Troublemaker Studios is as far from a typical Hollywood VFX house as it is from Hollywood itself. Aside from the fact that, unlike nearly all other VFX facilities used for feature films, it isn’t located in Los Angeles, New York or Northern California, a look at how this operation ticks reveals a combination of creativity and
technology that makes for an unusual workflow
Most of the 60-some people who work at the Austin, Texas, production
company founded by Robert Rodriguez and his wife and business partner,
Elizabeth Avellà¡n, don’t have titles. They don’t even have job
descriptions. They simply have strengths and weaknesses. "There aren’t
defined roles here," explains John Ford, who reluctantly describes
himself as a digital artist. " Robert values people being
multi-dimensional and able to wear different hats."
"I consider myself a conceptual artist," adds Chris Olivia. "But I build it all on the fly in 3D."
Clones of Troublemaker aren’t likely to be popping up around the
country. There is, at last count, only one Robert Rodriguez. But other
directors will no doubt customize their own studios to realize their
own visions. Troublemaker proves that ubiquitous, affordable technology
– bolstered by some clever custom code – can go a long way to creating
a flexible production pipeline, and that a group of enthusiastic,
committed and talented artists can avoid rigid job descriptions while
staying efficient and making dazzling pictures.
Blurring the Lines
The lack of titles at Troublemaker reflects a bigger reality: Artists
aren’t pigeonholed into tasks such as modeler or TD or rotoscoper. They
even get the chance to add the occasional line of dialogue. Ford points
out that the divide between 2D and 3D found in most studios is very
blurred at Troublemaker. "The 3D artists do a lot of 2D work, which is
pretty unusual and a very powerful tool," he says. "When I’m working
out something in 3D, I will also be thinking in terms of how to work
the problem out in 2D. It can be a time-saver to jump between the two."
Alex Toader, whose strength is concept art, has found that "being part
of every aspect of production" has helped him to be more creative in
everything he does.
Troublemaker’s artists get a chance to work on sequences from beginning
to end. The compartmentalized nature of most major VFX facilities
simply doesn’t exist here. "You’re expected to do everything, and
that’s been a huge learning experience," says Ford. "It’s not uncommon
for one of us to get a shot, completely choreograph it, create an
animatic, get a feel for Robert’s vision and then take it all the way
to the end, finishing the shot." Olivia reports that he created 400
animatics, covering nearly every action sequence in The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D.
"This allowed me to touch every shot in the movie and work so closely
with the director," he says. "I’d never been able to do that before."
Add to that the crazy brew of multiple projects running simultaneously.
"It takes a while to get used to," admits Rodney Brunet, who worked on
a violent scene in Sin City the same day as a scene set in the Land of Milk and Cookies for Shark Boy.
"Our production schedules are so pressed that we’re always in crunch
mode- we’ll never work on just one project at a time, and that can be
The geography of Rodriguez’s productions also offers an unusual twist:
Troublemaker artists work upstairs while the productions are shot
downstairs. The proximity encourages artistic involvement of the VFX
crew throughout the shoot. "Sometimes we’d even show the actor what we
need him to do by showing the animatic," says Toader.
Everyone involved agrees that this topsy-turvy way of working has
little to do with technology. Troublemaker Studios is full of
leading-edge gear, from 3D camera rigs to the latest HD cameras. But
Troublemaker is really a reflection of Robert Rodriguez, a filmmaker
known for his extensive collection of hats, from director, writer and
cinematographer through to editor and composer. Rodriguez founded the
facility as a visual playground. To bring the pictures in his head to
life, Rodriguez needed pre-vis – lots of it – to work out the
complexities of his VFX-heavy digital productions through concept
design and animatics. "We work very closely with the director," says 2D
supervisor Eric Pham." Robert looks at everything we do. In other
houses, there’s a VFX supervisor. Here, he is our VFX supervisor and
everything filters through him."
The Pre-vis Process
Picture a table ringed by the director and his merry band of pre-vis
pranksters. Throw in a stack of paper and some pencils and watch the
rounds of fast, fast sketching. Now move those sketches around the
table, each artist looking at the others’ work, with the longest pause
at Rodriguez’s seat.
That’s the pre-vis process at Troublemaker. The technology at this
stage of the game is low-tech, but the pace is as quick as a line of 1s
and 0s. Brunet reports that Rodriguez treats the artists as individuals
in this early phase, "because he gets separate ideas from each of us.
But once he picks and chooses, then we jump on it as a team," he says.
"For the most part, he knows what he wants. We pull it out of his head,
and we’ll go through 30 or 40 versions to get it the way he wants."
Translating those rough sketches to fully fleshed-out animatics takes
teamwork. Though the concept artists furiously create imaginary worlds,
the 2D artists pull perfect mattes, and the 3D artists create wireframe
models at their PCs, they’re all ready to switch hats to help out a
fellow artist with a knotty problem. Even tools programmer Sean Dunn
has been known to pinch-hit as a 2D or 3D artist "when things get
Animatics play center stage, not just for Rodriguez the director, but
also for Rodriguez the editor. "Robert will give us a general idea of
how he wants the camera to move," says Brunet. "But we’ll give him four
or five different angles to give him coverage."
Many of the artists at Troublemaker met each other while working at
Austin game developer Digital Anvil, an enterprise that Rodriguez was
involved in. Many of them were first tapped by Rodriguez, who had
observed them in their Digital Anvil jobs, to freelance on one of his
films, which led to a full-time job. Since then, new hires have often
come from the pool of colleagues and friends. Rodriguez likes to
patronize local talent, helping support Austin’s- and Texas’-
burgeoning creative film community.
A Basic Pipeline
The list of software at Troublemaker is deceptively simple. The CG
pipeline is based on Softimage XSI, with a Discreet Flame and
Combustion 4.0 from Autodesk for rotoscoping work and an older version
of Apple Shake, which they are reluctantly planning to abandon in favor
of a newer, PC-based system. For Shark Boy, some particle
effects were created in Alias Maya, along with associated plug-ins
(Glu3D from 3D Aliens) and Particle Illusion. The PCs come from Dell
and the chipsets are from AMD, with whom Rodriguez has an exclusive
The DIY atmosphere at Trouble’maker extends to the two-person IT
department. Kris Bushover and Jeff Acord were responsible for evolving
Troublemaker Studios from analog to 4:2:2 to its current 4:4:4 status.
The fact that the artists have absolutely nothing to say about that
transition is testament to the fact that Bushover and Acord made it
The first challenge, remembers Bushover, was to build a scalable
storage area network that was fast enough to make all the data files
for two movies accessible at all times. "We also had to take into
account that each 10-bit HD frame is 10.5 MB," he says. "When you’re
looking at 800 frames per shot, 5000 frames per sequence, you’re
getting into a significant chunk of storage."
Current SGI-based storage capacity is 8 TB, with a 58-processor render
farm made up of the single-core AMD Opteron systems supplied by Verari.
("Dual-core was only recently introduced," explains Bushover. "We are
working with AMD to install them in our production pipeline.") Dunn,
who writes format-agnostic tools, reports that the main servers were
made more efficient by adding the Rush distributed network render queue
from Seriss. Switching from 8-bit to 10-bit also required ramping up
hardware. "We use Flame, but now we have to use the [ Silicon Graphics
] Tezro workstation with the latest video system," says Acord.
The IT team is often asked to create innovative tools for
bargain-basement prices. For example, when the artists wanted the
ability to capture 10-bit video but didn’t want to spend $100,000,
Acord researched and then built a solution using the Blackmagic
Decklink card that’s capable of capturing 10-bit at 4:4:4 in a
configuration with an array of inexpensive SCSI drives.
The variety of operating systems at Troublemaker is another challenge,
says Bushover, who notes the difficulty of "just getting everything to
play well with others." A lifesaver has been the open source community,
in particular the Samba project (, which
produces software that allows Linux-based servers to serve file systems
to Windows clients. Data portability is via portable hard drives
carried by couriers. "It’s still, weirdly enough, the most efficient
way to transfer the data," says Acord. "We also run an FTP site, but if
you have 20 GB worth of data, it isn’t practical to download."
The editorial facility (40 miles away) is set up with Avid workstations
and a Unity SAN, and an Avid Xpress system at Troublemaker helps
everyone keep track of the most current edits.
Shooting in 3D
Acquisition is all HD. Sin City was shot with the Sony HDC-F950 HD cameras, which captured 10-bit 4:4:4 to HDCAM SR. As a 3D film, Shark Boy
posed other challenges, not the least of which was that the amount of
imagery was doubled, creating twice the work. To create 3D plates, the
production crew used the Cameron Reality Camera System (RCS), the
result of a joint venture created by cinematographer Vince Pace’s
company Pace Technology and filmmaker James Cameron.
Sebastian Vega, who’s been focus puller for four Rodriguez films, was
the film’s "stereographer," a job that required minute attention to
maintaining the camera’s mechanical system and tweaking the cameras’
calibrations in order to get the best 3D possible. The RCS is an HD
system, and the Shark Boy production used two Sony F950s with
T-cams, which separate the lens mount and CCD array from the bulk of
the camera’s chassis. The lens mount and CCD array are fitted in a box
the size of a child’s shoebox, says Vega. The rest of the camera, which
is essentially a processing unit, is attached to the RCS by a 26-pin,
33-foot-long cable. ( Vega says Pace is currently working to replace
the cable with fiber optics.)
Ordinarily, the stereographer can align elements by looking at their spatial relationships. But with Shark Boy
shot entirely on green screen, Vega had no reference. "It’s hard to say
what’s going on in the frame," he says. "I have to set the settings for
the actor to fit seamlessly into the CG world, and if my settings are
too aggressive or too relaxed, once they build the CG world, they may
not fit."
Whatever Vega couldn’t finesse in production was tweaked in post by
Dunn. The Troublemaker team created a special two-camera rig in XSI
that mimicked the on-set cameras’ left eye and right eye. Dunn wrote a
script that enabled information from the set, such as camera angle,
lens, and convergence point in 3D space, to be plugged into the CG
cameras. "That lets us match reality much better because we now have
the same camera set-up in XSI as we do in reality," he says. "The CG
camera is a mathematically perfect set-up, and when you bring in plates
from the real world, they’re not perfect. You have to compensate by
nudging things until they lock in the CG world." That "nudging" was
done in 2D or 3D, says Dunn, "whatever gets it done faster." Dunn
further facilitated the process by writing code to make the rendering
queue 3D-aware.
Flexible Workflows
The production of Shark Boy and Lava Girl illustrates how a
workflow grew out of Rodriguez’s inclusive creative process, enabled by
an innovative technology pipeline. Pham recalls wearing many hats on Shark Boy.
"I was designing the main logo with Robert for about two weeks,
figuring out the fonts," he says. "Then Robert passed my designs to
Chris Olivia to refine in 3D. I was also designing the main-on-end
titles and, because of the heavy compositing work I had ahead of me, I
asked [ tools programmer/artist ] Sean Dunn to take them over by adding
texture and creating 3D geometries and extrusions."
Olivia recounts the experience of having designed and created animatics for the Shark cave sequence in Shark Boy– but he was "neck deep" in Sin City
and didn’t have the time to pursue feedback. "I didn’t know if Robert
thought the animatics were good or crap," he says. "I just moved on and
did other things." Toader, Brunet and Olivia went downstairs to see
what was cooking in the Shark Boy art department and were
shocked. "All these images I’d done for the animatic were across the
wall," he remembers. "It had become their bible, and 20 guys were
working to create sets from it."
The number of shots finished at Troublemaker has increased with each film since Spy Kids 3,
for which the studio finished about 100 shots. But the facility still
sends most shots out of house: The Orphanage, Cafà©FX and Hybride helped
bring Sin City to life. But 3D animatics are a useful blueprint
for out-of-house shops as well as internal use. With the intensive use
of animatics for Shark Boy, Troublemaker finished 140 shots- times two, for both the left and right eyes.
Ultimately, Troublemaker Studios shows how creative and technological
forces can be customized to meet the unique needs of a director, a
vision or a project. Born from Rodriguez’s interest in leveraging
digital technology to create dramatic, graphical looks, Troublemaker is
a living demonstration of the efficiencies and flexibilities that are
gained when the creative process is frontloaded into detailed pre-vis. Sin City and Shark Boy and Lava Girl
are very different results of a workflow in which "digital effects" are
so integrated, from pre-production to post, that they are simply part
of the filmmaking language.