Made in Frame: How a Remote-First VFX House Lit Up Amazon’s “Jungle”
If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that remote work is here to stay. The combined efficiencies of not paying for expensive real estate and being able to work with anyone, irrespective of their physical location, are two compelling factors that we’ve heard numerous industry insiders cite over the past several years.
But there are some visionaries who embraced remote work even pre-pandemic, like UK-based Covert, who just completed the visual effects for the new Amazon Prime Original series Jungle. The combination of music and dialogue, set in London and featuring UK grime, drill, and rap artists, was produced by Nothing Lost (creative duo Chas Appeti and Junior Okoli) and premieres September 30 in more than 240 countries and territories.
In this installment of Made in Frame, Covert’s founders tell us how they cost-effectively delivered 400 high-quality VFX shots for a six-part series—using Frame.io and Adobe Creative Cloud—with a crew of creatives who were spread across several continents.
Setting up for success
Lots of VFX houses have pivoted to a remote, cloud-based workflow over the past few years out of necessity, and have continued to produce world-class work.
But what’s unique about Covert is that they have cleverly (and very intentionally) devised ways to leverage the power of the tools within the Adobe Creative Cloud to design a workflow that is incredibly flexible and very efficient.
Co-founders Simon Dewey and Toby Wheeler began the company five years ago, focusing on motion graphics and VFX for short-form projects for an array of clients including Barclays, Bacardi, Nissan, and Red Bull. Conceived to help creatives find a better work-life balance, Covert was a work-from-home company from day one.
“Covert was a work-from-home company from day one.”
According to Simon, “It was an active choice because we felt that this was the future of working, and we could thereby lower overhead and allow the studio to invest more heavily in talent acquisition.”
When the pandemic hit, Covert already had a full workflow in place. “We had our CRM and our cloud-based storage to ensure everyone could work from the same data no matter where they were in the world, and tools like Frame.io, which aided our creative process tremendously,” Simon says.
They were also dedicated to using the Adobe Creative Cloud as their creative toolset of choice from the beginning. They rely on After Effects for all compositing work, as well as using Photoshop and Premiere Pro. “The thing that’s so great about After Effects is it has a lot of scalability whilst being fairly simple to use,” Simon says. “In the high-end VFX industry there is a tendency to use tools like Nuke and Flame, but After Effects has a huge amount of value and power and can also be used to produce top-quality VFX work.”
“We found that in comparison to the more ‘advanced’ software, which is effective if you have to focus on the very minute details, it’s often more important to be able to arrive at something that’s visually very appealing as quickly as possible. Simple things like scaling a bit of footage and adjusting its position are so intuitive in After Effects.”
With the addition of features such as the Content-Aware Fill panel in After Effects and After Effects’ Rotobrush 2, Simon feels that it’s increasingly user friendly for VFX work, as well as for more traditional motion graphics work. “The other thing that has been massive is Adobe’s support of third-party plugins,” he says. “So in addition to the simplicity and speed of After Effects, with the plugins it’s become a complete pipeline for us.”
Rounding out their creative suite are 3D tools, including Cinema 4D, Blender, Houdini, and Unreal Engine. For this project in particular, they introduced plugins from the Boris suite and Mocha Pro 3D track.
Scaling with ease
So how did a primarily short-form company become the VFX house of choice for a long-form project? As always, it’s about relationships. When Simon’s old friend and longtime collaborator was creating the pilot for what would become Jungle, he approached Covert to provide the VFX.
Even though this was Covert’s first step into long form, they were able to pivot to a new way of working because they had a pipeline and workflow in place that was easy to scale. It’s something we observed about companies that were able to pivot the most quickly from on-site to remote work—preparation for the future was key.
Max Murphy, EP and managing director, explains their approach. “Once we were awarded the full series, we divided the overall project by the six episodes, which broke it into more manageable sub-projects.” Over the course of six months, a team of approximately 12 people worked from the UK, US, South America, Eastern Europe, and Spain to take the job from concept to delivery.
The VFX fell into several categories which included large set extensions, particle effects, simulating bullets in flight, blood enhancement, and animated 3D flowers. There were also invisible effects like beauty work and cleanup.
All the VFX were discussed in pre-production and the Covert team worked closely with the series directors and production team to ensure that they approached each with an eye toward getting the best creative result while maximizing efficiency. “For some of the shots that were more instrumental and bespoke to the storyline of Jungle, we worked with the directors to develop them creatively and build them in their vision,” Simon says.
Covert’s VFX supervisor attended the shoots to ensure that all necessary elements were captured, which were then sent to the prep team before the compositors began work. For CG-heavy shots, they worked on developing the assets they’d have to add into the scene first, like sculpting the models, texturing, shading, and animating them before handing them off to the compositing team.
Several of the effects were particularly challenging, requiring extra planning to properly execute. The 3D animating bouquet of flowers had to dynamically interact with the practical flowers on the plate, and removing the arm of one character to make him look like an amputee involved complex 3D match moves and blending of 3D passes.
“We pushed things like the Content-Aware Fill and Rotobrush to their limits, and made good use of the refined Soft Matte effect from After Effects, which is absolutely huge for us in tasks like that,” Simon says. “We also did some complex object tracking using Mocha Pro, which works very nicely with After Effects.”
And then there was the opening gun shot sequence. “The combination of the level of detail and the size of the files that we were working with made it challenging from the start,” he says. “They shot on a Phantom high-speed camera at 1000 fps. We’re talking about hundreds of gigabytes of data to render through. There was also some very complex 3D tracking involved.”
The remote advantage
Because everyone on the team is working remotely, they rely on the cloud to share assets, using MASV for exchanging large files with their clients. But for the creative aspect of collaboration, they use Frame.io.
A lot of what drove them to embrace Frame.io as an essential part of their pipeline has to do with their core philosophy around the advantages of working remotely. Yes, their decision to opt out of a brick-and-mortar operation was based on cost and work-life balance. But it was also a creative choice.
“With more conceptual work, artists need the freedom to think.”
Simon explains. “It’s a creative industry. But we’re dealing with artists, as well. Particularly with more conceptual work, artists need the freedom to think. If they’ve got a client there breathing over their shoulder, they just can’t execute things in the same way as if they’ve got the time and freedom to delve in. I think the advantage, from the artists’ perspective, is that they are in their comfortable environment. They don’t need to worry about commuting. They’ve got everything set up on their machine, ready to go.”
It also means that by leveraging Frame.io they were able to work through the creative development process easily. “We were able to share large amounts of creative for review with the directors and Amazon, as well as being able to easily disseminate this feedback across the post-production team that was spread out across multiple countries. Being able to view things frame by frame was a fantastic tool for quality control,” Simon says.
For the final QC, the 4K Log C Prores renders were pulled into Premiere Pro for closer inspection.
Faster, less expensive, high quality
VFX production has, historically, been fraught with problems including endless tweaking and “scope creep” that result in escalating costs and reduced profit margins to the VFX house.
But Covert has managed to not only build a pipeline and workflow that’s cost effective to maintain, they have also found a way to deliver impressive results. “It was quite exciting and disruptive in terms of what we delivered to Amazon,” Max says. “They were over the moon and super impressed with the level of work versus the cost. And not to get too granular about the money, but the nearest bid to ours was something like four or five times what ours was, and yet we made a good margin—which we couldn’t have done without being able to move with the agility that we do.”
Covert isn’t alone in realizing how efficient the Adobe-Frame.io workflow is. Simon cites the A24 hit film Everything Everywhere All at Once as an example. “It was basically five guys who did the VFX. You could have done it with a 50-person team and added a couple of zeros to the budget, and you’d still have gotten a similar result.”
Which is to say that the old post-production adage fast, cheap, good—pick two, while still fundamentally true can, with the right tools, workflow, and mindset, be more like faster, less expensive, high quality. As more cloud-based solutions become available and the impediments of time and distance become less of a factor, it’s not necessarily those with the highest cost tools who win—it’s those who embrace new ways of working.
Simon and Max agree that Adobe Creative Cloud has not just empowered Covert to disrupt the status quo in the marketplace, but has allowed them to push the boundaries of the kind of work they can take on. Jungle served as proof that they could deliver a 400-shot show while not disrupting their core business.
Beyond that, it allows them to spread their creative wings while making an impression on the industry. “We take a certain amount of pride in proving the people who tell us that you can’t do this quality of VFX with this software wrong. We’ve already built an international reputation in the commercial space and now we’re breaking through into long form.”
“It’s been a great experience for us and I think we can make an exciting impact on the long-form industry,” Max says. “We use After Effects for all our work and we’ve grown this company from a small, grassroots effort into being able to take on work on a much larger scale that’s very well received. There’s never a right or wrong way to do things, it’s what the creative output is. Do people enjoy it? Does it make someone feel something? If it ticks any of those boxes, then it’s a job well done.”
“There’s never a right or wrong way to do things, it’s what the creative output is.”
As the tools develop, the possibilities for the future continue to expand. “With the likes of AI and text-to-image tools, it paves the way for a really exciting future,” Max says. “And we’ll be along for that ride, as well.”
“What’s most gratifying for us is to have the privilege of working on such an amazing creative concept with such iconic talents,” Simon adds. “It’s truly humbling that this was our first exploration into long-form VFX and we’re very grateful for this opportunity. To have done so by sticking to our unorthodox guns of working remotely on a project of such scale gives us faith in our core principles, and we’re forever grateful to the team that worked their socks off to make it a reality.”
We’re likewise so grateful to learn of our customers’ success stories, and thrilled that we could help provide them with the tools that enable their creativity and ingenuity.