay competitive rather than rely on tax incentives. We have benefitted from the New Mexico tax rebate but we feel that working in the cloud has a great advantage in being able to access talent pools where they want to be located. The increase in productivity and cost benefits make us competitive with any tax incentive.
          Ziad

  • Baron Thomas Von Buettner

    I am not very familiar with Cinesync, most of the time i use a program called RV, it integrates right into the Nuke Compositing Software