There’s an old maxim that says out of the three variables, good, fast and cheap, you can only ever have two.
This is certainly true in the world of VFX, where the first two variables – good and fast – are mortal enemies with each other. Like many of the creative industries there simply never seems to be enough time. (Possibly this is function of the third. But that’s a discussion for another day.)
This notwithstanding, our objective is always to create something that falls into the category of good.
The question is what is “good,” and how do we measure it? It turns out that defining it is a matter for both artistic and technical consideration.
Quality Control (here with capital letters for effect) has emerged as a critical process for ensuring both above outcomes:
· that the output meets the artistic standards and intent of the Studio & creative stakeholders
· and that it maintains the technical benchmarks critical to a highly specialized industry
Quality Control is a mission-critical business process for us.
We’re not unique as a studio in that we literally rise or fall on the quality of our work. Any vendor who delivers sub-par work will very quickly develop a reputation for shoddiness and ultimately fail. Thus, aside from the sense of pride and achievement we feel for delivering a good product, there is a very clear commercial incentive for setting a high bar.
The purpose of Quality Control is to ensure that the technical quality of VFX and animation products we deliver is of the highest standard, maintains the artistic vision of the director or filmmaker, meets the required technical specifications of the industry at large as well as those of our clients, and, importantly, avoids costly mistakes.
Quality control is about delivering work that is free from errors or inconsistencies and meets the specifications of our clients.
On a technical level Quality Control involves checking the that the assets meet industry standards and regulations. Typically, different processes and parameters apply at different stages of the production pipeline, such as pre-production, production, postproduction, and delivery.
Embedding Quality Control in our workflow: from preproduction to delivery
Quality Control starts at the preproduction phase.
Quality assurance starts even before production starts. This is where we make sure that everything is prepared for, planned and designed for successful completion of the project.
Some of the steps and measures we might take at this phase are as follows:
· Reviewing of scripts, storyboards and concept art. While this in not necessarily a technical consideration, it is nonetheless an important starting point in the process.
· Evaluating of software, hardware, and/or workflows that will come into play over the course of the project. This is done to identify any issues or glitches early on, so they can be fixed before they become major problems.
· Making sure the plan is realistic and achievable. Here we pay careful attention to whether the project’s scope, budget and timeline are aligned so that there are no surprises down the line.
· Aligning the expectations of the client with our understanding of the project. It should go without saying that key stakeholders should be on the same page at the beginning of the project, and that everyone agrees on the expected process and outcomes.
By reviewing scripts, storyboards, and concept art, testing software and workflows, making sure the plan is realistic and aligning with client expectations, we lay the foundations for a successful project going forward.
Creating, animating, and compositing: Quality Control in the production phase.
This is the part where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. It’s where we get into the serious business of creating, animating, rendering and compositing. Quality Control is crucial to ensuring that the assets we create match the style, tone and intent of the project owners, as well being technically consistent, accurate and of a high quality.
This is what the process might look like at this phase:
· Design reviews to ensure that the assets being developed are consistent with the vision of the filmmaker, and that the project maintains a cohesive look throughout.
· Technical quality reviews to ensure adherence to industry specifications. This typically includes checking the models, textures, lighting, shading, rigging, animation, effects, rendering, and compositing outcomes.
By addressing any issues early on errors can be identified and addressed early before they become costly bottlenecks.
Quality control can help to ensure that the artistic vision of the filmmaker is maintained throughout the post-production process.
Mixing, grading and polishing: Quality Control in the postproduction phase.
The penultimate phase in the life of a given project. This is the part where we fit all the pieces together into a coherent, polished product, and includes editing, colour-grading, sequencing, and sound mixing.
As we move nearer to the delivery of the project, Quality Control measures begin to take on a decidedly technical flavour.
· Colour grading and correction. There are two aspects to this; to ensure the grading choices match the intent of the filmmaker; and ensuring a consistent throughout the film.
· Sound design and mixing. Here we typically assess how the sound elements, including dialogue, SFX, and music, work together to make a coherent whole.
· Titles and credits. Aside from verifying the formatting of any titles and credits, you can imagine how important a humble spelling check can be.
· Checking formats, resolutions, aspect ratios, frame rates, codecs, and compression & file size specifications.
Following recognised quality control procedures ensures not only that we are meeting the expectations of our clients, but also our own internal standards.
Exporting, distributing and exhibiting: Quality Control in the delivery phase.
Before assets can be delivered, we need to ensure that they are compatible with the channels they are destined for, meet the expectations of the clients, and perhaps most important of all, are secure.
Other measures we implement include:
· Checking of metadata, encryption, security measures, watermarking, and copyright. Among other things we need to ensure that the asset remains the property of this those to whom it belongs and does not fall into the hands of those who would exploit it for their own nefarious ends.
· Testing of playback, streaming, and download capabilities where necessary. Our products are often destined for “on-demand” platforms, so we make sure they’re easy for end users to enjoy.
· Compatibility and accessibility. In the age of a million smartphones and tablets, it’s important to ensure compatibility with a wide range of devices and resolutions.
Dazzle Pictures like all high-end VFX studios has instituted several policies around security, including key card access with logging, cameras at entrance and exits, a DMZ for ingestion and delivery of work as well as significant backups and off-site storage.
Challenges in Quality Control: Dealing with Pixel F*@cking.
The challenges to successful quality control are obviously numerous and varied. But in our industry there is one particularly pernicious foe that can undo the smooth progress of a project like no other.
We call it affectionately “pixel f*@cking,” and it refers to a situation in which a partner, client, film director or commission studio obsesses over unimportant details and insists upon so many rounds of changes that it derails the project.
Here are some of our pet frustrations in this regard:
Literally nit-picking over every pixel and frame. Focussing on minute details that require significant input from VFX artists to change, but that ultimately don’t impact the final product one way or another.
A lack of client sophistication and understanding leads to unclear requests. In many cases clients simply do not have the experience of understanding of how visual effects are created and end up making unrealistic requests of the studio.
Dealing with incessant rounds of unclear feedback is demotivating. A badly managed process is mentally and emotionally draining for VFX artists, who already give their heart and soul to the process.
The onus is on both VFX studios and our clients to effectively come to place of mutual understanding, balancing the perception of perfection with the very real constraints of time and resources.
Strategies for effective Quality Control.
We alluded earlier to the idea that Quality Control exists as a duality between two complementary facets – the artistic and the technical. In the same way, it’s also about mastering both soft and hard skills – being a diplomat in the face of a difficult client one minute, and a mad scientist with an intricate and in depth understanding of the technicalities of the VFX pipeline the next.
Soft skills involve developing a sensibility over time for what good work looks like, and what differentiates it from the mediocre. It’s a bit of a dark art, but it speaks to the experience of the practitioners. It’s a skill that comes from years of interest in, and exposure to, the output of the industry as a whole. Curiosity and a desire to learn are generally considered advantageous personal traits in this regard.
We need to develop an understanding not just of the existence and nature of the best-practices that prevail in our industry, but also the reasons why these best practices are important.
Hard skills are those related to effective planning, scoping, budgeting, and strategic management of time & resources. One of the first steps in Quality Control is to define the scope and goals of the project accurately. Strategic management encompasses the ability to involve and synchronise the efforts of the whole organisation around a common set of standards and inculcate the business with the desired value system.
Beyond this there are a number of tenets that guide us as we strive for high creative and technical standards.
There’s a bit of the dark arts in knowing when something is right and when it is not.
Good Quality Control means we strive to remove any communication gaps that might exits between VFX artists, their supervisors, the technical team and of course, the client. Having a shared understanding of the goals and challenges of a project from the outset is paramount.
Collaboration is a close cousin of communication. We encourage our artists and technical teams to work closely with each other not only internally, but also with our external partners, like film directors and cinematographers.
Deploying the right people with the right skills
VFX artists are highly specialised creatures. One might be a highly skilled animator, while another a superstar compositor. Assessing resources is function that falls all the way back to the preproduction Quality Control phase.
Setting measurable standards
Quality Control doesn’t work as a series of vague, wishy-washy statements on a poster somewhere on a wall behind the potted plant. We work with clear, industry-standard specifications that everybody knows and understands.
Training and development
While our artists are interminably curious about the world, we encourage and support ongoing training and development. Keeping abreast of the latest techniques and software is paramount for maintaining high quality output.
Feedback is how we remember where we’re going and how we are going to get there. We have a robust feedback and quality assurance process that allows us to catch any issues that may arise early.
Quality Control is the foundation upon which our company and our contemporaries rest. It helps us to bridge the gap between the artistic imagination of the filmmakers we work with, and the technical execution required to bring that imagination to life.
By embracing evolving technologies, refining methodologies, and upholding creative integrity, we strive to push the boundaries of what's achievable while maintaining an unwavering commitment to the highest levels of quality.