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High tech plays lead role at visual effects firm

A scene from The Chronicles of Narnia.

"One of the biggest, coolest challenges we've had was working on The Incredible Hulk ," says software engineer Berj Bannayan, a co-founder and partner in Soho VFX, a visual effects company that works mainly on Hollywood feature films.

"We got to do really big-screen digital characters and full digital environments, like a digital version of New York City for a big battle on a rooftop. That was a big step for us. And it was fun!"

Soho VFX has been growing steadily since the company started in 2001 with four people working in one tiny room. The company has now worked on more than 40 feature films including X-Men Origins: Wolverine , Jumper and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe . It has more than 100 employees, offices in Toronto and Hollywood, and is expanding to keep up with demand.

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"We are a technology-based company, but in the end the best work comes not from the technology, but from the creativity of our staff, so we try to foster an environment where they can do their best work," Mr. Bannayan says. "Our biggest challenge is keeping the technology stable and working through long deadlines and lots of hours of work."

In the past year, work on The Incredible Hulk pushed the staff to re-evaluate and upgrade their existing computing power to meet deadlines. Rather than adding more of the same kind of hardware, they "swapped out" all of their servers for a more dense solution, fitting four times more CPUs in the same amount of space.

"Over the years, we've always had to grow our capacity based on how the deadline of a project is going and if more work is coming in for the studio," Mr. Bannayan says. "When we do an upgrade, we go further than we need to because in the middle of a production, deadlines are very short. Things have to be done yesterday, so we don't have time to take everything down to upgrade and retool our entire infrastructure. The deadline is the deadline and the release date is the release date. We have to deliver on time, so we have to get things right."

One bonus from the upgrade was their savings on energy. With about 150 workstations for staff and thousands of CPUs in its server room, the company uses a lot of power.

"The big thing for us is that the technology is getting smaller and more efficient. The amount of computing power per square inch of machine room space is astronomically larger now," Mr. Bannayan says. "We can do more in the same amount of space with less hardware."

The cost has changed dramatically as well. "When I first started to work in this industry 15 years ago, one workstation could cost $100,000, just to put a computer under somebody's desk," Mr. Bannayan says. "Nowadays, we're dealing with hardware that anybody could buy. For $3,000, you can have a very fast workstation. So the climate has changed."

Another challenge Soho VFX faces is keeping the communication and data flowing between their offices in Toronto and Hollywood. So far, it's running smoothly. Both offices use the same software and hardware. With a fast Internet connection, uploading and downloading data constantly, they can synchronize the two locations.

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Plus, they make sure to communicate face to face.

"It's important for us to have a physical presence in Hollywood," Mr. Bannayan says. "Our clients, the production people, want to sit down and talk to us and see the results of our work. The tools we have allow us to collaborate interactively, watching the same movie at the same time in different cities."

Mr. Bannayan's advice for other entrepreneurs is to be forward-thinking and plan ahead.

"There's a lot of pressure, as the industry changes and with technology advances, to just upgrade and say, 'Wow, this is the latest, coolest thing,' without thinking where you're going," Mr. Bannayan says. "But you may find yourself in a dead end. What you hoped to get five years use out of may only give you one. So it's all about doing your research, being deliberate about what you do and making the right decisions."

What's in their future? Mr. Bannayan hopes for bigger and more exciting movies with increasing challenges in the same kind of work they're doing now.

"We're lucky that the movie industry hasn't been very much affected by this recession," he says. "People still want to go to the movies."

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