Tech Tools: The Best of 2020

Let’s face it, being on a “Best of 2020” list isn’t setting a very high bar for anyone. You could have invented a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup with double the amount of peanut butter and it would have been a win. Nevertheless, there have been several industry advances that can be celebrated some because of the pandemic, and some despite it.

  • Working from Home. Ever since the visual effects and animation industry went digital, many have wondered why artists can’t work from home. This past year, technology and a global pandemic came together to press the issue. The hands of producers and studio overlords have been forced — and lo and behold, confounding all of their worst fears, they discovered that artists can and will work from home.
  • Since it has been supplying the industry with both hardware and software solutions for years, Teradici was ready for the year we all had to work from home. The technology is built around the idea of controlling workstations remotely with little to no lag. Large facilities like Industrial Light & Magic, Sony Imageworks and Scanline have been using it for years. Now, we all get to reap the rewards. (
  • Handheld Lidar. Both the new iPhone and iPad have Lidar in them now, presumably to help with depth algorithms and AR applications. But am I going to use it for that? Probably not, when there is a whole world to scan into 3D objects out there. The fidelity isn’t quite primo yet, there is a lot to clean up. But this is definitely an exciting path.
  • Virtual Production (Again!). Last year, The Mandalorian opened a whole can of virtual worms. Because of COVID restrictions, every production studio on Earth wanted some of those worms, because somehow we needed to start limiting the size of crews and not going around the world to shoot things in person.
Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano in The Mandalorian S2
Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano in The Mandalorian S2
  • Unreal Fellowship. Who better to feed the studios with talent to work in virtual production than Epic. Committing time and resources, Epic reached out to all those experienced digital artists and supervisors out there who were now out of work and asked if they wanted to join a four- to six-week intensive bootcamp, walk away with an animated short and get paid. The response was, shall we say, epic. (
  • Unreal 4.26 and Hair and Weta. Epic’s latest Unreal release offers impressive improvements in creation of realistic hair and fur. And just to prove a point, Weta Digital gave it to their insanely talented team of artists to make a short about a meerkat and an egg. It’s simply wonderful. To make the deal even sweeter, Weta released the assets into the ecosphere so that we could all benefit from it!
Meerkat, created by Weta Digital using Unreal Engine
Meerkat, created by Weta Digital using Unreal Engine
  • Unreal 5 Preview. Even before its 4.26 release, Epic Games provides a taste of the future with a glimpse into Unreal 5. Lumen in the Land of Nanite shows off virtualized geometry and fully dynamic global illumination. No amount of written description can impart how jaw-dropping this is. Just do yourself a favor and check out the fantastic demo. (
Lumen in the Land of Nanite, made with Unreal 5
Lumen in the Land of Nanite, made with Unreal 5
  • Indie trailblazer Foundry stepped up its valuable support of artists working from home with not only remote workflows, but also a pricing structure that allows independent artists to afford the use of the digital compositing and VFX app. (
Foundry's Nuke Studio
Foundry’s Nuke Studio
  • SideFX Software (which recently gained Epic Games as a minority investor) released Houdini 18.5 with a toolset called KineFX. Rigging is a bit of alchemy that I generally leave to the alchemists. But I’m still impressed when lead turns to gold. Taking Houdini’s procedural workflow and building tools for non-destructive rigging, motion retargeting and motion editing is pretty close to magic. KineFX is only a small subset of Houdini 18.5’s features. (
Rigging in Houdini's KineFX by SideFX Software
Rigging in Houdini’s KineFX by SideFX Software
  • A procedural and dynamic animation system — that renders in real time. I’m stepping a little out of my comfort zone of traditional render engines, but this is going into live performances where the animation is responding to the performers on stage. It’s very useful in a pandemic — as shown by the integrated LED screens for the 2020 Video Music Awards. But, it will be even greater when we can all go back to attending live performances, with a big crowd of people. Isn’t that weird to imagine? (

Todd Sheridan Perry is an award-winning VFX supervisor and digital artist whose credits in- clude Black Panther, Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Christmas Chronicles. You can reach him at



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