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June 24
2018

ISSUE

Summer 2018

METHOD STUDIOS: Building a Global Network with a Boutique Spirit

By IAN FAILES

A screening/review room at Method Studios’ Melbourne location. (Images courtesy of Method Studios except where noted.)

If there’s one constant in the visual effects industry, it’s that it is always changing. One VFX company that has ridden the wave of change in the past few years is Method Studios, part of the Deluxe Entertainment group of production and post-production outfits that also includes EFILM, Company 3, Encore and Stereo D. Like so many other effects studios, Method Studios also spans the globe, with locations in North America, India and Australia, where Iloura VFX in Melbourne and Sydney (already part of Deluxe) came under the ‘Method’ brand in February. The studio is also in the process of exploring continued expansion to other locations.

VFX Voice sat down with some of Method Studios’ key staff to reflect on where the studio has been and where it is headed into the future.

METHOD’S JOURNEY

Method was originally founded in 1998 as a boutique L.A.-based facility mainly working in commercials, very soon establishing its name as a creative force in the area. After a number of mergers and acquisitions, the VFX studio now provides a wide offering of visual effects-related services in feature films, television, commercials, design and VR/AR.

A quick look at Method Studios’ most recent film projects reveals the extent to which the studio has become one of the top players in visual effects. These projects include Deadpool 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Okja.

Plus there’s been a wealth of VES Award nominations and wins, and several films nominated for the Best Visual Effects Oscar that Method has worked on, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The company reached a high level surprisingly quickly, acknowledges President and General Manager Ed Ulbrich, one of Digital Domain’s founding executives, who came on board Method Studios in 2016. He admits he was “blown away” by work he saw coming out of the studio, specifically in the 2015 disaster film San Andreas, during a stint at Warner Bros.

“I thought I was seeing the work of an ILM or another one of the majors,” Ulbrich recalls. “I watched this end sequence of the movie and was thinking, ‘Wow.’ It was just extraordinarily complicated work. Someone told me it was Method. I’m like, ‘Wait, Method?’ I’m very familiar with that type of work. There’s no easy way to do that.”

“I kept being confronted by work that Method was doing,” continues Ulbrich. “I knew of other people at other studios that had worked with them. I thought, ‘Method’s grown up. It’s this new shop.’ They’d really started to put out some exceptional-looking work.”

Method Studios President and General Manager Ed Ulbrich.

Melbourne-based Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst.

Los Angeles-based Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Olivier Dumont.

Ed Ulbrich hosts a monthly meeting of artists at Method Los Angeles.

WORKING AS ONE

Indeed, Method Studios had grown up – and quickly – partly from the acquisition of VFX companies operating in different cities (Method has operations in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, Melbourne, Sydney and Pune, India).

As a worldwide group, these studios all operate under the Method Studios banner, but until recently, notes Ulbrich, they had been mostly working independently. Ulbrich’s mission was to bring these separate studios together in a larger way.

“I remember having this conversation with [Deluxe President and CEO] John Wallace, saying, ‘Just imagine if all these shops could actually unite and function as one. That would be a very powerful entity. That would truly be something to reckon with in the industry. Another major would emerge. If somehow you could harness that power across all these various locations, and bring them together and unite them, you’d really have a major ‘tier one’ visual effects provider that could go head-to-head with anybody.’”

And that’s exactly what Method Studios has been doing over the past year, says Ulbrich, who told VFX Voice that a ‘unification’ project at the company is a combination of several things: aligning pipelines, defining combined business practices and communicating more closely. Global production meetings are now commonplace, and Method’s various offices regularly collaborate on the same projects.

Still, Ulbrich recognizes that each studio location has its own personality and skill sets. “Melbourne, for example, is very much oriented around character animation, for good reason,” he says. “They produce outstanding work. There’s an amazing pool of talent there. There’s some really remarkable things that are done there. So the notion is, why change that? Uniting together as part of a global force does not mean that we give that up.”

Staff at Method New York on International Women’s Day 2018.

Staff gather at Method Los Angeles for International Women’s Day 2018.

“Being an old animator, I have a soft spot for things like Ted and SpongeBob and those sorts of things. We’ve tried to always have that point of difference that we pursue character work, rather than straight-up effects work. We like to do a bit of everything, but we do like creatures and characters, so Jumanji was another good example. That was 120 minutes of fun, just a great film to be working on.”

—Glenn Melenhorst, Visual Effects

Supervisor, Method Melbourne

Artist workstations at Method Vancouver.

Inside Method Sydney.

“Despite the growth, I can still feel the boutique spirit in the work that Method delivers. Some might consider this a weakness – maybe inefficient – but I see this as a strength. We try to be different from the other companies and we want to be, above all else, original.”

—Olivier Dumont, Visual Effects Supervisor

CREATIVE SUCCESS, GLOBALLY

That’s echoed by those at the Melbourne studio, including Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst, who helped for years to shape the Melbourne studio’s success; in recent times on projects such as Game of Thrones, Ted and Ted 2, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the upcoming Robin Hood.

“Being an old animator, I have a soft spot for things like Ted and SpongeBob and those sorts of things,” states Melenhorst. “We’ve tried to always have that point of difference that we pursue character work, rather than straight-up effects work. We like to do a bit of everything, but we do like creatures and characters, so Jumanji was another good example. That was 120 minutes of fun, just a great film to be working on.”

The Melbourne studio had already been part of Deluxe for a few years, and working toward integration with Method before officially coming under the same name, all the while remaining a relatively small outfit at around 200 artists.

“We’ve always liked having that kind of boutique moniker,” says Melenhorst, who notes the change is helping to combine technology and pipelines, but says the company will still remain much the same in terms of operation. “We like that we’re big enough to handle being the sole vendor on a film, but we can also contribute to much larger films, too.”

Los Angeles-based Visual Effects Supervisor Olivier Dumont is another who has been close to the changes at Method Studios. He’s been with the studio for a decade, and recent experiences on the complicated effects films King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Doctor Strange made the VFX supervisor realize the extent to which Method had grown.

But Dumont also says “despite the growth, I can still feel the boutique spirit in the work that Method delivers. Some might consider this a weakness – maybe inefficient – but I see this as a strength. We try to be different from the other companies and we want to be, above all else, original.”

Although located in Los Angeles, Dumont has had first-hand experience at capitalizing on Method Studios’ global presence, especially on King Arthur, which saw the L.A. and Vancouver offices combine to deliver Method’s final shots for the film. “That was a pleasure because I got to meet all the talented artists up there. Working remotely is always difficult, but this project showed me it was possible, and that Method had the infrastructure to deliver a movie with the help of offices in different locations.”

“Also,” adds Dumont, “once the initial bridge is built between the offices – like the one I had the chance to participate in with the Vancouver office during the King Arthur project – everything then seems simpler. All teams are driven by the same passion to make  the best image for the screen, and it is easy to get on the same page no matter where the location is.”

For San Andreas, Method Studios helped destroy parts of Los Angeles via destruction effects simulations and a host of digital buildings and vehicles. (Images © 2015 Warner Bros.)

THE METHOD STUDIOS OF THE FUTURE

So what’s next for Method Studios? Already the company has more than 1,500 employees across its different facilities, with the possibility of further growth. Work on the unification of the various locations also continues, and Method Studios has a suite of large film projects in production such as Aquaman, The New Mutants and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, among several others. Then there’s the ongoing advertising business and newer forays into immersive experiences via its Method EXP group.

Ulbrich suggests that Method Studios is aiming to be a tier-one player that competes on a global basis and can “leverage and access incentives and rebates and low-cost labor markets around the world to provide a very competitive price.”

The company is perhaps already there, and has an extra weapon in its arsenal: its existence as a part of Deluxe. As a whole, the larger company can now offer filmmakers services ranging from design and previs all the way through to visual effects, DI and 3D stereo conversion.

“We can actually go in and talk about a bigger scope of services for a movie or a show than most places can,” observes Ulbrich. “We can talk about the full suite of services and packages, something that’s very attractive for those studios or networks or producers.”

Method Melbourne delivered CG rhinos and a synthetic cavern environment for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. (Image © 2017 Sony Pictures)

A fractal world created by the visual effects studio for Doctor Strange. (Image © 2016 Marvel Studios)

Doctor Strange

The fourteenth film in Marvel Cinematic Universe features some stunningly fantastical and mind-bending imagery, including a whole Method Studios sequence dubbed the Magic Mystery Tour. In it, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels through several psychedelic universes. Method Studios was tasked with creating them.

“This project was the most challenging creatively I ever worked on because we had to build 16 unique worlds,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Olivier Dumont. “Each had their own set of rules and elements that would affect the main characters. We obviously wanted to be as original as possible and ‘the crazier the better’ was our motto. We also had to create a short story for each universe before even starting to work on the visuals which was really a lot of fun.”

Digital armies combined with real photography formed part of the visual effects challenges in the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ episode of Game of Thrones. (Image © 2016 HBO)

Game of Thrones: Battle of the Bastards

This landmark episode from season six of the gamechanging HBO series, which involved a monumental bloody confrontation waged with horse riders, archers and foot soldiers, was also a landmark moment in the show for visual effects. Method Melbourne (formerly Iloura) crafted a range of photo-real horses, riders and combat moments for the episode, treating the visual effects as they would a feature.

“People often ask about that work because it’s TV and they can’t imagine it’s got the same rigor as film, but in every way it actually did,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst. The visual effects for the episode itself were recognized with both an Emmy and a VES Award.

A scene from Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, for which Method crafted a completely CG main character. (Image © 2017 Netflix)

Okja

With Netflix’s Okja, Method Studios worked closely with director Bong Joon-ho to deliver a believable and lovable main CG character. A key success of this ‘super-pig’ was giving it a suitable personality via animation, while also relying on Method Studios’ technical abilities to deliver realistic movement, skin and muscle simulations – all at 4K resolution.

Says President and General Manager Ed Ulbrich: “Our team in Vancouver had developed a process whereby they could simulate secondary animation based on physics as in-the-box, openGL playblasts. They did that really to help the director with a much better experience of judging performance in a scene without having to approve things in all of the usual animation layers. The development of that tool, which is now a tool that we’re rolling out globally, was invaluable to speed the process up, which really worked well as a strategy in our first 4K movie.”


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