Tom Wild has just been promoted from National Head of Production at Iloura in Melbourne, a job he has had for 4 years, to the position of VP of Global Production Operations for VFX and VR worldwide, based in Method LA. It is part of a global initiative at Deluxe to “shift and share capacity and capabilities as a full unified global organization” explains Wild.
Deluxe Internationally owns some of the world’s greatest VFX companies such as Encore, Iloura, Method Studios and Rushes. We sat down last week with Tom Wild to discuss what Deluxe are aiming to achieve across Method and Iloura globally.
In summary, Wild’s aim at Deluxe, is to build at a single global system for the VFX/VR business (ie. excluding Rushes and Encore) that “will allow the teams and non-project teams such as facility management, company management and others such as recruiters, operational producers and sales people… to have an overarching view of what is going on with all the projects globally and how they integrate. To allow them to do their job with a complete view across the whole company and set things up as efficiently as possible”, he explains. This is not an just an accounting exercise, as Wild repeatedly pointed to the key involvement of recruiting and staffing as central to this mission.
Wild has over 17 years experience in animation and VFX in both film and television. He has managed large multi-disciplinary teams and designed, implemented and maintained complex systems over multiple facilities to deliver large projects to multiple clients. He claims significant change management experience and he lists his skills as including “group facilitation”. Deluxe seeks to have him translate his digital production skills and tools developed in Australia to the global team that spans LA, NY, India, Canada and Australia. Deluxe wants to seamlessly move work between the offices and Wild’s job within that strategy is to build databases and facility management tools to achieve that. Wild has already done that between the Sydney and Melbourne offices and he is now looking to repeat that internationally.
Wild is very much doing this from the ‘producing’ rather than vfx ‘supervising’ side of the industry. But if successful, Deluxe teams will be able to share work seamlessly and the global organisation will present itself internally as one company. This may sound logical and even simple, but it is not.
Many factors need to be addressed, managerial and financial.
Firstly, all current creative productions are run as projects within Autodesk’s Shotgun, but the actual ‘producing’, and the profitability tracking of the VFX at Deluxe, like many other companies, is run primarily on isolated show specific spreadsheets. Secondly, sharing projects involves complex financial implications. Not only must productions bid in local currencies but they also need to pay staff in local currency. If a project moves countries then the exchange rates fluctuations alone could seriously affect margins. If they bid a job in A$ but move the work to paying salaries in Canadian or American dollars then shifts in the exchange rates can make quite a difference. Even more complex is the company’s relationship to rebates. If the work shift locations this can affect the amount of rebates a production can claim. To make matters worse, some countries just require the work to be done locally (such as Australia), while others require the individual staff to have been resident in that country for a specific amount of time (such as Canada). “If Deluxe moves work internationally it might be required to compensate a client for a rebate change in what can be claimed”, explained Wild. Which is why tracking this information in a system like this becomes so critical.
The move to a more robust database management system will mean greater internal transparency, but Wild would not be drawn if this could mean more transparency for clients. Certain groups, (fxguide included), have published pieces suggesting a more transparent ‘time and materials’ model might aid in bidding and VFX overages. For now, it appears that Deluxe will either stay with the old bidding model, or at the very least, it is not interested in telegraphing any changes that such a new global system would facilitate.
Wild would not commit to personally supporting a more distributed management model. It could be argued that with the vast complexity of specialist areas it is no longer viable to expect Supervisors, yet alone Producers, to have the domain specific skills to really understand each area. For all companies, VFX today is a bewildering array of different technical roles. Bidding fluid sims vs. complex virtual humans or vast environment work demands such specialist understanding that it would be surprising if an Agile or distributed, (less top down approach; like those used in product development) was not being explored for the management system. Wild did agree that producers can’t be expected know exactly how hair systems work, for example, or whether something would take 10 or 15 days to complete, and that the new system is more focused on keeping things on track at a higher level and taking that uncertainty into account.
The reality is that task experts often know more than a VFX supervisor does in a their specific area. Just implementing an overview managerial system for production management fails to capture deep insights on project scheduling complexity only really understood at the artist, TD or R&D technical specialist level. In other words, increasingly the person that knows the most about a problem is within 5 feet of it, and those people need more of a voice in bidding somehow. After all, so many projects start from a point of wanting to show something that has ‘never been done before’. But for now, Wild sees a continuation of the top down bidding and management style, with a traditional “PMBOK” (Project Management Body of Knowledge) organisational and management style of approach to managing VFX production operations on a global scale.
But technology and the work itself is demanding some change, Wild’s new brief spans VFX and VR. While the traditional model of bidding centres around shots and shot counts, Wild is the first to admit that in a VR context this may lack relevance and require a new way of thinking. “While both VFX and VR are all just projects, with a budget – the difference comes in how the bid is divided up. The standard in VFX units are shots and assets… you deliver a shot to the client, the client says the shot is done, and you get paid for it. In VR I don’t think we have that clear demarcation yet. A VR project cannot be divided up that way, because you are building an experience, and an entire complex VR project could be conceptually a single shot” explains Wild.
To build the new tools for Deluxe, which will integrate with the existing company wide use of Shotgun, Wild has a team of about 3 programmers and then one specialist per regional office, embedded at that location. The crux of the problem for Wild is to provide what he repeated referred to as “one truth” of what is going on in the company at any one time, with transparency across the multiple facilities. He acknowledges that whatever is recorded and monitored, or used as a scorecard is what producers will lean into. His aim is to explicitly set those metrics to a common Deluxe wide goal. “When you are designing these system, users have to be involved as early as possible, because this point of what is the ‘one single truth’ and getting agreement on that is key. If you can get people in early enough and get people’s feedback, they buy in and that is important”, explains Wild.
Production management is so difficult because of the competing goals of what is wanted. The goal is neither just financial nor just creative. VFX supervisors face a complex role of keeping directors informed without seeming negative, while also communicating artistic intent to artists at the ‘coalface’ and themselves being inventive and creative problem solvers. Producers seek to hold the tight budgets and the even tighter schedules of Air/Release dates, while still supporting VFX supervisors and Directors creative vision. And all of this ensuring that Deluxe is profitable to stay in business and look after it’s staff and stakeholders.
For anyone designing a global management tool there are other ‘human’ challenges. Central to the running of a major facility is the understanding of the social, non-rigid and dynamic interrelations of staff. These creative companies are social organizations in addition to formal organizations. Connecting management of any two facilities in the same city can be difficult, but for Deluxe the ‘one truth’ needs to span not just corporate cultures but actual National cultures. Luckily, the VFX supervisors at Deluxe have proven invaluable at navigating daily interactions and they have already convincingly demonstrated their ability to pull together cross functional teams with ‘human understanding’. Hopefully, the new corporate models Wild’s team is building will embrace these worlds of creative ‘feelings’ and gut instincts, as well as the world of facts and logistics. The technological dependencies and centres of expertise don’t map easily to a formal organisational map and so the Deluxe Producers and Recruiters will need informal channels to know exactly who can excel at what type of sequence, and under what sort of conditions. After all, each of the artists in the Deluxe matrix of resources are all unique. As much attention will need to be paid to their feelings of security, contribution and creative support as to their utilization rates.
Wild’s job is neither easy nor is it going to be quick to implement, but in a rapidly changing international space, Deluxe is aiming to break down international barriers to more rapidly and transparently respond. The company is also keen to provide the serious investment needed to make this happen. “We invest so much money in the technical pipe – in the machine that gets the work done, but we (as an industry) don’t invest in the systems that will allow the projects to run efficiently. If you do, you can get two or three more iterations on your shot – there is a direct correlation between efficiency and quality” comments Wild.