Danny Duke, Managing Director, Outpost VFX Ltd, Bournemouth

1. Please tell us a bit about Outpost
Outpost is an 80-seat visual effects studio servicing the Feature Film, Broadcast TV and Commercial industries and are based in Bournemouth on the sunny south coast. We’ve just celebrated our fifth birthday and, having started out as a very small boutique, we’ve enjoyed several periods of organic growth; all the while building a really strong reputation for delivering world-class work alongside a truly personal creative service. In fact we’re growing so quickly we’ve plans to move to a brand new 10,000 sq ft facility in May 2018 so it’s been an incredibly exciting time for us recently.

We like to think that we do things differently here, not just because our contemporaries are almost all based in Soho, but because we’re challenging how the VFX industry operates by offering a different lifestyle for our team. This includes discretionary overtime and time off in lieu – both of which go largely unheard of in the sector.

2. How does being based in Bournemouth support your business, are there any challenges?
Not only are we the the only studio of our kind in Bournemouth we’re the only VFX studio competing with the staple Soho companies, who isn’t in a major city! Being in Bournemouth means we’re a disruptor, challenging the existing norms and taking market share by offering something different. The fact that we’re here means we can be incredibly competitive due to lower overheads compared with London, but with great infrastructure like communications and travel to support us as well.

However, being more remote can present a recruitment challenge as some people are lured by the bright lights of London… but we accept that it’s something we can’t change. To some there’s safety in numbers and if it doesn’t work out at one company artists can pretty much walk next door and get another gig, whereas here we’re on our own and it needs a little leap of faith. Thankfully, its one many talented and dedicated people have taken. Being in Bournemouth, there’s an alternative lifestyle on offer, and it means we scoop up some extremely talented veteran artists who’ve done their years in Soho. Whether they’re leaving London because of the high cost of living or because of settling down with families, we get the benefit of their years of experience. We also hire from the excellent talent that comes out of the prestigious National Centre for Computer Animation at Bournemouth University and the fabulous students on the new Visual Effects Design and Production course at AUB. Having forged great relationships with both means we have the pick of the latest talent and offer work placements for up to a year at a time.

3. Our findings have shown that a considerable proportion of tech skills are being used in Media and Entertainment. In your experience, how essential are tech skills to this sector.
In M&E we have to operate in a way that balances artistry with tech. That’s the nuts and bolts of the VFX industry: using tech to achieve your artistic aims, whether that’s the latest in GPU rendering technology to allow us to deliver perfect work quickly, or the latest software tools that give our artists the power to create stunning visual effects shots. Tech skills themselves are important, as there’s traditionally a very high barrier of entry when it comes to 3D and 2D software for VFX. You can’t really just boot up software like Maya, Nuke or Houdini without any prior knowledge of how those tools work, and you need to have at least a basic understanding of how to leverage hardware power for rendering, storage, etc. That goes for anyone in our industry, from juniors straight out of uni to 15-year veterans.

4. What types of tech skills do you use in your work? How do they improve and shape the end product?
Often times it seems like our artists are more like technicians, using science and maths in their work to figure out something challenging / moving a slider to adjust lighting values / using complicated array functions to duplicate 3D geometry. However, importantly they’re all incredibly talented and if it wasn’t a case of using a computer they’d be making beautiful work using a different tool. At their core they’re committed to teasing beautiful work out of technology and I’m grateful they’re doing it for Outpost. The technical side of what we do is rooted in real life processes and so a knowledge of how a lathe works will help you understand certain 3D modelling functions, or understanding camera technologies will help a matchmover to simulate a camera in 3 dimensional space on a computer.

Almost all areas of the business require deep-rooted technical skills, and so its not just the artists that technology is important to. Our Core Technology and InfoSec teams are tasked with developing and maintaining systems and equipment that are utterly essential to all that we do. We also have a dedicated pipeline department, which is tasked with developing proprietary tools, not just for our artists to use in creating visual effects shots, but also to allow all of our hardware and software to talk to each other. They are the backbone of what we do and alongside programming they oversee our security processes that allow us to work with the world’s leading film studios, as well as archival of hundreds of terabytes of data that we handle as a top-end facility.

5. Do you think they will become more vital over the next few years? What technology development do you think there will be in this industry?
Tech skills in R&D and pipeline will continue to be extremely important for us and the wider industry, and new skills in tech will be vital as VFX companies move increasingly into the Cloud. We’re in the process of evaluating this move ourselves, and what is clear to us is that specialist tech skills will be crucial if it’s to be a success. Network Engineers, Programmers and Security Managers are crucial in an era where hacking can result in the loss of entire feature films and so as threats to the business and to our clients change we have to continue to anticipate emerging tech in order to uphold the business and keep doing what we love!

I’m also interested in realtime visual effects and (having a background in Game development also) I’ve been keeping an eye on the use of Game Engines like Unity and Unreal in creating beautiful visual effects work. Their use in VR experiences has seen more and more artists getting to grips with the technology so I would expect a limited move to realtime VFX work over the next 5 years.