How the cloud is revolutionising VFX

We chat to the effects houses who are embracing virtualised computing.

Atomic Fiction's effects for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey were rendered in the could

You know the age of cloud computing has arrived when it becomes a pivotal plot point in a Hollywood comedy (Sex Tape), even if that movie's lead character does end up frantically proclaiming, "Nobody understands the cloud, it's a mystery." That may well be true of the average iUser on the street, but for the computer graphics industry its benefits have quickly become apparent.

From software designed specifically for cloud delivery (for example, Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite), cloud rendering (Octane) and for cloud-based creative collaboration (see Autodesk’s Fusion), through to the use of remote data storage and sharing, and on to the use of virtual workstations and remote working, and of course cloud-based rendering, the cloud has the potential to transform the way the entire industry creates and operates.

Bespoke solutions

In the UK, Jellyfish Pictures is leading the charge. With plans to double its workforce this year and launch a spin-off children's animation division, the studio has partnered with cloud company Exponential-e to build an infrastructure that allows its artists to work on motion graphics and animation from any location.

"There are several reasons why we decided to invest a serious amount of time in this, the first being that we're based in Soho and this area of London simply has no more room," explains company CTO Jeremy Smith. "We wanted to keep our offices here, but from an infrastructure point of view we can’t do any more with the facilities available."

Smith says that switching to a cloud-based setup frees the studio from those physical limitations, allows for easy scaling of infrastructure and processing power, and crucially opens up opportunities for remote working.

Atomic Fiction had up to 10,000 processors to play with

"This is ultimately driven by customer service, allowing Jellyfish to offer our clients increased flexibility, faster turnaround and access to the best artists. It also gives us the chance to repay people who might not want to commute to London every day. If we can allow people to work from home then it obviously makes it a lot more appealing to work for us.

"Plus, we can now hire freelancers in Liverpool, Manchester or wherever, and they will have access to all the resources we’ve built over the years. What's more, the data never actually leaves our site, so it's completely secure. I don't have to worry about projects floating around the UK. All we're doing is streaming the application interface to the thin client."

Almost limitless

Over at US studio Atomic Fiction, co-founder and VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie says that without the use of the cloud for rendering the company wouldn't even exist. "In the beginning, we didn’t have nearly enough start-up capital to buy the processing power our artists would need to do the calibre of work we wanted Atomic Fiction to be known for," he admits.

"Luckily for us, the cloud was just becoming a feasible option for our industry, so we took a leap of faith and bet the farm on the cloud concept back in 2010. Now, by using processing power on demand, our artists always have enough rendering power to meet even the most intense, last-minute deadlines, and we only pay for what we use – just like you do at your home for gas or electricity."

On-demand computing is changing the way the VFX industry is financed

Baillie says the biggest advantage that the cloud confers to artists and production teams is near-limitless capacity. "We can have zero render machines one minute, and then when an artist submits a high priority render 500 machines will appear as if out of thin air and deliver it back just as quickly as the longest frame in the job took.

"Calling it a render queue is almost a misnomer – things just get processed. They don't have to line up and wait for the next available machine to get started!"

In other words, render times become a budgetary concern, with artist creativity no longer locked down by processing capacity concerns. "Since the cloud scales to assign a processing resource to every request we throw at it, artists can get more work done faster as a result," says Baillie.

Virtual outfits

The cloud can clearly have a huge impact on the way bricks-and-mortar studios operate, but that's not the end of it, as a new breed of 'virtual' outfits can attest. Companies like The VFX Cloud, Scarecrow VFX, Cosmic Forces and Legion are using the cloud to handle visual effects and animation jobs in a completely decentralised way.

With these it's not just storage or rendering that’s handled out of house. With whole teams of freelancers signing up on a per-job basis and working remotely, entire projects are put together in the cloud. This moves the goalposts significantly; not least in the way it potentially eases the burdens of an industry forever chasing tax breaks.

"Here at The VFX Cloud we have had the ability to offer clients visual effects tax breaks in multiple jurisdictions," explains Brett Keyes, CEO, The VFX Cloud. "It removes the need to move entire studios around."

Conductor, Atomic Fiction's bespoke cloud management system, stays on top of its renders

Changes are clearly afoot, and not only for animation and visual effects work. As Jeremy notes, "If you can crack this technology for the demands of this industry then I’m confident it can handle any other."

Baillie reckons it's all-but guaranteed that the cloud will completely transform the computer graphics industry over the next five-to-seven years. "Adoption is a little slow right now because, for one, many existing VFX companies are already heavily invested in their local infrastructure.

"There aren't any great plug-and-play solutions for smaller studios either, so they have a hard time adopting it too. But that will all change soon, as large companies face having to refresh ageing infrastructure, and better commercial tools become available. Just imagine: five guys in their garage with access to the same scale of resources currently reserved for the largest VFX facilities in the world…"

Words: Mark Ramshaw

This article originally appeared in 3D World issue 188.

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