My working from home life: Alex Parkinson, VFX Supervisor

A team leader for feature animation, Alex’s roster of credits is extensive. Part of the team which created the Hippogriff for Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, he was also Character FX and FX supervisor for DreamWorks Animation on the fist-slinging epic Kung Fu Panda, and delivered the epic Furious Five versus Tai Lung fight sequence, complete with spectacular disintegrating rope bridge. He then took the role of VFX Supervisor on the most awesome sequel Kung Fu Panda 2. 

Alex values enthusiasm above anything else in the industry, given his own passion about filmmaking he has had since he was a child. He still spends his time outside of the studio watching films in their original home, the cinema. “I live and breathe movies,” he says. “If I’m not making them, I’m probably watching them.”

Is it business as usual for you and your team as you all work remotely home?

Pretty much. The Montreal Technical Services team performed nothing short of a miracle getting everyone up and running to work from home in an incredibly short time. We are currently in the last six weeks of lighting and compositing on Riverdance the animated musical comedy, so to borrow a phrase from one of my favourite movies “failure is not an option”.

There is nothing ‘usual’ about this situation, in fact I’ve never known anything like it, but everyone is pulling together, and we are getting through it. And the quality of the work hasn’t suffered one iota.

How are you maintaining an office routine?

My calendar does that for me! That’s one way where working from home has changed nothing; I’m still in back to back dailies or meetings all day. So once I’m sat down at my desk for my morning production check-in from there my routine is pretty much set.

I do have to be disciplined though to take breaks and have a time at which I ‘leave’ work. With such easy access to the network it’s tempting to ‘just check on’ things outside of work hours. I think this has to be avoided.

I’ve also solved this by having, as HR advised, a separate working area in my house. So, it’s clear psychologically when I am working and when I am not.

Which systems are you using to talk to one another and clients?

We are set-up to remotely use our Linux boxes using FortiClient VPN and HP Remote Graphics software. Thanks to a system devised by TS and Holger Voss we are able to perform very successful dailies. Someone is nominated as the driver and they HP Remote into their Linux box. We all join the meeting on hangouts and then the driver shares their screen. The supervisors then also connect to the driver’s box as viewers. This means the supes have a high-quality display through HP Remote, but production and the artists can also see what is going on just through Google hangouts. Rounds can be done the same way, by jumping as a viewer from machine to machine. You can even swap who is driving so someone can point to what they are talking about, or if you are very brave draw on frames.

In addition, at the end of the day production send me that day’s approvals through Signiant Media shuttle for a final check.

Obviously, nothing compares to a dailies room and the big screen, but with a colour calibrated monitor we can keep working. For the artists lag can be an issue, but with patience they can keep working.

When all this is over, we will do a final QC check of course to see anything we’ve missed.

How are you and your team keeping up morale?

People naturally pull together in a situation like this, and we are a tightknit team in Montreal Feature Animation. Plus, there is endless opportunity to laugh at people’s home décor choices, at-home outfits, and the occasional child or pet interruption.

Which projects are you able to move forward with right now?

Riverdance is in full lighting crunch and not slowing down. Plus, Blazing Samurai is underway in pre-production and asset build.

What advice would you give to junior artists who are worried about the future?

“This too shall pass”.

I actually think our industry in particular will come out of this experience stronger and having learned a lot. And not just about which meetings could have been an email … although that’s great too. Michele our CTO has discussed with us in the past that the future is cloud based workstations. In the same way that we render in the cloud now before we know it all our computers will be cloud based. When that happens, it will open up huge possibilities for flexible working. We can view this as a testing ground for that future, finding out what works and what doesn’t.

What advice do you have for home working?

Take breaks! In the office there is a regular flow to your day of trips to other people’s desks, to the kitchen, and walking to dailies. Working from home removes those natural breaks and non-stop screen time isn’t good for you. Build breaks into your schedule. And if you can have a separate area for working, even if it is just a curtained off corner. Be clear when you are ‘at work’ and when you are not.

Social distancing provides artists with a great opportunity to learn a new skill, there are lots of free software trails out there at the moment can you recommend any?

Shhhh … don’t tell them I said this but use this time to paint, draw, sculpt, knit, sow, sing, dance … whatever your non-technology based creative outlet of choice is. And if you don’t have one try them all. I am keeping up my guitar lessons with my teacher on skype and she has been very impressed with my progress since I have been social distancing; way more time to practice.

Seriously, don’t burn yourself out on screen time.

Generally speaking, feature animation production hasn’t been as affected by COVID-19 in comparison to VFX why is that?

I think in Feature Animation we’ve been lucky to some extent with when this landed. Riverdance may be in full crunch mode but we’re lucky to have both directors Dave Rosenbaum and Eamonn Butler in house which makes things easier. I’m sure they may be panicking on the inside, but they have been wonderful and patient with us during this time. Animation is done, the look is established, there are many challenging shots left to deliver but the ship was already at full sail. And Blazing Samurai is still in early days, so there is not so much pressure. I can imagine my VFX peers are a little nervous because of the shorter schedules they work towards compared to us in feature animation, under the circumstances a few weeks could feel like a lifetime. I feel for them, but I have every confidence they’ll deliver.