/News 30.10.23

VFX work in paradise: An interview with Cumulus CTO Nicky Ladas

Ballina based VFX company Cumulus has made waves in recent years for their rapid rise and unique focus on work-life balance. As part of Ausfilm’s interview series this month, we sat down with CTO and lead technologist at Cumulus, Nicky Ladas, to discuss what it’s like working on major Hollywood productions while based in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales.


Cumulus is famous for scaling up from a laptop in a garage, to becoming one of Australia’s most respected VFX houses, what was the company like when you joined and how has it changed while you’ve been working there?

When I first joined, Cumulus was a small boutique facility with a handful of artists working out of a small house in Bangalow, a town with a population of less than 3000.

There have been a couple of significant growth points associated with each facility move. Firstly the move from Bangalow to a commercial tenancy at Habitat, Byron Bay, as their first commercial tenant.

This saw the team grow from half a dozen to almost twenty operators, all pre-covid. Then a subsequent post-covid move to our new, and current, facility in Ballina. The team has grown from approximately twenty to nearly fifty. The business has been able to maintain its family orientated spirit and has always punched well above its weight with regards to the quality of our work.

Your colleagues describe you as the guy who gets the seemingly impossible done without breaking a sweat. What has been your biggest professional success or challenge since you joined Cumulus?

Out of so many successes the ones that stand out for me was the shift from consumer computer infrastructure to enterprise class infrastructure. Our early move to GPU centric rendering which introduced massive efficiencies in the production pipeline and finally one of the highest multi-regional scores that we achieved with our initial TPN certification, and subsequent accreditations.

You were instrumental in getting Cumulus TPN certified, what was the motivation behind that?  

As Cumulus was growing it became evident that to secure significant feature film work we needed to be part of the TPN network which is a Security Compliance framework required by most of the major studios.

Due to my early involvement with Cumulus, CEO Will Gammon and I worked closely right from the onset of our design for the facility, infrastructure and systems and built it with cybersecurity, performance and TPN compliance at the forefront. This meant that when it came time to be audited by TPN we had already implemented a best-of-breed security solution.

We passed our initial audit with only a couple of trivial remediation items that were resolved within the first week giving us a perfect TPN score and rating with 0 remediation items. Significant high profile projects were then quickly secured by the business.

Cumulus received praise from Tom Wood (VFX Supervisor on Elvis) for your team’s ability to turn around shots at record speeds. What is it about your team’s workflow that has given you an edge when it comes to delivering assets so quickly?

The key is significant investment in our production pipeline. Our early implementation of GPU centric rendering has also injected significant advantages in rapid shot turnaround and lowering render times.

Your company set up offices in Ballina in 2021, as well as operating out of Byron, neither of which would be the first location you think of when talking about VFX or Hollywood films. How has your team found the experience of working remotely on projects?

When I first started working in VFX on Australia’s Gold Coast in the early 2000’s it was just a dream to be able to work in a beautiful regional location like Byron and Ballina, where Cumulus is now based. At that time internet bandwidth and technology precluded such ideas. Now it’s par for the course. This industry lends itself to remote collaboration, and as such we saw a rapid uptake accelerated by the Covid outbreak. These days it is just business as usual.

Is everyone in the VFX industry breaking down your door trying to get a chance to work in such idyllic settings?

Yes, we have a lot of interest both domestically and internationally. Those that are sincerely looking for a regional experience are pleasantly surprised by our offering.

What was the motivation behind the Ballina move?

Location, location, location! Our office has river views, it’s close to Ballina airport for our clients and supervisors, and it’s also close to local studio facilities.

Cumulus’s waterfront offices in Ballina

I heard hammocks mentioned at one point in the description of your new offices – do you ever get a chance to give them a work out?

I’ve yet to partake, although I have requested one just outside my office next to the river. I eagerly await the day it’s approved.

Cumulus’s story so far includes a pandemic, a flood, a move to a new town and the launch of a sister studio – for a company that started out striving to introduce a healthy work-life balance to VFX work how has that played out with so much going on?

Great question, I think that’s where the regional location really comes into play. Lots of other major Australian cities have had those same challenges over the last few years. Where we differ is that we are based in a location where people go to recover and gain back their work-life balance. Living and working in such a beautiful place allows you to take the time to get close to nature without having to account for travel time and the tyranny of distance.

You recently worked on Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis as a Lead Technologist, can you tell us a bit about what it was like to oversee the technology on a movie of that scale?

Elvis was both a pleasure and honor to work on. From world-class direction with Baz Luhrmann and world class supervision with Tom Wood. Elvis was the project that motivated us to move to all flash storage solutions with Pure Storage. It was one of the business’s single biggest investments in infrastructure to date but allowed us to increase our throughput to meet the demands of such a significant project.

What has been your favorite project to work on while at Cumulus VFX?

It’s hard to pinpoint a favorite but Elvis was a joy as it reminded me of my Dad – he used to fancy himself as a bit of an Elvis lookalike.

What advice would you give to someone looking to follow in your footsteps in the industry?

Follow those dreams, and if you love something like film, VFX, or technology then live and breathe that stuff!