By Chris Del Conte
The ‘90s was an explosive era for visual effects, with films like Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Titanic and The Matrix shattering box office records and inspiring a generation of artists and filmmakers, myself included. I got my start in VFX working on seaQuest DSV, an Amblin/NBC sci-fi series that was ground-breaking for its time, but looking at the VFX of modern films like Gemini Man, The Lion King and Ad Astra, it’s clear just how far the industry has come. A lot of that progress has been enabled by new technology and techniques, from the leap to fully digital filmmaking and emergence of advanced viewing formats like 3D, Ultra HD and HDR to the rebirth of VR and now the rise of cloud-based workflows.
In my nearly 25 years in VFX, I’ve worn a lot of hats, including VFX producer, head of production and business development manager. Each role involved overseeing many aspects of a production and, collectively, they’ve all shaped my perspective when it comes to how the cloud is transforming the entire creative process. Thanks to my role at AWS Thinkbox, I have a front-row seat to see why studios are looking at the cloud for content creation, how they are using the cloud, and how the cloud affects their work and client relationships.
We’re in a climate of high content demand and massive industry flux. Studios are incentivized to find ways to take on more work, and that requires more resources — not just artists, but storage, workstations and render capacity. Driving a need to scale, this trend often motivates studios to consider the cloud for production or to strengthen their use of cloud in their pipelines if already in play. Cloud-enabled studios are much more agile than traditional shops. When opportunities arise, they can act quickly, spinning resources up and down at a moment’s notice. I realize that for some, the concept of the cloud is still a bit nebulous, which is why finding the right cloud partner is key. Every facility is different, and part of the benefit of cloud is resource customization. When studios use predominantly physical resources, they have to make decisions about storage and render capacity, electrical and cooling infrastructure, and staff accommodations up front (and pay for them). Using the cloud allows studios to adjust easily to better accommodate whatever the current situation requires.
Advanced technology is great, but artists are by far a studio’s biggest asset; automated tools are helpful but won’t deliver those “wow moments” alone. Artists bring the creativity and talent to the table, then, in a perfect world, technology helps them realize their full potential. When artists are free of pipeline or workflow distractions, they can focus on creating. The positive effects spill over into nearly every aspect of production, which is especially true when cloud-based rendering is used. By scaling render resources via the cloud, artists aren’t limited by the capacity of their local machines. Since they don’t have to wait as long for shots to render, artists can iterate more fluidly. This boosts morale because the final results are closer to what artists envisioned, and it can improve work-life balance since artists don’t have to stick around late at night waiting for renders to finish. With faster render results, VFX supervisors also have more runway to make last-minute tweaks. Ultimately, cloud-based rendering enables a higher caliber of work and more satisfied artists.
There are compelling arguments for shifting capital expenditures to operational expenditures with the cloud. New studios get the most value out of this model since they don’t have legacy infrastructure to accommodate. Cloud-based solutions level the playing field in this respect; it’s easier for small studios and freelancers to get started because there’s no significant up-front hardware investment. This is an area where we’ve seen rapid cloud adoption. Considering how fast technology changes, it seems ill-advised to limit a new studio’s capabilities to today’s hardware when the cloud provides constant access to the latest compute resources.
When a studio has been in business for decades and might have multiple locations with varying needs, its infrastructure is typically well established. Some studios may opt to wait until their existing hardware has fully depreciated before shifting resources to the cloud, while others dive in right away, with an eye on the bigger picture. Rendering is generally a budgetary item on project bids, but with local hardware, studios are working to recoup a sunk cost. Using the cloud, render compute can be part of a bid and becomes a negotiable item. Clients can determine the delivery timeline based on render budget, and the elasticity of cloud resources allows VFX studios to pick up more work. (Even the most meticulously planned productions can run into 911 issues ahead of delivery, and cloud-enabled studios have bandwidth to be the hero when clients are in dire straits.)
When I started in VFX, giant rooms filled with racks and racks of servers and hardware were the norm, and VFX studios were largely judged by the size of their infrastructure. I’ve heard from an industry colleague about how their VFX studio’s server room was so impressive that they used to give clients tours of the space, seemingly a visual reminder of the studio’s vast compute capabilities. Today, there wouldn’t be nearly as much to view. Modern technology is more powerful and compact but still requires space, and that space has to be properly equipped with the necessary electricity and cooling. With cloud, studios don’t need switchers and physical storage to be competitive off the bat, and they experience fewer infrastructure headaches, like losing freon in the AC.
The cloud also opens up the available artist talent pool. Studios can dedicate the majority of physical space to artists as opposed to machines and even hire artists in remote locations on a per-project or long-term basis. Facilities of all sizes are beginning to recognize that becoming cloud-enabled brings a significant competitive edge, allowing them to harness the power to render almost any client request. VFX producers will also start to view facility cloud-enablement as a risk management tool that allows control of any creative changes or artistic embellishments up until delivery, with the rendering output no longer a blocker or a limited resource.
Bottom line: Cloud transforms nearly every aspect of content creation into a near-infinite resource, whether storage capacity, render power or artistic talent.
Chris Del Conte is senior EC2 business development manager at AWS Thinkbox.