May 23 2013

“Mango” Production Tracking System + Full Service Pipeline (PTS)

What is PTS?

A PTS (Production Tracking System) is a database that manages VFX/Animation projects and studio resources. This system helps producers, supervisors, and artists keep track of the multiple tasks that are required to successfully complete a show. It facilitates communication between departments and provides real-time reports on the current progress and cost of work. The PTS represents the integration of a “back-end” database (e.g., postgreSQL or MySQL) and “front-end” applications. The everyday user interacts with “front-end” applications which are designed to meet his unique needs. These applications can be stand-alone or integrated into third party commercial or proprietary software (e.g., task management application or resource publishing tools inside of Maya, Nuke, etc.).

Why is there a need for a PTS?

A well-designed PTS is integral to an effective studio. It allows artists, supervisors, and producers to find relevant information quickly. For example, an artist can see a list of incomplete tasks that are assigned to him. Then, a supervisor can use PTS to comment on the tasks which artists marked “ready for review” and keep a historical log of these comments. While a producer can use PTS to see which shots are over-budget and the human resources department can have a record of billable hours that are connected to specific tasks. Everyone involved in the production process is able to input and query this information through applications that are stand-alone and/or integrated with third-party commercial or proprietary software.

A few examples of common stand-alone applications in PTS are:

  • A Time-Card Application
    • creates an electronic record of billable hours in the database which replaces paper time-cards.
    • allows artists to connect these hours to a particular task which can be used to create more detailed reports.
  • A Task Management Application
    • allows supervisors to break large scale work into smaller easily-delegated tasks.
    • holds other important information to facilitate time-management (e.g., priorities and due-dates).
    • connects tasks to progress-tracking statuses (e.g., “in progress” or “awaiting supervisor review) which can be filtered by supervisors and artists.
  • A Dailies Application
    • lists all the image sequences sent by artists to be reviewed in dailies.
    • uses the versioning system in PTS to help supervisors quickly find older versions of the same sequence for comparison during review.
    • connects comments about the work being reviewed in dailies to the task that generated it to ensure the artist has a record of the notes.

A few examples of common applications which are integrated into third-party software in PTS are:

  • Publishing and Versioning Tools
    • help artists version their work while keeping a historical record of changes.
    • allow for easier hand-off of versioned work to the next step in the pipeline.
    • when necessary, allow artists to easily roll-back to previous versions of their work.
    • adds a layer of programmable quality control to ensure smooth ingestion into the pipeline.
  • An Asset Catalog
    • helps animators and layout artists quickly find and reference show-specific and updatable set-ups.
  • A Shot Resource Catalog
    • allows lighters and effects artists to quickly know the resources that make-up a 3d scene.
    • allows artists to compare version information about the resources currently in the scene.
    • Alerts artists when scene resources need to be updated.
  • Scene Building Tools
    • Eliminates the need for multiple artists to work on the same file by allowing artists to build unique files with shared resources.

A PTS adds accountability and power to a studio because it automates some of the more tedious aspects of the VFX/Animation pipeline. A pipeline that revolves around a well-designed PTS allows artists to focus the majority of their time on art, rather than addressing technical complications that arise from keeping scene files updated. In addition, it gives supervisors and producers the real-time information that allows them to track the progress of work and make better choices which maximize the project’s profit.

Why is a PTS not as Common in Smaller Studios?

If a PTS is so wonderful, why is everyone not using one? There are four simple answers to this question:

  1. Smaller studios don’t usually have the resources to employ full-time programers. So, developing and integrating a PTS into their pipeline is not cost-effective.
  2. The culture of many smaller studios means that there are no uniform standards and practices about how scene files are created and shared. Therefore, their database (the “back-end” of a PTS) mirrors this complexity and quickly outlives its usefulness.
  3. Popular expensive commercial solutions (e.g., Shotgun/Tank, FileMaker Pro, SharePoint) are a framework for a database but, they don’t offer uniform standards and practices. This leads to the previously described problem for studios who do not have strong standards and practices. Moreover, many of these commercial solutions don’t offer third-party integrated applications leaving studios to write their own.
  4. These expensive commercial options still require the additional cost of Technical Directors to update, maintain, populate, and further develop these systems; sometimes greatly increasing the cost of integrating such a system.

While smaller studios have a very large incentive to invest in a pipeline that revolves around a well-designed PTS, they often don’t. The expense in time and money for an inadequate product is too much of a risk.

What is Mango?

Mango is an economical plug-and-play solution that is designed around how people actually work in VFX/Animation studios. It recognizes that many studios do not have set standards and practices which are a predictable and repeatable way of creating quality work (Modular Asset Pipeline Flow). Mango not only provides a uniform way of accomplishing this work, but it is a ready-to-use PTS that is modeled around a uniform set of standards and practices. In addition, Mango includes tools that will run on multiple applications (e.g., Maya, 3ds Max, Nuke, Houdini) to help enforce the uniform standards and practices without limiting artists creative ability.

Mango eliminates the need to have multiple programmers to mold the system to work in your studio. It greatly simplifies the nature of the database that you will use to track this work. Mango minimizes the footprint that these kind of systems can have in a studio pipeline. It fundamentally changes the way the studio works. In other words, Mango helps to create and monitor a more efficient studio work system by providing a full end-to-end pipeline.

When will Mango be Complete?

Mango is an on-going personal project on which I am working full-time from home. It is the result of 10 years of experience working in a range of studios in the VFX/Animation industry. The base for the PTS and several applications will be complete by the end of July. The development cycle is going to be rapid this is why I am researching tying together multiple open-source libraries and technologies (e.g., Python, postgreSQL, SQLAlchemy). Not only will this make my development cycle more efficient, but it also makes it more accessible to other programmers.

Anyway stay tuned, I will add more posts related to my findings about database programing for the VFX industry.


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