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by Max A. Cherney
May 30, 2013 11:12 AM
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So How Exactly Is Cloud Computing Changing the VFX Industry?

Bill Westenhoefer accepts his Oscar at this year's ceremony.
Would you rather render 10,000 hours of footage on 100 machines, or one hour on 1,000,000 machines? The cost is the same. Welcome to the cloud.
 
The cloud is one amongst many reasons the visual effects industry is in turmoil. We have recently seen protests at the Oscars:  Bill Westenhofer’s Oscar speech was apparently cut short by “censors."  There have been numerous layoffs and buyouts. Industry professionals are questioning the future. And for good reason.

READ MORE:   It Ain't Easy Being Green-Screened: One VFX Artist Speaks Out at Risk of Being Erased and Replaced
 
What’s clear: the tides are turning because of two related factors, globalization and technology. Advantages remain to continuing traditional VFX work– big companies, expensive render farms, consistent feature film contracts, but long-term economics dictate otherwise. Like in any scenario involving technology-enabled globalization of work, a number of forces contribute to a changing course for industry.  In the case of the VFX industry stuck with firms that haven't adapted, what is left is a group of talented artists in search of a way forward.
 
Industry Changes
 
“The system has been in an underbidding war for the last decade,” Julian van Mil, visual effects supervisor, told Indiewire. “ Look, ten years ago it was very specialized,” he said, “There is always the bleeding edge, but now hiring is very democratic.”
 
 “There’s a lot of buzz about how to fix the industry,” Kevin Baillie, principle at Atomic Fiction said. “I personally think that solutions are wrong, that really, instead of looking at how to save the industry, we need to look at how to transform the industry to be compatible with today’s realities.”
 
Within the last ten years the industry underwent immense changes – ironically pushing many of the very technologies that have enabled remote workforces to take on VFX projects, said Scott Squires, VFX supervisor,
 – although not the only factor contributing the changing VFX industry.

VFX In The Cloud
 
Overall there are two chief uses VFX artists and firms have for cloud computing: storage and rendering. Storage is important – but for many VFX artists it’s incidental. Rendering is the vital -- time-consuming -- part of the equation. And rendering is increasingly a task moved onto the cloud.
 
Cloud rendering solves one of, if not the largest barrier to entry in the VFX industry: infrastructure. In the past VFX companies built large data centers called “render farms” with thousands of CPUs, able to work in tandem to render a single angle, shot, or scene– including off site render farms controlled by third parties. No longer.
 
Flexible Computing

"Because we had the cloud it was easy to ramp up. Of course we had to hire people and find room for desks, but that’s a much quicker thing to do."

 
“We knew we didn’t have the budget for a large data center. But we didn’t want to be a data center company, we wanted to be a creative company, ” said Baillie, of Atomic Fiction. Atomic Fiction uses the cloud for 90-95% of its “heavy data lifting” and has completed notable feature film projects like “Flight”, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and is working on “Need For Speed.” All without a traditional render farm.
 
Years ago, available, affordable scalability from the cloud allowed Baillie’s company to do the primary VFX work on director Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight.” “We started with 130 - 140 VFX shots, but ended up with closer to 400,” Baillie said. “Because we had the cloud it was easy to ramp up. Of course we had to hire people and find room for desks, but that’s a much quicker thing to do.” Baillie went on to point out that it would have been physically impossible to build a traditional render farm, and execute the required VFX within the four month window required.
 
Baillie’s not so secret secret: Zync’s cloud interface. Zync, one of several similar tools, is a plugin compatible with commercial VFX software that lets an artist access cloud-based rendering functions much in the same way as a local render farm.  Zync uses the idle computer time of Amazon's vast data centers they've built all over.  “There is no difference in a submitted job to a farm versus the cloud,” Van Mil said, in reference to cloud render tools in general, not specifically Zync.
 
“It would have been heartbreaking to have to look Zemeckis in the eye and say: ‘we can’t do it,’” Baillie said, “He’s a childhood hero, it would have been gut-wrenching for the project not to work out.”
 
Real Time Rendering
 
One of the most interesting technologies that will propel cloud render farms to even better performance is graphics processor unit or GPU rendering. GPUs have long been used by gamers to produce stunning graphics in real time, but Van Mil pointed out a piece of software called "octanerender" by Otoy, that harnesses a GPU’s computing power in most commercial 3D packages, “The GPU and Octane is ushering in a new level of rendering,” Van Mil said.

Using GPUs is uncharted territories for VFX companies.  Only recently did Adobe's Premiere Pro editing software (and the rest of the Adobe Creative Suite) enable some of Nvidia GPUs to do heavy lifting.  In order for VFX companies to use GPUs they would have to spend major money on new graphics cards with GPUs and software licenses for their server farms. 
 
Otoy’s Octane exclusively uses Nvidia’s CUDA GPU technology, and takes advantage of its immense, inexpensive rendering capabilities. Otoy is also building out a specialized Nvidia GPU cloud service that will be as scalable as Amazon’s current CPU cloud computing network. The company claims that it will significantly beat Amazon’s cloud computing price of a couple dollars an hour– although final pricing is not available at the time of writing.
 
“What would have taken several hundred hours, I can now do that on my Mac Pro,” Van Mil said about local render times. According to Otoy,  the technology will provide VFX artists real time render capability, eventually including extremely complex VFX tasks like ray tracing with the cloud.
 
In a recent keynote the graphics card manufacturer Nvidia demonstrated the technology. The graphics card manufacturer displayed real time rendering on a MacBook Air, running a virtual machine tied to a GPU render farm in Los Angeles (the demo was in San Diego).
 
Scalability
 
Decreased cloud render times aren’t just time and money savers, there are creative benefits as well. For smaller VFX shops and freelancers access to cloud services allow them to implement more aggressive, complex 3D shots that normally would require hundreds of thousands of hours of computing time with a small render farm.  “I may not create certain effects because I can’t afford [or don’t have] the render time,” Van Mil said.
 
But, since ramping up from one to 100 machines, or 1,000 machines can be as simple as changing a drop-down menu, smaller firms can tackle complex projects, with faster turnaround times, Baillie said.
 
Artists individually benefit from access to the cloud since their render capabilities scale with their needs. For example, simulations that involve water can be extremely demanding in terms of hardware rendering time. According to Baillie, artists sometimes used to have to wait overnight to see the results of a few minor changes. The cloud allows an artists to get the results after an hour, Baillie said, which helps keep artists focused on specific parts of a a shot.
 
Another example Prives pointed out was VFX artist Scott Pagano, who designs 3D concert visuals for musicians like Skrillex, Flying Lotus, and Zedd. Prives cited a recent example of an artist requiring an entire live show’s worth of VFX design– four days before the concert date. Because of the cloud, Prives said, Pagano was able to deliver all of the visuals in “beyond 2K” by the deadline.

Max A. Cherney is a San Francisco based writer/director. His first documentary is due this summer. You can follow him on Twitter @chernandburn.


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