In mid-March, media and entertainment companies across the globe and throughout the industry began to face what China had experienced since January — the realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic social distancing and isolation. Amidst this public health crisis, companies abruptly confronted extreme technical and workflow challenges while continuing to create and distribute content.
During this historic outbreak, Signiant launched “The Pandemic Series,” a collection of articles, interviews, and other content from the industry, for the industry.
As part of the series, Signiant interviewed industry professionals on how they transitioned and maintained remote work, what their challenges and successes were, and what lessons they’ve learned from it. Each one is a snapshot in time from their particular company, industry, geography, and personal perspective.
Burbank, California | April 13, 2020
SIGNIANT: Tell us about The Product Factory.
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: We do a little bit of everything, but we’re a post-production company. Our big specialty is animation. We do everything from animatics and storyboards to the finishing delivery and formatting for network and making masters and everything in between. Our biggest client up until last year was Marvel Animation. If it was Marvel and it was a cartoon, it probably came through here. The good news about animation is when you get a contract, it’s usually years. Animation is more of a slow and steady type race.
We’ve been doing a lot more live-action visual effects now too—we have a growing department there. We did The Punisher for Netflix. Anybody in that show fired a gun, that was us. Anytime somebody got hit, that was us. We did Jessica Jones and then Runaways for Hulu. That’s pre-COVID.
SIGNIANT: How has COVID changed that work?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: I think we’re a very unique case. We actually had a lot of contracts that we were supposed to start this month, last month, and next month on shows and they’re still going. On the animation side, we’re actually getting a little busier than we were, which I’m sure I’m one of the few that are saying that. So, I’m very blessed and lucky.
SIGNIANT: How big is your team?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: We’ve varied throughout the years. I think at our busiest point we were 28 employees. We’ve got a core of about 10 or 11 that we kept. Our supervising editor has been with us for almost 10 years now and a couple of our other editors are going on five or six years. We tend to keep staff for a long period of time.
SIGNIANT: When did you have to go into social distance, social isolation?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: Two and a half, three weeks now. I think it’s going on week three.
SIGNIANT: Did everyone go home all at once?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: We have one employee who has a really severe asthma and is vulnerable, so she was the first one we sent home. She was the first one I was just like, “No matter what, you can’t come in.”
And that first week we would only have people who had to be in for sessions. They had a session with a client and if those people could, they would come in.
SIGNIANT: What’s the client reaction been to all this? Were they understanding about everything or was there pushback?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: Everybody else has been really cool. I think everybody is just happy that we’re still in business. I’ve only had one client who was like, “I really hate this, and I would rather come in and do the session.” And he didn’t like it when I said, “Yeah, you can’t come in.” Because I have to limit the number of people coming in here.
SIGNIANT: Was that the early days of this?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: It was probably in the first week.
SIGNIANT: How did you get going those first days?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: This is going to happen, so let’s figure it out. It was like everybody else stay at home, you’ll get paid. I just don’t want you here if you don’t actually have something that’s immediate…while we continued to set up all the VPNs. We had to obviously open up VPNs for everybody. Our server wasn’t even connected to the internet. I had to run a line so that it could connect into the firewall so our IT team could build out VPNs and all that stuff.
We were down to two people at the office for that first couple of days. Then we started giving people their VPN information saying, “Okay, try logging in. Okay, let me know when you’re having sync issues. Are you having playback issues?” Stuff like that. Then we had to bridge our IO system because of our security, our IO system, and our server were air-gapped. So, we had to create a bridge on that so that people could, if you’re sitting at home, you can still access media.
Clients that use our Signiant Media Shuttle, we were able to make it so that that was a little easier. It was awesome [for Signiant] to say, “Hey, you can have as many users as you want.” Because that way I can just create a shared portal where everybody can access the media and then they can upload and download as they need to. Other systems are a little more—not as usable. So, we had to do a little bit more work on those.
SIGNIANT: Was working off-site part of your workflow before?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: We are a [Trusted Partner Network] so everybody’s on site. I hate people working off-site personally. But I have an issue with people working off-site more than just security, it’s a control issue.
SIGNIANT: Is everyone using media from your servers or at their homes?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: One of our VFX artists lives up in north of Santa Clarita and his internet was, I think his download speed was four. It was ridiculous so he’s the one that we’re doing the hard drive trades.
Our IO-person/colorist, he comes in every day. He works here, he’s alone except for the mornings when I’m here. Everybody else VPNs in, they’re accessing the workstation as if they were sitting here at the office.
SIGNIANT: So, now that you have it up and running, is it all working pretty well? Pretty seamless in terms of productivity and efficiency?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: Yes. Occasionally, like this morning, I have to restart a machine or two. I think what happens is the machines fall asleep and the VPN is not able to wake it up. I think everybody’s getting things done though. Obviously, there’s some frustration.
Like we have one little project we’re doing that’s cut like a music video. And even though we tested our remote systems, I would say we’re within a hundred milliseconds of perfect sync. A hundred milliseconds is enough to drive an editor crazy when they’re trying to hit a beat. So, for those projects, we actually have to just download it locally, cut it and then put it back on the server. For the most part though, everybody else is pretty able to work.
SIGNIANT: How did the staff take to remote work? How are they personally feeling about having to work from home?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: It seems like everybody is okay. I can’t get past whether or not they’re just stressed because the world is in such chaos or if they’re stressed because of work.
SIGNIANT: What has it been like for you manage through a crisis like this?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: I mean, it’s stressful. I’ll add on a personal note, I actually had a kidney transplant in 1992. So, I’m one of the ones that everybody’s worried about. I’m one of the ones that everybody wants to make sure doesn’t get this thing. So, I have my own personal stress about that.
But my company, I’ve been building it for so long, it’s more like my baby. So, for me it actually made me feel better to have to put on that strong face and be like, “Hey, look guys, we’re in this together. We’re going to get through this together. We’re not in the same room, but we’re still working. We’re still moving forward. We still got shows.”
SIGNIANT: Being forced to do this, has this changed your view of remote collaboration or softened it a bit?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: No.
SIGNIANT: Do you expect to keep any of your infrastructure for this pandemic in place from now on? Do you feel this is a temporary solution or it’s going to be a permanent solution even if most people come back and work in the facility? Do you feel like now this is going to be a permanent solution for you?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: It’s an interesting question because I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s been on my mind for two reasons. One, from the employee perspective, are we going to make this as part of a bonus feature or our employees now that they know they can do this, are they going to demand it?
And two, from a security perspective, obviously we’ve had to tweak the security protocols. This was initiated from Marvel and then Disney where they sent out a new guideline. Now, that’s going to probably go back. I don’t know how severe it’ll go back, but it will go back obviously at some point.
SIGNIANT: Are you finding an increase in productivity and throughput because people are working from home and it’s right in front of them.
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: It’s split. There’s a few that right at 6:00 pm they’re off Slack and they’re saying goodnight. And then there’s a few where they’re rendering shots, and you see the shot they started a render at 10:30 pm. So, it’s a split. I also think that’s partially due to the fact that there’s nothing else to do. I think that’s going to change once things change closer to normal.
SIGNIANT: You mentioned Media Shuttle as a tool that has worked for your remote editing and collaboration. Other than Slack, have you had to get additional tools or different kinds of infrastructure or external equipment to make all this work?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: I’ve implemented Evercast and now we use that at least three or four times a week. Usually the editor will come in and they’ll do their Evercast session from here. But we have had people do their Evercast where they’re VPN-ing into the office, controlling a system that is feeding an HDMI stream of Evercast to a client who is who knows where.
The beauty of Evercast is it’s almost like Zoom—you can see all the users and you can speak to all the users. Everybody’s in the same room. With animation, sometimes a client just needs to come over and look at a couple of retakes. And like with ABC or with Marvel or with Disney, they are 20-minute sessions, but it’s a 40-minute drive because, you know, L.A.
SIGNIANT: If you could go back—four weeks ago, six months ago—what advice would you give yourself?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: I would have said, “Take it seriously sooner.” I was like, “We’re going to split shifts so we’re not in the building at the same time.” It didn’t click to me that it doesn’t matter because we’re all touching the same stuff.
That was number one, and number two would be, reach out to the clients sooner, because I didn’t reach out to the clients. Each one of them individually reached out to me. It wasn’t just the producer that we’re working with directly, it was the VPs and the heads of the studios reaching out to me. The people who actually signed the contracts who I don’t deal with normally going, “Hey, how are you guys doing? Are you open? Are you practicing social distancing?”
I think the lawyers figured out that the studios might be liable if people get sick because they’re making us deliver shots or deliver products and stuff. So, I think that’s partially where it started. At least that’s my capitalistic point of view on that.
SIGNIANT: Have you had to think about that in terms of liability now in the age of pandemic?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: Yes, that’s one of the reasons I sent that first editor home on that first day. Not just because she’s been with us six, seven years now—she’s family as far as I’m concerned. But she was really nervous, and that nervousness made me nervous. And I don’t know if it was nervousness for her health or nervousness for the liability sake, but it just made me nervous.
SIGNIANT: What is important for your peers who are also going through this to know?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: Keeping lines of communication seems to be the problem. I have a good friend who works for another post house. They’re much bigger. I think they’re probably a hundred employees. At first, they told him, “Oh, we’re keeping everybody on staff. We’re keeping everybody on staff.” Then he got an email saying, “Oh, everybody’s being laid off.” That sudden shift is scary as hell for people. As things change, you should communicate with people more. I think that’s probably the one thing I would tell people is like, “Hey, look, keep communicating.”
SIGNIANT: Are you seeing lots of layoffs/furloughs in your industry, in your area?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: Yes, lots. We’re lucky enough to do the cartoons, but I see so many people at the trailer houses that are getting laid off. I see so many people at these post facilities where, if they don’t have deliveries, they probably don’t have a lot of income. And I don’t blame them for laying people off. I just say my thought is more like, “Hey look, maybe you should communicate with people a little bit better.”
SIGNIANT: How do you think things will change?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: I’d like to hope that this is going to change the way we are as a community in this industry and make it so where we’re a little more supportive of each other because it’s been pretty cut-throat up until now. And I think, especially with the bigger guys, their mantra has always been, destroy all the competition. And I’m hoping this will make it like, “No, no, no. We need each other guys. We need each other and there’s plenty of work for everyone.”
SIGNIANT: Years from now when all this is gone and your peers, swapping stories, what story are you going to tell that you’re most proud of during this time?
GEORGE RIZKALLAH: I’m not a hundred percent sure. I don’t know what I’m proud of right now other than… You know what, I think surviving this, assuming we survive, I think surviving this will be the story.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.