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VFX Legion Blows Up the Model with Media Shuttle

Sharing work among artists located thousands of miles apart, sometimes creating effects on the same shot, VFX Legion discovered a clear need for an accelerated file transfer solution to rapidly move these large files.

Based in Burbank, Calif., visual effects studio VFX Legion began in 2013 with a simple but revolutionary idea at its core: by freeing the visual effects artist from the need to work in a facility, and instead giving them the ability to work wherever they chose, they could create high-quality work that film and TV producers would want to pay for. Tapping into the deep pool of creative talent living all around the globe, VFX Legion has built out a remote work model where the central production hub is based in Burbank, but the artists doing the actual work (primarily compositing and 3D effects) are spread across the world. Today, that means 40 or so artists living and working in places as widely distributed as New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand, the UK, all over the United States, and western Canada. As VFX production manager Andrew Turner puts it, “We are basically like your Sony Pictures Imageworks or ILM, or any other vendor that has a roof over all its artists, except our artists are spread across the world.”

From its beginning working on a lot of low-budget horror movies, VFX Legion has established itself as a respected provider of quality visual effects for episodic TV, including for shows such as Scandal, Suits,How to Get Away with Murder and The Catch. To secure and deliver this work, the company first had to build out its vision, prove it was viable, and attract the talent necessary to fulfill on the promise.

Finding and attracting the talent, so long as the work and the systems to support them were in place, was always going to be the easy part, since the whole idea is predicated on an artist-friendly model. This model speaks to those talented artists who have reached a point in their lives and careers where they no longer want to be living in big urban centers, or pursuing the journeyman lifestyle, relocating every few years as productions complete their lifecycles and they need to chase the next job. So VFX Legion, from the outset, was selling a vision that resonated with many of these artists—something reflected in the artist profiles on their web site. A sample quote from Amber Wilson’s artist profile says it all: “I live in New Zealand, just by the beach. When I need to take a break from the computer I’m able to walk the dogs by the beach or take a dip in the sea. That’s a huge benefit, and one totally unique to Legion … I love that I can be living by the beach in NZ and working for an L.A.-based company with artists from all around the world.”

The bigger challenge—building out the operational model, and the tools and workflows that would enable this vision—also seemed relatively doable. In this age of ubiquitous connectivity, a wealth of tools and platforms exists for enabling remote communications and collaboration. Moreover, there is a wide range of affordable professional visual effects tools today that run on commodity hardware. So the toolset is no longer the major investment and barrier to entry or wide deployment that it once was. All that appeared to be needed was a central hub to tie everything together, a business model, a set of operating procedures and processes, and of course the people to run it and the customer work to pay for it all.

But almost immediately one clear and significant technological challenge emerged—one that is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to send or share large files over long distances. Traditional methods for moving data over the Internet (or IP networks in general) rely on Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). TCP, and the higher level protocols such as Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and the almost 50-year-old File Transfer Protocol (FTP) that are built on top of it, work well for sending relatively small data sets over the Internet. But the reliability and congestion control mechanisms of TCP do not deal well with moving large files over long distances, where high latency and packet loss can cause transfers to become impractically slow, or fail entirely.

The still widely used FTP tools, but also the newer online file sending and sharing platforms, don’t solve this problem. Based, as all these are, on those same standard IP networking transfer protocols, none of these solutions does anything to address the challenges of latency or packet loss when moving large files over long distances. In addition, all these tools introduce other concerns for anyone whose business revolves around time-sensitive work on valuable media content. These concerns include weak security, failed transfers, file size limits, awkward user interfaces, loss of control over storage of files, or lack of centralized administration, control, monitoring and reporting on usage. All of these standard solutions have at least one of these limitations, in addition to the low file transfer speeds common to all of them when the files become larger and the distances greater.

Recognizing all of this, VFX Legion initially selected an accelerated file transfer solution from one of Signiant’s competitors that offered the promise of solving this challenge of speed, and avoiding (or at least mitigating) most of these other concerns. For a while life was good. But problems emerged as the business grew, more remote artists were added, and the volume of work, almost always under tight deadlines, increased. The accelerated file transfer solution just wasn’t scaling well with their needs. Artists were complaining about their file transfers not using all the available bandwidth. An enhanced product, designed to improve collaboration, took nine months to get working, caused frequent server crashes without warning, and resulted in many of the artists losing confidence in the system and electing to not use it at all. And the overall solution was becoming prohibitively expensive as the business expanded.

By late 2016 VFX Legion knew they needed a better file transfer solution, one that not only provided the speed and security they needed, but that also was more reliable, easier to deploy and support, simpler to use, and that offered a far more economical pricing model that scaled better with their business.

Scene from Scandal, effects by VFX Legion

The Move to a Next-Generation Solution for Easy, Reliable and Secure Accelerated File Transfers
In December 2016, when most of the shows they work on where on hiatus, VFX Legion, on the recommendation of a colleague, and after researching alternative options, set up a trial of Media Shuttle, Signiant’s industry-leading cloud-native SaaS solution for accelerated person-initiated file sending and sharing. After just a couple of days of testing, the company was sold on the solution, which was fully set up and configured within a single day. Rolling Media Shuttle out to their globally distributed artists was just as easy, as Andrew Turner explains, “Compared to our previous system, Media Shuttle was a lot easier for people to grasp and understand. They didn’t have to worry about installing additional hardware or software. It just worked without headaches, which was great!”

And the ease of use, provided through the web-based interfaces, extends to the management of the solution in terms of functions like adding users, granting access rights, and so on.

“Media Shuttle has made doing everything easier. Like last night I had a new client who wanted to send some files, and in the course of 30 seconds, while on the phone with him, I created an account for him and launched him on it. With the old system we weren’t able to be as responsive,” says James Hattin, VFX supervisor and creative director.

Media Shuttle has proven to be far more reliable—no more unexpected server crashes—and it consistently uses all the bandwidth available to the remote artists (varying anywhere from 300 Mb/s down-25 Mb/s up, all the way to 1 Gb/s). Collectively the ease of use, reliability and improved speed of Media Shuttle, provided by Signiant’s proprietary UDP-based transfer technology, has been a big win in terms of end-user adoption according to Hattin, “We have a gigabit line and nobody has complained about it being slow, whereas when we were on our previous system there were often complaints that people weren’t able to download or upload at the maximum speed of their connection. And we work with a lot of people who are typically very vocal about this stuff! So it’s really been a boon for us that way.”

But the ease of use, increased speed and reliability is only part of the story. As a small company with limited resources, working on valuable pre-release content for high-profile customers, VFX Legion has other considerations of at least equal weight that make Media Shuttle the perfect fit for them. The most obvious of these is the significantly lower cost. With Media Shuttle’s SaaS subscription-based pricing model, determined by the number of active users within any given month, the annual cost to VFX Legion for their accelerated file sending and sharing solution is now one quarter of what it was with their old system.

Media Shuttle’s unique hybrid SaaS design confers other benefits important to VFX Legion. With Media Shuttle, all the file transfer logistics, activity tracking, and user interfaces and notifications are delivered from the cloud as a fully managed SaaS solution, where Signiant administers all the back-end technical tasks such as load balancing, web server management, and software upgrades. This significantly reduces the IT overhead in deploying, supporting and updating the system. Because of its hybrid architecture, however, where the actual files to be sent or shared are stored is completely up to the customer. Media Shuttle supports both on-premises storage and cloud storage, or even mixing both within a single deployment.

In the case of VFX Legion, where security of customer content is a critical concern, the ability to keep the data on storage under their own direct control, within their facility, and yet still benefit from all the advantages of a multi-tenant SaaS solution, was a huge attraction not previously available to them. Combined with Media Shuttle’s extensive built-in security features, following the principles of multi-layered “defense in depth,” the company has the peace of mind they need in these times where cyberattacks are becoming a very real concern. Turner says, “Being a remote facility, we have to be on top of the security game. To use a product that we know other major players in the industry use, companies that typically go way above and beyond any security guidelines out there, is usually the best solution for us.”

The ease of management of Media Shuttle portals provides additional security for VFX Legion. The company has a lot of quick turnaround work and, when times are busy, often contracts parts of it out to temporary freelancers. The ability to quickly and easily add and remove users—to “unplug” them from the system when their work is done—and give them just access to the specific folders and files they need, and none of the ones they don’t, further enhances the security that is so critical to the business. Through Media Shuttle’s concept of “delegated administration,” all these functions, and many others such as portal branding, can be rapidly performed in the web interface by anyone with admin rights, with no need for IT involvement.

Finally, just having the peace of mind of knowing that their file transfer solution is fully managed and maintained by Signiant in the cloud, that all updates and new features are always automatically pushed to everyone, with no action required, and that a dedicated Media Shuttle support team is only a phone call away, made the transition to Media Shuttle an easy one for VFX Legion to make.

VFX Legion Media Shuttle Share portal

Bringing It All Together with Media Shuttle
Depending on their role and the task at hand, VFX Legion’s artists use a variety of tools—such as Nuke, Houdini, After Effects, Maya, and RedShift for rendering—to perform the creative work assigned to them. For collaboration, project management and tracking, Shotgun is the primary tool, while Zoom is used for most internal project communications. For the actual sending and sharing of files, however, whether internally or with their clients, Media Shuttle is now the tool of choice for all VFX Legion file transfers.

Media Shuttle offers customers the ability to create unlimited instances of brandable portals of three types—Send, Share and Submit—each designed for different classes of use cases. Send portals are optimized for simple person-to-person transfers, Share portals for upload/download of files to/from designated folders in a shared directory, while Submit portals are for distributed uploads to workflow process on-ramps. For VFX Legion—as a small company working on highly collaborative, iterative and fast turnaround projects—a single Share portal has proven to be the most effective for now. They are a “revolving door” when it comes to artists and material, with the allocation of work depending on the shows that come in, and the individual artists’ availability. Shows often change on a daily or even an hourly basis, and VFX Legion has found Media Shuttle’s permissions-based folder management tools a simple and powerful way to configure artists’ access to the files they need, for that project.

The VFX Legion Share portal enables all the company’s remote artists to have access to those portions of the central file tree and element library they need for their work, while the actual files themselves are securely stored on servers in the Burbank office. The workflow begins with clients (or sometimes a DI facility) delivering the source material to VFX Legion. Many regular clients have their own logins to the Share portal, and simply upload the content direct to their assigned folders. Others use their own preferred tools, with VFX Legion staff then ingesting the material received to the central Burbank storage, and sending out assignment notifications to the artists involved.

The artists log into the portal and download the plates they need—typically ProRes 4444 or better, sometimes individual DPX frames—along with their assignments. When their work is complete, the artists upload their composite versions or lighting passes back to the designated folder(s) on the Share portal, together with any additional items, such as project files, and create a version in the Shotgun system for review and approval. Once the work is approved the finished files are delivered back to the client in whatever manner they specify. One popular option is for VFX Legion to use Media Shuttle’s “Send from Share” feature, which sends the recipient an email containing a direct link to just that content on the Share, which they can then download, without them needing to log into the portal, or even be a portal member.

Andrew Turner at work in Burbank

The complete creative process is often both iterative and distributed. It is not unusual to have multiple artists in different locations working on the same show or episode, even the same shot. For example, a recent episode VFX Legion finished involved one artist lighting the shots in Northern California, and another artist compositing those lighting passes in New Zealand!

Fast-Forward to a 4K Future
With an average file size of 3 GB, and several thousand files transferred each month, VFX Legion is already using Media Shuttle to move multiple terabytes of content on a monthly basis. But the bulk of this data (60 to 70 percent) comprises HD or 2K video files, with 4K video only making up around a third. But this is changing—fast. Driven in large part by Netflix, but also by other studios switching over, VFX Legion is anticipating that in the very near future as much as 90 to 95 percent of the material they will be handling will be 4K. Understandably, there is a certain amount of healthy apprehension about this, succinctly summarized by Turner: “Until we really hit this larger media landslide, it’s an unknown. Once our file sizes start to double and triple in size we are all going to have to step back and see what happens.”

But with Media Shuttle performing so well, the company is “cautiously optimistic” about this future. As Hattin, speaking about the company’s future and Media Shuttle’s place within it, puts it: “It’s a key part of our business strategy right now. Onwards and upwards together! We are going to do more, larger projects, more TV shows, and we are going to push it to its limit, probably expanding our own bandwidth to be able to help.”

From Signiant’s perspective, we look forward to this challenge. Signiant’s acceleration just performs even better, relative to TCP-based alternatives, the larger the file, the higher the bandwidth, and the greater the distance (try our File Transfer Calculator to see how much better). The reason for this gets back to TCP’s inefficiency when dealing with latency, which increases with distance. As files get larger and distance increases, TCP itself becomes the primary bottleneck in transfer speed, almost irrespective of the connectivity. So with standard file transfer solutions (such as FTP) increasing the bandwidth has negligible benefit at a certain point. Signiant’s transfer protocol, however, removes this bottleneck by eliminating the effects of latency, thereby enabling transfers to use all the available bandwidth, no matter the size of the file. Acceleration is the result, and this scales, relative to TCP-based transfers, as file size, distance and bandwidth all increase. Moreover, as a multi-tenant, auto-scaling, cloud-native SaaS solution, Media Shuttle itself is built to seamlessly adapt to any load.

So we look forward to this challenge, as well as to seeing what else VFX Legion has in store for the world, as they continue to blow up the traditional visual effects business model, and free the artists from the facility.

Check out VFX Legion’s latest show reel:

VFX Legion – Summer 2017 reel – before & after visual effects breakdowns from VFX Legion on Vimeo.