An introduction to Iamstatic

Iamstatic are the minds behind the compelling title sequence of Netflix and Discovery’s historical drama series, Frontier (2017), taking pride of place as the team’s first of several projects rendered with GarageFarm.NET’s powerful render farm. This small yet mighty Canadian studio are known for their specialisation in film, titles and storytelling, for which they make full use of Autodesk 3ds Max and its Corona and V-Ray render plug-ins. Iamstatic is helmed by founding creative directors Ron Gervais and Dave Greene alongside fellow director and animator Norma V. Toraya. While they are now known for their impressive work in the third dimension, the studio didn’t make its start in the realm of CGI, instead their story began 18 years ago at a university in Halifax, Canada.

The early days

Iamstatic has similarly humble origins a lot of animators can relate to, for it began with After Effects (1993–) and Flash (1996–); and not newfangled ‘Adobe Animate CC’ Flash, but the very same Flash behind digitally vintage viral videos such as ‘Peanut Butter Jelly Time’ (2002) and ‘Badger, Badger, Mushroom!’ (2003). In fact, Gervais and Greene graduated from NSCAD University (formerly Nova Scotia College of Art & Design) the very year the latter was unleashed upon the world, and forever burned itself into my young mind – although the former confessedly still gives me a giggle all these years later.

It was here at NSCAD University where Iamstatic began, during Gervais and Greene’s studies for their Major in Fine Art. During this time the team created an online gallery where they experimented with coding, 2D animation and web design, meanwhile collaborating with other artists on curated projects. It was only after graduation that Gervais and Greene took their first shaky steps into the post-Lord of the Rings world of CGI.

With no prior 3D experience whatsoever, the team decided to try their hand at creating their own 2 minute CG-animated short. As you might expect, the short was a disaster, whilst somehow at the same time a great achievement. Having spent just the past 5 years studying 3D animation, I can tell you with certainty animation in general is really really blooming difficult and time-consuming, even for a 2 minute short. In terms of 3D animation the rigging, skinning, lip syncing, posing etc. are all absolutely exhausting, even for quite simple characters, and that’s before you have to go back in and meticulously smooth out any jumpy animation within the Graph Editor. Hats off to Gervais and Greene for having the courage to (perhaps a little naively) jump right in at the deep end, especially with an industry that to the general public may look easy, but has one heck of a bewildering yet at the same time straightforward pipeline hidden just beneath the surface.

The team’s first CG project is a great achievement because jumping right into the fire meant they would have had to try and learn so many of the aspects of 3D animation at a breakneck pace, knowledge that most others would have learnt the basics of over the course of a year, or in the case of college and/or university, years. This is why Iamstatic’s first project was not just a failure, but a great achievement, because to use what is for once an actually decent motivational quote, in order to succeed, you must first be willing to experience failure.

The collaborative heart

Clearly to this day collaboration is still at the heart of Iamstatic, whether it be collaboration with clients, or collaboration between two uni friends back in 1999, when we believed computers were going to destroy the world in the first moments of the new millennium via the ‘Y2K Apocalypse’. For potentially younger readers, Y2K was basically the 2012 ‘apocalypse’ but without the Mayans, although with an admittedly much more legitimate basis for panic. Meanwhile on the precipice of the new millennium, Futurama’s Philip J. Fry was deliberately tripped by a talking three-eyed alien ‘pet’, fell into a cryogenic tube and was left frostier than a certain famous snowman for the next 1000 years, but I digress.

For a long time Iamstatic’s role was simply as a directing team, since then however they have evolved into a fully fledged small studio. The team are not stopping there, after all for just over a year they have been moving towards building the company further by collaborating with new directors, or taking on the role of the production company for them. No matter how big Iamstatic may find themselves in 10 years, it will always remain important that their core team share the same interests and philosophies, thereby helping to ensure the studio’s growth is the best it can be. One thing Iamstatic enjoy at their very core is the ability to play and explore, by delving into new creative areas and experimenting with cutting edge technology beyond their comfort zone. This daring attitude has clearly allowed the studio to remain relevant since their inception over a decade ago.

Aided by the amount of creative freedom of their projects usually being quite open, Iamstatic’s positive work ethic is characterised by their inclination to find their own way to tell a story, whilst at the same time considering the client’s needs. The studio always try to introduce some form of narrative into their projects, whilst also achieving a suitable balance by not holding back when it comes to showing clients their ideas, in hopes of presenting to them something both new and interesting. This honest collaboration is motivated by the studio’s recognition that the client’s incentive for seeking them out in the first place is to discover an interesting way to tell their story. This ability to bring a lot of their own ideas and story to a project is exactly why Iamstatic’s title work means the most to them.

More than just a company

To quote the chorus to a year old chart-topping single by Rihanna, there’s more to Iamstatic’s founders than just work, work, work, work, work (you see me I be work work wo---Oh no, it’s got stuck in my head again. Send help! Please!). When not thinking about personal projects and original intellectual property outside of their usual client-based work, Gervais and Greene both play music (singing ability: TBC), and have long been avid gamers (opinion on Mass Effect: Andromeda’s facial animations: also TBC). Above all is of course Gervais and Greene’s love for their families, who they care about most.

If you’d asked me a little while ago what I’d be doing right now outside of writing this, I would have told you ‘playing the fourth installment of my favourite videogame series of all time, of course!’, now however I might be tempted to respond with a creepy wide-eyed stare and open mouthed emoji-worthy smile until my face is tired. For fellow Mass Effect fans, you may be pleased to hear Bioware have recently pledged to consistently polish up the game with future updates, and have already made my above ‘face is tired’ joke completely obsolete.

Behind the scenes of Frontier’s title sequence

How Iamstatic acquired the project

Iamstatic were asked by fellow Toronto-based studio Intelligent Creatures to work on the title sequence with them. Intelligent Creatures were motivated by the studio’s years of experience in creating title sequences, including the main titles for Guillermo del Toro’s Saturn Award-winning Crimson Peak (2015), and a breathtaking yet somewhat eerie original short created for the titles of 2014’s FITC—or, ‘Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity’—conference in Toronto. FITC has long since grown out of its former meaning of ‘Flash in the Can’, which as it turns out is inexplicably a relatively NSFW phrase to search, so you’ll be breathless for a whole other reason if your boss catches you searching it out of curiosity.

I’m actually a bit disappointed I didn’t find an image of the The Flash photoshopped onto DC’s own ‘limited edition’ brand of canned beans; in fact it’s taking all my power to resist making it myself, so if anyone does decide to make it please do tweet it my way. I guess you could say branded baked beans would be an Intelligent marketing decision on DC’s part—oh my, that’s an even worse segue (“segway”) than a Swegway. Anyway, whilst Intelligent Creatures continued their work creating some of Frontier’s VFX shots, Iamstatic set about pitching the title sequence and providing a large majority of the creative work behind it, from direction and co-production, to modelling and animation, all the way to editing.

The hands behind the sequence

Frontier’s title sequence was directed by Iamstatic, who oversaw production with Intelligent Creatures, meanwhile senior production was provided by Kelly Knauff. Gervais and Greene animated the sequence alongside Josh Vermeulen, meanwhile Greene also worked on lighting & rendering, and Gervais set about editing the whole thing. Intelligent Creatures also created any additional models for the project. Audio in the form of that flipping awesome instrumental music, plus those powerful tribal-like vocalisations and not-quite period appropriate but somehow o-so-right guitar riff at the end is provided by composers Andrew Lockington and Gabe Gaudet. Final rendering was of course provided by GarageFarm.NET, for the eye-candy satisfaction of Iamstatic, and thereby the enjoyment of Netflix and Discovery themselves.

Software and render times

Just over a minute of footage was rendered with GarageFarm.NET for the Frontier title sequence. This was created within 3ds Max since Iamstatic feels it always proves itself with small teams, as was the case with their core team of three working on the project. Rendered with V-ray and Corona, frame times varied a lot between shots but were manageable nonetheless. Whilst really complex scenes usually took between 30 minutes to an hour to render, some shots took much less time since it really depended on what was present within a particular shot.

Context and challenges

Frontier is a historical drama series following the story of a vicious struggle for control of the fur trade of the late 1700s, which has been described as a time of greed, violence and ambition. Whilst Frontier is itself a story of fiction, it is very much rooted in history, with the real life North American fur trade traceable back to at least the 1600s. Because of the topic of the show there were a lot of opinions on what the title sequence needed to be, especially concerning how much story to reveal and how to reveal it. This unfortunately led to a lot of shots being cut along the way, however considering the content and aesthetic of the final piece, it is almost certain that most if not all the cuts were for the benefit of the final product.

Influential projects

Iamstatic’s projects all have influence on those that follow. In the case of the Frontier title sequence, two of these influential projects came in close succession, namely the aforementioned FITC conference titles and Crimson Peak’s movie titles. In fact, the FITC titles were actually shown during Iamstatic’s pitch for Crimson Peak’s titles. The tone of these compositions led directly to their work on the Frontier titles, and as stated by Greene, provides a great example of how personal projects, and those with story, lead to the work you get.

This view can be extended further than just title sequences and animation, but also to all the Arts and beyond. For example a degree in Engineering can lead you to building an ultra powerful battle robot, or vice versa, as is often the case with BBC’s Robot Wars (the fanboy is strong in this one). Or on a more personal level, my detailed response to the questions posed as part of a post-graduation Artist Spotlight performed by GarageFarm.NET, led to the Director of Operations, Lucas Bazyluk, offering me a freelance position as one of the content writers for their blog.

A hard-won confidence in my own ability to provide in-depth and informative writing led me to accepting the position, this confidence was directly impacted by the success of my third year dissertation, which was itself enabled by a lifelong love of stories and learning new things. So being a veteran bookworm quite unexpectedly led to me writing at length for a top quality render farm, meanwhile messing around with a primitive form of Adobe Flash eventually led Dave Greene and Ron Gervais to, among other things, creating CG-animated content for at times multi-million dollar movies, TV shows, advertisers, and more.

Crunching the numbers
For the numbers loving folks out there, on YouTube alone the director’s cut of the Frontier title sequence has received over 50,000 views, since it was uploaded by Gervais on the 1st December 2016, with a 97% approval rating based upon Likes. Whilst this is already a great like-to-dislike ratio, it’s actually an even better achievement than it may first appear, considering some people find it all too easy to just dislike a video over silly things, as is of course the often confusing nature of the squishy brain that resides within our heads, of which mine is using itself to write about itself—probably best not to think about it too much; says my brain to yours. Overthink it and you’ll be left permanently suspicious of your own entire being. Anyway, back to the title sequence! (braaaiiins!)

Iamstatic are rightfully quite proud of their handiwork and consider the reception to be pretty good. In fact, the 97% approval of their title sequence is actually a 4.5% improvement over Netflix’s own official trailer for Frontier, which currently sits at 92.5% viewer approval, pretty damn good for a small team versus a forty-one billion dollar company! Meanwhile the studio’s directors cut continues to receive positive comments from viewers 5 months later, which is frankly a sight for sore eyes considering the YouTube comments section can often be much more on the negative side, to put it lightly.

Iamstatic’s experience with GarageFarm.NET

Uncharted territory

For the Frontier title sequence Iamstatic had to keep their team small and nimble, which required them to seek out a more efficient solution for rendering. In doing so the studio first found out about GarageFarm.NET’s cloud render farm through a friend of Greene’s, who had heard of the company but hadn’t used them before. After looking into it and liking the render farm’s relatable humble origins as a small production-savvy team who, 7 years ago, decided to create a service and grow their own business, Greene decided to reach out to this render farm for help. At first this was uncharted territory for the studio, however they were soon put at ease by the render farm’s 24/7 available support always being just a click away, meaning the team never had to wait for things to get resolved.

Refreshing experience

Iamstatic could tell right away that GarageFarm.NET were the right choice, thanks in part to the 24/7 support which gave the studio someone who could help them through any questions whenever necessary. This positive feeling was naturally enhanced by GarageFarm.NET’s very fair price compared to the competition, as stated by Greene. For Iamstatic the always available support and fair render pricing means the render farm have continued to be absolutely invaluable to the studio, especially since even after rendering many jobs with them, Greene and his team naturally still run into things they need help with.

The studio can feel at ease to ask as many questions as they feel necessary, thanks to a rapport that seems to naturally develop when communicating with members of GarageFarm.NET’s multinational support team of experienced sysadmin experts, software developers, render wranglers, and technical directors. This render farm’s multifaceted support team means they are fully equipped to help with a wide range of issues, including something as tricky to sort out as Iamstatic’s recent decision to completely switch render engines during a production, for which the support team took the time to work through workflow problems with the studio.

As a previous client I can absolutely vouch for this at ease feeling you get when working with GarageFarm.NET, in fact one of my earliest posts regarding the cloud render farm was a highly positive review of the company I wrote for my blog in June 2016. GarageFarm.NET’s render-savvy support wouldn’t have existed if Iamstatic had decided to go it alone. If the studio hadn’t managed to solve their costly render time devouring issue, it could have been disastrous for the title sequence’s strict deadline, and may have even left an undeserved stain on the studio’s reputation, especially when dealing with entertainment industry top dogs like Netflix.

Motivations for outsourcing renders
Iamstatic don’t have time to manage the many potential problems that can pop up during rendering, so find it refreshing to have the power of GarageFarm.NET’s large studio in their hands. Iamstatic can just set up the renders and get on with the rest of their project(s) while shots happily render away on the farm, ready to become mouthwatering slices of CGPie. If after reading this you’re considering rendering with GarageFarm.NET for the first time, but aren’t quite sure, my previous post on the benefits of using a render farm will help you make a well-informed decision. If, thanks to my terrible pun, you’re now also hungry for pie, I’d highly recommend you do not click here. Like several others before them, the many benefits of rendering with GarageFarm.NET has led to Iamstatic deciding to commit to the service for future projects.

Exciting secrets and reassurance

Speaking of future projects, Iamstatic are already rendering a secret project with GarageFarm.NET, and it’s nothing like their title sequence for Frontier. In what will visually be the most startling contrast to the likes of Frontier and Crimson Peak’s titles, this project isn’t dark and gloomy at all, nor is it even a title sequence. In a nice twist for the studio this project is actually colourful and otherworldly. Acknowledging their seeming tendency to do very dark and moody stuff, the studio have assured us they are happy people! This may be comforting to some, since Greene has kindly stated that Iamstatic’s doors are open to anyone who’s in Toronto and wants to come by.

Iamstatic have a bunch of NSFW stories from along the way that they couldn’t publicly share with us, so if you want to hear them you’ll need to take a trip to Toronto and have a drink with them; I can only imagine the kinds of interesting stories the team must’ve amassed over the years. Although if, like me, you’re too far away to pop into Iamstatic HQ—over 3500 miles in my case—then you can easily reach the studio through their contact page.

Good news everyone! We can actually give you not one, but two, sneak peeks of the eye candy to come, and I must confess they’re pretty darned fabulous..