Today the animation and VFX industry has many tools for creativity and process automation. We interviewed InSoul Effects studio’s founders, VFX supervisor Kseniia Ivanova and VFX producer Marina Burova. They shared their experience of working on large-scale projects and told us what programs and systems are helpful in running a business and planning work processes in order to not stray away from the principles of work-life balance.
Please tell me a little about yourself. How long have you been working in the industry? Maybe there’s something else you’d like to share?
Kseniia. I’ve been doing VFX since my second year at the university, where I majored in directing. That was when I first came across the Cinefex magazine. At the time, I had no idea how VFX worked. There was no information about it on Runet. When we came back to Moscow, I landed an internship as a roto artist. And now, ten years later, I’m a VFX supervisor.
I’ve been part of a lot of interesting projects throughout my career, but the decision to start my own studio probably came after I returned from Australia, where I worked for the wonderful Iloura. That experience showed me how different our markets were. I wanted us to have similar projects and sense of comfort. It became a goal. I decided that I would go back to Moscow once my compositing job was over and use my experience to build something awesome.
And so I did. I’ve always loved learning new things. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. I’ve studied Python, Houdini — you name it. It’s a total hodgepodge. I can’t call myself a senior in anything other than compositing. A senior programmer? A software developer? No way. Still, I know enough to communicate with people, find professionals, and make cool things together.
After coming back from Australia, I joined Anna Melikyan’s wonderful project Fairy as a VFX supervisor. It was my first experience as one. We finished the project a week before the deadline thanks to the team’s professionalism and good planning. That was also where I met Marina. She was the project coordinator, and it was her first job.
Marina. Well, technically not the first, but the first in VFX.
Kseniia. It turned out we had quite a lot in common, both character- and idea-wise. After the project, I was 100% certain I wanted to be a supervisor. But I didn’t want to work on just any project, and there wasn’t anything that interested me in Moscow at the time. So I went back to Australia to work as a lead on the infamous Cats project, which had ruined more than a few careers. After five difficult months, I decided I wanted to quit the industry for good. I was in a state of total burnout. I worked ninety hours a week. It was a crazy project even by Russian standards. When I tell people I was a lead on Cats, they go all ‘Oh my God! So you’re one of those poor souls?’
Marina. I guess all people who worked on that project kind of feel the same.
Kseniia. It’s like a Vietnam PTSD. Our supervisor broke his leg. Things were very bad. I had seventy people in a studio in Adelaide and another hundred in Bangalore. I was a team lead and a supervisor — a super combo and a unique experience I’ll definitely never forget.
After that, I decided to quit the VFX industry and signed a very modest contract just to move somewhere else. I had two options: I could either be a supervisor in Germany or a simple compositor in Canada. At the time, all I wanted was to have some peace and earn enough for a living, so I chose Canada. I had already sent all my stuff to Toronto when the pandemic hit and we stayed in Russia. We both love VFX, so we decided to try to make something of our own. I mean, why not? We wanted to work on Western projects, but in comfort and peace. And we wanted stability.
The plan was to get to foreign projects gradually. We thought we’d start by cutting masks and working with Russian clients, but it so happened that we immediately made a name for ourselves, and now 100% of our projects are with Western partners.
In short, I always wanted to work for the VFX industry, and here I am. And I want to be good at what I do.
That’s some impressive experience. It’s not often you hear people from the industry say they have completed a project ahead of schedule. How did you and Kseniia manage that? What tools did you use in your work?
Marina. It was my first project as a VFX coordinator. I already had some project management skills, but didn’t really know how to apply them. I kept suggesting things that people simply weren’t used to. Then I saw Kseniia make a schedule chart — it really helped us as the deadline drew closer. Of course, the chart changed along the way, but we could still see what we had already done, what we still had to do, and whether or not we were on schedule.
Kseniia. There wasn’t much overtime involved. I myself only had to work two weekends in addition to my normal schedule.
Marina. I can’t say we had people working after hours a lot, but then again, it was my first VFX job, and I didn’t yet know what was normal. Kseniia and I had to work some extra hours. I think it’s a normal thing to do for a project manager, although ideally it shouldn’t happen.
Kseniia. A project manager has to work a lot so that others don’t have to. But we don’t want to work night and day, so we try to stick to the schedule.
Marina. I’ve had projects where people had to work overtime. One of them was my personal project, where I was the producer. It was a very long project, and I ran into all sorts of organizational and technical issues I couldn’t have foreseen. It all kind of snowballed. After that, I really looked forward to avoiding those issues on my next project, preferably as early as at the bidding stage. The longest I’ve had to work in the deadline mode is probably a week.
Kseniia. As a team, we’ve never been close to not meeting a deadline. Yet.
Marina. We’ve had to work extra hours ourselves as we are personally responsible for our projects. As for other team members, it’s better to ask them. Sometimes we’ll tell a person to go to sleep and hand the task over to us, but since we all work remotely, we have no way to check that they don’t just keep working. And if someone refuses help, we can only hope they do it for a good reason and not just to suffer in silence.
Kseniia. After establishing our studio and our team, we started thinking about our values. First of all, they include planning and a healthy work schedule. For us, work-life balance is not just a fancy term. You can be productive without sacrificing your personal life. I’m deeply convinced that there is a way to schedule anything. Only that schedule is not set in stone — it changes along with the project. And that’s normal.
Marina. Scheduling is a process. That’s how the management theory defines it. Schedules constantly change because you always have some metrics to control and things to adjust to. To my surprise, there is a lot you can negotiate with the client. For example, you can ask them to change work plans because of public holidays and whatnot. You can have a dialogue and build a comfortable schedule.
Could you tell me a little more about what you did before VFX?
Kseniia. Nothing much, really. I got into the industry when I was eighteen, and before that, I worked as a sales assistant in a Swatch store. It was my first job. I love watches. I think I earned thirty thousand rubles a month. That’s a lot of money for a student.
At the time, I was studying to be a film and television director, so I have some editing and directing background. Well, as much background as one can get in such a short time. Before university, I attended a music school and played the violin.
Marina. My career path is a little less straightforward. When I graduated from school, I was fascinated with technology, robots, and innovation, but I didn’t want to make robots. Although, when I was in the eighth and ninth grades, the Japanese had a robot called Asimo, and I really wanted to work for a company that made something similar. I also liked music and wanted to help create complex concert and show decorations. But at the time — in 2012 — I didn’t know where I could go to study all that. You know, stuff like working with sound equipment, building structures, organizing everything, and so on.
I decided to enroll at a technical university because all my hobbies had to do with technology. Thanks to my good results in a Russia-wide skills competition, I got into Bauman University’s robotics department without having to take entrance exams. That place is a real treasure trove. Bauman students jokingly call it ‘a grave dug by scientists.’
After realizing that sitting still and programming all day wasn’t for me, I thought I’d become a manager and supervise all those cool technical processes, so I transferred to the department of economics and knowledge-intensive production management and finally found an approach that worked for me. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about concerts and shows. In my 4th year at the university, I attended a Moscow workshop of the New York Film Academy and turned my attention to the world of cinema. I registered for a directing workshop, and then for a filmmaking workshop that combined directing and production. That’s where I learned more about scheduling.
It literally turned my world upside down. I realized that the management principles used in rocket science were the same as in filmmaking. At the directing workshop, I was surprised how directors could get actors to show the necessary emotions by delving into subtle human psychology. That part wasn’t for me, but the whole organizational thing got me so hooked that I signed up for the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography’s courses for executive producers and ended up in Vitaly Vasilchenko’s group. However, by the end of the courses I realized that production meant chaos and uncertainty, and I wanted to stand firmly on my feet. I wanted certainty and stability.
Near the very end of the courses, we had two VFX workshops with Pavel Semerdzhyan. That’s when I knew I had finally found what I was looking for. At the time, I already had experience managing projects for a company that made training courses for military helicopter pilots. They used simple computer graphics to create simulators and cockpit models. It was nothing special but still looked good and authentic — enough to make trainees feel as if they were sitting in a real cockpit.
I landed my first VFX job quite easily thanks to the things Pasha had taught us at his workshops.
Kseniia. When you work as a supervisor for someone else, it’s like your hands are tied. And while you can create an ecosystem for your project, there will be lots of limitations.
Marina. And then the project ends, and the ecosystem falls apart.
Kseniia. It’s like building a sand castle and hoping that no one will take it away or destroy it. I wanted things to be different. I wanted to build a place of my own that no one would invade and where I could do what I wanted. I really believe in cinema. And I love people.
Marina. Russian artists deserve the best. We have amazing professionals who can solve complex problems and perform huge amounts of work.
Kseniia. We have the best people. VFX artists from the CIS and the former Soviet Union are probably the best artists I have ever worked with.
Marina. There are great specialists in all countries, but the number of good Russian artists is just mind-blowing. It has definitely made me believe in people more.
Kseniia. We have decided that ours would be a small studio. I once heard someone say that they wanted their artists to be James Bonds, and they would provide those James Bonds with everything they needed. I really liked that comparison. If you create an environment in which skilled artists can grow and develop and give them licensed software, powerful hardware, peace of mind, and stability, they will be able to do a lot for you. Such productive collaborations are what we strive for.
Sounds awesome! Could you please tell me more about the tools you used to schedule your work?
Kseniia. As a VFX artist, my knowledge of Cerebro was limited to uploading dailies, and as a supervisor, I only knew how to draw circles, so I made all my schedules in Google Sheets. I basically created Gantt charts by coloring cells in Google Sheets.
Marina. I have a lot of experience with Mircosoft Project, but for a number of reasons, I’m yet to use it in the VFX industry. That’s mainly because everyone within an organization should use the same management tools, and Project is a rather complex tool to learn and implement. There are lots of semi-automatic templates for building Gantt charts in Google Sheets, but the ones I’ve seen are not very user-friendly and have only a basic set of features.
And what did you use when you switched to software? Ftrack? ShotGrid?
Kseniia. We’ve tried everything. I first used Cerebro, and then came across Shotgun. That was when it was still called Shotgun. The only time I got to see ftrack in action was during our most recent project. But it was our client who was using it, not me. We just uploaded our dailies there. Marina uses it more often than me, so she has more experience with it.
When we opened the studio, we had more experience with Cerebro, but we decided to try everything. Our first thought was that, since we were working with Western partners, it would make sense to use Western software.
Marina. It has lots of features that allow you to share things with clients. Shared playlists, for example. It’s very convenient.
Kseniia. You can also set up an account for your clients, who are already familiar with the software. With that in mind, we downloaded trial versions and started testing them. I even considered using Prism, which is free, but it turned out to be too primitive. No Gants, nothing. It’s more suited for pipelines. All the software we tried is very different. In the end, we chose Cerebro.
Shotgun was the first software I worked with. It’s a huge constructor that has everything from a large GitHub community to numerous code pieces and plugins, which is very cool. Shotgun is an enormous sandbox where everyone can bring their toys and play with them.
But it also has considerable disadvantages. You can’t use it right out of the box, because when you open it, it starts screaming at you in some scary programmer language. When you download it for the first time, it’s plain terrifying — especially the filters that you need to set for all the parameters. It’s overwhelming. To make a playlist in Shotgun, you need a trained coordinator who knows how to do it, because it’s super unintuitive.
Our projects are just not that large-scale. We’ll hardly use all those filters even if we configure them.
Our pipeline is built around Hiero, and Shotgun has an amazing Hiero bridge that allows the supervisor to not even use Shotgun. They can keep using Hiero and just send and receive everything via the bridge. There’s also a very convenient option to leave comments. I really liked it.
However, there’s a huge drawback: it’s a real pain to configure everything. You need either someone who understands Shotgun’s API, someone who knows Python and will want to do it, or someone who understands or just likes reading Google’s installation instructions. In other words, you need a separate full-time employee who will configure everything.
And then there’s the price. There was no ShotGrid back then, and Autodesk was yet to roll out an offer for the Russian market that would make everything three times cheaper.
Marina. We were really surprised to find out the price varied depending on the region.
Kseniia. Next, there was ftrack. It’s very beautiful. You fall in love with it the moment you launch it. And then you start using it, and the spell breaks. Ftrack is very easy to use out of the box. You just need to install it. It has bridges with both Nuke and Hiero, as well as with lots of other tools. It also has a huge GitHub community with lots of users. We’ve run into two issues, however. First, there was a problem with customer support. It took them two weeks to answer us.
Marina. Well, maybe not two weeks. The fastest they answered us was probably after three days.
Kseniia. The fastest, yes. The average answer time was two weeks. We had to wait two weeks for the first answer and three days for the second one. The price is okay. We have no complaints there.
Secondly, Cerebro and Shotgun/ShotGrid have an amazing feature that allows users to make reference MOV files, upload them to Cerebro or Shotgun, and get shots with preview images. It’s very helpful for a supervisor who has three projects and three hundred shots.
Marina. It allows you not to memorize the numbers. All you need to do is look at the images.
Kseniia. The numbers take time to memorize. It’s really difficult at first, but then something clicks, and you can suddenly recall the project you worked on five years ago. But, alas, ftrack doesn’t support MOV files with preview images.
Marina. We wanted to be able to just upload MOV files to create a project.
Kseniia. We thought we were doing something wrong and wrote to customer support. Two weeks later, we got a response.
Marina. They held a fancy presentation for us…
Kseniia. And said that there was no such option, but that hey could write a Python code that would add it. That is, they’re open to suggestions, but how long will it take? And what if something breaks? How long will it take them to respond?
Marina. It takes ages to do anything, and most of the time they tell you it can’t be done out of the box. I don’t know if they’re trying to sell us paid services that way or if they’re actually willing to help for free.
Kseniia. The only way to create previews is to take screenshots and paste them into shot cells. And, as there are three hundred of them, you’d have to repeat it three hundred times…
Marina. And it’s not inherited. Well, at least our parent task didn’t inherit it. By the way, we once had a joint project with a Western studio where we connected to their ftrack account as observers and saw that we weren’t the only ones to interpret it that way. About a week or two into the project, their coordinator set aside a whole day to upload shot previews to tasks.
Kseniia. I said they were crazy and that there was no way we were using ftrack. We have many projects. Most of them small and ever-changing, so copy-pasting previews is definitely not something we want to do.
That’s why we chose Cerebro, which has all of those features. The only thing missing was a bridge between Cerebro and Hiero, since Hiero is the heart of our pipeline. So we contacted your customer support — who are amazing, by the way — and they agreed to work together to make Cerebro even better. We love it that you are so open to dialogue.
We’re currently working together to make the Tentaculo bridge a little more suited to our needs and are trying to find the right balance.
In short, Cerebro has amazing customer support, a desire to grow, and an amazingly convenient and intuitive interface.
Marina. We’re all used to Cerebro and feel at home in it.
Kseniia. When we add new artists to our system, they instantly know what to do. I can’t imagine they’d be as enthusiastic about Shotgun. But Cerebro? Everyone is familiar with it. It’s intuitive and really cool.
Marina. I’m also a big fan of Microsoft Project. I no longer use it, but I always looked for similar features in other products. I wanted to be able to not only build a Gantt chart but also to highlight a person if they have too much work. Although adding all the data to the program takes time, and producers and coordinators don’t always have it. Besides, not every software allows that.
As a result, we used Google Sheets, since we need to exchange all sorts of data with our clients and administrative staff anyway.
Producers and coordinators need to keep track of work hours and expenditures, and Shotgun allowed me to do just that. In addition to being a fan of spreadsheets, I also love it when everything is automated and requires minimum manual labor. I even started working on my own system of automated spreadsheets while I was still using Cerebro, but at the time I didn’t have a bridge between them.
We would add statistics manually to Google Docs and then use Google Sheet formulas to automatically track costs for different years and months. It was very convenient.
And then I transferred to a studio that was using Shotgun. It was Shotgun that allowed me to make databases in CSV — a very convenient format for subsequent conversion into pivot tables. But, unfortunately, Google Sheets had a cell limit of five million, and I needed more.
The Shotgun database allowed me to build an automated system using pivot tables. It simply imported the CSV file to one of the sheets, and Google Sheets started calculating everything according to the formulas.
However, I did have to make cold backups with a minimum of formulas. At some point, I even had to open five spreadsheets simultaneously for the data to load. I guess the results of the formulas stopped fitting into Google’s internal memory or something. I’m not very good at all this technical staff, so that’s the best I can explain it.
Kseniia. Marina is the only producer who has an i9 processor and can open lots of stuff simultaneously.
Marina. Unfortunately, Google Sheets weren’t suited for the task I needed them for, so I had to switch to something else, like SQL That was the end of my work with Shotgun, and we started testing ftrack. But in the end, we didn’t even manage to export the CSV file from it.
It does have a really nice and visually-pleasing spreadsheet that allows coordinators and producers to track hours for each day of the week and see whether artists have all eight hours filled in.
It lets you see how much is planned for the next few days but doesn’t give you a lot of information about the project’s budget. When we called ftrack, they couldn’t tell us whether they could add the cost-tracking feature.
So we switched back to Cerebro, and I was very happy when you announced in your roadmap that you intended to improve the statistics feature for producers. I really like the current feature and actively use it. I’ve also heard that you could do something similar in Shotgun since it’s one big sandbox.
Kseniia. Yes, but who would do it?
Marina. Cerebro also has a default salaries tab. I really like it that it allows us to set daily rates, as they vary from month to month. And if someone’s salary changes mid-month, we can also reflect that in the system. That makes tracking overall project costs very easy. But, unfortunately, there is no option to display monthly dynamics on a single page. I really look forward to the new features so I can finally test them.
Kseniia. I’ve just realized that Shotgun is Linux, ftrack is Mac, and Cerebro is Windows. Shotgun has lots of cool features, but it’s very hard to use. Ftrack is beautiful but very basic unless you tweak it. And Cerebro is user-friendly and works great right out of the box. Plus it’s customizable and has amazing customer support.
An interesting comparison.
Marina. I’ve used your Task Manager a couple of times. It’s very convenient when you need to simultaneously look at two different project parts and compare or copy something. I also love My Space and task boards, which have been around for probably a year or two. I think that was when I finally stopped missing Shotgun’s spreadsheets. My Space is a wonderful tool for coordinators and producers. It has replaced Google Sheets for me.
Kseniia. The only additional product we use is ftrack Review.
Marina. But I think you’ve also announced something similar.
Yes. It’s almost ready. We’re really looking forward to it, as do our clients.
Kseniia. It’s a big plus that you don’t need to register an account. You simply upload a video, wait for clients to draw on it, and get it back.
Marina. Our clients love it. It’s very convenient. One thing I haven’t really used in Cerebro yet is the Gantt chart with linked tasks. We’ve tested linked tasks…
Kseniia. And tags.
Marina. But tags will clearly require programming, and we’re not doing that any time soon. And linked tasks are great, but I managed to break a rule when we were testing them and couldn’t remember how to fix it. I also couldn’t find a solution on the website, so we decided not to use them for now.
Kseniia. But we definitely need a Back to Defaults button. We break things from time to time.
Marina. I believe that someday you’ll definitely make the Gantt chart intuitive. It works well for a minimum set of tasks. You can even make it multi-colored.
Overall, we are constantly looking for different ways to organize Cerebro tools in a way that would make a producer’s life easier. For example, we use hashtags to mark contract appendages that contain shots and assets, because sometimes they aren’t grouped in a single document, so we need a way to track them. It’s good that there is a way to put them all in one place. I liked using the search to collect and upload everything into a single document.
And the option to export files with images allows us to make beautiful cost sheets right off the bat, as Google inserts the images into cells right away. I use it all the time.
Kseniia. It’s a bridge between cost sheets. Ultimately, it’s all about bridges. We use them both inside the studio and when working with clients and artists.
Marina. I’m not sure what was the original plan for hashtags in Cerebro. At our studios, we used them for completely random things. Maybe you should come up with some nifty tools for producers as well.
Kseniia. I think hashtags have a huge potential. I know that they were used to make a bridge between Shotgun and Hiero, resulting in a crazy, fully automated system. We love scheduling, innovation, and automation, so we’ll keep moving in that direction. There’s still a lot to do. There is huge room for improvement.
Marina. We once wanted to make an additional column for statuses. Shots usually go through many iterations, and right now we have more than twenty statuses, including several for people who hand out and submit material and for client feedback. Not all of those statuses are important to artists. We turn off notifications, but sometimes artists turn them back on. I don’t know if Cerebro has a similar feature, but I’d like to test it. It might turn out to be more convenient.
We’ll assign a business analyst who will help you with everything. As for that column, we have separate columns for both hashtags and tags. We can also add the feature you’ve mentioned. We have various plugins, and we’re constantly working to improve them.
Marina. Excellent! We interact a lot with your customer support — maybe even too much — and it’s all in the manuals. Sometimes we come up with an idea only to find out that you’ve already brought it to life, but in a different way. And it turns out that your way is much more convenient.
We try to inform users about new features and things they may have missed. We’re always happy to help people learn new things. I was also about to ask you about My Space and the new features you’re using, but you’ve already answered that. I’m glad you like them.
Marina. I remember telling you that it’d be cool to make a to-do list, like in Google Notes. I saw that you did it a little differently, not the way I imagined, but I haven’t had the chance to try it out yet.
Kseniia. The fewer applications one has to use, the better. We currently have just a handful of applications we can’t replace with Cerebro, and we’re using them for something completely different. For example, we use Notion. It’s amazing, but very different. It’d be silly to try and integrate it with Cerebro. Having integrations with Nuke and Houdini is quite enough.
Marina. Another thing that sets Cerebro apart from ftrack and Shotgun is that your reports are built into the general notes forum, which I find really convenient – just as I do the fact that there are time logs attached to said reports. Ftrack and Shotgun use different paradigms. They offer it as a separate feature, which kind of makes sense because you can see what hours belong to what versions. But as this information is stored separately, few people see it or analyze it. And in Cerebro, supervisors can see right away if the workload is normal or not. Although Cerebro could use a separate window for tracking versions to make the system distinguish between shots and simple attachments. We’ve could have really used one recently.
When we tried using ftrack and Shotgun, which are great for working with versions, we couldn’t see how many hours an artist had spent on a version. I suspect that in ftrack and Shotgun, only coordinators and producers keep track of hours, while supervisors have other problems.
Kseniia. No. They just don’t care how much time you spend on something. You’re not the one paying for it, after all.
Marina. That’s why they don’t need it.
Kseniia. I think if more people abroad knew about Cerebro, you’d have much more foreign users.
Marina. Small studios would definitely use it.
Kseniia. Yeah. Right now they use ftrack, and it’s far from perfect.
Thank you. I’d like to ask about the calendar. You mentioned that you didn’t know how to check each person’s workload. Have you tried using the Plan tab?
Marina. No, we haven’t.
It shows the amount of workload per user. If a user has too many tasks for a single day, that day is highlighted in red.
Marina. Those tabs are used during the active resource planning phase, when you need to use the Gantt chart and scheduling at the same time.
Kseniia. Honestly, you should think about opening your own school for producers.
Marina. Hey, great idea!
Kseniia. Our fellow producers and coordinators complain that there is nowhere to learn about all the technical stuff. Cutting masks is easy — you just have google it. But that’s not all there is to it. For example, I have a friend who wanted to know how to distinguish a well-rendered image from a badly-rendered one. That’s something an experienced producer knows. They don’t need to be a techie, but there are certain things they must know. It turned out there were no themed courses, which is a shame.
Marina. I found a solution that worked for me. Getting into the industry was easy because I have an engineering background and I’m not afraid of complex topics and words. My last year at uni was all about finding an enterprise for a pre-graduation internship, obtaining the necessary knowledge for my thesis, and writing it.
At the end of last year, I contacted my thesis tutor, Eduard Mazurin, and last semester I had two students from my department. My faculty and my department attract smart people who know both how production is organized from a technical point of view and how to build a conveyor. We like to say that we could even build a rocket — we just need a designer and a specialist who’ll answer all our technical questions.
VFX is a good industry for such individuals. We have decided to start with my department: we want to give people knowledge, teach them the right principles, and get them involved in the industry. Now we need to do the same with techies.
Kseniia. Well, there is no shortage of techies.
Thank you for your answers. But how about some criticism? There must be something that really annoys you.
Marina. But we’re working on it.
Kseniia. I don’t really see it as part of Cerebro. I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone uses it. But I know people who tried.
Marina. When Tentaculo first came out about two and a half years ago, we definitely tried using it. Maybe it was just less user-friendly back then.
Kseniia. Cerebro is a very powerful tool. The question is, how do we integrate it with our pipeline? I think that’s one of its weak spots. It’s great on its own, outside of the ecosystem. I know a studio that tried using it but gave up. And I’m not giving up, but I’ll be using something other than Tentaculo. I have some programming experience, so I can see what they were trying to do. And it does what it was intended for — it just doesn’t work for artists and VFX. If those were pioneers and there were no other bridges, only Tentaculo and a programmer’s approach, it’d work. But it’s hard to sell people Outlook with Telegram and WhatsApp on the market. It’s very difficult to switch to. Yes, it works. It has a steering wheel and four wheels, but it’s driving in the opposite direction, and that’s something to be taken into account.
Marina. I think it has to do with mentality. People feel like it’s easier to make something from scratch to get exactly what they want. And sometimes it’s true and it works. I think that’s how Cerebro was created. It’s nothing like ftrack and Shotgun. It is what it is, with all its advantages that other programs don’t have. It offers an alternative.
Kseniia. I think there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. There are great bridges that work. As a supervisor, I’ve figure out how Tentaculo and configured it. But I also have artists who will call me and say, ‘What is that? I don’t know which buttons to press.’ Why use something that’s not user-friendly? Tentaculo is much more complicated than it needs to be. It has an unfriendly API. And the code is very hard to read. Without a Cerebro developer to consult with, you could waste a lot of time trying to figure it out yourself. It’s like it’s not meant to be convenient. Take Foundry’s API, for example. It lists everything that needs to be replaced. That’s if we talk about programming.
Marina. If a person spends enough time trying to figure out how everything works, they’ll probably succeed. It’s normal that every ecosystem has its own rules you need to get used to. Use me as your guinea pig if you like. I’m someone who knows absolutely nothing about programming.
Is there anything else you don’t like?
Marina. I personally think your Gantt chart could use some improvement. Lots of software, including Windows, Microsoft Office, etc., has at some point been upgraded to make it more user-friendly. People are used to different button designs these days.
Kseniia. The ones that look like Mac.
Marina. To me, the Gantt chart looks like Word 2003. Maybe that’s its biggest problem, actually. Its outdated design turns users off, even though it has all the features one might need. I know what I’m talking about — I’ve tested it a lot. I think all it needs is a modern interface.
Thanks. We’re working on it. We’ve recently rolled out a small interface update, and we keep working to make it even better.
Marina. There’s one more good thing I’d like to mention. I love the horizontal task layout much more than the task trees everyone uses. It has helped me to intuitively understand how to create many tasks at once and how to change their statuses. It did come back to bite me once, though, when I accidentally put ‘no status’ on two hundred shots or something like that. After that, I contacted support and asked them to add the ‘Are you sure?’ button.
Kseniia. That’s why we need a school for producers and a platform where people can share their experiences. It’s very important. We’re all in it together. It doesn’t matter if your studio is big or small. But people are secretive and don’t want to share anything. Sure, there is competition, but in Russia, we have people from all over the country working on the same projects, so it’d be cool to share. I’d love to see Cerebro release a few tutorials, for example.
Marina. It’d be nice to have a video about how to set up the simplest project from start to finish and make it at least partially automated. Not individual tutorials, but the whole process from start to finish. Maybe you actually have one. I haven’t checked.
We have webinar records with people from various industries. For example, in our VFX webinar, our co-founder shows how to set up a project from start to finish. We also have webinars where our head of development answers questions for two hours. They are all available free of charge. We also sometimes offer on-site training to our clients.
Kseniia. I doubt there is a platform that provides general tutorials. There are compositing and modeling tutorials as well as some bits and pieces on YouTube, but there are no courses that train producers, supervisors, or coordinators or help them improve their soft skills. That has nothing to do with Cerebro, obviously. It’s just my pet peeve. I want us as an industry to be kinder to each other and make friends, and not hide things.
Marina. By the way, could you talk a little about Mirada?
Kseniia. I chatted to their customer support. I think it’s normal to ‘steal’ solutions that you like. I do that. And it’s not really stealing. You just borrow good ideas, right? That’s what we discussed with Mirada’s customer support. Right now, the player in Cerebro is used as Mirada for comments, but it’d be nice to add some features for supervisors, like switching between channels to see the noise separately on red, blue, and green channels, and maybe some kind of comparison.
Marina. There is no point in comparing channels if there is no comparison chart.
Kseniia: Take the RV player, for example. It’s much more complicated. It can play EXR and DPX. I currently use Mirada only on my desktop to write comments to artists. But if we need to watch something in high resolution or on big screen, I open Hiero. If I had Shotgun, I’d open RV. It’s all about different technical specs. By the way, I don’t know if Mirada can open high-res EXR and DPX files and playlists.
We don’t really care much about that as a studio because we store everything in the cloud. We don’t need a big TV to watch stuff together — we use Hiero. It has parallel synchronization, and everyone can open both high-res and edited files. We have a different ecosystem. The only things I’d like to see in Mirada are red, blue, and green channels.
Marina. You receive MOV files, not high-res videos. So why not view them in Mirada instead of opening them in other software?
Kseniia. I had a large number of simple shots, but I still need to check them for noise. It’s a very touchy topic. People see noise as a disaster. Nobody knows how to work with it. It’s a real pain for compositors.
Marina. We also found an interesting use for Mirada on a project where we handled the conform and selected shots for VFX. It was during quarantine, and we couldn’t just sit comfortably in the studio via DaVinci or Hiero and select shots. So we (supervisor, producer, and any other interested parties) left comments in Mirada to mark the shots we needed. There were almost two hundred comments. And then we thought that an option to export an EDL file based on that comment timeline would make our designer’s work much easier.
There was some suitable file, but not EDL. And… Oh! I see Cerebro now has Export to Final Cut Xml. I’m definitely trying that out.
Kseniia. We can’t keep up with your innovations.
Marina. And that’s great.
Thanks a lot. Could you tell me what channels you use to interact with your clients? Messengers? Email?
Kseniia. It depends. For instance, foreign clients prefer video conferencing. The only ones who don’t turn their cameras on are the people who are just ‘passing by’. There are always lots of people involved in such meetings. And by passers-by I mean, for example, the coordinator of another project who needs to listen in on the meeting just a bit. The rest turn their cameras on. And they don’t do it while smoking, eating, or driving in a car.
Marina. About communication channels — first, we get a message on LinkedIn…
Kseniia. No. You’ve just had compositors from India sending you friend requests lately. We mostly use emails.
Marina. That’s also one of the areas where Google’s ecosystem really shines. We just use Google Meet to schedule meetings. It’s very convenient.
Kseniia. We all live in different time zones, and it’s great that we don’t have to try and memorize them. Google Calendar takes care of it. I use Zoom for about 15% of my meetings, and Google Meet for the rest. You can even draw there.
We also send emails, but it depends on the project. We either just keep messaging each other, connect to the client’s email server, or continue our dialogue using InSoul’s account. We write lots of emails to a huge number of people. We also use Discord inside the studio and invite client representatives there. Discord is amazingly convenient. Everything is customizable; there are private chats, automated tasks, etc. It’s very cool.
There have been times when we worked in Slack because the client had asked us to, but I personally am not a big fan of it. As for the Russian market, 100% of all dialogues with clients take place on Telegram. But I’m against using Telegram for work because it’s my personal space. I don’t like it when I get a call at 11 p.m. or a comment on a shot when I’m already relaxing with my family. I try to limit it. My work day ends the moment I turn my computer off.
Marina. By the way, Discord has this feature — or maybe a bug, I don’t know — when you stop receiving messages after you don’t log into the app for a long time. You basically become out of reach.
Kseniia. That’s very convenient.
Marina. It’s a completely different messenger. When I see Discord notifications, I immediately know they’re work-related.
Kseniia. I used WhatsApp once to talk to our client from Canada. It was a very short project. We had just two weeks to do everything. And since the time difference was significant (eight hours), literally every thirty minutes counted. So he texted me on WhatsApp.
Marina. But that was an exception.
Kseniia. “Sorry to disturb you. I know that your work day is over. It’s already late evening in Russia. I’m writing to say that we’ve sent you the link so you don’t have to look for it.”
Marina. Discord has integrations with all kinds of software. For example, with Jira and other task managers. I think it’d be great if Cerebro made a bridge with Discord. But it’s very important to draw a line so that you don’t have Discord duplicating Cerebro.
That’s why I asked about communication channels. We plan to integrate Cerebro with Discord. Well, with several messengers, actually. We’re just finishing with Telegram, and later we’ll turn our attention to Discord.
Kseniia. Discord has much more options to open files, change them, or add something than Telegram. Telegram was designed for personal use, while Discord targeted the gaming community.
If we compare Discord, Rocket.Chat, and Slack, then Discord is the only free solution out of the three. And it is in no way inferior in features to the other two. It’s also relatively secure, which is important. Security is a big problem in our industry. For example, I was once invited to a chat where I could see the company’s entire budget. And I didn’t even have an NDA with them or anything! That’s not how these things are done. And Discord is foolproof.
Marina. The only problem I have with Discord is its not very flexible roles. Of course, it’s cool that you can see how many people you have on your channel, but sometimes I want to hide certain roles, and there’s currently no option to do that.
Are you currently working on any other projects? What is your studio doing right now? Do you have any plans?
Kseniia. We have big plans and lots of ideas. We’ve relocated to Armenia.
Marina. Only in terms of our legal address so far.
Kseniia. But anyway, we’re in the cloud.
Marina. Yes. Thank God we’re in the cloud.
Kseniia. Unfortunately, we cannot disclose any titles, but not long ago we finished working on a show for DC, scheduled to come out this fall, and the series ‘Under The Banner of Heaven’ starring Andrew Garfield. Right now we have a Netflix movie in the works.
We are slowly growing and are also working on our own little project with our team.
We wish you success. Could you tell me something about your personal project? Or maybe about some other project?
Kseniia. All our projects are different. I really love The Witcher games, and I’ve always wondered why no one has tried turning Slavic folklore into a dark fantasy. Why, with all our fairy tales and robust mythology, has no one done it yet? So we decided to be the first ones.
Marina. Luckily, we had an amazing 3D artist. He already had one foot in a foreign studio, but still had a month during which he could work with us. We used that time to make all locations for an animatic literally from scratch.
Kseniia. We just started talking about it and people got hooked. Someone offered to make an animatic, others — to render images. Slowly, things started to take shape. Still, just because it’s our project doesn’t mean it’s for free. We pay people money. But the team is enthusiastic about the project, you we feel it. If someone wants to work on creatures, we give them creatures, and they put their soul into them. And that’s wonderful.
Marina. We don’t have a clear schedule yet. We don’t know when the project will be released and when we’ll present it. We just had an idea and found professionals who wanted to help make it a reality. For example, one of the folks on the project really wanted to make a dragon. We thought about how to add one into the story but realized it was impossible. If someone needed three months to finish something, we gave them three months. After all, artists are artists. Many of them want to hone their creative skills. We asked them what they wanted to do and what story they wanted to tell, and tried to give them what they wanted to make them happy.
Kseniia. We also have another project with lots of shots and dialogues filmed according to the 180-degree rule, meaning we have fifty shots looking in one direction and fifty shots looking in the other direction. There are many green and blue screens involved, which is also great because of machine learning, which Nuke 13 has just rolled out. That stuff is absolutely amazing. We can’t wait to try their Copycat nodes. It’s a very interesting project from a technical point of view, yet at the same time very simple. It has a lot of cool stuff for technical compositors, like machine learning and Python scripts. You open the project, choose a sequence, line up all the read nodes you may need, and get lots of things you can automate to have people put out fifty shots a day. Talk about James Bond!
I’m not a programming genius, but I’m definitely a very lazy person. Everything that can be automated, I try to automate. I love it. We have a very creative artist at our studio who loves complex technical tasks and projects.
Marina. I don’t know if he loves them or not, but the results are always beautiful. It’s like he can read our minds.
Kseniia. We actually get all sorts of compositing tasks, so we try to find balance.
Marina. At first, we wanted to have both a 3D artist and a texture artist. We wanted to have a small team that could make complex turnkey scenes, but we later abandoned that idea and focused on compositing.
Kseniia. Since I used to be a compositor, we mostly work with my acquaintances or people who once crossed paths or worked with me. The jobs mostly involve compositing. There is a very high demand for it. Yes, there are cheap Indian artists, but they don’t have the skills.
Marina. And the artists who write to us on LinkedIn only have Roto and Track.
Kseniia. Freelance compositors fall short of the foreign league. There are lots of orders from streaming platforms such as Hulu, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, etc. I’m not talking about Russian Netflix, no. I’m talking about our Western colleagues.
There is lots of work and a shortage of people. Compositing is the easiest process to outsource. You just send materials to the contractor and forget about them.
Marina. If you forget about them, you soon start complaining that the contractor did something wrong.
Kseniia. And if you really manage to forget about them, it means the contractor is a true professional.
Marina. In short, we want to grow our studio gradually, and we have decided to start with compositing.
Kseniia. One department at a time.
Marina. Maybe later we’ll hire some generalists or people from other departments.
That’s a really sound approach. By the way, you’ve mentioned India. What’s it like working with Indian specialists?
Kseniia: I worked with them once for Mill Film, during the Cats project. As a studio, we haven’t worked with India. I don’t think there’s any difference on the individual level, but studio-wise, there’s bound to be.
And what about work practices? Are they different compared to Russia, or is the industry the same everywhere?
Marina. We were actually just discussing something — not about India, but about Europe, as most of our clients are from Europe. In Russia, when someone says they have a project for you, it most likely means you’ll have plates by evening or tomorrow morning. They won’t even be sorted, and you won’t know half the things you need to know.
And with the West, we’ve even made some organizational mistakes because they like to book people a few months in advance.
Kseniia. It’s something you’ll be doing in two or even three months.
Marina. And those two months will hardly involve active preparations. Most likely, you’ll start discussing the project…
Kseniia. They’ll send you schedules, large calendars, and beautiful presentations.
Marina. Yes, that’s also surprising. They send you a schedule in advance, and it contains everything up to the release date. In Russia, there are some deadlines you won’t even know about. For some reason, people just don’t talk about them. Everything is kept secret.
Kseniia. In Russia, people really underestimate the power of scheduling. For example, you’re trying to negotiate with a freelancer, and they can only tell you their schedule for the next couple of days.
Marina. Unfortunately, we aren’t used to planning so far ahead.
Kseniia. Sometimes project deadlines can change.
Marina. For example, the deadline for the project we’re working on right now has shifted by four months. I’m talking about the release date. We actually have more time to work on it now.
Kseniia. In Russia, any part of the schedule can change. I think that’s why our artists are so skilled and so good at meeting deadlines. They have to be. They’re working in crazy conditions and have an insane workload.
The first time I came to work abroad, I was shocked. It was the John Wick 2 project. My job was simple: add pistols and smear blood on the walls in Muzzle Flash. When they gave me a shot, I asked how many shots I’d get per day. It turned out I had two weeks to complete that one. I didn’t know what to do with all that time! It’s a completely different approach that focuses on quality.
Today, artists are getting busier and busier because the studios can’t cope with all the work on their hands. There are many acquisitions on the market. For example, Framestore has bought Method. It’s mostly giants like Technicolor and Deluxe who stay afloat, simply thanks to their huge workforce. Small niche boutiques that specialize in creatures or FX are also holding out. They don’t get as many orders, but their services cost a lot.
All those scheduling issues make our artists very capable. They can do a lot. Foreign clients also give them a large number of shots. In addition, we have a stronger sense of guilt. It’s a mentality issue. I clearly felt in when I worked abroad. The only people staying after hours in a huge open space were Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians. We have that collective feeling of urgency most foreigners don’t have. With them, it’s ‘Oh, my mom is calling me. I think I’ll go grab a snack. I’m going to the park. Oh, look! It’s already six in the evening. The comments can wait until tomorrow.’
Marina. They simply have different values.
Kseniia. I think we could learn a lot from them. They have a very healthy attitude. I mean, it’s just work. We’re not surgeons or firefighters. We don’t save people.
Marina. By the way, didn’t you have an accident on Cats?
Kseniia: It was after the project. And it wasn’t me. It was one of my colleagues in Canada. There were actually lots of accidents during the pandemic. Our producer committed suicide. Working for large corporations is very taxing. I think we all need to be a bit more responsible, but also a bit lazier. We need balance. We should treat our jobs seriously, but we also shouldn’t forget that no one will die if we go and have an eight-hour sleep. And if you don’t have time to sleep for eight hours, that means you need a better schedule.
Marina. In the end, it’s the coordinator and producer who’ll have to solve all the problems.
Kseniia. Yeah. But on the other hand, clients are also not some mythical creatures. They are people just like us, and we can talk to them. They’ll understand it if someone is sick or if a server has crashed.
Marina. But only if that happens during a non-critical project stage. We’ve actually been lucky when it comes to clients.
Kseniia. You can choose who to work with. Sometimes we get offered really cool projects that could help a young studio like ours make a name for itself. I mean, we’re not even one year old. But if we took them, we’d have to work hard for a couple of months. Maybe even work on weekends. But we’d be doing it for ourselves — for our reputation and our future. In the end, we have to choose. If we don’t want to or can’t take the project, we don’t take it. We can’t earn all the money in the world anyway. There’ll be other projects. It’s okay to reject offers.
There were times when we had to turn down foreign projects. One of them we rejected for ethical reasons as it involved images of drugs. I don’t want to have anything to do with drugs. It doesn’t matter if it’s CG. It’s a scene that involves drugs.
Marina. Some movies want to show the dark sides of life, but it’s really hard to work on something like that.
Kseniia. I have turned down more than one project during my career. There’s nothing wrong with that. Time is our biggest asset. We shouldn’t spend it on something we don’t believe in, don’t want to do, or don’t enjoy doing. There’ll be other projects. There almost always are.
Is there any advice you could give to people from the industry who will be reading this interview? Any thoughts you’d like to share?
Kseniia. As a professional or as a human being?
Both. Good advice never hurts.
Kseniia. I’ll start with personal advice then. I’d like to end this interview by urging everyone not to settle for less. Don’t let anyone judge you. I’ve seen that happen many times to my friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, people often build their careers at the expense of others. They diminish other people to get a promotion, succeed on a project, or just boost their self-esteem. That’s wrong. No one should act like that. And don’t forget that you are a good person and a good artist, even if people around you say otherwise and try to build their careers by crushing you. I think the only way for a studio or a friendship to grow is by not putting pressure on others and not trampling over them. We need to move forward together. We need to keep dreaming and believing. We should strive to do good things together because in the end, good will triumph over evil. That way, the truth will be on your side, and everything will be as it should be.
I see a lot of injustice and difficult situations. Sometimes a single rude remark you make as a supervisor when you’re busy or a client is urging you to work faster can… I don’t want to say ruin someone’s life, but we never know the effect our words could have, so it’s better to say nice things and keep the bad ones to yourself, remembering to get rid of them from time to time. We should all be kinder and watch our attitude.
As a professional, any advice I have is probably aimed at supervisors. As a supervisor and leader, I’ve noticed that there is a place for everyone. Even if it feels like a person has no knack for VFX, a good leader will always find their strong suit and a way to use it in their studio to make everything work as a single organism.
Everyone has their place in the industry. It’s not always obvious, but I believe it to be so. I’ve had a very straightforward employee who cursed a lot. He was never happy with how things were filmed or done, but he had an amazing eye for detail. He could be watching a shot and notice that the mask was coming off. So put him in the QC department where he can sit alone in his cubicle and swear as much as he wants. In return, you’ll get an amazing employee who loves their job.
Marina. Well said! I don’t even know what to add. I guess the only advice I have is to talk to people. We’re all different. It’s normal to have disagreements, and talking helps solve them. So talk to your colleagues. That way you’ll be able to come up with a plan of action and see what can be done for the team to grow and improve together.
Ask them what they like and what they want. It will not only provide you with useful information but also help you understand how to steer a person in the right direction so that you feel comfortable working together. Talk to people and believe in them.
Kseniia. And one last thing: invest in people. They’re all your studio has. Without people, all you’ll be left with will be pile of computers