In the spirit of connectedness and collaboration, we’ve been chatting with Shotgun customers worldwide to gather stories, passions and advice to share with the community. We had a chance recently to catch up with Heiko Burkardsmaier, Head of Legal Business Affairs at Mackevision (HQ in Stuttgart). Mackevision VFX Supervisor Jörn Grosshans and the team at Mackevision were recently nominated for a VFX Emmy for the company’s work on ‘Game of Thrones’ season four together with other VFX companies, and their breakdown reel for the project has been tearing it up online.
Tell me a little bit about Mackevision.
Mackevision is one of the global leaders in computer generated imagery (CGI) which covers 3D visualization, animation and visual effects for OEMs across the automotive industry. We develop technological solutions for generating images and look after the entire CGI process from data preparation to creative design. Basically we get the technical data from the car engineers, we convert that into Maya or 3ds Max files and we use that to provide any number of configurations – such as color choices, wheel choices, fabric choices – and deliver prints of whatever configurations they request, often for use in marketing. There are endless configuration options, so we’re dealing with a lot of data. We have a configuration backbone that we programmed ourselves called COBA. It’s quite a complicated process involving lots of data and having the right tools to access and manipulate that data quickly.
Mackevision has offices worldwide and about 300 employees. In the U.S. we have offices in Detroit and Los Angeles; the main office is in Stuttgart, Germany, and we have additional offices in Munich, London, Hamburg, and Shanghai. Then we have two sales offices in Japan and Singapore. In 2013 Mackevision started its VFX department and since then we’ve worked on a couple of productions, the biggest one so far is Game of Thrones season 4 where we did 72 shots.
What does the name mean?
The original founder’s name was Marcus and Mackevision is derived from that – his nickname was Macke. When new owner came on the company name already had such recognition in the market that he kept it.
Why has Mackevision been so successful?
For the car industry you need to have specialized solutions; you don’t just provide CG images but you have to adapt to the automotive design process. We have an R&D department of about 7-8 people who are specifically programming things for each automotive client’s specific pipeline. So that’s key, we know how the automotive industry works and how to adapt our process to the specific requirements of the clients. We are always aiming to technically and creatively hit the highest target. We want to have the best solutions available.
For the VFX department, we were known to HBO from our previous work on seasons two and three of Game of Thrones prior to joining Mackevision, so when we started this department we were able to get great artists and great support and trust from HBO, and they gave us some really nice shots for season four.
Mackevision VFX Supervisor Jörn Grosshans led the company’s team
on ‘Game of Thrones’ season four. He is among the nominees for a
2014 Visual Effects Emmy Award.
What is a day in the life of Heiko like?
My day starts with getting coffee and checking my email, then we start talking about whatever problems there are on current projects that I need to address. That’s in terms of running the VFX department. Then I’m also the company lawyer, and I’m also the sales guy for VFX, so I check if there are any new projects or legal things that I need to follow up with.
What are the three most important things in your office?
Of course the storage and the render farm – those are crucial. And the right talent – great artists and great IT people. It’s also essential for our company to have the special tools that we have programmed, like COBA.
What tools do you use in-house at Mackevision?
We basically try to use everything off the shelf. We use Nuke for compositing, and our main 3D software is 3ds Max but we also use Maya and Krakatoa when necessary. We’re relatively small for VFX, 50 people – the automotive side is bigger and they have their own specialty tools, but for VFX we like things out of the box. We have a pipeline developer that tweaks the plug-ins for us to optimize each tool but we don’t have a big R&D department to create special tools for us. Shotgun is of course at the top of our list. I always think of it as a database more than software, but it’s essential for our VFX department to manage all of our projects and keep everything running. We also use Shotgun as a time tracking tool and we also use the data we get from Shotgun as a controlling tool. So it’s basically at the heart of each production.
What in-house/custom developed tool are you most proud of?
We have our own fluid solver, it doesn’t have a name but it was written by one of our auto R&D guys who’s a PhD student in VFX here in Stuttgart and he wrote it as his PhD thesis. We found out that we can use it really well with Softimage to do CG water, and we did quite a lot of those types of shots on Game of Thrones.
How much effort do you focus on building out of the pipeline?
That’s really important. We have 50 people total in VFX and one guy who only works on pipeline development – so that’s a lot of human resources dedicated to pipeline considering our small size. One thing that’s so fascinating about Shotgun is you can add new tools to it and program your own stuff – that’s what really moves us forward and streamlines our processes and makes things easier for our artists. Every new project has its own challenges so we need to keep adding stuff to the pipeline and to Shotgun. It starts with something small like an artist suggests having a pop up window to see comments, so our pipeline guy just tweaks it in Shotgun and it makes everyone’s life easier.
Why is pipeline important?
Artists are very creative and very technically savvy, and the pipeline really provides the structure for what they do. It links the technical needs and the creative side. It structures the work so that we don’t lose resources and money. When you have multiple people working on different tasks on the same shot, that’s risky – you have to make sure everyone’s on the same version. That’s where Shotgun is really key. It gives structure to a very complex business.
What inspires you?
Watching movies. If I see a great movie, it inspires me to do things with the VFX team here that are really challenging. And working on something that you love is inspiring. For example I’m really a fan of Game of Thrones, so being part of that whole package, the story and the acting, that’s very inspiring.
How do you stay connected to the artist community?
Here in Stuttgart the VFX industry is kind of a family. I’m a lecturer at the film academy and the university here, so I stay in touch with the schools to know who the up-and-coming talents are and make sure the teachers there have us as resources. It’s a small community and we really try to communicate with everyone, via holiday parties or email or LinkedIn. Keeping personal contact is key, and it’s easier to do that at a smaller facility like ours where we can hand-select people. We’re lucky to have a bunch of really good, experienced artists working for us.
What is your favorite thing about working in Stuttgart?
You have the feeling that something big is happening. Other parts of the VFX world are fighting against globalization but here the industry is still growing. We have all these schools and talented young people coming out and it just feels like we’re moving forward. We’re not necessarily on the VFX map yet so there’s a sense that we’re expanding and growing – a feeling that something big could happen here.
When you aren’t working what is your ideal way to spend the day?
With my family and kids, definitely.
What led you to visual effects?
It was basically by accident. The company where I worked in 2001-2002, they did film production and post-production, and I was running the legal department. The company moved to Berlin but I wanted to stay in Stuttgart, and the only job for me in Stuttgart was at a small company that needed legal but also needed help running their VFX department, so I ended up doing both. Then I moved to Pixomondo and ran their VFX office here which was a bit bigger, then I moved to Mackevision in 2013 to start their VFX department. From my legal background I have a lot of experience with film financing, and that knowledge is very helpful.
What is the biggest challenge in running a studio today?
Two things – to have the best talent available (and to keep them), and to have a continuous amount of work. Small and big studios alike always have one bad quarter, usually in the summer when everything is shooting and they’re not ready for VFX yet. That’s why the model at Mackevision makes sense, because we have the automotive side to always keep us busy throughout the year. When you’re only doing movies, it’s difficult to have constant work coming in, and now with globalization the margins are so small that it’s hard to stay open if you don’t have work. So you need to find other solutions.