Earlier in the month, the team at Adobe hit me up and I was given the opportunity to interview Taye Shuayb of ATTN: to talk about how they’ve been creating their new show Your Daily Horoscope utilizing Adobe Creative Cloud, and how they’ve transitioned from office to home-office. Always up to talk to interesting people about the work they do, I virtually “sat down” with Taye and got a solid half hour to learn about animation in today’s “more challenging” work environment.
We are making it from home, which I think makes it crazier than the idea itself. Like I think there is a kind of typical definition of the show. What I love most about the show is that, ya know, I’m not like an aficionado on horoscopes. You know, I like to read my horoscope every now and then like anyone else, for entertainment purposes, but to have a really fun show that really that’s strongly based in astrology, but it feels like a fresh way to just get your horoscope and to take a moment out of your day, and to read that horoscope in an entertaining way, based on these really fun characters. Who most people tell us, it is shocking how these characters represent who they are as people. That part of it is really exciting for me and is really exciting to be a part of.
How are you designing organizing and sharing assets? Are the animators literally just drawing it up and putting it together themselves? What are the hardware and infrastructure requirements there?
So the hardware is pretty straight forward, I mean we are using, full Adobe Creative Suite, and specifically on the design side we use Adobe Photoshop, version 21.2.0, Adobe Illustrator version 24.2, and on the animation side we’re using a combination of Adobe Character Animator version 3.3.1, and Adobe After Effects version 17.1.1, and then on the editorial side we’re using Adobe Premiere, and the version we’re working off of is version 14.0.4.
One thing that has helped me out during this whole work at home thing is that I’ve always worked from home as a freelancer so my computer has always been built for that. You know, I made sure to get the fastest internet, I’ve got online storage all over the place, plenty of workarounds and backups; did the did the creators of the show have to go into work and steal all the rigs from there? Or was everyone pretty good to go at their homes already?
We planned to produce the show on site. We did set up all the work stations, and work flow and network connectivity within office, through a shared kind of network, you know high fiber speed 10 GB file network. So it was some undertaking to stop down the show during the pandemic, to take those work stations that we configured, and we literally transported each and every one of those work stations to all of our staff’s homes. And then we configured those work stations in their homes based on you know whatever connectivity they had in their home network. So our users, today they all work locally and synchronize their data to sync with our platform via google drive file stream. So GBFS also controls versioning of those files, in case we need to go back, and these files are synced to our on premise data center to collate at a central location. So where we copy that data to our backup server on a nightly basis, we use another piece of software called Bvkup. So we are using that configuration to stay connected, and it seems to be working out nicely.
In terms of communication, are you guys just using like Teams or obviously Zoom is really popular now, or does everyone kind of get the brief and then autonomously go off and do it and and return back? In other words is it like a decentralized command or is it very “everyone needs to be in the same room at all times virtually” type situation?
It’s a combination of both, we have departments that break out their own communication, and some of that is decentralized. We absolutely use a combination of Zoom, Google hangout, Slack is a big form of communication for us. You know, we had to completely change up our workflow, in order to add communication, communication is an important thing right, but when you are in the same building together, you know it is a lot easier to swing by somebody’s desks, to overhear conversations, to just tap someone on the shoulder, to ask a question, and one of the most complex things we had to overcome was that every piece of communication had to be thought out, and in some cases scheduled. That took us about maybe a week to both plan and get down, but once we did everyone quickly got into a good rhythm of communication. It did add time to our workflow, but we sorted that out early on.
And how many people roughly are on the team making the show?
We have in total, with all departments, including talent and some of our experts advising on the show, you know you’re looking at a hair over 60 people.
Oh wow. I’ve noticed too that, a lot people have been talking about how (and I’ve kind of said this too, as a freelancer) instead of “working from home” it feels like you’re “sleeping at work.” Has that been a problem for you guys? Where it’s like “well, even though the work days technically over” you’re like “well the computer still here…” Do you feel like the team kind of manages themselves in a good way or do you kind of have to go like, “hey it’s okay to stop”?
Yeah I mean it’s a very complex show, and very intense show. So the level of communication and precision required to deliver this show on time, and within budget is incredibly high. So think of it like this, on any given day our teams are working on upwards of 20 different episodes, which represents 240 separate videos, 480 exports, 120 scripts, all in various stages of V1s and V2s. And of course because the teams are not in the same physical space, every single piece of content from animatics to daily animation, to cuts from editorial are exported, uploaded and internally reviewed and approved. So not only does it add more time, but when you talk about the versioning of everything, it gets complex, and could be overly taxing really quickly. I think the most amazing thing to compliment our team on about this show is the surprising way that the team not only pivoted and adapted, but how committed they were to the show, and in delivering on it when there was so many other things going on in the world that we consider to be more important. We love the show, it’s our baby, and it’s extremely important, but people’s lives, people’s health, are of utmost importance above that, so we’ve made a conscious effort throughout the show, and we are about half way through the show now, it launched on Monday, but we’re still cranking out episodes. We’ve made it our hyperfocus to make sure that people don’t over index on it, that people take breaks, we’ve coordinated lunch schedules, and we’ve spent a lot of time with our production teams making sure we have a good system so that people can do their 8-10 hours in their own respective departments, but then they can unplug and reset and re-group, because that’s the health and well-being of our staff is the most important thing.
How has the talent taken to recording their own dialogue? I remember seeing an interview with Thandie Newton, when she was talking about Westworld Season 3, and she was saying that she did some final VO on her cell phone in her car and I actually saw that interview before I saw the episode and I heard it! I could hear the actual line that she recorded in her car because it sounded so boxed in. The actors probably have a better situation than that I assume?
We were fortunate and we found a lot of really great, really experienced talent that had their own rigs, and they were used to filming remotely. We definitely brought on some additional roles to help with sound engineering a little bit, but for the most part, all of the talent really that we brought on had their own equipment, a lot of their own pro gear, and that helped out tremendously.
Oh awesome. So you’re using Photoshop, Premiere, After Effects, all that stuff; are you you’re using Character Animator as well?
Yeah, I mean, look, here’s what I can say, and this is just something that I really love to point out is that this show just, in my opinion, wouldn’t be possible without Adobe and their Creative Suite. A lot of our show, the engine driving our show is Adobe character animator. Our characters, backgrounds, and props are all designed in photoshop. Then we rigged and animated our characters using Character Animator, we composited it in After Effects, and then we edited of course in Premiere, the flexibility and inter-connectivity of Adobe software allowed us to create this show at a pace that is not only unheard of in animation, but it was unheard of to do under the constraints of a pandemic, so there are many people to thank for the success of this show. But one of the other driving factors was picking some of the right department heads to work on that, we had a supervisor/ director and head of animation, his name is Tim Harold, and then we had Jake Reeves who was our art director and lead designer, and Warren Stone, our post supervisor, I mean our show is incredible thanks to the contributions, of not only their leadership, but their teams, and their effort and hard work. It’s just a combination of finding the right people who are passionate about the work and who really believe in the project. That’s what got us through this moment. Factor that with the Adobe Creative Suite and Character Animator. Good technology, good people and everybody’s willingness to understand the challenges of the day and work together. It’s just a remarkable feat, and I’m just so proud of the show because of it.
Another thing that was really great for us is, the team who developed, the team at Adobe who developed Character Animator, I mean they were always very open and gracious to get on the phone with us, to help us work through tech issues, to talk to us about the best hardware and software to run the program on. Just, anything that we needed, they were so gracious and so helpful, and so just not only committed to not just convincing us to use their product, these weren’t the sales guys, these were the engineers and the people who designed it, and the people who tested it, you know they cared about the product, and they cared about the people using the product, and I’m so grateful to have access to those folks over there, cause they were amazing.
There’s a lot of things in even Premiere and After Effects that, due to feedback, get added to the program like Render and Replace from David Fincher’s team. Have you guys in turn done anything, mentioned something you’d like tosee, that has ended up back in the program after your input?
Not that I’m aware of, a lot of our use of the program was based on their recommendations, and what they knew and then what we knew from testing it with work. So it was less about us coming up with new innovations, to push back at them, and it was really about us maximizing on their innovations, and figuring out how to work through the best of their software in its current state, with our workflow, and that’s where we spent a lot of time. Like this show was also very much driven by our pre production process, there was lots of pre prepping and planning and a great deal of time was devoted to designing characters and understanding the guard rails of their actions and the surrounding world, and equally important was the time spent on prepping the characters to be rigged, creating props, and designing backgrounds, so pre production planning was even more crucial considering how we had to unexpectedly pivot the entire show and work from home because of a pandemic. So, this was an extensively collaborative effort between our writers, and designers, and compositers, and animators, and editors, and production, and IT, and even Quibi themselves, so investing this time added both to the story as well as to our ability to later move through the production process quickly. It just was timing, right? Leveraging Adobe Character Animator and the other Adobe products along with just having a large group of people, all invested in getting through this in the safest, and most productive, and most creative way possible. All of those things combined is what really drove the success of delivering the show.
Like Erik Messerschmidt said “people say fix it in Post, fix it in Pre!” ya know? If you if you plan well enough, you don’t have to fix anything in post usually.
I’m so glad you said that, cause this was absolutely not a show where we could think like that. There was no fix it in post. This was such a tight schedule, and there was so many things happening in parallel, that it had to be really well planned, the communication had to be really tight, and we all had to be in sync, from Quibi as a buyer and Attn: as a production company, to move through the workflow process and the production process. We had to do things, we were forced, and you know I’ve been in production for I don’t know, nearly 2 decades now, it’s very rare, when everyone is forced to be in sync in this way, and I guess that is one of the pros that came up working under these conditions.
Speaking of Quibi, obviously the highlight feature of the platform is the whole rotating thing. Were you using auto-reframe for that? In cinematography, obviously, you kind of just have to shoot a really wide frame and then think of it in sort of intersecting rectangles. I assume an animation you can just design the set or whatever to fit that aspect ratio? How have you tackled that?
You know it was really tough, and we used a combination of techniques, I guess another tool that I would hate to leave out is Frame.IO, was really important in putting this together and it really allowed us to view the frames of animation in both vertical and horizontal at the same time. Which was hugely helpful for the team in comping and planning out where everything was going to be and how its colors were gonna show up. Whether you had your phone in vertical position or horizontal position. There’s definitely techniques we used where we blew everything up, but also being able to see almost in real time via Frame.IO, how those frames would play out in both vertical and horizontal was extremely pivotal.
How is that scene set up? Is it just one big wide frame or is it like a T-shape or a “plus” something?
Yeah, it’s kind of a big wide frame. It does get moved around a little bit so I would say all of the above.
We hope sooner than later we’ll get to go back to work amongst each other, but going forward do you think it’ll look more like a more hybrid situiation? “work from home as a compliment to working in an office”? How do you see the future of that coming around? Because you guys are on the bleeding edge of aggressive working from home, you know. [laughs]
Yeah, that’s an extremely great question. I think I feel a future world, and animation gets a little tricky right? Because, animation can be done in a number of different ways, there are a lot of teams that work remotely internationally, right? So they communicate across the board, across the cloud, and I think more and more things are moving that way, and I think a hybrid world is absolutely a real idea, a real concept that companies should be planning for and wrapping their minds around if they are not already doing it. And we’ve gotten used to it, we’ve been in it for so long we have gotten used to the reality of working from home, but I think the one thing, the one nugget, that I would want to call out, especially producing an animated series of this volume, and of this quality level, we still, we as a team, we still have that desire for some kind of human interaction, some in person contact. It really shows up when it is time to kind of celebrate, getting through our milestones. So I think that’s the one, that’s the one part of it that even though I think the world is moving more and more towards remote, I think having the opportunity to bring these kinds of teams together in person is something we should figure out how to find the balance to, because at the end of the day it was really talented people who cared about each, other that got us through this. Everyone concerned about doing their part so that the other person could do their part, and having those teams have the opportunity to meet each other, and embrace, and laugh, and joke. We tried to set up those moments via Zoom, via technology, and that helped a lot, and definitely I think that’s important, but it is also important when you are doing local production and local animation to have the opportunity to bring people together for real contact.
Totally and I think too like it, you know, I had to Zoom in on a friend’s birthday party and there was you know, 20 of us on the call and it’s impossible to talk it’s a you know, someone’s gonna lag out you can’t really hear everyone and it becomes more frustrating than it is celebratory.
You got it, I think that’s the pros and cons of it, to the folks who want to jump on one side or the other, I get it, and I get all arguments, but it’s where we have those little technology breakdowns that makes the tried and true aspect of humans communicating with each other, and brainstorming with each other and bouncing ideas off of each other. Having that in close proximity is really important to the creative process.
I noticed something interesting in the trailer where they say “when the horoscope says so, you have to go to sleep” and everyone conks out. Is this one of those shows (and I enjoy this style) that promises one thing and becomes another? Does this thing go off the rails?!
[laughs] I wish I could answer that but what I would love to say to that is that, of course I want to promote my show, but I think, the really fun part of this show is seeing how all the dots connect between characters, and how those stories play out, and there is so many, when you kind of talk about the turnstyle nature of the Quibi platform right? There’s so many hidden easter eggs in each thing, that our team had a really fun time coming up with, and a really fun time with putting things within each scene in the background that kind of lends itself to understanding those characters and their personalities. And I think the more you watch the more you’ll learn about the characters and the world that they’re in, and you’ll be able to determine for yourself very quickly if things are going to go off the rails or not.
We sort of thought of the horoscope first, that’s what the people come there for, but there are story archs that play out, not only over each character’s storyline, but throughout the world of Estreya, and that’s the fun part that you noticed that, and you connected to that, so like if you are not the hardcore horoscope guy or astrology person, just watching that story play out and seeing that things are going to go off the rails, are what we are even more proud of from an entertainment perspective. Because we think that if people keep coming back for more and more, they’ll find new things and new ways to connect, and they’ll have a good time seeing how those stories play out.
Thank you so much for your time Taye!