The Third Floor, the industry’s busiest visualization company in tackling superhero movies (“Black Widow,” “Avengers: Endgame”), already had an advantage working remotely with real-time tools and virtual workflows when the coronavirus pandemic struck early this year. Turns out, though, that the COVID-19 epicenter was too close for comfort.
“When this crisis began, we initially faced the challenge of protecting our staff in Beijing, who were in the midst of launching our first permanent office in China,” said CEO and co-founder Chris Edwards. “When the virus started spreading beyond Wuhan, the first thing we did was send everyone home and connect them virtually…we learned a lot about the procedures for mitigating the risk of spreading the virus that we began to apply to our other offices in London, Atlanta, and LA [headquarters].
“Time was of the essence to put a highly secure, remote-working infrastructure in place,” he said, “and we needed to leverage the company infrastructure to bolster communication and function as a support group for all of our employees and their families.”
Back in LA, The Third Floor (TTF) found the resilience of its Beijing crew instructive. The company, which has become the go-to visualization specialist for the MCU (performing rough previs of scenes, more elaborate techvis breakdowns of camera lenses, set construction, and stunts, and postvis enhancements during crunch time), used video conferencing and other methods of digital collaboration to significantly advance preparations and stay on schedule. Despite the physical isolation, however, everyone started relying on the video calls for more than just work-related advice.
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“At our [LA] hub, we didn’t want to take the risk of being unprepared, so we authorized our IT team to increase our internet bandwidth tenfold, and build an advanced remote login system that could enable our artists to work fluidly and securely from home,” said Edwards, who worked with IT chiefs at major studios such as Disney for advising and approving their comprehensive work-from-home solution.
But the two-week transition to a completely virtual studio only became possible with the help of industry colleagues and suppliers when California Governor Gavin Newsom and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti issued the stay-at-home order. And, as part of its mobilization effort, the company launched a TTFaid program as a resource for more than 100 employees and their families with supplies, aid, and emotional support.
“With this early foresight in February, we were prepared to roll out a set of guidelines, which I called the TTF Health Vigilance Plan, across our other studios in LA, Atlanta, and London,” Edwards said. “These were best practices for cleanliness and social distancing, informed by the CDC, and customized to our specific work environment.”
Company-wide foreign travel restrictions were announced, and mandatory self-quarantine time frames were enforced in an abundance of caution. Meanwhile, their facilities teams worked to manually space out workstations so employees had more than the recommended amount of distance. “We even set up rows of desks across our motion capture stage to minimize any chance of cross-contamination among employees,” added Edwards. “It was like setting up a temporary refugee camp for digital artists while we put the finishing touches on our work-from-home networking solution.”
The Third Floor
By nature, as a visualization company, TTF often locates onsite with Marvel and other production teams, who are are spread out geographically. “We centralize the IT infrastructure for these ‘pop-up studios’ next to the artists so they can run at full speed, and in doing that, we relieve pressure on our headquarter offices,” said Jeremy Oddo, director of technology. “This has allowed us to work comfortably on a one-gigabit link to the internet. That all changed literally overnight.”
In order to maintain ownership over its data, TTF needed its artists to connect to the resources at its studio. Connecting to the on-premise environment also gave them a strong guarantee that artists would be up and running quickly. While all of its normal processes would work and function as usual, this move to remote functionality strained its internet connection. A larger pipeline was needed.
The company, therefore, quickly shifted gears and accelerated a plan to push into a data center to begin consolidating its transport lines. Leveraging strong relationships with Shamrock Consulting and GPL Technologies, TTF was able to compress what was normally a multi-month process into just two weeks. “We were following the unfolding news closely and knew changes would come fast,” Oddo added. “Without delay, we started the transition. Fourteen days later, we had a presence in the data center, a newly configured firewall able to manage the connections, a 10-gigabit connection to the internet, and happy artists working from the comfort and safety of their respective homes.
“We do regular work with the major studios, such as Disney and its subsidiaries,” Oddo continued. “We worked closely with their security team to address any concerns that may arise from a work-from-home workforce. Our Business Continuity Plan always relied on a temporary office space to relocate a disenfranchised workforce. But it didn’t address the new reality of social/physical distancing that came with COVID-19. In the end, though, it all comes back to securing the content and Intellectual Property. Keeping the data within our four walls and bringing the artists to the data — instead of trying to bring the data to the artists — helps us maintain ownership and transparency. Having that peace of mind was paramount to us.”
TTF which currently works remotely on all of its projects, had to first establish secure workflows. “These days, like a coordinated S.W.A.T. team, professional visualization crews are prepared to be deployed with their workstations and equipment into any production space, in any country, and start prototyping the director’s vision the same day,” said Edwards. “Except in a world with coronavirus, everyone would now have to leave their workstations behind. But, despite shooting being halted worldwide, they are still able to visualize their projects with filmmakers.
“This was where our rockstar IT staff really stepped up,” Edwards added. “It was like watching the climax of a ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie, where we were all betting on the good guys to save the day against incredible odds. Many substantial roadblocks were put in our way, but with some early planning, a lot of hard work, and a lot of good karma, our IT department was able to bring all of our employees online and to control their workstations securely from the safety of their respective homes.”
Although the “new normal” precludes face-to-face interaction, collaboration between artists and clients continues unabated at TTF. “In doing this, we can see what they are describing to us and we can do the same,” said Scott Hankel, visualization design supervisor. “When we need to do reviews, there are certain industry-standard screen-sharing software solutions that we utilize for feedback. And with our artists, we are utilizing some proprietary methods so that we have access to see the work they are doing. So, overall, this has not impacted our workflow as much as one would think. Our artists are doing the same kind of visualization work they do when they are in the office.”
Yet Edwards sees a silver lining on the flip side of this tragedy: “After we do everything to protect our employees’ health and well being, we can work together to advance the media industry’s physical and virtual infrastructure, not only to mitigate future crises but also to advance and streamline the production process itself,” he said. “In the near future, I can see sound stages and other production facilities being outfitted with more robust networking equipment, firewalls, witness cameras, and robotic controls that will enable a new level of fluid collaboration between on-set personnel and virtual participants.”