VFX Legion company
talking about new future of the industry
It’s no secret that the VFX industry has received its fair share of public attention in recent years, its foundations shaken by internal discord and turmoil that has gradually bubbled to the surface.
Studio closures, redundancies, and reports of unreasonable business practices have tarnished what is otherwise an incredibly creative, inventive and innovative industry – one bursting at the seams with raw artistic talent.
While it can sometimes feel like real solutions are held at bay by the industry’s massive, unyielding infrastructure, there are some post-production studios that are finding ways to buck the trend and operate completely outside of the set-ups that have come to be regarded as the norm.
One such studio is VFX Legion, a division of Legion Studios, LLC – a studio that’s trying something new.
Founder and creative director
Head of production
How did you come up with the idea of a worldwide company, and what is the principle behind it?
VFX Legion started with the idea that artists could live wherever they wanted and still do visual effects. Too much of the industry is driven by tax incentives pushing the work to where there aren’t pools of senior trained artists. Many of the Los Angeles artists had to flee to Vancouver, London or Toronto if they wanted to keep working. Legion was developed to take advantage of talented experienced people wherever they find themselves. It also allows for artists to move away from the very expensive city cores and into the suburbs or to different locales completely.
We have artists in Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Germany, Canada and the US. Our reach is growing every day, collecting the best, most talented people we can find. Given this model of a distributed workforce that work on a per shot basis, we don’t have the structural overhead of a brick and mortar VFX house. We can compete with tax incentive prices over most of the world, or we can take advantage of those incentives by partnering with companies in the area of interest.
Given the technology, there was no reason our model at Legion shouldn't be the reality. When you look at industries in need of disruption, VFX has, over the last few years, moved to the top of the list. Horrible working hours, insane deadlines, companies regularly going belly up leaving angry unpaid artists in their wake, no feasible unions, huge foreign tax incentives, and no direct solution in sight with the traditional approach. Legion isn't just great VFX harnessing the most talented workforce we can find, it's good business.
VFX Legion reel
What was the experience like working on your first big project? What was memorable about it? Are there any funny stories from this time?
Our first project also happened to be our first big project. The movie Stretch by director Joe Carnahan. This started as a little movie with a few green screen car comps that we were told they were shooting for safety because they would get most of the actual shots on the day in and around Hollywood. Those 60 shots turned into 400+ green screen car comps. We pulled all the partners together to build compositing templates so that every artist would be starting with a shot that was 50%-80% along, and it was their job to get the tracking and final comps into place in a few hours or less. Each artist was working for $250/shot. Nearly everyone working on the show was doing the final comps in an hour or two. Making this a really profitable venture for all involved and it got Legion on the map. The most memorable part of the whole thing was getting a call from Joe after delivering 360 shots in 10 days saying how amazing everything was.
Stretch by director Joe Carnahan
Each founder of the company has an ideal of the company future. What do you see VFX Legion becoming over the next 2-3 years?
Legion is a pretty special case. The level of quality that we put out is much higher than our contemporaries on pricing. Once producers find out that they can get a lot of really high-quality work done and still fit it all into their budget, they tend to get hooked. Our goal has always been to bootstrap this business and grow it from the ground up to handle what it is we want to see on the screen. We are growing a secure pipeline that will become the standard over the next few years. One of the biggest challenges going forward will be learning when to say no to a project. As a quality and client-first company, if we feel that a budget won’t get the desired effect, we want to preserve the brand of Legion® rather than doing work that is sub-par. With respect, there are plenty of start-up VFX companies that will do great work at a fraction of the price for the first few jobs. The reality, though, is that in a traditional model, there is too much overhead to take shows at a loss. Legion is very forward thinking about the people and organizations that we work with. We’ve helped out film students, and projects like Outfest, because it’s very important that the next generation of filmmaker understand visual effects as a tool.
Legion has a pretty solid grounding in old-school VFX. All of our artists have worked at the best studios in the world. Our entire production team gets it. Every step we take forward is well thought out and has been highly scrutinized. At Legion, we believe we are changing the way VFX is done and saving an industry. We don't intend to slow down.
Legion has grown significantly in the last 2-3 years, and we intend to keep growing. It’s about growing intelligently, at a pace that fits our current outlook at any given time. We’re constantly evaluating where we are and where we’re going. The challenge anywhere is always making sure that the right people, and the right amount of people, are working on each project. The sky’s the limit on one hand, but we also never want one project to suffer because of the needs of another. That’s really important to us.
VFX Legion Revolution Breakdown
Your company breaks stereotypes. In many cases, it’s not easy to unite people from different continents on a single project. Is it difficult to gather people together working on one idea and towards the same goal?
VFX Legion has never had a problem getting people from all over the world working on one idea. We have a movie in progress now, that required roto from India, matte painting from our very talented Yvonne Muinde in Vancouver, our dynamics artist Nico Sugleris in Agoura Hills and compositor Allan Torp-Jensen in Bangkok, Thailand. There was an easy back and forth between all departments even as the director changed their mind several times leading up to the preview screening. We were able to effectively change the whole look of the sequence in a couple of days. Something that, even in a proper brick and mortar business, would take longer because we were running on a 24-hour clock. Thailand works overnight, so all the work was done during the day and early evening could be composited and uploaded by 6 am PST for review by the show supervisors.
We’ve made having a positive company culture a large pillar in our growth. With employees all over the world, it's not always easy to foster that unified creative vision you need to make a film look spectacular without being in the same room. Anyone can send work to a freelance artist, the trick is to have the artist feel the ocean of support and supervision behind them. Our goal was to recreate the same discipline and expertise that would surround an artist on the floor at Digital Domain or ILM, but in a small home office, anywhere in the world. We have a large collection of proprietary tools, a full production team for each show, state of the art software support, multi-party Google Hangouts regularly, an exceptionally upfront payment system, and some of the best VFX artists in the world ready to provide feedback. Artists need to be inspired, and we've been able to bring that inspiration across oceans.
We like having a central hub for our core management team, our office in Burbank, but even our producers, coordinators and supervisors have the freedom to work remotely whenever necessary. One of the things that keep everyone on point is the shared belief that this type of workflow can be successful, and I think that we’ve proven it so far. There will always be periods of tough assignments and tight deadlines when our team of artists and managers have to push through the controlled chaos, but at the same time, we try to balance our jobs with the freedom to live our lives outside of work too. We all have families, friends, and personal obligations, and our teams enjoy having more freedom in their daily lives then they often have at more traditional VFX houses. Being able to have dinner with your family, walk the dog, step out for a while- it all goes a long way, and it’s often easier to feel good and work hard when you don’t feel trapped in an office. We’re fortunate to have an amazing, dedicated group of artists all over the world, and there’s a camaraderie that keeps it all together, which is just as important as having the right tools and technology.
VFX Legion artists work
The independent model of the company needs a really good infrastructure. What kind of services helps you work freely and remotely simultaneously? Why did you choose cineSync specifically?
Infrastructure is key. It is also why Legion is almost 3 years old and relatively new to the scene. However, we have more than 50 projects under our belt in that time. We’ve been developing tools and ideas from scratch in order to lock down the security aspect of what we do but also take advantage of the off the shelf tools that are available to use. We have been using Shotgun since the beginning of the company, and more recently we have started using Cinesync Pro, which has become sort of the lynchpin in our day to day conversations with artists and clients. The integration with Shotgun has made it remarkably easy to sync up footage with clients and artists alike, and the ability to send the annotations and notes directly to the shotgun is amazing.
We’re an ever-evolving pipeline at Legion. Cinesync is awesome. It's very good at what it does and it's been integrated into our backbone. We use a standard VFX toolset with Cinesync, Shotgun, and RV but we have an expanded layer made to support the nature of a remote artist. A billing tool to help artists track their own hours. Security protocols to keep the work safe. Standardized scripts and folder structures to make handoffs easier. VPN licensing so artists can rent our software packages in the case they don't want to buy it outright on their own. We've had daily conversations with our own artists over the last few years and said, "Ok, where can we help?"
Could you give any advice for our readers that are looking to enter the VFX industry?
Haha. I think most people would say not to get into the industry. There are thousands of artists working in today’s VFX industry, and of those, 5-10% are the cream of the crop. It is an easy industry to break into if you live in certain cities. In other places, it is nearly impossible. I started back in 1995 working on local commercials and the California Channel in Sacramento. It took 4 years to try and hone my skills enough to get down to Los Angeles and work on features.
Aim high, don’t give up. Never stop learning. Observe the world around you. Not everyone has the ‘eye’ for VFX. Plenty of people get into the industry in one field and eventually move to something more comfortable for themselves. Many colorists started as Junior compositors but didn’t want to work for years doing roto. Earning your place in the industry is key. It is very hard to be humble when you are young and cocky, but you will never get past a certain level if you can’t listen and grow from what others have to teach.
My own ‘humbling' came from working at Industrial Light and Magic for 7 months on Pirates of the Caribbean 3. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever encountered, and I was broken down by the supervising team on the show. I’m not sure I broke when I was there, but the world was a very different place when I left there, and I was a bit aimless for a good deal of time while I tried to figure out how to keep the ego in check and grow as and artist. Something I feel I have done and am grateful to have worked there and been a part of an amazing looking movie.
Grow, learn and share what you learn. There’s never one way to do something. There are a million ways and this industry needs young creative minds to think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to share yourself and your skills with the world. Just make sure you listen, our old timers want nothing more than to share what we know. It’s how this industry grows.
Film is incredibly exciting. A majority of people, who get into VFX, do so because they're passionate about filmmaking. They have that spark. But for your first few years actually doing it, especially on the production side, you do very little, creative cool shit. It's getting coffee, or it's roto, or it's dailies notes, or it makes this less blue. It sucks and it's very easy to quit in those first few years. You lose your creative fire and you walk away thinking film and movies as a whole are bullshit. But if you duke it out, and make it around the five-year mark, the magic starts to reveal itself. If you've been able to stay inspired through it all, that's when you can really start to flex your creative juices. I guess the only advice I have comes from Dora the fish from Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming.