Who Needs an Office? – Talking with Hugo Guerra

At this year’s animago, we talked to Hugo Guerra, one of the alpha-testers of The Foundry’s Athera and an experienced Game Cinematic, Shortfilm and Commercial Director, about pipelines, owning a company and having a workflow that is completely remote. If you want to learn Nuke Compositing and keep up with courses and discussions, check out his Youtube channel bit.ly/hugos_desk, and for an overview of his work, check out hugo-guerra.com, where you will find the cinematics for games like “Assassin’s Creed”, “Eve”, “The Walking Dead” and others.
Hugo Guerra directing at Stiller Studios in Sweden for Deep Silver’s “Homefront The Revolution”. (Photo by Bjorn Omar Gudmundsson)
Hugo Guerra directing at Stiller Studios in Sweden for Deep Silver’s “Homefront The Revolution”. (Photo by Bjorn Omar Gudmundsson)

Hugo Guerra is a Visual Effects Supervisor and Director in London. Originally Portuguese, he did a Master’s in Fine Arts in Portugal, then left and went to work in the industry in countries like Sweden and the UK. Eventually he became Head of Compositing at The Mill, supervising all kinds of productions for five years. Three years ago, he founded his own company, working mostly on game cinematics and trailers, but also developing a completely remote workflow.

DP: What made you leave The Mill and start your own company?
Hugo Guerra: I’ve always had a big passion for video games and so I decided to leave The Mill and start my own company. I’ve always had a second life as a teacher as well, so for the last ten years I’ve been teaching at universities and schools all over the world. I’ve been splitting my time between teaching, which I was already doing at The Mill, and my own company. I also do the occasional commercial and short film, whatever interests me really. Having been a Head of Department and also a VFX Supervisor opens lots of doors and it is easier to get contacts and build a network.

DP: You are well known for your remote work style. Can you tell us a bit more about your setup?
Hugo Guerra: I don’t really have an office. I have a spare room in my house with a lot of monitors and computers. About five people are always working with me. We ramp up to about 20 people sometimes when we do a big project. But we don’t usually meet and are never in the same room. We always work remotely. We have dailies every day like every other company, usually at a very strange time because we have a lot of time zones within our team. We use Skype and Dropbox Business to synchronize files together, so we don’t need to share the screen because that would be too laggy to play back. A lot of times we just leave Skype open as well and leave the connection online, so we feel more connected. We use Ftrack for feedback and comments, which is very similar to Shotgun, where we can draw on top and make notes and everything.

Hugo’s Home office in London
Hugo’s Home office in London

DP: How would you describe your pipeline?
Hugo Guerra: The pipeline itself is pretty much the same pipeline I developed when I was at The Mill. Before I worked there, they had no Nuke pipeline. People were saving in their own folders and there was nothing structured, so we introduced naming conventions, folder structures, shots and built bridges between Maya, Houdini, Nuke, etc. Everything was constructed from scratch and connected with something similar to Ftrak, but it was built inside the company. These days they use Ftrak, so they swapped.
So because I’ve had experience in developing that pipeline, I built an improved version for my company. The main difference is that when you are sitting at The Mill, all files are on the server, so you don’t have to care about the paths, because everyone is in the same place. We’ve developed a pipeline that allows us to map all paths and folders independently of which machine is logging in. That means my matte painter in New Zealand might have the files on a hard drive called Z and my compositor in Portugal might have the files on a drive called S. It doesn’t matter. When you log into the system, as long as you log in with your username and password, the pipeline maps all the paths for you, it maps all the folders automatically.
Everything is very automated and it really is foolproof, you can’t even save by yourself. If you’re trying to save with your own name, it doesn’t allow it, just blocks it because it’s all saved by the system. You can’t even go into the folder and put your own script there because it won’t be detected by the pipeline.

DP: So where do you store your files?
Hugo Guerra: Everyone is connected to my system using Dropbox Corporate with 70 tera­bytes storage. The minimum requirement to work with me is to have really fast Internet, so all of us have fiber. I for example have double fiber in my house with two different providers from two different servers. And if those two go down I can still use 4G which is very fast as well. And sometimes when I’m in a rush to deliver to a client, I actually add the 4G as well to speed up the upload.

Activision’s “Call of Duty: Ghosts“ – Cinematics by The Mill
Activision’s “Call of Duty: Ghosts“ – Cinematics by The Mill

DP: What will the future bring?
Hugo Guerra: The future for me is stuff like Athera by The Foundry. I have been beta-testing it for a year and a half now and for me that is the future. That’s where I want to be. I don’t know if it’s going to be The Foundry because there are other players in the world. But mainly I want to stop doing the sync. I want my artists to just log into a remote machine.

DP: How does it work?
Hugo Guerra: Basically when you log in, it assigns a computer at Google for you. And that computer has Nuke, Houdini, etc. installed. You then connect your Google Drive or Dropbox to it and have your computer on a browser. So any computer, even if it’s a shitty PC from 2001, would work. As long as you have Chrome, it will work, even on smaller devices such as an iPad.
The main downside at the moment is, there is still a bit of a delay here because you have to wait for the cache to come in, meaning the file has to be downloaded from Dropbox into the caching system of Athera. You can easily work around this though by simply preparing your files and letting the cache run before you start working (the day before for example).
This is where it gets interesting actually. We have to work differently if we use this kind of system. Scheduling does that anyway, so most people know what they are going to do next day, so I think it’s easy. And this can even be automated if you think about it. My plan is to link Ftrack to this thing and so when I assign a shot, it will automatically start caching in the background at midnight. That’s how I want to work.
Another issue is that it doesn’t fully support 10 bit yet, only 8 bit, and I have my entire production set up on 10. But it’s mind-blowing if you think about it. You are in a browser working in Houdini or in Nuke and the machine is super powerful. It has a P100 by Nvidia, which is a card that costs 7.000 pounds. It has like 40-something cores and could have 100 gigs of RAM, so a very powerful machine and you can scale it even more if you want to. Currently, The Foundry supports two configurations, a fast and a slower one, but I’m assuming there will be a question of money if you want a faster one.

Deep Silver’s “Homefront The Revolution“ – Cinematic by Fire Without Smoke
Deep Silver’s “Homefront The Revolution“ – Cinematic by Fire Without Smoke

DP: What was the main reason for choosing this remote work style?
Hugo Guerra: Like many others at my age and period of life, I got so tired of working in big cities and having to commute to work. A lot of times you go to work and nothing happens. So instead, I’m working on my own time and I’m working when I need and I’m not working when I don’t need. Most of my artists are like me, they are seniors and tired of working in an office. They are really high-quality artists and they are very responsible and that’s why it’s easier to work remotely with them. We all stay flexible. If they need to take Friday off to go to the bank, they can. We have a deadline and as long as the work is done by that day, it doesn’t matter how or when it’s achieved.
During my time at The Mill I often had to wait for people to go home in order to get my own work done. You know, people would constantly come up to me, asking for help and of course I would drop everything and help. With my artists remotely, I see when they don’t know how to do something, they try to find a solution on their own first because they would need to schedule a call. It just takes more time. So this is another great benefit of working remotely, you actually get much more done. There are just too many interruptions in the office. Clients. Meetings. Production. When I’m at home, I know nobody will bother me during a certain period of time because I’m alone.

DP: What do you enjoy most about having your own company?
Hugo Guerra: I like being involved from the beginning, developing the scripts and concepts, but also developing it further and being involved in the entire creative process, all the way to the end. I know it’s a luxury which not a lot of people have. The reason why my company is being successful at the moment is because we only really do one job at a time, not multiple. They’re all profitable. And because we don’t have an office, it’s very easy for me to outbid other studios. So I feel I have alternatives.

Hugo Guerra directing at Stiller Studios in Sweden for Deep Silver’s „Homefront The Revolution“. (Photo by Bjorn Omar Gudmundsson)
Hugo Guerra directing at Stiller Studios in Sweden for Deep Silver’s „Homefront The Revolution“. (Photo by Bjorn Omar Gudmundsson)

DP: What about the communication? Don’t you think it’s easier to talk in person?
Hugo Guerra: No, I think it’s just a matter of getting used to it. These days I’m so used to Skype and writing messages, that I don’t even think it makes a difference. I am as synchronized with my artists as I was at The Mill. I always have Skype open, and with tools like video or screen share, you don’t need to be in the same room anymore. I can even control the machine with my mouse if needed. The technology is all here and I think it would benefit all of us to have this option. I am really not advocating that we all should work like this. Not at all. I’m just saying that this should be an option on the table because a lot of people don’t want to be in an office the whole time.

DP: Where do you see the future for bigger VFX studios?
Hugo Guerra: It will take a while, but I strongly believe hybrid solutions will be the future. Jellyfish Pictures for example have a very robust pipeline in their office. But they also have a very robust remote pipeline. That allows some of their seniors to work from home. They had to adapt because otherwise a lot of their seniors would have left. I also met many artists who hate working remotely. They want to be in the studio, they want to have talks and coffees with people, they want to have relationships. They start dating and going to the pub, it’s a social thing. I don’t do those things anymore. I’ve had enough of that. I’m married now. It’s a different stage in my life, same like other senior artists. That’s why I’m saying the future is a hybrid system. When you are a project lead or sup and you constantly have clients around, you can’t just leave and go to the bank or the post office. You end up doing this during your vacation. And this is a problem.

DP: Any last words for all the young people out there who want to work in the industry?
Hugo Guerra: I always recommend to my students never to stay too long in a big company. It’s great to learn the work ethic and professionalism from senior artists. You’ll also learn a pipeline, which is new to most people. But if you stay too long, you really get broken, because they work you to death. All the long hours will turn you into an old and grumpy person too soon.

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