Inside the studio no-one wants to leave

Embassy VFX is a small studio, and defiantly so

There's no shortage of visual effects studios in Canada right now. But what makes Embassy VFX stand out from the crowd is that people tend to stay... well, if not forever then at least a very long time. So what makes people so happy to work there?

One reason is that it's a small company, and defiantly so. "We go between about 20 and 40 here – and plan to keep it that way," explains producer Danielle Kinsey. "Once you grow too large and start to have satellite offices, you lose that ability to foster the creative process and information starts to break down."

At the company's heart is a core team, many of whom have been there since the beginning. "They're trained as generalists, so we don't always get caught up in certain parts of the pipeline being very specific to a certain artist," says Kinsey. "We have artists that are very flexible and used to being quite artistic and sometimes in charge of a shot in its entirety."

Michael Blackbourn, Danielle Kinsey and Winston Helgason of Embassy VFX

Small but mighty

Staying small does mean they'll never have the resources and capacity of an MPC or Framestore. But The Embassy makes up some ground here by developing its own custom software. They started doing this around four years ago, explains president and co-founder, Winston Helgason.

"We'd just finished Cowboys and Aliens," he recalls. "We'd been doing a lot of stuff where our pipeline was XSI and we were rendering in mental ray. We were also porting a lot of stuff into Houdini to do the effects work. But getting the tools to talk to each other was becoming so much work."

So The Embassy's current CTO, Ran Sariel, started writing custom tools for them to quickly export out of XSI and into Houdini. "It used to take an artist half a day to pack up the scene and get stuff across. And there'd still be issues where the cameras didn't match up, etc. But Ran just fixed all that stuff for us."

The Embassy created some of the more elaborate weapons for Elysium, including a futuristic flechette gun, expelling bullets that split mid-air into multiple projectiles

"Then he started writing custom daily makers and things like that," Winston continues. "So when an artist finishes a comp, the stuff is already being processed and created as a daily, and then it can be sent down to a client immediately for review. It's all very automated and that's helped us to be more efficient."

The smallness of the company and the efficiency of its customised tools are the main reason people like working there and want to stay, says CG supervisor Michael Blackbourn. And this creates a virtual circle, as their very longevity creates further efficiencies.

"In other words, we have this core bunch of people that know each other's strengths and know their own roles really well," he explains. "This makes it easier for the company to take on new challenges and take risks in bidding, because you have this confidence in your core staff."

Foe Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters Embassy created a beautiful animated sequence of the myth of Kronos

Key focus

It also means they can be nimble. "For instance, when Marvel had a bit of an emergency and needed some suit shots from Iron Man 3 at short notice, we handled it without any problems because we'd worked on Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and all kinds of robot movies… and all the people who'd worked on them were still here."

But The Embassy's not just about TV and movie work. It was originally founded in 2002 as a commercials facility, and that remains a key focus to this day.

"Recently we did a BMW commercial which was probably the funnest thing I've got to work on," enthuses Winston. "We directed it, we produced it; we got to take an M4 to a big, open piece of tarmac, and had Daniel Craig's stunt double driving the thing. It was a hoot!"

Iron Man is dear to the hearts of the Vancouver studio

In short, as far as The Embassy is concerned, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. "We continue to get great commercial work and great film work," says Winston.

"We can't compete with the larger shops in Vancouver doing 1,000 shots, but we can do a chunk of that movie just as well as they can. We're pretty strong technically for a house our size. So we're really happy where we are."

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This article originally appeared in 3D World magazine.