Shot Management Tips For FX Artists
Here is some advice for managing your workload in a studio. Enjoy :)
Working With ShotGun (Ahem…ShotGrid)
---- Shotgrid is not just for production…change my mind. The key to having an organized studio life is having an organized Shotgrid page. With Shotgrid, you can set filters to display only your current active tasks, customize notifications, and show tasks that start later in the week.
It’s common knowledge that artists are not organized. We suck at it. A lot of Artists tend to avoid additional stressful situations. We have the same mentality for stressful shots. We will avoid any stressful shot if we don’t have the energy for it, even if it’s on a priority list.
The key to avoiding this common habit is to have an organized ShotGrid. If you can outpace production and their deadlines and have the attention span to catch the ball before they tell you, you can easily approach taxing tasks. By keeping a regular eye on the shots you are assigned daily through ShotGrid, you can save time by setting the shot the best you can in advance.
Once the shot is assigned to you, open it up and bring in all available assets. Find the proper HDRIs and lighting setups you need for the shot. Confirm if the other shots you have been assigned are in a sequence of similar shots. They might need the same assets or lighting setups as well. If so, copy and paste the same lights and only the applicable assets into the following file. These applicable assets can include premade FX setups or materials.
By having the shot partially prepared before the start date of the shot, you can save a lot of time. When the shot is officially slated to begin, you can save a lot of time in your approach to it if you have already assessed the assets and look. Sometimes asset exports can be done incorrectly, and if they are cached the day of a shot launch, it can cause the shot to be thrown back for revisions. Then the work in the FX department gets delayed by another couple of weeks. It’s best to catch these issues before they strike.
ShotGrid is also great for checking the status of other departments' progress on a shot. You can’t get most of your work done in FX without animation, layout, or cameras. Sometimes these tasks can go on for longer than expected, and there might be multiple notifications for these tasks in ShotGrid Software. By watching these notifications, you can better understand how the shot changes over time and how the placement of your final FX may vary.
It is common to get overwhelmed with the notifications you can receive on ShotGrid if you do not filter them. Usually, it’s a good idea to customize your notifications so it only notifies you of notes that apply to you. This can include shot statuses, notes tagged to the FX department, tagged with your name, or start and end dates.
ShotGrid can also contain important information, such as shot frame ranges, how overdue the task is, and updates on how the FX is being lit and composited in other departments. The software is extremely useful for quickly communicating with production if you miss a review and plan your work weeks accordingly.
Some effects take longer to build. Some are also more prioritized in production depending on whether the shot they are attached to is vital. Usually, you can determine this one of two ways. The easiest way is that production will tell you. Generally, the shots they prioritize first are the most vital in the sequence the studio is working on. The second way to determine if a shot is a high priority is by assessing the shot type and the effect task you have been assigned.
Sometimes a shot will be used to test or develop a particular effect for a show. If you are assigned to create a specific build like this, keep up to date on how the status of the R&D changes. If the build is planning to be used in other shots, everyone might depend on you to hurry up and finish the task. One-off effects for secondary shots are often less priority, but it’s always good to check with your production team before jumping to conclusions.
Now this part is me speculating, but I’ve noticed from my studio experience that sometimes the type of shot determines its priority on the schedule. Stick with me on this….
Shot types include:
- The Establishing Shot - typically the first shot an audience ever sees
- Extreme Wide Shot - a shot taken from a long distance, used to impress the audience. And also the client!
- Wide Shot (WS) or Long Shot (LS) - the long shot features the entire character from head to toe.
- Medium Shot (MS) - The standard medium shot frames a character from the waist up. It’s used to show a mix of a character’s facial expressions and body language.
- Close-Up (CU) - The close-up shot tightly frames a character or object. Typically, close-ups portray a character’s emotions while only framing their face.
- Extreme Close-Up (ECU / XCU) - An extreme close-up is a view so tight that the audience can only see some features of a character or object.
- Point of View (POV) - A point of view shot, or POV, is an angle that shows what a character is looking at.
I find that certain shot types display overall effects better or make them seem more impressive. For example, let’s say you are making an emissive blasting effect for a superhero. A medium or long shot might be used to show how the blasting effect emits from the character's body. As well as to give the effect some sense of scale. Long shots are also great to show off the effect in its entirety. This can make them a great trailer or focal shot in a film. Which in turn might make them more of a priority.
The more complex the shot, the more likely that shot will be launched at the start of a show rather than toward the end. This gives everyone more time to complete it and more time more client feedback.
---- How Should I Approach This?
Approaching an effect from scratch is a difficult task. You have to plan on it being used by others, show progress updates quickly, and build it in a way so it can be modified later. Building a simulation is often like sketching a portrait. You complete some rough sketches before going in and laying down the final details.
Start by trying to achieve the timing and basic shape of the effect you are attempting to match to the reference you have been given. Do not increase the resolution of your effect to the highest it is needed until the later versions. If you are working with particles, plan on using millions of particles in your final version but less than the required amount while testing the build. When the timing and shape of the simulation are approved, start adding the finishing details and motion that will make the effect more interesting. Work on one section of the build at a time.
----- Do I Have Too Many Shots?
It’s not uncommon to be assigned multiple shots over multiple shows in high volume times in a studio. If this happens to you, you must consider how many are on your plate. Most artists cannot complete 20 shots in a week. Make sure the shots that are assigned to you have spaced-out start dates, and clarify with production coordinators when all the shots need to be completed. It’s ok to say no to more shots. It’s better to clarify with your coordinators what time frames you can work in so they can ensure your work is evenly distributed.
Every artist will experience a crunch time at a studio. Some production's crunch time will be worse than other shows. Crunch periods often happen when the production is close to wrapping up. The key to avoiding a horrible crunch period is communication and successful planning. The more issues flagged at the production's beginning and dealt with, the fewer problems the team will encounter towards the end of the show. The goal is only to have every department communicate about what is and is not working on a show.
As a junior, it’s your job to break things. But that rule does not apply to The Renderfarm. Everyone is guilty of not maximizing their render settings and not paying attention to our render submissions. But here are some pointers to make sure those incidents are less frequent.
--- If you don’t need it, don’t include it.
If you’re rendering a specific thing, removing everything but it from your render is a good idea. The same goes for turning off render settings that do not apply to the object you are rendering. For example, Houdini’s mantra ROP has specific settings for increasing the resolution of volumes. If you are not rendering a volume-based object, you can probably reduce the quality of these settings. Or turn them off entirely.
Rendering everything separately increases the speed of your renders. If your boss only wants to see another version of your particle system, then only re-render that section of the scene.
--- Don’t render at Full Resolution.
The first render of the version you submit to Dailies does not have to be rendered at its full resolution. The first test of anything should always be at a low resolution. You don’t want to wait valuable farm time over something that probably won’t be approved on the first go. Blade usage on farms is expensive. Your studio might have its own in-house farm but also use third-party resources that charge per hour and blade. In that case, you want to do everything possible to save the company money. The more cost-friendly you are as an artist, the more your company will like you.
---- Who needs Priority?
Certain shows at studios are going to have a higher priority than others. If you are working on a show that is not on a tight timeline, plan for your renders to take a while. Don’t expect your production team to bend the farm around your wishes. Everyone is also trying to render their work, and the cache or image will finish when it finishes.
If you know you will likely have nothing to show because of the farm slowing down, plan your day around making those renders successful for the following possible review. Double and triple-check everything you are sending to the farm. Make sure, you are using the right camera, the resolution is correct, the object that needs to be rendered is referenced in the proper ROP, and your lights are correct. You don’t want to have to re-render anything the next day and fail to show something.
I’d also recommend sending the images and caches your production needs to see to the farm first. Render farms are generally less full in the mornings and packed in the late afternoon. The reason is everyone is submitting their work to render overnight.
---- Is it Rendering?
Some studios have people who watch and manage the ongoing tasks on the farm while the artists are working. They will email or message the artist if something goes wrong or a certain frame takes too long. The ideal scenario is to have all your frames and caches render quickly and restart and finish successfully if they fail. However, sometimes this doesn’t happen.
To ensure your frames can finish, it’s recommended you double-check the frame length of your shot and caches to ensure information is forming through the shot's duration. If information is missing, it can cause a render to fail. Generally, individual frames shouldn’t take more than an hour to render, especially if you are rendering something small. Keep an eye on the time of your renders and if the tasks are restarting. That’s never a good sign. It can mean that your task is a loop of restarting and failing. Or it’s extremely heavy, and the farm is looking for a blade to manage it.
You can never create too much documentation. The famous Al Guest, founder of the Director’s Guild of Canada, once said, “The animator cannot be over-informed as to what is expected of him.” Documentation not only helps you have more direction for your job but also helps the studio run smoother.
If you are ever given an opportunity to build a specific effect that will be reused in multiple shots of a show, you will have to plan for other people to understand your setup. Sure, you can clean up the build, remove nodes you don’t need, simplify sections, and make HDA, but you always have to plan that the next person to look at the file will not understand any of your actions.
Many studios have their own internal document system or a site that their employees use to store their notes. Take advantage of these systems, and when you are starting to finalize your build, create a document and start writing. Add your links to the current build, write down anything the user should and should not change, and note the critical parameters that cause the most changes in the simulation. Also, feel free to record any current problems with the build. Alerting other artists to future changes and problems they might encounter always keeps everyone on the same page. Try and keep all your documentation for your production in one place.
You’ll also need to keep track of anything going wrong with production HDAs and if you encounter a pipeline failure. For example, let’s say you’ve successfully been following your effects workflow, got your FX approved, and are ready to publish it to lighting. Let’s say you've generated an error every time you try to save the FX. You might have encountered a pipeline issue if you've also double-checked everything. If that is the case, double-check with your coworkers to see if they are experiencing anything familiar, then make a ticket. Write down and screenshot the problem—the more detailed the note, the better.
If a pipeline issue persists with a particular production, it's always a good idea to document it as it continues to affect the overall show. Having a detailed track record of something impeding your workflow is better than having production assume you are doing something wrong. This same thinking can be applied to dealing with scenarios. For Example, if a coworker is causing more issues than needed, it’s probably a good idea to document those things as well.
As a junior, it’s common to make mistakes in the studio. Always apologize for the situations you create, but have the confidence and ability to stand up for yourself when you know you are not responsible for an issue. If you keep a detailed record of your journey through a show, you can look back with proof and know precisely how a situation played out. As well as know you’ve handled it to the best of your ability.
Documentation helps you communicate with other departments. Always assume everyone outside of the FX department has no idea how the FX department runs. If production or lighting has a specific question about how FX is exporting something having a document you can share with them can save time. It’s better to explain something once than to keep reiterating the same thing when you could be focusing on other things.
Communication, Communication, and Communication
---- How to Talk to Production - They aren’t scary.
Production artists can be intimidating. Especially if they directly message you on the status of a shot. You might not know what to say or might be afraid to give them a timeline to expect your work that might be incorrect. Don’t feel bad. You are in the same boat as everyone else. Part of becoming a professional artist is understanding the production schedule. As well as how production teams operate. A great artist is an artist who understands the ins and outs of production and has the skills to do their job. Unfortunately, you can only learn how to balance both by the level of your studio experience. But here are some cheat codes!
---- Be Detailed in Your Responses
If a production artist or management messages you on the status of your shot, be precise in your response. You don’t need to respond to them in the first 5 seconds of them talking to you. Instead, pause, assess the shot in question and the amount of rendering it might need, and then give them an answer. State the reasons why they might not see the shot until the following day. Then try to follow through on that.
If a problem arises and you find out that there will be a delay in production receiving an update on the shot, then it is your job to let someone know. If a shot is a high priority and there are delays, this might prevent it from being delivered to the client on time, making the company look bad. Production doesn’t need to know the gritty details of how each node in the build prevents the render from taking place. But they need to know that you are solving the issue and that you have identified the problem.
----- Get To Know The Production Team
In the same way, you can befriend people on your team. You can also befriend people in production. Working with friends is much easier than working with people you don’t know. When you feel more comfortable with someone, your communication with them also improves. Having a simple conversation by the coffee machine and saying good morning every day to your production coordinator helps a lot.
----- Your Shot Schedule: Don’t Break It
Sometimes production will send a weekly email or group message to artists on their team about what shots are a high priority for the week. Whichever shots are the most critically listed are the ones you should be working on! However, sometimes this doesn’t happen. If this is the case, you need to check ShotGrid. Keep a close eye on the start and due date of the shot and the status of the assets the other departments are creating for the shot. You can’t start completing your work if the assets are not ready.