The proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) will have an impact on many parts of our lives at work and home. I spoke with a variety of people in the Australian visual effects (VFX) industry about how the NBN could effect their industry.
Phil Sullivan is a classic example of how talented Australians in the VFX industry travel the world like a wandering albatross from project to project.
As a Motion Capture TD (Technical Director) and Animator his specialty is “synthesising life” and he’s applied this skill to movies and computer games such as Happy Feet 1 and 2, Heavenly Sword and LA Noire.
As much as he’d like to live in Australia near his family, the boom and bust nature of the VFX industry means he has to follow projects to the country they’re based in. So after completing his current contract working on Happy Feet 2 in Sydney who knows where he could be next, perhaps Wellington, Los Angeles, Vancouver or London.
Adelaide based Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) has recently finished work on the Green Lantern and Harry Potter 7 Part 2. Their previous success stories include blockbusters like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Batman Begins and Watchmen.
RSP co-founder Tony Clark told me that the NBN will not substantially change what Rising Sun Pictures does in the beginning but once the network has been rolled out across a substantial part of Australia it could have an important impact on how people in the Australian VFX industry collaborate on projects.
Clark’s description of how the VFX industry worked historically, presently and potentially in the future made it clear how the NBN is one of the progressions required to try and stay competitive with overseas rivals.
In the past big film studios such as Disney had their own VFX department, then they started outsourcing parts of films and by 1990 movies like Terminator II had their VFX done almost solely by one company, in this case George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. Today VFX work for movies is often shared across many companies, with each winning 5-10% of the budget.
Clark harked back to a time when he had to arrange data tapes for work in progress to be shipped overseas. The week long “lag time” between “packets” of a project was very frustrating as the VFX industry is all about creativity and it’s hard to be creative with such communication delays.
From 2000 onwards RSP sent Quicktime movies back and forth to customers. Files steadily grew larger in size and quality in parallel with the customer film studios expectations of creative communications moving to a practically immediate timeframe.
Even the fastest ADSL transfer speeds became too constraining so RSP setup a private high speed network called Cinenet with the financial assistance of the South Australian Government, using the services of Agile Communications (sister company to ISP Internode).
The launch of Cinenet in mid-2004 had played a critical role in RSP winning the contract for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire according to Clark.
“The speed of Cinenet, combined with Rising Sun Pictures’ sister company Rising Sun Research’s client review software cineSync, allowed our work to be reviewed in Los Angeles and London faster than work from suppliers based in those cities” he said. Cinesync won the Academy award for Technical Achievement in early 2011.
What Clark envisages is a future world where he can assemble best of breed group of VFX artists in small teams of individuals working from home. To enable that he needs these talented people to have access to highly reliable NBN type ultra-fast broadband internet speeds. This would be “revolutionary for distributed film making workflows” he said.
Even if it could be done at a cost premium to ADSL2+ of several hundred dollars per connection it would enable VFX talent outside the big cities to participate in RSP projects, for example a cluster of people who live on the north coast of NSW. At the moment they are willing and available but lack the necessary connectivity.
Clark said that “looking at the NBN wholesale price list it’s very much within the reach of a professional worker to have the kinds of speeds at their home office to compete with big companies on a level playing field”.
Animal Logic (AL) is another prominent Australian VFX company, working on projects such as The Matrix trilogy, 300 and Australia. AL recently won the lead role in a big 2 year project, the $65 million Walking with Dinosaurs 3D feature film which means a large portion of that production money will be spent in Australia.
Guy Griffiths Director of Research & Development at AL notes that a key characteristic of VFX digital animation is that it’s almost all in front of a computer. Specialist programs like Maya are used to make files that are handed on to the next person in the production chain.
The amounts of computer data generated during work on projects such as the recent Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole movie require backing up colossal amounts. It’s not surprising that VFX files are delivered to the customer at present via packing cases of hard disk drives as well as by network file transfers.
VFX work is project based and requires flexibility to scale up access to specialists in different areas at short notice. Ubiquitous consistent speed network file transfer capability would allow new ways to tap into VFX talent regardless of their location. Once there’s a distributed workforce Griffiths wonders how they can be managed, it’s not just about fast file transfers he said.
He told me that AL would need new innovative services to utilise the NBN in order to work and communicate more effectively. Perhaps by looking at an adjacent telepresence wall (immersive video conferencing) in order to talk to a remote colleague rather than initiating a cumbersome video chat through a computer program.
Griffiths is certain that when the NBN is in place imaginative solutions which we can’t imagine now will be created, however there is a fair way to go yet. The NBN could allow innovation and experimentation but companies like AL can’t make business decisions around it until it has a critical mass of availability.
If Australian VFX companies can leapfrog their overseas rivals by using the NBN to connect to talented staff offsite, it could be a factor that allows more projects to be won. These could employ talent within the industry like Phil Sullivan so they can spend more time living, working and spending their income in Australia.
AL Creative Director Bruce Carter told me that “talented people in the VFX industry are mobile nomadic artists who go from project to project around the world, balanced by a core group of older staff who stay put as they have families here … so clearly if there’s a deep talent pool nearby that’s good for AL” and by extension for the rest of the Australian VFX industry.
However it will take more than the NBN to do this because at present the high value of the Australian dollar and more generous tax breaks offered overseas are making it relatively expensive for big film studios to create movies in Australia.