We had the opportunity recently to sit down with Kevin Baillie, co-founder of Atomic Fiction. He and Ryan Tudhope started the feature film and television visual effects company in 2010. Headquartered in Oakland, Calif., Atomic Fiction is in the midst of opening a second office in Montreal. The company has created award-winning visual effects for projects that include “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey,” “Need for Speed,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Boardwalk Empire” and many more. When we spoke to Kevin he was working on set as the VFX Supervisor on Robert Zemeckis’ film “To Reach the Clouds,” about French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s attempt to cross the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Why has Atomic Fiction been so successful?
We’ve taken a very modern approach to VFX and kind of thrown out the conventional way of thinking. We have smaller teams of people who are at the top end of the talent pool, so, while we focus on hiring talent across all fields of expertise, our main sights are on high-end talent. On the technology front we really don’t have much local infrastructure; we use Google cloud for everything rendering-wise and have written our own in-house render queue management solution that interacts with Shotgun and oversees all of the rendering work we do. We have 20% of the technology footprint of a normal visual effects company, but have access to as much, if not more, render power than anyone else out there.
What’s a day in the life of Kevin like?
These days I’m both on set and in the office -- but mostly on set in Montreal. I’ll get to set at 7AM, which is not the easiest thing for me. Once the caffeine settles in, it’s all about working with Bob Zemeckis to figure out how to most efficiently capture the VFX shots of the day. I work with everyone from the grips to the art department and Bob to make sure everything is going as planned. We take a ton of reference photography, and I work closely with the data wrangler, making sure we have all of the information we need to get the effects to look as good as they can, as efficiently as possible. We wrap 13-17 hours later. When I’m not on set, I’m focusing a lot on the expansion of our Oakland office and the build-out of our office in Montreal. So I’m working on growing the business from both a physical standpoint and a business development standpoint. It’s pretty nuts at the moment, but the good news is we that brought Mark Sadeghi on board as President of VFX, we’re bringing on a dedicated finance person, and we’re really expanding our executive management team to make sure our growth happens responsibly and is successful.
We’re also slowly working toward adopting Shotgun Toolkit as our asset management solution and our Montreal division is pushing that effort forward. It’s all possible thanks to the amazing people we have working behind the scenes. My partner at Atomic Fiction, Ryan Tudhope is in Los Angeles on set as the VFX Supervisor on “Boyscouts v. Zombies.” Atomic Fiction is the lead VFX house on that film; we’re doing about 1/3 of the shot count on “The Walk.”
What are the three most important things in your office?
Number one is the people. I’ve seen companies with amazing tools that don’t have the right people fall flat. So by far, number one is the A+ team. Other than that, the Internet connectivity that we have, it’s very fast and that’s very important from a workload perspective so our connectivity to the outside world is not a bottleneck to our artists. And third is our espresso machine to keep everyone fueled.
What tools do you use in-house at Atomic?
We use quite a wide range, we really focus on hiring the best people, and sometimes in order to work at their best they need to be working with the tools they’re most comfortable with. Those include: Maya, modo, and we’re starting to integrate Katana. We also use some 3ds Max, Nuke for compositing, After Effects for motion graphics and then we have our own internal render management solution for render queue and also the cloud management side of things, and Shotgun, of course, for production tracking.
Which in-house tool are you most proud of?
Our render management solution is called Conductor and it’s what we’re most proud of. We had been working with ZYNC for quite a while and it became obvious that we needed control of the development of our cloud rendering solution so we switched to an in-house system that was developed by a bright young guy named Greg Denton. We worked with him at Image Movers Digital, and within a was a couple of months he built an amazing working solution in conjunction with great support from Google. The result is a tool that we can spin up to have render farm the size of what IMD had—that was a $20 million investment, and we can crank that up for a few hours, then shut it down and only pay for what we use. It scales, it’s fast and it’s our pride and joy.
How much effort do you focus on building out the pipeline?
We have a team of people that does that; probably five or six people who really have hands-on involvement in that from a coding level. I’m heavily involved on the strategy side of it and having been at a bunch of places large and small, there are things we want to focus on and things we want to avoid, so it’s a balance because I don’t want to be a bottleneck but there are certain philosophic components to our pipeline that are key to our success.
Shotgun customization or straight out of the box?
Both. We use several features straight out of the box and we also have custom tools we’ve developed. We were working on our own asset management system, which is super faxt and user-friendly, but we’re working towards using Shotgun Toolkit as the company scales. The Shotgun API is great in that it allows us to develop our own tools while always keeping production informed, and gives the team constant ability to interact with other artists in a seamless way.
What inspires you?
To be honest it’s directors like Robert Zemeckis. From a storytelling standpoint it’s unbelievable what he can come up with out of nothing, so to be able to support him is incredible. The other thing that inspires me is how busted the industry is right now. You see well established companies having a hard time, so for us and me personally for sure is ‘what can we do to help?’ This cloud based approach, we’ve been vocal about it for some time because we think it’s the future of the industry and when it works it allows us to tie revenue to expenditure, enabling us to have a much healthier business…so I think things like that, discovering ways to make the industry more viable for the companies and artists involved is a huge inspiration.
What led you to visual effects?
“Jurassic Park” and “Back to the Future” and “E.T.” and “Star Wars” -- every movie I saw as a kid that I loved had VFX in it. So as I grew up I always knew I wanted to work in visual effects for movies. Seeing “Jurassic Park” was my ‘aha’ moment. Luckily my high school teacher Rick Mordby had 3D Studio for DOS; he let me and Ryan [Tudhope] use it and learn it, and we had the crazy, fortunate luck of both being hired to work at Lucasfilm straight out of high school.
What is the biggest challenge in running a studio today?
For us it’s growing the studio in a responsible way. We want to keep everyone busy and grow, but do it in a way that’s sustainable. The nature of the industry is that you have a relatively small client pool and relatively few, albeit very large payments coming in. It’s hard to keep cash flow in line with expenditure. The way that we work with tools on an on-demand basis, and cloud rendering has been truly transformative for us in that regard. So cash flow is definitely the industry’s biggest challenge, but it’s one we’ve been tackling head on since inception.
Thoughts on Shotgun joining Autodesk?
I think it’s going to be a great thing for Shotgun and its users, I know that one of the challenges of running a small business is how to take limited resources and spread them across all of the high priority development tasks you have as a company. Especially when you have customers all clamoring for different things. It’s hard to satisfy the high priority stuff and keep all of our clients happy across the board, so Autodesk’s involvement will in a large way help alleviate that problem by allowing them to expand the size of the Shotgun development team and maybe even take some riskier moves since they might be able to devote resources to more long term strategic development. So I can relate to it as a small business owner and think it’s an awesome thing to have the muscle of Autodesk backing Shotgun.