Tag Archives: Milk VFX

Storage for VFX Studios

By Karen Moltenbrey

Visual effects are dazzling — inviting eye candy, if you will. But when you mention the term “storage,” the wide eyes may turn into a stifled yawn from viewers of the amazing content. Not so for the makers of that content.

They know that the key to a successful project rests within the reliability of their storage solutions. Here, we look at two visual effects studios — both top players in television and feature film effects — as they discuss how data storage enables them to excel at their craft.

Zoic Studios
A Culver City-based visual effects facility, with shops in Vancouver and New York, Zoic Studios has been crafting visual effects for a host of television series since its founding in 2002, starting with Firefly. In addition to a full plate of episodics, Zoic also counts numerous feature films and spots to its credits.

Saker Klippsten

According to Saker Klippsten, CTO, the facility has used a range of storage solutions over the past 16 years from BlueArc (before it was acquired by Hitachi), DataDirect Networks and others, but now uses Dell EMC’s Isilon cluster file storage system for its current needs. “We’ve been a fan of theirs for quite a long time now. I think we were customer number two,” he says, “back when they were trying to break into the media and entertainment sector.”

Locally, the studio uses Intel and NVMe drives for its workstations. NVMe, or non-volatile memory express, is an open logical device interface specification for accessing all-flash storage media attached via PCI Express (PCIe) bus. Previously, Zoic had been using Samsung SSD drives, with Samsung 1TB and 2TB EVO drives, but in the past year and a half, began migrating to NVMe on the local workstations.

Zoic transitioned to the Isilon system in 2004-2005 because of the heavy usage its renderfarm was getting. “Renderfarms work 24/7 and don’t take breaks. Our storage was getting really beat up, and people were starting to complain that it was slow accessing the file system and affecting playback of their footage and media,” explains Klippsten. “We needed to find something that could scale out horizontally.”

At the time, however, file-level storage was pretty much all that was available — “you were limited to this sort of vertical pool of storage,” says Klippsten. “You might have a lot of storage behind it, but you were still limited at the spigot, at the top end. You couldn’t get the data out fast enough.” But Isilon broke through that barrier by creating a cluster storage system that allotted the scale horizontally, “so we could balance our load, our render nodes and our artists across a number of machines, and access and update in parallel at the same time,” he adds.

Klippsten believes that solution was a big breakthrough for a lot of users; nevertheless, it took some time for others to get onboard. “In the media and entertainment industry, everyone seemed to be locked into BlueArc or NetApp,” he notes. Not so with Zoic.

Fairly recently, some new players have come onto the market, including Qumulo, touted as a “next-generation NAS company” built around advanced, distributed software running on commodity hardware. “That’s another storage platform that we have looked at and tested,” says Klippsten, adding that Zoic even has a number of nodes from the vendor.

There are other open-source options out there as well. Recently, Red Hat began offering Gluster Storage, an open, software-defined storage platform for physical, virtual and cloud environments. “And now with NVMe, it’s eliminating a lot of these problems as well,” Klippsten says.

Back when Zoic selected Isilon, there were a number of major issues that affected the studio’s decision making. As Klippsten notes, they had just opened the Vancouver office and were transferring data back and forth. “How do we back up that data? How do we protect it? Storage snapshot technology didn’t really exist at the time,” he says. But, Isilon had a number of features that the studio liked, including SyncIQ, software for asynchronous replication of data. “It could push data between different Isilon clusters from a block level, in a more automated fashion. It was very convenient. It offered a lot of parameters, such as moving data by time of day and access frequency.”

SyncIQ enabled the studio to archive the data. And for dealing with interim changes, such as a mistakenly deleted file, Zoic found Isilon’s SnapshotIQ ideal for fast data recovery. Moreover, Isilon was one of the first to support Aspera, right on the Isilon cluster. “You didn’t have to run it on a separate machine. It was a huge benefit because we transfer a lot of secure, encrypted data between us and a lot of our clients,” notes Klippsten.

Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Within the pipeline, Zoic’s storage system sits at the core. It is used immediately as the studio ingests the media, whether it is downloaded or transferred from hard drives – terabytes upon terabytes of data. The data is then cleaned up and distributed to project folders for tasks assigned to the various artists. In essence, it acts as a holding tank for the main production storage as an artist begins working on those specific shots, Klippsten explains.

Aside from using the storage at the floor level, the studio also employs it at the archive level, for data recovery as well as material that might not be accessed for weeks. “We have sort of a tiered level of storage — high-performance and deep-archival storage,” he says.

And the system is invaluable, as Zoic is handling 400 to 500 shots a week. If you multiply that by the number of revisions and versions that take place during that time frame, it adds up to hundreds of terabytes weekly. “Per day, we transfer between LA, Vancouver and New York somewhere around 20TB to 30TB,” he estimates. “That number increases quite a bit because we do a lot of cloud rendering. So, we’re pushing a lot of data up to Google and back for cloud rendering, and all of that hits our Isilon storage.”

When Zoic was founded, it originally saw itself as a visual effects company, but at the end of the day, Klippsten says they’re really a technology company that makes pretty pictures. “We push data and move it around to its limits. We’re constantly coming up with new, creative ideas, trying to find partners that can help provide solutions collaboratively if we cannot create them ourselves. The shot cost is constantly being squeezed by studios, which want these shots done faster and cheaper. So, we have to make sure our artists are working faster, too.”

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Recently, Zoic has been working on a TV project involving a good deal of water simulations and other sims in general — which rapidly generate a tremendous amount of data. Then the data is transferred between the LA and Vancouver facilities. Having storage capable of handling that was unheard of three years ago, Klippsten says. However, Zoic has managed to do so using Isilon along with some off-the-shelf Supermicro storage with NVMe drives, enabling its dynamics department to tackle this and other projects. “When doing full simulation, you need to get that sim in front of the clients as soon as possible so they can comment on it. Simulations take a long time — we’re doing 26GB/sec, which is crazy. It’s close to something in the high-performance computing realm.”

With all that considered, it is hardly surprising to hear Klippsten say that Zoic could not function without a solid storage solution. “It’s funny. When people talk about storage, they are always saying they don’t have enough of it. Even when you have a lot of storage, it’s always running at 99 percent full, and they wonder why you can’t just go out to Best Buy and purchase another hard drive. It doesn’t work that way!”

Milk VFX
Founded just five years ago, Milk VFX is an independent visual effects facility in the UK with locations in London and Cardiff, Wales. While Milk VFX may be young, it was founded by experienced and award-winning VFX supervisors and producers. And the awards have continued, including an Oscar (Ex-Machina), an Emmy (Sherlock) and three BAFTAs, as the studio creates innovative and complex work for high-end television and feature films.

Benoit Leveau

With so much precious data, and a lot of it, the studio has to ensure that its work is secure and the storage system is keeping pace with the staff using it. When the studio was set up, it installed Pixit Media’s PixStor, a parallel file system with limitless storage, for its central storage solution. And, it has been growing with the company ever since. (Milk uses almost no local storage, except for media playback.)

“It was a carefully chosen solution due to its enterprise-level performance,” says Benoit Leveau, head of pipeline at Milk, about the decision to select PixStor. “It allowed us to expand when setting up our second studio in Cardiff and our rendering solutions in the cloud.”

When Milk was shopping for a storage offering while opening the studio, four things were forefront in their minds: speed, scalability, performance and reliability. Those were the functions the group wanted from its storage system — exactly the same four demands that the projects at the studios required.

“A final image requires gigabytes, sometimes terabytes, of data in the form of detailed models, high-resolution textures, animation files, particles and effects caches and so forth,” says Leveau. “We need to be able to review 4K image sequences in real time, so it’s really essential for daily operation.”

This year alone, Milk has completed a number of high-end visual effects sequences for feature films such as Adrift, serving as the principal vendor on this true story about a young couple lost at sea during one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. The Milk team created all the major water and storm sequences, including bespoke 100-foot waves, all of which were rendered entirely in the cloud.

As Leveau points out, one of the shots in the film was more than 60TB, as it required complex ocean simulations. “We computed the ocean simulations on our local renderfarm, but the rendering was done in the cloud, and with this setup, we were able to access the data from everywhere almost transparently for the artists,” he explains.

Adrift

The studio also recently completed work on the blockbuster Fantastic Beasts sequel, The Crimes of Grindelwald.

For television, the studio created visual effects for an episode of the Netflix Altered Carbon sci-fi series, where people can live forever, as they digitally store their consciousness (stacks) and then download themselves into new bodies (sleeves). For the episode, the Milk crew created forest fires and the aftermath, as well as an alien planet and escape ship. For Origin, an action-thriller, the team generated 926 VFX shots in 4K for the 10-part series, spanning a wide range of work. Milk is also serving as the VFX vendor for Good Omens, a six-part horror/fantasy/drama series.

“For Origin, all the data had to be online for the duration of the four-month project. At the same time, we commenced work as the sole VFX vendor on the BBC/Amazon Good Omens series, which is now rapidly filling up our PixStor, hence the importance of scalability!” says Leveau.

Main Image: Origin via Milk VFX


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.

Milk VFX provides 926 shots for YouTube’s Origin series

London’s Milk VFX, known for its visual effects work on Adrift, Annihilation and Altered Carbon, has just completed production on YouTube Premium’s new sci-fi thriller original series, Origin.

Milk created all of the 926 VFX shots for Origin in 4K, encompassing a wide range of VFX work, in a four-month timeframe. Milk executed rendering entirely in the cloud (via the AWS Cloud Platform); allowing the team to scale its current roster of projects, which include Amazon’s Good Omens and feature film Four Kids and It.

VFX supervisor and Milk co-founder Nicolas Hernandez supervised the entire roster of VFX work on Origin. Milk also supervised the VFX shoot on location in South Africa.

“As we created all the VFX for the 10-episode series it was even more important for us to be on set,” says Hernandez. “As such, our VFX supervisor Murray Barber and onset production manager David Jones supervised the Origin VFX shoot, which meant being based at the South Africa shoot location for several months.”

The series is from Left Bank Pictures, Sony Pictures Television and Midnight Radio in association with China International Television Corporation (CiTVC). Created by Mika Watkins, Origin stars Tom Felton and Natalia Tena and will premiere on 14 November on YouTube Premium.

“The intense challenge of delivering and supervising a show on the scale of Origin — 900 4K shots in four months — was not only helped by our recent expansion and the use of the cloud for rendering, but was largely due to the passion and expertise of the Milk Origin team in collaboration with Left Bank Pictures,” says Cohen.

In terms of tools, Milk used Autodesk Maya, Side Effects Houdini, Foundry’s Nuke and Mari, Shotgun, Photoshop, Deadline for renderfarms and Arnold for rendering and a variety of in-house tools. Hardware includes HPz series workstations and Nvidia graphics. Storage used was Pixitmedia’s PixStor.

The series, from director Paul W.S. Anderson and the producers of The Crown and Lost, follows a group of outsiders who find themselves abandoned on a ship bound for a distant land. Now they must work together for survival, but quickly realize that one of them is far from who they claim to be.

 

Milk provides VFX for Adrift, adds new head of production Kat Mann

As it celebrates its fifth anniversary, Oscar-, Emmy- and BAFTA-winning VFX studio Milk has taken an additional floor at its London location on Clipstone Street. This visual effects house has worked on projects such as Annihilation, Altered Carbon and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Milk’s expansion increases its artist capacity to 250, and includes two 4K FilmLight Baselight screening rooms and a dedicated client area. The studio has upgraded its pipeline, with all its rendering requirements (along with additional storage and workstation capacity) now entirely in the cloud, allowing full scalability for its roster of film and TV projects.

Annihilation

Milk has just completed production as the main vendor on STXfilms’ new feature film Adrift, the Baltasar Kormákur-directed true story of survival at sea, starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin. The Milk team created all the major water and storm sequences for the feature, which were rendered entirely in the cloud.

Milk has just begun work on new projects, including Four Kids And It — Dan Films/Kindle Entertainment’s upcoming feature film — based on Jacqueline Wilson’s modern-day variation on the 1902 E Nesbit classic novel Five Children And It for which the Milk team will create the protagonist CG sand fairy character. Milk is also in production as sole VFX vendor on Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s six-part TV adaptation of Good Omens for Amazon/BBC.

In other news, Milk has brought on VFX producer Kat Mann as head of production. She will oversee all aspects of the studio’s production at its premises in London and at their Cardiff location. Mann has held senior production roles at ILM and Weta Digital with credits, including Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Thor: The Dark World and Avatar. Milk’s former head of production Clare Norman has been promoted to business development director.

Milk was founded by a small team of VFX supervisors and producers in June 2013,

‘Ex Machina’ VFX team gets Oscar

Artists from London’s Double Negative and Milk VFX took home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for their work on Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. In winning, Milk’s co-founder, Sara Bennett, became one of two women to ever win the Academy Award for VFX — the other was Suzanne Benson for her work on Aliens during the 59th Academy Awards.

Bennett got the gold along with Double Negative’s Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris and Mark Ardington. This is Dneg’s second win in as many years, taking home the statue for work on last year’s Interstellar.

“I am beyond excited!! We are thrilled and honored to be recognized by The Academy for our work on Ex Machina,” says Bennett. “It was a privilege to work with Alex Garland and to bring his incredible vision to life, alongside Andrew Whitehurst and the Dneg team. I would love to see more women in prominent creative roles in our industry — I was a little shocked to find out I was the third-ever female VFX Oscar nominee.”

“I’m still in shock, I think, but what an incredible experience and what an amazing group of people to represent,” says Double Negative’s Whitehurst

Norris says, “It was an honor and privilege to represent out team at the 88th Academy Awards — it was an amazing experience that’s still sinking in!”

Double Negative

“The whole crew did an incredible job, and should be, rightfully, proud,” says Ardington.  “Our work stands on the shoulders of every other department from day one — from reading Alex Garland’s amazing script, through to the beautiful cinematography, striking production design, ingenious costume and make-up, awesome soundtrack and, of course, the wonderful performances from Alicia, Oscar, Domhnall and Sonoya.  What a journey this has been.”

Double Negative delivered 303 shots for Ex Machina, but that number is slightly deceptive due to the length of the shots — their average shot length was eight seconds and their longest shot was 1,800 frames.

According to Whitehurst, “The work on Ex Machina was focused around the creation of Ava, a robotic character, realized through the careful duplication of Alicia Vikhander’s performance mapped onto a fully articulated CG robotic body.”

Milk VFX, which worked on about 100 shots on the film, designed and created Ava’s CG brain, which is seen during the conversation between Nathan and Caleb in the construction lab. For the design of Ava’s brain, Milk was briefed to use jelly fish references while incorporating a computerized “tech” feel in its design.

Using Side Effects Houdini, the build was fully procedural with strong emphasis on the ability to quickly choreograph and combine major features to reduce the turnaround of versions during the look development phase.

Milk VFX

Starting from a sculpted core mesh, a complex set-up was built to create the main features of the brain, including frills, tentacles, pores, antennae, wireframe cages and air bubbles. The Milk team opted for noise-driven animation over simulations in order to avoid having to rig and animate each shot separately. Collisions were solved by post deforming wires and meshes using volume collision approaches where necessary. The resulting brain asset was then brought into Maya for shading and lighting using Arnold and finally composited in Nuke.

Milk was also tasked with devising a look and style for Ava’s visual point of view — seen at the start of the film when lead character Caleb wins the office lottery, and in the bathroom scene. A range of supporting 2D shots was also created, including environment fixes, compositing and monitor inserts with animated graphics.

London’s Milk VFX house expands to Wales

London-based Milk VFX is opening a second studio in Cardiff, Wales, to support its expanding roster of TV and feature film projects, such as ITV’s 13-part warrior drama Beowulf and Thunderbirds are Go, FX’s The Bastard Executioner, Hartswood/BBC’s Sherlock, as well as the feature film Poltergeist and the recently completed Insurgent, the second offering in the Divergent series.

Milk’s new studio is located at the GloWorks building in Cardiff Bay — the Welsh Government’s flagship center for creative industries. Milk will open at the end of April with 20 artist seats and will begin work immediately on projects including the upcoming ninth season of the BBC’s Doctor Who and Hartswood/BBC’s Sherlock Christmas Special 2015. The new studio will share seamless communications and workflow with Milk’s London office via Sohonet.

VFX supervisor Sue Land will manage the new studio, reporting to Will Cohen, Milk’s CEO and executive producer. Milk has already recruited a number of key crew locally and will work closely with the Welsh Government and Creative Skillset to maximize opportunities to hire and train local talent as the studio grows. Milk has received the support of the Welsh Government as part of its program to foster the creative industries in Wales.

“Wales has a growing reputation as a great location for the film and television industry, and the Milk team are excited to be part of it,” reports Cohen. “The Welsh Government has been extremely supportive. They have helped us to locate our premises and talked us through the various options for new business support in Wales. They are passionate about growing the infrastructure and it is infectious!”

And regarding the move to Cardiff in particular, he says, it was “a natural choice of location, given our long-term relationship with BBC Wales, as the BBC Roath Lock Studios are just opposite GloWorks, where Milk’s studio will be located. Milk’s new Cardiff hub will share seamless communications and workflow with our main London studio — enabling us to replicate its boutique style service.”

Milk’s location in Cardiff will use the same tools as its London location, including Maya, Houdini, Arnold, Golaem Crowd, Yeti, Mari, Nuke, Ocula, 3D Equalizer, Deadline, RV, Shotgun and some proprietary offerings.

Milk provides 117 VFX shots for ‘Doctor Who’ debut episode

The BBC’s Doctor Who is back, to the delight of television audiences worldwide. The series, which has gone through eight iterations over the years, recently had its season debut, and London-based VFX house Milk played a role.

The studio created the visual effects for the premiere episode “Deep Breath,” which featured Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who. Ben Wheatley directed the 80-minute episode, which was simulcast and screened in cinemas globally on August 23.

The focus of Milk’s work, 87 shots worth, was the sinister and mysterious “Half-Face Man,” who appears throughout the episode. Milk replaced one entire side of the actor Peter Ferdinando’s head in 87 of the 117 digital shots produced by Milk.

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Milk to create VFX for new ‘Doctor Who’ series

London — Milk Visual Effects (www.milk-vfx.com), which created VFX for the BBC’s Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special episode: Day of the Doctor, has been commissioned by the BBC to create the visual effects for the eighth series of Doctor Who, starring new doctor Peter Capaldi. The new series will be broadcast in 2014.

Milk is currently working with the BBC to create the VFX for the much anticipated one-hour Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Time of the Doctor — in which Matt Smith’s doctor will regenerate into Peter Capaldi’s incoming Thirteenth Doctor — due to air on BBC One on Christmas Day. Doctor Who series eight will start shooting in January 2014.

The news comes on the heels of the BBC’s landmark Doctor Who 50th anniversary special: The Day of The Doctor for which Milk created the VFX work in stereoscopic 3D.

The team at Milk (previously as The Mill’s TV department prior to Milk’s launch in June 2013) has been creating the visual effects for Doctor Who since its regeneration in 2005. During this time they have scooped a raft of awards including a BAFTA, a VES (Visual Effects Society) Award and an RTS Award for their VFX work.

According to Milk CEO Will Cohen, “Many of us on the team have been privileged to enjoy a 10-year love affair with Doctor Who, so to be able to carry on collaborating with the BBC Wales team on telling these incredible stories fills us with joy and provides us with an opportunity as VFX artists to help push the boundaries of what can be done visually on television.”

will cohensmall

CEO Will Cohen

He added: ”A new series with a newly regenerated Doctor is in many ways like starting working on the show all over again. Doctor Who is a show that never, ever gets boring. It’s different every week. This will be our fourth Doctor and we are very, very excited!”

Milk’s current TV projects also include Sherlock: Series Three (Hartswood Films/BBC); new pirate drama series Black Sails for Starz; Sky’s New Year’s Day TV special – David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive (Sky Atlantic); and the new TV drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven-part miniseries due to be broadcast on BBC One in the UK in 2015.

On the feature film side, Milk is working on MGM’s upcoming Hercules and has recently completed work on 47 Ronin for Universal.