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.
Syracuse, NY | June 22, 2020
SIGNIANT: You’re in a unique industry position as both a VFX company owner and artist, but also an educator at Syracuse University. Tell us about all that.
SHAINA HOLMES: For 20 years, I’ve been in the industry. I was a visual effects artist in Los Angeles for 10 of them at a small company, then at Deluxe in New York for about six-seven years. I switched to producing and was a post-producer at Deluxe. Then Encore Visual Effects, where I was head of production for the visual effects, independent films and episodic television division. We merged with Method New York, so I was running the indie features and TV through Method New York for a bit.
I got burnt out and wanted a change, so when I got a call from my alma mater, Ithaca College, asking if I wanted to teach visual effects, animation, and post-production, I was like, “Oh, perfect timing.” Soon after, Syracuse University was looking for someone to create a larger program within their television radio and film program, and that’s what I’ve been doing for a couple of years.
Because of the tax incentives, some productions shoot in central New York and further away from New York City. There’s been film studio and production companies started up here so there was a need for visual effects, motion graphics, color [grading], and post-production in the area. I responded by creating a small VFX and post-production company to work on those projects. It’s a mentorship company; I train my students, and when they graduate, they can join me at the company to train on real projects. They get their first real credits as they enter the industry and build their resume. As they gain industry experience, they become the mentors and give back to the next generation at the company.
SIGNIANT: At the end of February/beginning of March, how much was the pandemic on your radar? When did you start thinking, “Okay, this might be something?”
SHAINA HOLMES: I was about to bid on two new shows for visual effects, and as soon as the stay-at-home orders and quarantine hit, all those jobs went on hold. I didn’t lose the jobs because I never had them to begin with. They just went on hold so they could reprioritize for the pandemic.
On the flip side, a lot of the projects that had been worked on a year or two previously were suddenly all coming out on video on demand. It was kind of the perfect time for everything to be released, because everyone was at home and could actually watch them. It was a really interesting; a good and bad situation, business-wise.
Since we weren’t currently working on anything, we took the time to revamp our website, our branding, and doing all marketing and press releases for the projects that came out.
SIGNIANT: When did you have to go into social isolation and lockdown?
SHAINA HOLMES: It was March 12th. I was in the classroom, my animation class. It was 12:30 pm when our class started, and we heard rumors an emergency announcement was going to happen at 1:00 pm. In two days it was going to be spring break, and we were like, “Hmm, wonder what’s going to happen?” We did the first half hour of class as usual, and then once 1:00 pm hit, we all stopped what we were doing, and watched the announcement. It said, “We’re extending spring break for an extra week or two.” We were supposed to be back on April 4th or 5th.
Spring break was out the window. It was a working spring break. Faculty and staff had to quickly convert all their courses to virtual classrooms – a lot of new technology was introduced to us, a lot of training and meetings. We did virtual classrooms for a week, and then we were told the rest of the semester was going to be virtual. Every single day, it seems like something was changing, and we had to adapt to do whatever we could to bring an engaging experience to the students in this remote environment.
SIGNIANT: Was that a surprise to you? Were you anticipating there was going to be some kind of lockdown or distancing?
SHAINA HOLMES: There was another announcement the previous day from another large university, so we thought it would be something similar. I don’t think we knew it would last the rest of this semester. We thought we’d be back maybe beginning of May and could still graduate and say goodbye to everyone in person. Three weeks in is kind of when that sunk in, and everyone got very sad that they wouldn’t be able to see each other in person again.
SIGNIANT: How was the transition to a remote curriculum for you?
SHAINA HOLMES: For me, personally, I tried to keep it as normal as possible, because what I heard from students is many of their other courses were changing so much from what they originally expected, as far as how the students would digest and review the course content. It was adding all this extra work. What once was participation is now written papers, for example, and I was like, “My class is hard enough. I think I’m going to keep it as normal as possible.”
I had students who were in Korea, India, and China who couldn’t always meet the same time that most students could meet, so sometimes I would meet with students at 3:00 AM, or something that worked for them, which meant they didn’t always get the group dynamic of getting feedback.
For my courses in particular, I think the disadvantage the students had was they were in the middle of shooting their final projects when this all happened. They lost the access to school equipment. Some students were stuck with the footage they already shot and couldn’t reshoot; other students didn’t shoot at all, so they had to shoot with their phone at home. That was the biggest hurdle. It’s all very individualized projects for the last six weeks of school, so the students had the same experience as they would have had on campus with me. It was just a bit more demanding on me; it was more, “Let me verbally try to walk you through how to use this software, where I can see your screen but I can’t touch it,” making one-on-one meetings much longer because of that.
SIGNIANT: Did students have their own laptops and software? Were they using university resources and logging into school systems? How were they able to continue working on their projects?
SHAINA HOLMES: For my class, we used Blackmagic Fusion. Everyone was able to download and work on their own at-home computers, so that was no problem. Adobe took a few weeks to get up to speed. Normally, every student can log into their Adobe account through a school computer, but they can’t do it on their own personal laptop. Adobe was nice to change that. They could still use their school log-in but now use it remotely to log-in on their laptops. So, everyone was able to continue as normal after Adobe made that change. There were a few students who shot 4K, and that didn’t play nice on their laptops at home, but they got through it.
SIGNIANT: The fall semester looks to be in an undetermined status. What changes will you have to make to continue remotely after your experience in the spring?
SHAINA HOLMES: I’ve been working with our production faculty and staff to create our own production protocols for filming, in addition to getting all our equipment training transitioned ot online video training modules. I’ve been keeping an eye on everything that’s come out of Los Angeles and New York for their protocols and recommendations, and then modify our list to adapt to what is feasible for us to do.
For example, if you are the camera operator, you’re the only one using the camera, you’re the only one touching the camera. It’s your job to disinfect the camera. Then, how to deal with actors? Do they need to wear masks, and if they can’t wear a mask, how far apart do they need to be? Over the summer, we’re trying to come up with all the different scenarios, predict what our answers are going to be, and how we’re going to deal with every situation that comes up.
At Syracuse University, we are starting the school year early and ending in-person by Thanksgiving, [before going] virtual for finals after Thanksgiving. We’re adapting all the classrooms to fit a capacity that can have social distancing. All masks will be required, plexiglass will be there when needed for certain shooting scenarios.
As far as classes, it will mainly be in-person, but we are doing what’s called “hi-flex”; half the students enrolled in the class will be in the classroom with the instructor, and half will be on Zoom virtually, and then swap. It’s a little daunting.
SIGNIANT: What if it’s all virtual?
SHAINA HOLMES: If it’s all virtual, we’ve already tested that last semester, and we know what we’ll do.
SIGNIANT: What toolsets make that possible?
SHAINA HOLMES: There are a lot of tools. [We’re] trying different things and seeing what works for the students. Every group of students is going to be different. Some like to see each other and have that kind of social interaction, some don’t want to be seen at all and just want audio, or just want to watch videos and do their own work on their own time. It’s kind of like producing to me, since that’s a lot of my background for the past 10 years. Each person works differently, so how do you find a way to get through to each person and do what’s best for them, and customize and cater to what each student best learns through? What interface and what methods work for them?
Throughout the semester, it was like, “Now you have this resource available to you, so why don’t you try it out in your class and see if it’s right for you?” We had Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, Microsoft Meetings, Google, Discord, Slack and Kaste plus Kaltura and Playposit – just so many different options.
I have to screen projects a lot so I was really happy when Frame.io, the review and approve software, came out with a free trial for educational institutions that wanted to use it for classes. I transitioned all my critiques to a live Zoom with the filmmaker, and we made comments on Frame.io together. I sent them that link so they could see all their feedback. It felt like we were in person doing that, and I think that really helped. That is something I’m hoping to continue to implement next year.
SIGNIANT: You’re instructing a new generation of professionals at a very formative and historic time. What are the lessons for them during this time? What are they going to take away that they’re going to bring into the industry?
SHAINA HOLMES: The students who just graduated worked really hard this semester to start networking and building a community to reach out to when they graduated. Now everything’s on pause for them. I feel they’re kind of stuck. This next year, if it continues to be a remote environment, that’s going to be something I need to work on for them to still give them experience they would during an immersion networking trip, so they can get those connections and see what it’s like to work in the industry day-to-day without stepping into facilities.
SIGNIANT: Before the pandemic, did your company work remotely a lot or was it mostly on-site?
SHAINA HOLMES: Since our profit margin is very low, we try to keep things as simple as possible, so everyone who works in my company is working from home already. Whatever set-up at home, that’s what they use. I don’t have a kind of cloud system that they can remote log in to and use the software and use the files on the cloud; it’s more as if it’s the old days of sending hard drives, or using online file sharing.
Everyone is freelance, and I usually have at least one recent graduate who is my coordinator. So, basically, once they graduate, one will stay behind for a semester before they get out into the real world, and they help me behind the scenes organize everything, edit vfx breakdown reels, update the website, things like that. I can keep moving, keep looking forward while they’re working on things we already did.
As far as the remote workers, they’re mostly in New York state, but we do have some in California, China, and Atlanta; wherever they go to after school. A lot of the people who want to be in this industry go to Los Angeles or New York first before a smaller market.
SIGNIANT: Has the pandemic impacted how you work with remote freelancers?
SHAINA HOLMES: Access to a good internet connection is the only issue I’ve run into. I know a lot of the people who were in New York City left to go upstate suddenly realized that their internet was not capable of working on 4K files – downloading, uploading, or remoting into certain servers, so they ended up having to go back to the city to get that connection.
As far as workflows, I think it’s always dependent on what we’re working on. So, if the projects we start become larger because that’s the type of client we’re working with, then we’re going to expand the way we work and figure out a different pipeline. But for now, I don’t foresee an immediate change needing specifically of the pandemic.
SIGNIANT: Our industry, like most on the country, are in phases of returning to work. Do you think it’s the right time to open for the industry?
SHAINA HOLMES: As far as visual effects, it’s working to be remote, so I don’t think that part of the industry needs to jump back in right away. Also, the amount of work in post-production and visual effects is down right now, and we can’t really move forward until production starts back up. That’s the most important thing to focus on, how do we get production safely back up and running, and will the visual effects be the savior to kind of help with social distancing? Do we split screen or green screen all the actors so we can have people on screen at the same time to look like they’re there, even if they aren’t, to be safer in that way? I guess big VFX projects have the advantage right now if they are already shooting mostly on blue/greenscreen.
SIGNIANT: How do you think the visual effects community has fared during the pandemic?
SHAINA HOLMES: I think they’ve been really resilient. Most people are remoting in, and it might have taken a little extra time to securely have people remote-in from home, but the engineers did a really good job and were very quick at coming up with solutions. It only took like a week and a half in most cases. I think it’s been pretty positive for most people.
I’ve heard a few people who were really busy are now kind of in a slump, and it’s slowing down, but usually the summer is kind of slow and people take off work. It’s just hitting a little earlier than usual. If production starts picking up in the next month and a half, then hopefully it will just start a little earlier and won’t be too much of a break.
SIGNIANT: What’s your prediction for the industry? Do you see it as a quick bounce back, or is there a long-term change or rebalance of the work?
SHAINA HOLMES: Well, I always think it’s really interesting when these things happen. I mean, it’s slightly different, but I’m kind of equating it to the writers’ strike in 2007-2008. No production was happening because nothing could be written on a union show, and everyone who wasn’t working created all these new, innovative styles of storytelling.
There’s going to be something new that’s going to happen. It’s really interesting that bringing visual effects into pre-production is getting to be a new big thing – virtual cinematography and LED screens with projections of all these 3D environments. Instead of shooting on a green screen, you’re shooting in the actual digital environment you would have created anyway in post. That’s the next big thing that could take over and could really save production if their story warrents it, but it’s just going to take more time in pre-production to get all the assets created, and you would need the available budget as the screens alone are very pricey right now. You’re not going to use this for one or two scenes. It needs to be the majority of your show. That’s why it works for “The Mandalorian”. Most productions won’t be able to take advantage of this new technology, but those that can afford it won’t have to travel and worry about going to all these different places and potentially put everyone at risk.
SIGNIANT: How has the industry has diminished during this time?
SHAINA HOLMES: In a remote environment, a lot of places are ignoring the need to continue to invest in people who are entering the industry today. It’s important we continue doing that and finding ways to keep them involved. A lot of the entry-level jobs are vault manager, client services, and runners – things like that. But we’re not transporting anything. We’re not storing anything in the vault. We’re not doing anything at the facility right now.
I have a lot of students who are entering the VFX industry, but we’re not hiring entry-level positions in the United States most of the time. I feel like it’s important to talk about that. We have this over-saturation of people wanting to be in this industry but nowhere to put them, because we’re only hiring mid- and senior-level people.
SIGNIANT: An important part of learning is the opportunity to look over the shoulder of an experienced and just watch and learn.
SHAINA HOLMES: Yes. People who are junior-level artists right now are worried about work-from-home. They’re doing fine right now, but they need people to know their face, and they feel like that’s how they will be memorable. Not just their work and their work ethic and how well they keep their comps organized and things like that, but they want people to remember working with them, as well.
So, hopefully companies will start doing that again, instead of just looking for people who can work like islands on their own and occasionally have a Zoom meeting to go over notes. Usually, it is an apprentice sitting next to a senior-level person, and they get to ask them questions constantly throughout the day, and they’re helping them with the work.
Senior people don’t need that as much, because they have already put their time in and are well-known enough that people are asking to work with them, but junior people haven’t had that opportunity. That’s where people might be a little stunted in their growth and path in this industry for right now.
SIGNIANT: Looking back at my entry to the industry, in addition to doing a good job, it was about networking and personality and the extra little things you can do – looking around to see what else needs to be done and doing it. It’s much harder when you’re in a remote environment.
SHAINA HOLMES: Exactly. I think you feel like you’re a bother if you constantly are contacting someone, instead of being able to survey a room and see where holes might be that you can help fill. I know a lot of people who are, say, in client services, but want to be in a different department; they shadow people on their own time. How do you shadow someone without shadowing just their computer setup? How do you actually visibly watch them work if they are working from home?
SIGNIANT: Mentoring the future seems to be part of your core business mission.
SHAINA HOLMES: When I started 20 years ago you learned on the job. You became someone’s roto-person, and then you got the whole shot to do yourself, and then you figured it out and asked questions along the way, and, suddenly, you were a compositor.
Now, you’re watching tutorials, and it’s just not the same, and you can’t list any of that as your work. It’s just techniques. It’s not working with a team. It’s not being integrated into how other departments work. It’s not coming up with creative solutions to accomplishing each task since tutorial footage is usually very predictable that it will work the first try. That was a main reason I built my company, so I could give students feature film credits that could be on their entry-level artist resume without having to work at a bigger company to do so.
SIGNIANT: What is something positive you’ve taken from this time?
SHAINA HOLMES: There’s so much content out there and so many things to learn that I’m really glad a lot of people are taking this time to step away from the non-stop, everyday activities that usually happen, like the work-work-work until the weekend. I’ve just seen a lot of people take advantage of this time when they usually would be working so much that there’s no time to grow. It’s more about, what do I have to get done right now, instead of, what do I want? What do I want to learn? What do I want to do next with my life?
I think a lot of people are using this time really well to do tutorials and download the free software that’s being offered right now, or reach out to people that they lost contact with, and see what’s happening in other countries, and figure out all that kind of stuff. I get to eat dinner with my husband every night. That never happens, so… yeah, things like that.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.