ftrack will be revealing version 3 of their software at SIGGRAPH next week and we have an early sneak peek at the new features. It's an interesting time for the company, as the recent news that Autodesk acquired Shotgun has brought a lot of focus on production management solutions. The timing of the news and increase in interest from users has actually worked out well for ftrack, as they have added substantial features to the software in the last twelve months, perhaps most importantly with the release of V2 in September of last year.
Had the increase in interest happened a year earlier, one could argue that ftrack wouldn't have been in the state to take advantage of the spotlight. But that's not the case today, as it's gotten quite a bit of buzz for its usability as well as found a sweet spot in targeting small to medium sized facilities, as well as landing larger clients such as The Mill, Cinesite, and Mackevision.
We take a look at features in the new release, but first provide a bit of insight into the history of the company as well as check in with some of their clients to find out why they have adopted ftrack.
History and Background
ftrack CEO & founder Fredrik Limsater got into the effects business in early 2000 as a software developer working on a crowd animation system in London. After several years, he moved out to LA to take on more of an artist’s role at Sony Pictures Imageworks. He eventually had the opportunity to become a co-owner and CTO of Stokholm-based Fido Films, which is where development of the product called ftrack began.
At the time (around 2008), Fido was looking to expand into larger and larger projects, but didn’t really have the technical pipeline to do it. The majority of studios Limsater had worked for not only had their own proprietary solutions, but also the large support teams and associated costs to support it. There was effectively a clean canvas to build the pipeline tool at Fido, and the duality of Limsater’s experience as both an artist /FX TD and developer has influenced the path of ftrack.
"We knew that we needed to develop a tool that was easy to learn, and easy to use because we had so many freelancers coming in and out when production ramped up and down,” says Limsater. "But still, we knew that more experienced TDs that has been around working in the world, at the other studios, would expect to find features available by proprietary studio solutions. We knew all that, so then we knew that we had a big challenge to actually create a system that needs to support all these advanced features, but as simple as it can get."
From the start, they developed ftrack with the user experience (UX) end design in mind: keep it simple on the surface but offer greater complexity under the hood. They felt that without making it easy to use, the software would get in the artists way instead of making their lives easier.
Like most software development, they didn’t quite get it right the first time, but spent a considerable amount of time listening to the producers and the artists in order to learn how the users wanted to work. As development continued on their in-house tool they realized they might be onto something that filled a gap in the industry, as even Shotgun wasn’t shipping publicly at this point. At the time, Limsater remembers thinking “OK, other people are going to look at this, they're going to use it. We need to rewrite it. We need to have an API."
It was a big realization, because the approach for building something in-house and building something that would be usable and configurable by others is something else. For instance, like a lot of built from scratch in-house software, the functions were effectively hardcoded so they started re-writing large chunks of code and creating a true API. They also needed to be aware of the fact that the smaller studios they were aiming for initially didn't have the budget to support a complex configuration engine, so it needed to be easy to set up and to maintain.
In 2011 they sold Fido to another company and spun off ftrack as it’s own company. ftrack also got their first external beta site, which was Filmmore Visual Effects in Amsterdam/Brussels. Over the next several years, they continued to build upon the initial release of their software, making sure the foundation was laid for the next release.
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Instead of simply trying to build the UI on their own, ftrack worked with a user interaction company based in Stockholm that helped them form the basic layout of how things work and data workflows in the interface, and then they built ftrack upon that. Using an outside company to help the engineering team develop UX goals is somewhat unusual in development. That isn’t to say that UX testing isn’t done by software dev teams or they never hire consultants, but using a specialized resource with a fresh perspective to a problem is an interesting approach.
Day-to-day use is where the software really needs to be approachable. They learned this when they started to develop ftrack back at Fido Film. With the large number of freelancers coming in and out of the company as production ramped up and down, they couldn’t spend a great deal of time training the artists on how to use the software. So they worked to make it as easy to use as possible. That’s not an easy task, as productions are inherently complex with a large number of moving parts.
Version 2 was launched in September 2013 with a new UI and a variety of new features and workflows designed to make the software easier to use. “The vision of ftrack has always been to make a fairly complex platform as accessible as Google Docs,” says Limsater. "That's the goal we had from the start, and people go into ftrack and see what they expect to see as creative artists. With version three that we're going to release later this year, we feel that we have all the bits and pieces in place.”
The current V2 release has gained quite a bit of traction with small to medium sized facilities and has developed a reputation of being easier to use and more approachable to artists and producers than Shotgun. We take a look at several of these users, representing a cross section of ftrack’s customer base.
Moving Picture Company LA
Moving Picture Company LA (MPC LA) has adopted ftrack for their team of about 35 3D artists and 15 2D artists. They primarily work on commercials at the facility, with the ambition to bring a few feature shots back to LA in the future. According to MPC’s Jonathan Vaughn, they began researching alternatives to the MPC feature pipeline around December of 2013 because they felt the in-house task management system for film wasn’t usable in commercials and this created a disconnect between tasks and assets. They also felt the in-house assets system wasn’t flexible to the many changes commercials go through.
Vaughn feels acceptance of the production management software by the artists is critical. In his past experience, when the software is hard to use, it's "quite disastrous as artists would get frustrated and disregard it all together. Therefore, I saw many teams managing things their own way...and not having a cohesive communication system and task manager can be a nightmare.”
This isn’t the case with ftrack, as they’ve found that quickly walking their artists through the basic layout leads to artists designing their own layouts best suited for their workflow. “The ftrack team still has a little ways to go before you can set a freelancer down and just say go,” says Vaughn, but he finds it “leaps and bounds” much more artist-friendly than Shotgun. “I feel like the redesign of Shotgun combats this a little as it feels more like ftrack, but little things such as the sidebar and pyside live feeds we have in applications make it so much easier to focus on data that is most important to the individual artist.”
From a programming standpoint, Vaughn feels as though the API is so straightforward it’s allowed them to “develop a plethora of tools to make our pipeline easy and efficient.” One of the most powerful integrations they created is with Houdini and custom actions (Actions are a way for facilities to add easy access to custom scripts via the ftrack web UI). They have set things up so, even with the different ways Maya and Houdini access data, it is easy for artists to switch between packages. “We have otls completely managed through ftrack and utilized actions to expand on this and create a full on 3D assets library which we can check assets in and out of previous projects easily into current jobs.”
They effectively have a 3D assets archive in which they store all asset builds, animations, light rigs, fx rigs and more…and can easily search and retrieve the assets for current projects. “Since ftrack manages all asset dependencies, we no longer have to worry about where texture B was for character C and what hdr was used to light it,” says Vaughn. "We just tell ftrack to retrieve the character asset from a particular show and it sends all the details(paths and so on) to tech ops to recover it."
With the focus on commercials, MPC LA relies on Flame systems to finish their projects. Due to its lack of a python API or hooks, Flame has generally been an island in pipelines. One of the hopes of the Autodesk acquisition of Shotgun is that Flame will finally be opened up to play nicely in a pipeline, but Vaughn says “we want to beat Shogun to Flame integration.” The recent releases of Flame did expose more functionality with the addition of the .clip files, which are essentially XML files containing information about clips. Flame can import the clip as version of a render, utilizing a .clip file which has been created by ftrack on the completion of renders in external apps. In addition, Vaughn says they "already use ftrack to look for conforms coming from Flame and update the database accordingly. Through actions the artists can see all edits quickly and easily as they are changed.”
ftrack is still relatively young, however, and there are still some areas in which Vaughn could see improvements. He feels that as projects become larger, the web interface does lose a bit of usability. “After 150 shots, being able to visualize certain data ‘at a glance’ can become cumbersome,” he says. Addressing some of the additional customization needs could easily address this and we have en designed multiple views we feel could benefit the (ftrack) community as a whole.”
Notifications also need some improvements as well, as artists are inundated with large number of notifications even if they don’t apply to them. This actually isn’t an easy problem to solve as many implementations across all software and platforms aren’t don’t very well. The team at MPC have recommended a Facebook-type “Like/Follow” system for artists to quickly go through and setup up. This way, the notifications are much more filtered and the artists only receive notifications for information that is essential for them.
Boston-based Zero VFX switched from Shotgun to ftrack about three months ago. They employ 35-55 artists (depending upon the project), creating visual effects and content for features and commercials. A big reason for the change was the ability to install ftrack locally at Zero’s facility. "We heavily integrate production tracking software into our parent applications and the speed that a local install provides is vital,” says VFX Supervisor Sean Devereaux. "Our applications launch faster, the tools respond instantly and we can take advantage of what becomes a large amount of data and knowledge by providing it easily to all of our artists.”
The team at Zero has quickly created custom tools and integrations for software at the facility. The biggest is their Nuke integration with ftrack, which allows artists to have full access to all of their tasks, notes and assets right within Nuke. The integration works so well that many of their artists never actually have to visit the ftrack web portal to do their work.
While users new to production management software find ftrack easy to use, the team at Zero had built up muscle memory with Shotgun through their use of it over the years. With ftrack in use for only three months, they haven’t gotten to point where they are as comfortable with ftrack as they were with Shotgun. "Most of our artists and production staff have mentioned that it’s easier to get started but they’re missing a few favorite functions here and there,” says Devereaux. So the usability jury is still out for them.
One area in which Devereux would like to see some improvement is manipulations of assets in the web GUI. “This is a big one,” relates Devereaux,. “It’s impossible for users to do any asset management via the web gui, so we have to resort to doing it all via custom API tools. We'd much rather be able to just do this straight in the GUI."
We’ve mentioned ftrack’s sweet spot of small to medium sized facilities, but they do have several large installations.
ftrack is currently being rolled out by Mackevision Medien Design in Stuttgart (with branches in Detroit, Munich, and more). The company has over 300 employees around the world creating animation, 3D visualization, as well as visual effects. They spent almost half a year evaluating their three options: modernizing their in-house database, rolling out Shotgun globally, or striking a new path with ftrack. Their in-house solution is currently working for them, but it would have taken a lot of support and modernization to take it up to the level where Shotgun and ftrack are today. Also, it would have taken at least a year of development to catch up with all of their in-house user feature requests.
They evaluated it based on all relevant areas, ranging from raw features to user experience to security and cost. According to Thorsten Kaufmann, Production Pipeline Architect at Mackevision Unity Team, ftrack had “at least a slight edge in pretty much all areas.” For example, with regards to user experience, “as we are not first and foremost a VFX shop we feel that ftrack is more flexible in order to support other types of workflows and team organization,” Kaufmann relates. "We feel that ftrack can support all of our different workflows and team structures globally. The UI is really flexible and offers a lot of room for customization (to the point that we think about moving non-production teams like development over eventually)."
The flexibility of ftrack was particularly attractive to them. "We feel that ftrack can support all of our different workflows and team structures globally. The UI is really flexible and offers a lot of room for customization (to the point that we think about moving non-production teams like development over eventually)."
Probably the most important new customer to date for ftrack is The Mill, not just from a PR perspective of landing a major facility, but also from the standpoint of being able to collaborate to make the software better. Cinesite has adopted ftrack, but The Mill is an interesting situation with facilities in London, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles collaborating on commercials projects. ftrack is currently undergoing deployment at the facilities, setting up the infrastructure and hooking it into their pipeline.
About three years ago The Mill started working on their own in-house system which originally was done just for Maya and eventually turned into more of a procedural scene building tool as opposed to an asset management tool. It worked well, but wasn’t going to extend into something more. As they added more locations, latency and networking delays became an issue and they worked to improve this but weren’t really happy with the result. At the same time, they started looking at outside options and that, of course, included Shotgun. “I felt that they had a multi-site kind of solution because that wasn’t their gig…they were doing big film houses that were doing a single film,” says Dave Levy, Group CG Technology Director for The Mill. He does feel as though this has changed, with studios requiring facilities on a film to use Shotgun for project management, but he still felt that it didn’t fit their needs.
About a year and a half ago, they met with Fredrik Limsater who gave them a look at ftrack, which included a very early version of their “Locations” feature which aims to simplify sharing of assets between geographically separated facilities. The core idea with Locations is that each geographic facility can have its own storage system and file structure and the software will keep track of syncing needed media between the locations. For instance, when an artist in LA needs to work on a comp that has been worked on in London, ftrack would take care of making sure the needed assets — and only the needed assets — get transferred from one filesystem to the other. The key aspect is that only the needed assets get passed between facilities, unlike simply transferring all assets (as might be done without ftrack) because they were unsure of what was exactly needed.
“We were in a situation where there was a ton of rewriting that needed to be done on our internal system to cope with the wide scale stuff (collaboration between locations),” says Levy. "We also didn’t have any hooks into the billing system and the production system and the scheduling system…we were gonna have to do all that again. So it was either that or you’ve got something with ftrack that has a framework already and is a new company keen to work with us.”
So the timing was perfect, as The Mill could help test the early beta and provide feedback to improve the Locations feature. “I started writing code with the beta so we could find out what was breaking or what needed (to be added) to the feature, as the early version was very limited at that stage,” says The Mill developer Michal Doniec. Working with The Mill has been a stress test of sorts for ftrack, pointing out areas in the software that had shortcomings once it was put under pressure in testing by Doniec.
For instance, ftrack was storing items such as icons and other data on the main database server, something that would cause the server to quickly be filled up once production hit full stop. “We went back to them and said this concept of a single box controlling it is wrong,” says Levy. "While you’ve got the locations for the assets data, this needs to extend all the way to preview movies, snapshots, the icons…everything has to be local to the individual sites. We’ve been through this trying to pull stuff from very long way away…and it suffers because of that.” This is something that will likely change before the release.
What’s key about the Locations feature is that the file path is actually part of the location definition and not part of the actual asset data. “If you were to look in the database record of a particular asset, that asset database record would have no path information,” says Michael. Whenever the path is needed for a particular asset, it is calculated based upon the project and the location.
While the Mill is going to manage the transfer of assets from one location to another via a custom queuing system they are developing, many facilities will likely be using the built-in functionality in ftrack. It’s an incredibly simple process that can be done in three lines: tell ftrack what component (asset) to transfer, tell ftrack what location to transfer it to, and do the transfer. Here’s an example from the ftrack blog:
component = ftrack.Component('1cd3ddde-bdd8-11e3-89e5-080027f6931c') location = ftrack.Location('local') location.addComponent(component, manageData=True)
That’s an incredibly simple example, but it shows how the separation of the location path from the asset itself can make things easy for developers. Here’s a more complex example from the ftrack web site:
Similar to the situation at Zero VFX, another key aspect of The Mill’s adoption of ftrack is the ability for them to host their own ftrack server. The Mill has been dealing with distances and latency between their facilities for years, so they are well versed in the challenges of solving the problems. The main ftrack server is co-located at a provider in New York City, which geographically places it at a central location between their offices. Then, each Mill location has its own cache server, which caches requests from the main server in New York. This way, artists in each facility have a speedy path to the local cache through their web UI and the data on the main server is updated as the latency is less of an issue when not working interactively
In addition, each facility has their own asset storage server so that media can be quickly accessed. And, as mentioned before, only media that is needed for a shot gets transferred between facilities.
“I think we kind of pushed them a bit further than their original plan,” says Levy. In the end, that’s a huge benefit for all ftrack users.
What's new in version 3.0
At SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, ftrack will be showing off features of its upcoming release which is currently in development. We highlight some of the changes and additions to the software.
The major rewrite of the UI in V2 formed the foundation of the changes, but in the last year of use in production they’ve noticed areas that could use some improvement. “We've noticed some inconsistency in the interface,” says Pengelly-Phillips, "so in different areas of the interface things behave slightly differently, and obviously we want to reduce that cognitive load for the end-user. We're just going to do a pass on consistency in the interface.”
In the quest to make ftrack as easy to use as possible so that the artists actually use it, the team is building a dedicated desktop service. "What we've noticed is, a lot of artists don't actually like going to a tab in a browser because they've got hundreds of other tabs open trying to do their work, it slows things down for them,” says CTO Martin Pengelly-Phillips. "The service will be easily installable, so you could give this to freelancers that you're collaborating with. It will be just a double-click install."
The service will run continually on the task bar on the artist machine. It will include a generic publisher that can deal with all the different assets artists want to publish, messaging, as well as time logging. For example, the desktop publisher now launches within Premiere, allowing artists to publish the current sequence to ftrack. Because the service is always running, the team at ftrack will be able to build on that and start doing things such as letting artists open applications such as Premiere from the web UI.
In addition to the ability to log time through the desktop service, there are UI enhancements for web-based time logging, as well as new features such as start/stop timers, the ability to log time on arbitrary things such as meetings, and ultimately there will be auto-logging to help artists keep track of what they did during the day.
Creating a turnkey solution for studios is very much a goal for the ftrack team, with the aim to have everything set up from the start so facilities can simply start working….a "pipeline out-of-the-box” as Limsater calls it. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but it is squarely aimed at the small to medium sized facility that is the sweet spot of ftrack’s customer base.
These companies would generally have some type of central storage somewhere (a remote studio, Amazon S3, for example) and want to also keep local copies for performance reasons while working in applications. "We're going to try as part of our initial package offer to have all of that, preconfigured using sensible file system structures and things, so you don't really have to worry about it,” says Pengelly-Phillips. "Your data will be shared and secured in the cloud, and then you'll always have a local copy of what you need, whether you're an artist or a supervisor to do your day-to-day work.”
Actions and Triggers
ftrack’s Actions allow custom scripts to be run through menu items. This might be something like creating folders, generating reports, or automating repetitive tasks. While an action can use information about the user requesting it as well as data from what entity the request is coming from, in reality this doesn’t provide enough flexibility for developers and users. For instance, many times a user might need to add information for an action, such as a name ,or maybe developers would want to have a couple of options a user might be able to choose form when running an action.
The next release will give developers the flexibility to very easily add a bit of UI for the end users with Actions — for instance, text entry boxes or check boxes — and this data may be passed on to the script which the action calls. In addition, data verification can be done before the data is submitted to the script, such as checking a text entry box to make sure if follows naming conventions. In theory, it should provide a way to more easily make sure that the data is correct before it gets entered (and has to be changed later). The new version can also provide feedback once the script is run by popping up a UI for the user.
Triggers will make a debut in version 3.0, which are a simple way to set up something to be done after something else happens. For instance, it could be something as simple as sending an email notification after some particular task is completed or a shot status changes. The first implementation will be quite simple, with the goal of building more complexity over time.
Scopes + Teams & Groups
Making the software easier to use isn’t just about the UI, but also how the vast amounts of data and information are presented to the user. On a production there can be hundreds of shots, each with multiple footage sources, versions, feedback, schedules, artists, and more. This can often lead to a sort of information overload where people need to drill down on what is of use to them.
"Everyone's always going to want their spreadsheet, their views, their filters to pivot the data,” says Pengelly-Phillips, "but at the same time, sometimes you just want to see a snapshot or get a sense of how something's going and just target relevant information, so we're also looking at ways to improve our widget library, our charting, and our reporting within the system."
An example of this is one of the major new 3.0 features is one called scopes. These are effectively built-in global filters that allow someone to filter the view based upon location. If you are working across several sites, and you've got all of that data in one project, sometimes you just want to quickly say, "I want to focus down on this team or this location, and now I want to open up my view and see how everything is going on around me."
For project managers, the dashboard has seen some love for V3, with better reporting, better graphs, and simply enabling better control over how the information is presented to the user.
They have also introduced Teams & Groups, which allows managers to assign individuals on a production into teams and groups however they want. They can then focus on specific teams or groups — such as “animation” or “animation team in London”.
Review: Client Portals
Client Portals debuted earlier this year in beta and has been well received by users. It will officially ship as one of the new features in version 3.0. The client review system is an isolated module, meaning that review sessions are done without interfering with the production. Notes from the review session are only part of the actual review session and not being added live to the production database as they are being made. The thinking behind this is that managers and supervisors would want to edit and tweak notes before they are revealed to the overall project.
There are effectively two review systems, both internal and external, with some overlap. The UI experience will be smoothed out and unified between the two as much as possible.
New Python API
A strong API is critical for production management software, allowing developers to add custom functionality which accesses and creates data in the core application. The current ftrack API gets good reviews from developers, as it provides the methods needed to get done what needs to be done.
However, one area in the API the team at ftrack noticed could use improvement is performance. “The big thing there would be improving performance, and also improving the flexibility of the API,” says Pengelly-Phillips. "As we start to introduce newer entities to represent different domains, we've had episodes added recently, it'd be nice for people to be able to use that without having to deal with things like custom entity 24, or something."
So they’re introducing a brand new API in version 3, which they say will provide “a huge performance boost.” It will be accessible for a while alongside the current API and they’ll work to maintain backwards compatibility as much as possible.
With this new foundation laid, they’ll continue moving forward on one of their original goals which is to have everything in the UI accessible through the API. With the new features they have been adding recently, the current API is running a bit behind the UI functionality. Allowing the API to catch up is very much a need aspect for developers and can’t come soon enough.
The ftrack team will be at SIGGRAPH 2014 in Vancouver, and you can book an appointment on their web site.
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