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April 30
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Demystifying Visual Effects in the Cloud

By WILL McDONALD

Barnstorm has hit 77x the compute power of its on-premises render farm with the cloud for shows like The Man in the High Castle. (Image courtesy of Barnstorm and Amazon)

When discussing workflows and pipeline architecture in the VFX community, cloud-based technology naturally enters the conversation. Significant advancements in hardware and software have made cloud-based technology more accessible for VFX professionals, but there are still a lot of unknowns and open-ended questions about how the cloud will impact VFX facilities in the short and long term.

Among the major cloud computing providers today are Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, Adobe, Rackspace, IBM Cloud, Salesforce, Verizon Cloud, Red Hat, Oracle Cloud, and others.

VFX Voice talked to Will McDonald, AWS Thinkbox Head of Business Development, and addressed some of the most common questions about using the cloud for VFX to provide a baseline foundation for future cloud-based VFX workflows.

Will McDonald, Head of Business Development, AWS Thinkbox

The Good Doctor (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television)

VFX Voice: Let’s say you have already invested in on-premises infrastructure. How would cloud-based technology benefit your studio?

McDonald: In my opinion, one of the truly transformational aspects of using the cloud for VFX is that it allows studios to be much more flexible and dynamic. Capital expenditure (CapEx) shifts to OpEx (Operational Expenditure) so studios don’t have to worry about hefty upfront costs or managing the logistics of renting or purchasing more machines in a crunch.

Most established studios have purchased a significant amount of hardware, and naturally they want to make the most of those investments. At the same time, there’s a deluge of original content being created resulting in more VFX work. By leveraging cloud-based resources, studios have the ability to take on far more and bigger projects than what they could handle with on-premises resources, while avoiding the upfront CapEx costs associated with physical infrastructures.

With a hybrid cloud model, studios can use existing resources until they hit a point where they need more, then scale into the cloud on a pay-as-you-go basis. And when those cloud resources are no longer needed, they spin back down to zero. It’s a truly elastic way of working, and many VFX studios have successfully used this methodology. For example, Tangent Animation rendered nearly a third of its animated feature Next Gen on the cloud; FuseFX has scaled their render farm 10x with the cloud for The Orville to hit tight deadlines and complete complex work such as a full space battle sequence; Milk Visual Effects used the cloud to scale its render farm 10x to create stormy ocean sequences for Adrift; and Barnstorm has hit 77x the compute power of its on-premises render farm with the cloud for shows like The Man in the High Castle.

More than rendering, the cloud can support an entire studio ecosystem. Virtual workstations can be used to allow remote artists or temporary hires to start working immediately without procuring hardware or finding space to deploy it, or even provide mobility for an entire studio. Using cloud-based storage, at least with AWS, hedges against unforeseen disasters such as floods, fires or hardware failures since the data is backed up redundantly in multiple locations within a given availability zone.

The scale afforded by the cloud is beneficial to studios of all sizes, but mid- to small-sized studios stand to gain a lot with its elasticity. They can work on larger projects, and, in many cases, bid on more projects than their on-premises infrastructure could handle. This applies even to the individual freelancers who can now tap into a vast number of vCPUs, GPUs and RAM that only large studios could previously afford.

The Man in the High Castle (Image courtesy of Barnstorm and Amazon)

“By leveraging cloud-based resources, studios have the ability to take on far more and bigger projects than what they could handle with on-premises resources, while avoiding the upfront CapEx costs associated with physical infrastructures.”

—Will McDonald, Head of Business Development, AWS Thinkbox

VFX Voice: How do I evaluate whether using the cloud is a good fit for my facility?

McDonald: In addition to its elasticity, cloud-based technology is generally fast and cost-effective to test new ideas, workflows and infrastructure configurations. You can experiment with different approaches in minutes and only pay for the time spent testing. Integrating with cloud-based resources can typically be done using command line tools, scripting and programming languages, and a GUI. Additionally, tools can automate the process of building and modifying cloud infrastructure.

VFX Voice: How can VFX facilities forecast and budget for cloud spending?

McDonald: While cloud compute costs vary since cloud options are so scalable, keeping budgets on track ultimately comes down to hitting production goals. With AWS, there are three main resource options: Reserved Instances, On-Demand Instances and Spot Instances. Reserved Instances are for steady state workloads where virtual machines are purchased for long durations ahead of time, up to three years at a time; On-Demand Instances are virtual machines that are spun up only when needed; and Spot Instances are highly economical resources, but pre-emptible. Cloud rendering becomes very cost-effective when a studio is able to primarily leverage Spot Instances.

Cloud pricing is determined by time, so running 1,000 CPUs for 10 hours or 10,000 CPUs for one hour costs the same; however, getting results faster leads to higher productivity since iteration is quicker, thereby increasing output quality. In my experience, studios that expect to double render farm capacity by expanding to the cloud end up scaling 10x or beyond for shorter durations because the costs are about the same. The more you become familiar with the cloud and understand how it functions, the more accurately you can forecast values and build cloud compute costs into VFX project bids or pass them through to clients.

Milk Visual Effects used the cloud to scale its render farm 10x to create stormy ocean sequences for Adrift. (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

Adrift (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

Adrift (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

Adrift (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

“The more you become familiar with the cloud and understand how it functions, the more accurately you can forecast values and build cloud compute costs into VFX project bids or pass them through to clients.”

—Will McDonald, Head of Business Development, AWS Thinkbox

Adrift (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

“With a hybrid cloud model, studios can use existing resources until they hit a point where they need more, then scale into the cloud on a pay-as-you-go basis. And when those cloud resources are no longer needed, they spin back down to zero. It’s a truly elastic way of working, and many VFX studios have successfully used this methodology.”

—Will McDonald, Head of Business Development, AWS Thinkbox

VFX Voice: How does leveraging the cloud change how artists work?

McDonald: Usually, cloud rendering resources are exposed to the end user the same way as local render nodes, so except for the naming of the render nodes, it might be difficult to tell them apart from an artist perspective. Render wranglers, on the other hand, will notice a difference because they’ll have a ton more capacity, which allows artist to receive results much more quickly. Quicker results lead to more fluid iteration, better creative and generally happier artists.

In terms of virtual workstations, many VFX facilities already employ hardware-based zero clients or software-based thin clients and streaming protocol linked to a datacenter, so switching to virtual workstations in the cloud only changes the location of the datacenter, but not the way the artist works. Regardless of workstation location, the creative process doesn’t change, but artists benefit from having hardware flexibility. If a job calls for more RAM or GPUs, switching to a more powerful instance type takes just a few minutes. When new hardware (Intel micro-architecture, CPU models, NVIDIA GPUs, etc.) becomes available, the artist can start using it as soon as it has been rolled out, often at a lower cost for higher performance.

Adrift (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

“More than rendering, the cloud can support an entire studio ecosystem. Virtual workstations can be used to allow remote artists or temporary hires to start working immediately without procuring hardware or finding space to deploy it, or even provide mobility for an entire studio.”

—Will McDonald, Head of Business Development, AWS Thinkbox

VFX Voice: What infrastructure considerations need to be taken into account in using the cloud?

McDonald: Data proximity and connectivity are key, regardless of where your data is hosted. In the case of the cloud, during setup you want to select a cloud region that’s geographically close to your studio. AWS currently has 21 regions (with four more coming soon), so online tools like https://ping.psa.fun or https://www.cloudping.info can help AWS users determine which region provides the optimal latency. In the case of multiple offices, each location should use the closest region, and cross-region data replication might become necessary to keep assets close to the user’s work space.

To optimize the movement of data in production environments with the cloud, a dedicated network connection like AWS Direct Connect (DX) is recommended to increase the available bandwidth for virtual workstation protocol streams, and decrease the measured latency.

For virtual workstations, most thin clients and the latest zero client firmware for Linux and Windows support local termination of USB devices. This means that the USB stream from a Wacom tablet, mouse or keyboard is processed on the thin or zero client and only the final result (e.g. the cursor’s resulting position) is transmitted to the remote workstation, thus significantly reducing the subjective experience of a lag.

Adrift (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

“Render wranglers … will notice a difference because they’ll have a ton more capacity, which allows artist to receive results much more quickly. Quicker results lead to more fluid iteration, better creative and generally happier artists.”

—Will McDonald, Head of Business Development, AWS Thinkbox

VFX Voice: How do I get my existing data from on-premises storage to a cloud provider?

McDonald: In most cases, your existing network line should be big enough to move even tremendous amounts of data to the cloud, and, if needed, there are solutions for scaling your direct network connection up to the 10G range on short notice. Finding the optimal storage solution depends on your unique needs as there are many available that meet the high throughput demands of VFX. Most cloud providers include different, customizable storage tiers, and, with the ease of uploading data, scaling into the cloud is pretty seamless. This is especially useful for smaller VFX facilities that do not have a solid backup/disaster recovery solution. With the ability to store petabytes of data in the cloud at a reasonable cost, studios can dedicate on-premises storage to active production data without running a risk of losing data, even when working on vast simulations and high resolution.

Adrift (Image courtesy of Milk Visual Effects and STX Films)

“More VFX studios are testing cloud technology and implementing cloud-based workflows on high-profile projects. Hybrid cloud setups are what’s current, and the future is having the full studio in the cloud, like Untold Studios, which launched late last year as the world’s first VFX studio to use entirely cloud-based infrastructure.”

—Will McDonald, Head of Business Development, AWS Thinkbox

VFX Voice: What do you think is on the horizon for cloud-based workflows in VFX?

McDonald: For any new technology adoption, especially in VFX, the proof is in the results. More VFX studios are testing cloud technology and implementing cloud-based workflows on high-profile projects. Hybrid cloud setups are what’s current, and the future is having the full studio in the cloud, like Untold Studios, which launched late last year as the world’s first VFX studio to use entirely cloud-based infrastructure.

The studio-in-the-cloud model encompasses virtual workstations, rendering and storage that run on a public cloud. By leveraging virtual workstations, studios can tap into new talent pools by adding artists to their pipeline for a specific project or any time duration, regardless of where they are located in the world. Artists work securely using a streaming application and the studio’s existing licensing for their preferred content creation tools, with the content they create stored securely on cloud-based storage. When content is created in the cloud, you stay closer to your data as it becomes much easier to store, transfer and render. And with cloud rendering, studios can increase productivity since artists are spending less time waiting for results and more time iterating to improve the overall quality of the project. Given the expansive possibilities of the cloud for VFX, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface.

Will McDonald can be contacted at info@thinkboxsoftware.com or www.thinkboxsoftware.com/cloud_VFX


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