Business in focus: Milk Visual Effects
Milk Visual Effects is an award-winning high-tech VFX studio. It has worked on BBC dramas such as Sherlock, Netflix productions such as Altered Carbon and films including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and recent release Adrift. CFO Sharleen Kelly explains how automation and moving to the cloud keeps the business agile and competitive.
Founded in 2013, Milk produces high-end visual effects for TV and film. Its work has won three BAFTAs and an Emmy. In 2016 co-founder Sara Bennett won an Oscar for her work on the film Ex-Machina in the Best VFX category.
The company’s rapid growth earned it a place in The Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 in 2017. Then in 2018, Milk took over an additional floor in its Fitzrovia premises, doubling its London capacity. It now has space for over 200 artists in the capital, and for another 20 in its studio in Cardiff. The business has a relatively low permanent headcount, placing heavy reliance on freelancers as is usual in the visual effects sector.
Pushing the boundaries
Kelly doesn’t necessarily see Milk as a disruptor. “The visual effects industry itself is pretty disruptive,” she says. “It’s constantly using technology to push the boundaries of creativity and what it can do to serve film, TV and digital content and help producers and directors tell their story on screen.”
For example, on the film Adrift – a love story about a disaster at sea, Milk created the entire ocean environment and the ferocious storm including bespoke hand-animated 100-foot waves. “A few years ago, a film like this wouldn’t have been possible to make using VFX in the same way,” Kelly says.
"Our artists and effects and pipeline team work with off-the-shelf VFX software,” she notes. “But they add bespoke elements to adapt it to the way they want to use it. There’s a lot of R&D and scientific data behind how they create effects such as storms, water, waves and other effects. The end goal being for the audience to believe that they are seeing real dynamic water."
Digital technology is at the core of Milk’s business. “We create digital effects, so naturally all of our business is about digital technology,” Kelly says. “We create digital effects to support, enhance and drive story telling in film and television. We wouldn’t be able to produce what we do without the technology and the team’s agility and creativity in harnessing its power.”
Specialist software is used as appropriate for the artists’ disciplines. For example, Milk needs animators, FX artists (who produce natural elements like fire and water), compositors (who make images look photo-realistic), lighters, modellers and riggers (who create the ‘skeleton’ for 3D models, ensuring characters and objects move realistically).
Industry: Motion Pictures and Film
Company size: 51-200 employees
Ownership: Privately Held
Future-proofing the business
Milk future-proofs its business by keeping up with the latest technology developments in the sector – or even being a step ahead. “We are constantly developing the software and working out ways to automate repeated tasks,” Kelly says. “And we make sure we have the latest software and most efficient VFX pipeline for our artists to use.
“Our artists are great at networking and keeping up with latest developments in the VFX community. They have strong relationships with the people who create and produce all the new software. So we are often asked to trial things before it becomes available.”
Milk also harnesses the power of the cloud. “At Milk, we quickly recognised right from the outset that if we wanted to compete at the top of our game, we would need resources far beyond our internal capacities and the cloud offers this,” Kelly explains.
“An essential part of the VFX pipeline is rendering – which takes place when all the digital layers of a shot are brought together near the end of the process. We have migrated our rendering capabilities to the cloud – which gives us full scalability and flexibility according to the demands of each project. Historically the VFX industry has used hard drive/in-house computer based rendering capabilities; which means a fixed resource from both a capability and cost point of view.
“We recently processed all of our rendering on recent feature film Adrift in the cloud, a job we couldn’t have undertaken using our in-house resources. The same applies to our work on the popular recent Netflix sci-fi series, Altered Carbon.
Milk is in the process of moving towards a complete end-to-end cloud pipeline from ingestion, to its storage, workstation and delivery capabilities, for the same reasons. This gives it a flexible and scalable resource of the ‘tools’ its uses to do its job – which can be brought into play according to the demands of projects. It also makes expansion much easier.
"Our aim is to migrate fully to operating in the cloud, with virtual work stations and all our data storage in the cloud,” Kelly says. “It gives us the agility to expand beyond our London office should we choose to without having to be reliant on purchasing expensive kit."
“This is likely to become the norm across the VFX industry within the next few years. Full cloud migration will lead to an enormous cultural shift; in the way we operate and do business as an industry and will shift our costs from capex to a pay-as-you-go opex model.”
The cloud was key to Milk’s success on its recent theatrical project Dinosaurs in the Wild. The studio had to create a ground-breaking cloud rendering solution to process almost 80 million 6K stereoscopic frames.
“You had to be able to see the dinosaurs moving around and to look at them from every angle in stereoscopic 3D on a 6K screen, within a giant dome shaped room,” Kelly says. “And there were so many dinosaurs created at very high resolution. That’s why it was such a big project. So the team made the decision that we would have to render it in the cloud.”
"It’s definitely the way to do it,” Kelly says. “The cloud is enabling a lot of the smaller visual effects companies to punch above their weight and scale up to do larger projects. It’s future-proofing our business and helping us keep up with bigger players. It gives us more flexibility and we don’t have to have kit sitting idle when a project is between rendering phases. It makes expansion just a bit easier.”
Challenges and goals
What challenges did Milk face in growing its digital business? “In the initial stages it was about convincing people we had the skills and pedigree,” Kelly says. “We were competing against companies that have been around for 20 years. But the founders had good relationships with key clients such as the BBC, Hartswood Films, the producers of TV series Sherlock and ITV, and a great track record as a team. They were able to convince people to work with us.”
Another ongoing challenge is to keep the order book full – while also keeping an eye on the profitability of the jobs. “You’ve also got to keep quality consistently high,” Kelly adds. “The awards we won in the first three years have helped us create a good reputation. And of course ensuring we have the best talent!”
"Despite the challenges, Milk has set its sights high. “Our overall goal is to be the most agile visual effects company in the world,” Kelly says. “For us that means harnessing the latest technological developments to create the highest quality visual effects. Our long-term goal is to increase our share of global feature film work.”
The visual effects sector is young, but growing. “Demand for visual effects seems to be expanding exponentially,” Kelly says. “With Netflix, Amazon and others creating new content, there’s a lot more demand. Emerging online technology is also having an impact.”
She expects high demand to encourage more small companies to enter the market. “More VFX companies will migrate to a full end-to-end cloud pipeline,” she adds. “The technology – being able to have all workstations in the cloud and be wherever anybody wants to be – will make location and geography less of an issue.”
Kelly suggests that businesses can help themselves become more digital by keeping up with industry events and reading about technological advances in their sector. “Try things out,” she also suggests. “You can get a free trial on most software subscriptions, so you don’t have to commit to buying a licence for a year.”
Constantly looking for ways to automate or simplify processes is important too. “Our finance team is small,” Kelly says. “We are constantly looking at new systems we can use to streamline our processes so we don’t have to hire new staff. It’s about constantly asking yourself: I am doing this all the time, so what can we do to automate it?”
Automation can be applied in any area, even in recruitment. “We are hiring all the time,” Kelly says. “We now have a recruitment portal where we can upload skillsets. We can cross-reference between people who are available and who can do certain things. It saves time.”
Kelly doesn’t see any particular barriers impeding the digitalisation of UK businesses. Cost may be a concern, but subscription-based services address that. Competition is also bringing down cost.
"And there are so many young developers around hungry for work,” Kelly says. “So maybe take a chance on some of those people. We have quite a young team of developers who are super agile in terms of creating solutions.”
Kelly doesn’t see that the Government could do much more to encourage UK businesses to embrace digitalisation. The R&D tax relief scheme is already a huge incentive. “We use R&D tax relief quite heavily and that’s been a huge benefit for us,” she says. “Our artists now know what will count as R&D and what won’t and they flag things up.”
However, schools and universities could perhaps do more to encourage interest in digital careers. “We do talks in universities and schools to educate the younger generation about this industry because it’s not very well known. We also work with cross-VFX industry groups to encourage more young people to consider VFX as a career – often they don’t know it exists!” Kelly says.
"I also think schools could to more to encourage girls into this sort of profession. As an industry we are still male dominated. Schools could do a lot more from primary school age upwards to show that these are gender-neutral careers that are worth pursuing. My kids are fascinated by what our work creates.”
We asked: Away from Milk, what disruptive tech has most impressed you…
“It’s something that has affected both my business and personal life – and that’s Netflix,” Kelly says. “It’s completely disrupted TV and film. It’s created a lot more work for us! And personally I never had TV at home because I got sick of the ads – but I now have Netflix. You can watch what you want, when you want it. And it’s really brought up the quality with the content available.”