What's holding back VFX work in the cloud?

Online rendering and collaboration is already a part of CAD pipelines. But will 2013 be the year the cloud finally breaks the mould?

For years, the cloud has been a buzzword in 3D - but not quite the actual buzz. The benefits of cloud-based services are clear: studios no longer bear the cost of maintaining render farms and other costly infrastructure, while collaborations are no longer limited to people sitting in the same room.

Yet the majority of entertainment work - particularly in sectors like animation and VFX - is produced in the same way it always has been: by groups of people sitting in the same office, working on software running on desktop machines. So what's holding the cloud back?

Key issues

For Ludwig von Reiche, senior director of business development at Nvidia's Advanced Rendering Center, and curator of a landmark series of cloud computing sessions at FMX 2013, there are three key issues: data security, bandwidth and the suitability of key software tools for cloud-based work.

While von Reiche notes that facilities such as Atomic Fiction have proven that visual effects can be rendered securely in the cloud - the studio was sole VFX vendor for Robert Zemeckis's Flight - Hollywood's legal culture has been slow to adjust. "A lot of contracts still oblige [the effects house] to retain all of the assets and equipment under their own control," he points out.

The local cloud

One possible solution may be the 'local cloud': centralised resources owned and operated by a group of studios within a single city. As an example, von Reiche points to the Vancouver Studio Group, established last year by Rainmaker Entertainment, Digital Domain and Image Engine. With its 10GB Ethernet connections, the VSG's RenderCloud can cope with heavy production data sets.

Yet von Reiche notes that technologies such as Nvdia's new GRID VCA - a GPU-based server intended for use with high-performance graphics software - may soon enable such work to be done over more typical internet connections. "Providing you have a low latency in bandwidth, you can keep the data in the cloud and just shift the screen content," says von Reiche.

Lagoa is capable of generating high-resolution images of a quality equivalent to a conventional offline render engine

New tools for cloud artists

The final obstacle to the wider adoption of cloud-based workflows is that of the software itself. Autodesk's Fusion 360 is set to take CAD work to the cloud, and thanks to new technologies like Lagoa, digital artists also have their own cloud-based tools.

Launched in early April, Lagoa.com provides a high-performance rendering system inside your web browser. You can upload 3D models, apply physically accurate materials, then see the results displayed by Lagoa's MultiOptics unbiased render engine in real time.

"The idea is to make it like desktop software, but faster and easier to access, and available from anywhere with a browser," says Lagoa co-founder Thiago Costa, previously responsible for Softimage's Lagoa Multiphysics system. "Because we're using more than one computer, the process is much more fluid."

Lagoa enables multiple artists to collaborate on a project online via a familiar 3D interface. Changes are rendered in real time

Words: Jim Thacker

This article first appeared in 3D World magazine issue 169.

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