Checking in on The Foundry’s FLIX

In July last year, fxguide brought you news of The Foundry’s acquisition of FLIX, what had been an in-house Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks tool that enabled collaborative story development. Since that time, several studios have now adopted FLIX, including most recently DreamWorks Animation. fxguide spoke to FLIX product manager Yiotis Katsambas about the DreamWorks news and how FLIX development has been going in general.

fxg: How many companies now use FLIX?

Katsambas: In just a under 1 year 11 studios are now now using FLIX. Working on a great range of projects. If I was to take a guess I would say that probably about 500,000 storyboards have been drawn using FLIX over the last year.

FLIX in Premiere Pro. Artist credit: Ian Abando.
FLIX in Premiere Pro. Artist credit: Ian Abando.

fxg: How has it changed since Sony? What has The Foundry done – what has been added since the acquisition?

Katsambas: Lots of great updates. The FLIX team has been growing a lot since we started and it allows us to accelerate development. The biggest feature is unlimited undo and redo and lots of major speed improvements. One of the nice things about having FLIX in 11 studios, is that we keep getting some cool feature ideas coming from artists. We added a lot of features to improve artist productivity, such as editing the dialogue for multiple panels, ability to send master files from Photoshop to FLIX as a way of quickly sharing your master Photoshop file, and the ability to export from Photoshop just the selected layer comps.

We improved the Avid editorial roundtrip a lot. An editor would take 5 minutes to import in Avid something from FLIX and about 15-20 minutes to export back to FLIX. Now it takes half the time to do the same. For one we removed various steps and we made our parser smarter. So now it can parse multiple video tracks and multiple effects. We also are also working with Avid in creating our own MXF encoder and decoder that we can package along with FLIX.

We added the ability to create your own plugins using python. Plugins are great for two reasons. One reason is that studios can create their own plugins. The other reason is that it allows us to create a library of plugins. One of the challenges we face, is that we make a big effort to keep the UI very minimal and don’t want to overwhelm our users with too many buttons. But if we create a library of plugins, you can enable or disable the ones that make sense for you. We already created some highly requested plugins, such as ‘Export to JPG’, ‘Export dialogue to text file’, ‘Export as a Quicktime movie’.

FLIX in Premiere Pro. Artist credit: Glenn Harmon.
FLIX in Premiere Pro. Artist credit: Glenn Harmon.

We also added FCP/Premiere. And we added it as a plugin. We are actually in the process of converting the Avid workflow to a plugin as well. This way, not only are we adding another big editorial package to FLIX, but we are allowing studios to integrate other editing applications. Conceptually FLIX becomes the hub between all these applications. You can for instance, export to Avid, update the edit, send back to FLIX, and then publish that edit to Premiere. As of next month, when we add the import back to FLIX from Premiere, you will be able to go from FLIX to Premiere to FLIX to Avid.

Another big addition is the FLIX Drive. This is the idea of installing and configuring FLIX to run off a HW encrypted USB drive. You give that to artists to take home and they can work remotely. What FLIX will automatically do for you, is that it will dynamically download any files you might need to the drive, and it will dynamically sync back to the studio any of the new files. We had similar functionality in the past with the FLIXBox which was based on a MacMini, but the FLIX Drive is now simpler, faster, and much much cheaper.

And last but not least we now have a User Guide. We are also working on Video Tutorials, and What’s New Guides.

fxg: 4.6 is the latest release – it seems like it addresses speed. Is that a primary focus or is it something else?

Katsambas: For FLIX 4.6, the Adobe Premiere/FCP export is the biggest feature. We also rewrote a big part of FLIX. Working with DreamWorks TV we identified a lot of features that would be important to the TV animation. When we started working on these features we realized that if we took the time to re-architect part of FLIX we make it easier to add a lot of these features requests. In the process we also were able to speed up FLIX a lot and added the unlimited undo-redo.

Showing plugins. Artist credit: Ian Abando.
Showing plugins. Artist credit: Ian Abando.

fxg: Dreamworks has flagged the use in TV episodic – are the demands of TV different from film? Is this the first push into TV ep work?

Katsambas: I wouldn’t say that there are lot of differences between the two worlds. In both cases artists create a huge amount of work in a short period of time, and they need to collaborate on those ideas. On a TV series you have to create a large number of storyboards for all the episodes you are making. On a feature you are making movie that is just a fraction of the duration of a series, but you explore and refine the story a lot more than you would for a TV series. There are however some changes which meant that we had to redesign certain aspects of FLIX. A good example is that a TV series, has seasons/episodes/sequences. Where FLIX will display projects/sequences. So we are having to rethink how you get to the sequence you are working on. We are adding some cool functionality for that in FLIX 4.7.

With DreamWorks TV we are also breaking ground in a couple of ways. It is the first time that FLIX is being used for TV series. It is also the first time that FLIX is being used to share assets across multiple locations, multiple countries, and multiple companies.

fxg: Have you had interest from smaller studios in FLIX? Would it work in smaller projects – is that a goal?

Katsambas: We have had a lot of interest coming from companies of all sizes, and there are smaller studios using FLIX now. We are not able to talk about who they all are right now. There are also small divisions at big studios using FLIX. However, we tend to focus on companies that create story driven content. FLIX is great for revising and finetuning stories, and that is our core focus currently. We want to help artists make better stories. FLIX is great for TV-Animation, and Feature animation where you have to get your story right in pre-production.

FLIX inside Chrome. Artist credit: Ian Abando.
FLIX inside Chrome. Artist credit: Ian Abando.

fxg: Can you talk about working with DreamWorks Animation to implement FLIX into their workflow? Is this tailored differently to say how SPA uses the product?

Katsambas: DreamWorks Animation was the first big studio we installed the commercial version of FLIX. There were a lot benefits compared that became apparent right way. The collaborative aspect of FLIX, and the round trip with editorial was a major advantage for them. It was also relatively easy to train artists.

There were also a lot of technical challenges in getting it up and running. Mostly because we had to change so much of FLIX to allow custom settings for each studio. For instance hardcoding the Imageworks smtp server would not work for Dreamworks. There were also various requests coming from artists to match their existing workflow. I got to say that we were really lucky to work some great talent at at DreamWorks. The rollout was a big success thanks to individuals like Greg Brentin who is in charge of workflow, and Jayne Hartwell who was the Producer on the first show to use FLIX, and also with Jill Culton as the director on that same project. Coincidentally Jill was also the first director to ever use FLIX back at Sony Pictures Animation. A lot of the features that currently exist in FLIX are based on suggestions from Jill.

fxg: Can you talk about any recent updates/developments you’ve been making in terms of the code-base and UI with FLIX?

Katsambas: Our biggest update to development is our release schedule. Since we only offer subscription based licenses, we decided to release a new version of FLIX the second Tuesday of every month. That gives a lot of advantages, and one of them, is that allows us to respond really quickly to critical feature requests from our client.

With FLIX 4.6 we started a big architectural rewrite that will give us more flexibility moving forward. As an example, we added internally unlimited undo/redo commands. We also rewrote a lot of the components in a way we can share them with other scripts. Such as creating a tablet version of FLIX.

fxg: How can other potential customers get FLIX – it doesn’t seem to be something you can just buy and download from The Foundry yet?

A FLIX screenshot. Artist credit: Glenn Harmon.
A FLIX screenshot. Artist credit: Glenn Harmon.

Katsambas: We are still rolling out FLIX as a limited release. There are a lot of tasks we are working on in order to have a wide release. Such as a technical user guide, tutorials, improved installers, update scripts, diagnostic scripts etc.

Whenever we roll out FLIX to any studio, we want to be sure that each studios they enjoy all the benefits that FLIX has to offer. We don’t just want to give them a download link and leave them on their own to figure it out. At some studios we need to do more training, at other studios we need to add more features, and at other studios might have technical issues. In either case, we want to be able give each studio the attention they deserve. And because of that, we can only handle a limited number of deployments. So we tend to focus on studios that work on story driven projects. If you feel that the core way you want to use FLIX is to keep refining your story please fill out the form on our website and contact our sales team.

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