We recently got the chance to chat with Gregory Liegey, VFX Supervisor of partner of Mammal Studios, a Los Angeles-based boutique visual effects shop.
Tell us about your company and the type of projects you work on.
A group of us started Mammal Studios to try to pursue our own vision for sustainable VFX production in LA. We rely on our expertise and the methods and efficiencies we’ve come up with over the years to keep things simple and productive and client pleasing. So far it’s been going pretty well. The bulk of our work is feature film. We do all sorts of VFX, whether it’s 2D, 3D, whatever is needed.
Where is the company based? How many people there are using Shotgun (are they artists? Producers? Supervisors?)
Mammal is based in LA exclusively. Right now we have 13 full time staff. We try to keep it lean and mean, that’s part of our process. Everyone in the building is using Shotgun no matter what they do. Some of our staffers occasionally work remotely from home, which we’re able to do because the Shotgun pipeline helps us keep in touch and share all info over the web; it’s very convenient. Our IO guy works from home a lot which seems crazy but it works great, he just VPNs in and he can do everything he needs to do from his house.
We use Shotgun for everything that we can. We use it for deliveries, we use Shotgun Toolkit, we have a pipeline TD who’s always tweaking and trying to improve things, and we work with Shotgun support to come up with additional streamlining ideas. Toolkit is so helpful – it takes a lot of the dirty work that used to be manual and just does it on its own in the background. Some of the things don’t sound very fancy but at the end of the day it helps that everyone is, for instance, using the same system to start Nuke, to start their comps and render out their comps using Shotgun, or to write nodes that come with the Toolkit so everything is consistent. That’s a problem we had in the past, people would name things slightly differently and the paths would be slightly different, so when we tried to build tools that would grab the footage and make deliverable versions, sometimes it wouldn’t be there because the artist gave it a name that was slightly off. Toolkit helps solve all those problems so that our delivery pipeline is greatly enhanced, and consistency is built in and enforced in a user friendly way.
How did you first hear about Shotgun?
When I used to work at CIS Hollywood years ago, we had our own production management system that was cobbled together from Filemaker and web-based tools, but eventually the scale of our operations grew to the point where that system was lacking. So the company looked into other solutions for production software and eventually settled on Shotgun. When CIS merged with Method we used it there as well.
I saw that there were more possibilities for Shotgun beyond how it was being used at the time, so when we started Mammal I advocated for Shotgun right off the bat and had specific ideas of how we could make it work. Now it’s indispensable. Looking to the future we see the benefits in expansion – if we were to open in another market, the communication between the divisions is the biggest challenge. With Shotgun you can put the info in and people see everything they need and have the data to reference; you don’t have to be on the phone all day. Artists can access annotated frames, reference notes, etc. and it works on a bicoastal schedule so you can hand things off seamlessly from night to day and day to night. Mammal doesn’t have other branches yet but looking to the future we know we have a system where it’s all set up to work seamlessly. One supervisor here says that even within our one facility, he can stay in his office and still communicate perfectly with artists just over Shotgun – not that he doesn’t want to talk in person, but if he’s busy it lets him stay in his office and get more work done, but still give artists the info they need in a timely fashion. Shotgun facilitates that kind of transfer of information. For some things the directions are simple enough that you can jot a quick note and send it off to the artist instead of scheduling a call or a one-hour dailies review – in Shotgun you can get the whole thing done in the same time it would take to even schedule a dailies review. That’s something we have definitely capitalized on.
What content creation tools do you use in-house?
We use Maya and V-Ray to render on the 3D side, and Nuke to composite. Those are our main tools, thought we use other ancillary software and the Adobe suite as well.
Can you describe a recent project where Shotgun was essential?
We are just finishing up on ‘Concussion,’ which is a Sony picture with Will Smith. We had 180 or so shots that we had to get through our team of 13 people. So we needed to have all info transferring and up-to-date at all times. We also use Shotgun to accelerate the pipeline of delivery, so we have it set up where we can make a playlist and at the touch of a button, it kicks off a process that makes all the deliverable versions that we can send off to the client. So on a show with 180 shots on a one month schedule, we had to turn around 10, 15, 20 shots per day at times, which would have been impossible without the acceleration that Shotgun gave us just in terms of managing information and keeping track of statuses – who has what shots and where they are, how many they have left, that kind of thing. That stuff is essential to every show really; we use Shotgun for those things on every project.
What are your favorite features of Shotgun and how do you primarily use them?
I like Screening Room, that’s my favorite feature. I think it’s great. It lets me review shots very quickly. As soon as they’re available I can pull them up and review them and kick back quick notes, which lets us have rolling dailies so instead of the usual system where you have dailies just once a day with one version a day from each artist, I can get 2-3 versions per day from artists and I can prioritize what they’re working on. At any moment I can switch the priority so Shotgun automatically shows them that they should be working on this shot versus another shot. That lets us manage on the production side how things are flowing through the facility and what things are going to go first, what the clients might need first; we can prioritize quickly and keep track. It lets us save a lot of time in the review process because artists don't have to waste time taking down notes. If they’re simple notes and they show up in Shotgun, the artists get a little email and can jump right on it and turn around another version of the shot, and that means more shots move through the facility every day. It maximizes artists’ time, they get things instantly instead of wasting time sitting around in a screening room waiting for notes. I think that’s an underestimated time savings – people don’t realize how much time they waste on that sort of thing. Two-hour dailies reviews are just completely inefficient and impossible to justify at this point.
As a supervisor when I’m reviewing shots I’m much better able to review them at my own pace, and it’s beneficial to use Shotgun to pull up the references that I need without holding other people up. It’s sometimes a laborious process to a review a shot and think about how it looks in context and compares with the last version – I can pull up all those things using Screening Room and it’s nice that I can do that without making everyone wait. I can check everything I want to check without having people sitting around waiting for my final verdict. I find that it also lets me prioritize the notes that I’m giving and consider if they’re really important and if they will affect other shots. If I come up with something on one shot that will affect other shots, I can pull those up really quickly and put the same notes in those shots. The info at the end of the day is better quality. It’s much more polished, and has become a more efficient way to get better results.
How much effort do you focus on building out your pipeline?
Our pipeline TD, Janice Collier, works for us full time. We’re only two years in, so we still have an endless list of ideas that we’re constantly refining. Even from last summer to this summer we’ve eliminated hours and hours of manual work that people had to do. For instance just making QuickTimes for our editorial clients, that used used to be a manual process and someone had to take 2-3 hours a day to do that. Now it’s automated to the point where we press a button and Shotgun knows where the color correction is, knows where the frames are, knows the output format, and just puts that all together to create the deliverable QuickTime and it all happens seamlessly. That right there has saved us hours every day.
What’s a typical day like for you at work?
I come in and have a backlog of shots to review in Screening Room, basically it’s all the artist renders and publishes from the evening before, so I come in early and get through all that and give everyone notes and priorities on what to do that day once they arrive. That gives me a little head start and then the artists get in and read the notes and if they have questions we can talk it out. At that point the artists get to work so I might have time to work on some R&D shots or I’ll be bidding new projects coming in, I’ll have a few hours of that. Then by the early afternoon the artists have started to output more shots so I jump back in to review those, give them notes, then through that whole process we pull the shots that are good to go to client for review. So it’s an ongoing process of reviewing shots and kicking them back for tweaks or approving them for the client. Toward the end of the day we make a playlist of everything that needs to get sent out to various client editorial departments, kick off those QuickTime generations and package them up and send.
What is your favorite thing about working in LA?
Working here allows me to live here, that’s really what it is. I love LA and think that LA is an underrated city. Being from New York I can say that LA is a great city, it’s really up there and people don’t give it enough credit for all the good stuff that is has. Working in Hollywood is great, it is the center of the movie business, and though it’s not necessarily the center of VFX anymore it’s still the heart of moviemaking and all the decision-making happens here.
How do you do to stay connected to the larger community of artists?
It helps to talk with old colleagues and find out what technologies they’re using and what problems they’re addressing; it’s good to share that info and cross-pollenate. We also go to SIGGRAPH whenever it’s in LA. Once you’re a principal member of a company it becomes a lot more useful to go to SIGGRAPH and keep tabs on technology and talk to the software developers themselves, mainly because I have more of a say in those decisions now that I ever have before. It has been very gratifying to be able to make the decisions about software and how it’s used and how our pipeline is formed. At Mammal we try to make sure the procedures and software tools maximize everyone’s time and efficiency instead of just the EPs. That’s a problem I’ve seen at other facilities. People waste time doing data entry instead of artistic endeavors. We want to streamline everything so artists can focus solely on making the shots look the best that they can in the time that we have.
Why has your company been successful?
So far it’s because we’ve been able to make our clients happy with the work that we’re doing. We had contacts who gave us a chance when we started out and gave us opportunities, and we’ve worked hard to make sure they got everything that they need. Being efficient and being able to turn around new versions and explore different options for shots, giving people three different versions for a shot instead of one, that kind of thing, we try to go that extra mile to make sure the client feels comfortable and taken care of and that they know we’re giving 100%.
What led you into visual effects?
Actually I was working on the production side and a roommate got a job at a VFX house. I later took a job there too and learned everything I know about VFX on the job. At that time it was very early, there was no such thing as digital effects before this company, we were one of the first, so I got in at the very beginning. It was interesting and exciting.
When you aren’t working, what’s the ideal way to spend your day?
I like to play sports with my kids, mountain bike, relax at home. Mostly just being with the kids outside, kicking around a ball, playing catch. They’re young so they’re just getting into sports.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in running a studio today?
The biggest challenge is just keeping things efficient because we have to fight for every shot that we get. Other territories offer better tax incentives so we have to be better and more efficient to get work without the benefit of those subsidies. We basically have to be 30% better just as a bottom line calculation. That’s tough to do.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by the creativity and fantastic work that the teams I work with can achieve. I’m constantly amazed by what my artists do on a daily basis. They do great work and they work as a team which is another inspiring thing. They take time out of their day to help a colleague and not necessarily get credit. They just selflessly pitch in and help each other get the job done.