Sherpa gives Silver Studios the power to expand

Silver Studios is a VFX studio specialising in all areas of previs for film and television. Its founder Nikki Atkinson has been working in the visual effects industry since 2006, and has freelanced for some of the biggest names in it: DNEG, The Mill, MPC and Cinesite in the UK, and Weta and Rising Sun Pictures on the other side of the world.

Now heading up her own studio, Silver Studios, which she founded in 2020, Nikki's story is one that will resonate with any nascent studio looking to balance the demands of the tech and the team, and the need to keep control of the cost it takes to be competitive.

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A leap of faith

Already with a notable career as a freelance VFX artist, what motivated Nikki to make the move into running her own studio instead? “I had bought a refurbished PC from Escape, along with a Synology to store and transfer all the data, and was working in-house as a previs artist on Fate: The Winx Saga. 

“While I was there, the job got bigger and they asked me if I knew any other previs artists. I’d set up my Limited Company, but hadn’t really advertised myself as a company. I was still operating like a freelancer and hadn’t hired anybody yet. So I recommended two people who came onboard, and they ended up using my Synology. And of course any technical questions they had came to me to sort out. While working on the job was fantastic, having to deal with technical questions from the other artists often got in the way.

“More than one producer had suggested that I set up a team on their behalf, so it made sense to start thinking about hiring people myself rather than recommending them to a production. I was also aware that producers were often renting the equipment for artists from Escape. So not only did I know the talent, I knew how to get the machines too. I realised I could do it myself.”

Best laid plans

Nikki takes a breath and smiles, “That was February/March of 2020. Then COVID came along and everything shut down overnight. The first lockdown scuppered all of my plans and I struggled to get work for two or three months until I got a call asking me to come and work on The Matrix Resurrections in Berlin as Previs Supervisor. The caveat was that I had to work for another company, not my own company. Of course I agreed, and I was on that job for around a year while my company plans just sat in the background.”

For many people starting their own studio, this will be a familiar story: doing a job through their company, then jumping back into freelancing, then back to their own company. “I think inevitably, unless you’ve got a big investment behind you, it’s going to be a bit of a roller coaster,” says Nikki.

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Smarter, cloud-based working

Now in 2024 and with many big projects under its belt including The Crown and True Detective: Night Country, Silver Studios is in a position to make the way it operates even more competitive. Until recently, Nikki had often come to Escape to rent machines when projects needed them. This reactive way of working is fine for the odd job, but as Silver Studios becomes busier, there needs to be a more flexible and permanent solution.

“When I first started doing jobs as Silver Studios, I would double check that they just wanted one artist. And despite that, and being pleased with our work, a request for an expanded team would inevitably come in with very little notice. So it was all reactive. I never had the chance to plan a team, it was just happening – a scramble at the last minute to get a rental machine. This happened on one particular job,” Nikki pauses and laughs, “when I think I plugged the wrong cable into a monitor and it got stuck. I phoned Escape for help and it was at that point that they first suggested Sherpa.”

Sherpa would let Nikki and her team create and collaborate in the cloud. Crucially it would also provide the flexibility to scale up to meet the needs of bigger projects and to dial down again once that need had passed. Being in previs, and operating in its permanently fast-paced, quick-turnaround environment, this aspect of Sherpa was ideal.

Rather than having to rent physical machines and have them delivered and set up, Nikki could simply spin up the power she needed in the cloud, with any of her team able to harness that power, wherever they happened to be, using their own machine or laptop. It would give Silver Studios the flexibility to use artists and machines on a per-job basis, and help keep overheads low.

And with Sherpa’s intuitive GUI, unleashing these powerful machines is as easy as ordering a pizza.

“I love the flexibility that Sherpa gives us. I can choose the spec of the machine I need for every job and change it if I need to. So if a job goes from being a traditional previs Maya job into something that needs to use Unreal, I can go in and up the spec of certain machines. And I think that approach is more in line with where the industry needs to be, and where it’s going.

“Being able to lower those overheads with a mouse click can be crucial to a company in its first year or so.”

Playing nicely with LucidLink

Just as important was to ensure that Sherpa worked effectively with other aspects of Silver’s pipeline, primarily a more flexible storage and transfer solution than the Synology. Nikki notes that although this had served her well, it had become a bottleneck. She could work on it with three or four artists, but the slowdown would start to become noticeable.

Here the answer was LucidLink, a cloud-based file solution, that gives Silver's artists instant access to the latest versions of files, whenever and wherever they need to work on them. It’s also fantastic when it comes to sharing files with clients too. Importantly, there are no data ingress or egress costs, and like Sherpa, it’s also easily and infinitely scalable.

“My new setup is much easier to access,” says Nikki. “Previously artists or clients had to logon to the Synology via a VPN, and I had to keep an up-to-date pdf with instructions – actually two pdfs, one for PC and one for Mac. But there would always be issues.

“Now we’re using Teradici HP Anyware, which most artists are already familiar with through remote working and already have on their computers. It’s just a case of giving them their login and they’re ready to go. Not having people contact me throughout the day with tech issues is a massive time saver for me.”

A nimble pipeline solution

Nikki has also introduced a pipeline tool into the equation, something she was initially concerned about. “I’ve been working with a freelance Pipeline Technical Director who's been liaising with the team at Escape to come up with a solution that’s nimble and works well with Sherpa. Speed and being nimble is one of Silver Studios’ advantages and I was a bit concerned that integrating any kind of pipeline tool might slow us down.

“It was actually Escape which suggested Prism, and not only does it do an excellent job, but it’s free too.” Nikki’s Pipeline TD, the team at Escape and the Prism team all worked together to ensure that Silver Studios got exactly what it needed.

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Value for money

For any young company, a free solution is immediately attractive – especially when it doesn’t come with any compromises. Saving money is a key Sherpa value too. Not only does the simple dial up/dial down mean that you’re only paying for the computing power you need when you need it, it can also help when it comes to bidding for projects too, something Nikki has found to be a powerful tool.

“That’s a fantastic thing for me. When I need to price a job I can go into the Sherpa interface and see exactly how much those machines are going to cost me over the project’s lifetime and put that back into my bid. There’s no guesswork with it. My strengths lie in being a Previs Supervisor, managing artists and liaising with clients, so the production and finance aspects of running a business are things I’m learning as I go along, so having that support through Sherpa is really helpful.”

The flexibility of Sherpa is also a good safety net in the case of cancelled jobs. Rather than the stress around buying/renting machines for a future job, only to have that job disappear, Sherpa gives studios like Silver the peace of mind that comes with not having to spend up front. Nikki can spin up machines as and when the team needs them… and is never stuck with them.

Support for studios of all sizes

Although Silver scales up for the work it does and can handle multiple projects at a time, Nikki is still running the show on her own. “It’s really nice that I have a team of experts at Escape that I can bounce ideas off, or just even have a catch up. Sometimes you can feel like you’re just working in a complete void and it’s nice to be able to have that interaction from Escape.”

This personal approach is something we value highly at Escape. Our team is made up of people who have all worked in the VFX industry, so they not only have in-depth knowledge of the tech, but the context in which it will be used too. They’re more than happy to share their expertise. And of course, it’s always nice to have a chat!

We’ll leave the last word to Nikki: “I feel like Escape has treated me just as importantly as some of its huge clients. Although I’m a startup, I’ve never felt like I’m just a small client to Escape. A lot of people might think that because they’re small, Escape can’t help them. Hopefully by reading this and seeing how they have helped us with Sherpa, they can see that it is affordable and not out of their reach.

If you’re in a similar situation to Nikki and Silver Studios, and are looking for a competitive, scalable and flexible way to operate in the VFX or gaming industries, then please get in touch with us via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or call us on 020 7734 8809.