Meet the Studio: Armstrong White

Armstrong White specializes in photo-real CG motion and still imagery for automotive brands. We spoke with CG Supervisor Brandon Bartlett about Armstrong White’s unique workflow and how they leverage ShotGrid (formerly Shotgun Software) to help support an enormous volume of simultaneous projects.

Tell us about Armstrong White.

We work with a lot of agencies that represent vehicle manufacturers, so we create content for websites, print campaigns, trade show videos and catalogs for GM, Nissan, Infiniti, Mazda and Subaru to name a few– these are huge projects. We’re based in Detroit, so as a result of being here, lots of agencies and car companies know us and our reputation for doing very good car work.

Armstrong White has a team of 48 people. We’re an anomaly because of the sheer number of projects that we do – we have 88 projects currently online. Our average is between 50-70 projects active at any given time, and because we have several that turn around in just days, we have projects going in and coming out in the same week. It’s not like episodic or film – our needs are different and our timelines are very truncated.


What’s your favorite thing about being in Detroit?

I’m from here so that helps, but I think the city is fantastic. You go downtown and it’s hitting a revival. You hear a lot about Detroit and how it’s bad. There are movies that depict it as terrible place, but downtown is coming back. They’re building another sports arena for the Red Wings, there are a lot of local breweries - we’re actually number four on the list of brewers in the nation. Detroit’s just a really nice place to be, but we do get harder winters than people in California are used to. The seasons changing is nice, fall is fantastic. And, in Detroit you can park on the streets without getting absurd parking tickets. I was in LA for one week and I got three parking tickets in the same day!

When you aren’t working, what’s the ideal way to spend a day in Detroit?

Go to cider mills, and I’m a hockey fan so when fall rolls around it’s time to go see hockey games.


What first led you to CG?

I knew I wanted to do something creative and movie related forever. I went to school for computer animation at the College for Creative Studies here in Detroit, and graduated with a BFA from the animation and digital media department. I started with Armstrong White doing night work right out of college. We had three or four months to prep an entire vehicle line for Chrysler — it was very learn-as-you-go for me at that point!


How long have you been with Armstrong White?

I started working here right out of college about 10 years ago. At that point I spent almost 3 years at Armstrong White before leaving to work with VFX studios (With A Twist, then Pixomondo), and I came back here in January 2012. When I came back on board I got Armstrong White to start using ShotGrid since we were moving onto larger volume projects.

What's a day in your life like?

Typically I come in, check email, and check ShotGrid to get caught up – with clients all over world we get requests at odd hours, so my inbox is always full of producer or client requests. I also need to get caught up on anything that’s happened with various apps I’m maintaining, so if there is a new release of software or something, that’s typically when I check it out, early in the morning. Once I get through that, I hop into ShotGrid to see what tasks I’ve got going on and I work through those based on what’s due when. We have general production meetings throughout the day – we have a lot of clients in California, so with the time difference, once our afternoon kicks in, California is up and running so the day gets busier having conference calls and creative meetings with them as well. Then at end of day I tackle pipeline issues so that the studio can work faster, better, and stronger.


What are the three most important things in your office?

My workstation, I can’t do anything without that. The render farm is super important because with the size of images we have to render. And, of course, the microwave, for reheating my coffee.


What tools do you use in-house at Armstrong White?

Our main CG application is Maya, so we’re running Maya with Deadline as our render manager and we also use V-Ray for rendering. We’re also using RV with ShotGrid for doing reviews, and ShotGrid is the entire backbone of our operation for keeping everything organized. Since our print work requires a lot of retouching, we’re also using Photoshop, Nuke for compositing, and we occasionally use ZBrush and Mari when we need to. We do a lot of straight unwrapping and texture creation in Photoshop as well.

We also use some specialized tools, some of which we’ve written ourselves – we’re a niche within a niche so for some projects our tools have to be tailored. We do a ton of CG work and compositing, but not in the same way as film and TV studios; our typical renders are anywhere from 8-16K on average, so we’re rendering very very large still images, kicking those out and in order to make that load workable, we’ve developed specialized tools to parse those single frames. One tool leverages tile submissions on the render farm so we’re not limited by V-Ray’s distributed bucket rendering. We can hook an entire farm of 30+ machines into it. We have a Photoshop ripper to generate Photoshop files from EXR files for our retouchers, giving us more latitude to change the paint base color and those types of things.

Which in-house/custom developed tool are you most proud of?
When you buy a car you can access a vehicle configurator and that has to be able to showcase every possible color, finish and model combination.

Our CG Supervisor Damian Fulmer and Developer Drew Loveridge have developed an awesome proprietary tool called “State Manager” which helps us set up scene files by managing groups of geometry in various states: visible, invisible, matte, and so on. Due to the volume of automotive work we do, we have an intimate knowledge of how large numbers of parts fit together, we just needed an efficient way to automate that assembly process. That’s what State Manager gives us. It allows us to create full beauty renders of configurations as well as isolate the elements that make up the parts of those configurations. We’ve been extending it to be able to share the configurations and override them across and in individual scenes to allow for client feedback. Originally the intent was simply to alleviate a lot of the overhead in our configurator workflow, but it’s so effective that we found ourselves using it for stills and animations too, and it has become an integral part of how we think about projects.


How much effort do you focus on building out the pipeline?

We have one dedicated developer that spends all his time writing code, and a few other artists that dabble here and there. I’d like to focus on it more; it’s more fun than standard day-to-day stuff because it’s like putting a puzzle together - it's that “how do I make things work” question. As far as general pipeline stuff, I get to it between projects when I can, and ShotGrid has been a big help in providing support and setting up our current configuration. We’re using ShotGrid's Pipeline Toolkit to generate our folder structure. Before Toolkit we did it by hand, we had a template we used and then replicated folders manually which was a pain. Now they’re created automatically with each new project and they’re all linked into ShotGrid so artists can easily access files without having to browse through the entire directory. We’re looking at expanding that and doing some new custom development with ShotGrid, and ShotGrid Desktop is definitely one of the things I’m excited about. I’ve installed it and am working on making it more applicable to how we work.


How do you stay connected to the creative community?

Obviously forums are a great way, and ShotGrid has a great forum system and a terrific community of users. Thinkbox, The Foundry, all of those forums allow us – being so far from the epicenter of VFX and CG – to stay connected. We go to shows too - I was just at SIGGRAPH and got to meet the folks from ShotGrid who I had been talking to through support and forums.

Also, I’m a huge Cinefex fan, it’s a great resource and even though it’s just a quarterly publication it’s clear that they deliver quality over quantity. YouTube and Vimeo are great for keeping tabs on what’s being created by other artists and facilities, and sites like fxguide and CG Channel are great about keeping the community up-to-date about what’s going on as well. Skimming through those feeds is a typical part of my day, whether it’s first thing in the morning or inbetween tasks. With so many facilities and talented artists out there, it’s great having all these resources to make that content available.

What are some ShotGrid ‘best practices’ in place at Armstrong White?

I used ShotGrid when I worked at With A Twist and Pixomondo, and I had a good understanding of ShotGrid as far as being a general user, but I didn’t have any influence on how it was structured or how templates were built because they had pipeline leads at those places who did fantastic work. Since we aren’t the typical VFX/animation/games facility customer, we’ve geared ShotGrid to a print and interactive workflow rather than film and TV. We don’t deal with sequences, so we typically deal with ShotGrid tasks and bypass sequences entirely.

Also, with the number of projects we have online, we have producers working on 10-15 projects simultaneously rather than working on multiple shots for just one show. Because we do so much vehicle work, we also have a garaging system, so figuring out how to link all the vehicle assets to all the projects they’re being used on required creating non-project entities on ShotGrid linked together to communicate project-to-project. For example, if we get a product change on a vehicle, that vehicle might be used on five different projects. We needed a way to communicate those changes to every user accessing that data across every project it's linked to. So, we worked with ShotGrid support to do that and once that was in place here it became a huge life saver.


What are your favorite ShotGrid features?

I’m a big fan of the ShotGrid events framework, I love the fact that we have a daemon machine that sits in the server room and we write some small scripts and have great automation – that has been invaluable for us. To set the status automatically, alert producers that things are ready to go, producers linking artists to projects automatically, that's all been great. It was amazing when we integrated it how quickly the artists hopped on board. Usually it’s producers who think it’s amazing, they want to be organized, but here it was the artists who adopted it very quickly and started making it their own.

Also, with ShotGrid being in the cloud, the fact that they handle our updates is one less thing for me to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis; the automatic updates are so great. You can follow ShotGrid’s status website and alert producers to when a scheduled maintenance ticket is going on and that’s it.