Written by Shona Smith on May 20, 2020. Posted in Interviews

TLG talks to David Conley, Executive VFX Producer at Weta Digital

As physical production ground to a halt across the globe due to coronavirus, VFX and post production was one sector that could continue to work. David Conley (pictured), Executive VFX Producer at Weta Digital speaks to TLG on how VFX studio behind Avengers: Infinity War, Avatar and The Lord of the Rings has coped with recent challenges, and what might change as a result of coronavirus.

During the coronavirus lockdown, what issues had to be overcome to implement remote working at Weta?

As we were hearing of initial reports around the crisis emerging in China, we formed a Covid-19 Strategy team comprised of leadership across the company to help provide guidance and insight into how to respond from technical, production, and facility perspectives. Our goal was to have a company response to potential scenarios around how Covid-19 might have an impact to our business in the event the crisis grew beyond China.

As we saw Covid move into Europe and the United States we accelerated our internal technology plans to move our teams to a remote working scenario. This meant working through all the potential technological, management, and health and safety issues that might arise from moving our teams from a facility-based operation, to working remotely from home. We had originally planned on moving to a remote WFH environment over 4 weeks, but we had to accelerate those plans to under 3 days due to the infection rates rising so quickly.

Given our continued commitment to content security, we worked closely with the Studios and our filmmaking clients to ensure that our technological solutions were met with their approval. With the high-profile nature of our projects, we do have to work with the TPN and each the Studio’s content security teams to protect their IP.

As the crisis eventuated to the closing of New Zealand’s borders restricting access to international short-term hires, our production management teams had the added challenge of managing to delivery timelines with the crew we had on the floor. This required reconciling our work week schedules, and strategies, to achieve deadlines by retargeting tasks to different departments in some cases to help push the work through the pipeline.

War for the Planet of the Apes Image credit: © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

As New Zealand eases lockdown, what will Weta Digital’s setup look like going forward?

It is encouraging to see the New Zealand government has been successful in its plans to mitigate the spread of the virus within the country. So, it does appear that the restrictions at the national level will be eased allowing for a slow return to work under the Alert Levels 2 and 1 as outlined by the NZ Ministry of Health. While we do not yet know the full extent of the impact of the pandemic to our operations, we do not believe we will entirely return to the facility model we had prior to the crisis.

There are several factors to consider. From a facility level we will be slowly and deliberately returning only essential crew under guidelines that exceed that of the government’s recommendations. With the additional pressures of delivering under the current restrictions we cannot afford to have any disruptions resulting from a second wave of infections, so our working operations will be dramatically different in that there will be a more deliberate emphasis placed on hygienic protocols.

We will also be looking to carry over a number of valuable organizational lessons learned while working remotely. With the premium placed on efficiency, we were able to restructure dailies, rounds, and general work-week meetings in a way that greatly increased an artist's capacity to focus on what is most important to them - their art. But the most substantial change will be how the VFX Industry works alongside the Studios to develop content security protocols that allow for the greater flexibility of having artists work from home. As Weta returns to a more robust working environment with the easing of restrictions, we will be without a doubt at the front of these conversations. We will look to develop solutions that continue to protect digital content, but also giving Weta as a business the ability to manage our artistic resources to greater advantage. And ultimately with the easing of these restrictions, we’re increasingly collaborating with our Studio and filmmaking clients around achieving solutions that help them finish their films that were shut down prior to the global lockdown, as well as helping plan certain projects that can be moved forward in a post-Covid working environment.

Mortal Engines Image credit: © 2018 Universal Studios

With live-action shooting off the table, did the lockdown have any impact on the production pipeline for current projects?

Several projects that were in Principal Photography have indeed been shut down. Each Studio had a different approach to how they handled postponing the projects they were shooting. Some were shut down entirely, some shoots are delayed, and a few are being reconceived entirely. These have all contributed to the overall challenge of scheduling the work we do have in-house, against managing the company’s overall cash flow. Live Action photography, along with cash flow, is the life blood of successful VFX. Photographic plates help ground digital effects into real world environments. However, under Joe Letteri’s leadership, Weta has architected a robust digital pipeline that can digitally create almost anything; photographically real or fantastical landscapes, characters, creatures, magical effects. So, while the shutdown has impacted the ingestion of live action plates into the facility, the shutdown has also paved the way for opportunities where we can help filmmakers arrive at digital solutions to help them finish their films.

Avenger Endgame Image credit: © 2019 Marvel

Are productions looking into VFX techniques due to the new circumstances?

We continually look to leverage the R&D efforts to help advance the production pipelines and solutions we can offer filmmakers. We place a premium on being collaborators to filmmakers, so we look to engage at all levels of production. We have an array of tools we can provide to help filmmakers achieve their visions. This can include storyboards, concept art, previz, all the way through animation, lighting, compositing to final render. So while filmmakers have had to shut down their shoots, none have tired in their efforts to develop future projects, so we’re working closely to help promote solutions that can help them resume photography, or get their project off the ground as restrictions around the world begin to ease.

Postproduction and VFX technologies have become increasingly integral to productions, do you think the impact of coronavirus will accelerate this trajectory?

Absolutely. As each major territory around the world looks to begin filming again, it is interesting to note that these places all have their own guidelines under which filming can take place due to the dramatic difference in impact the virus has had in different shooting locales. But all of these productions will be heavily influenced by the challenges traveling their cast to distant locations. So, as Studio executives and filmmakers explore the different challenges to getting their movies and television projects moving forward, the solutions to which they’re looking are often around VFX and Post Production technologies helping supplement the challenges faced by location based shooting. What we’re seeing is physical production executives and post-production executives reaching across the table to become more fluent in their understanding around the technologies available to help make their content. And as that understanding grows, we’re anticipating another growth in these technologies as a complimentary way of digitally finishing films.

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