Atomic Fiction is leading the way for Hollywood visual effects (VFX) studios that are looking to cut costs on production, whilst maintaining a high level of artistic quality, by rendering images in Amazon’s EC2 cloud.

Computerworld UK spoke to Kevin Baillieie, CEO and co-founder of Atomic Fiction, and Alex Schworer, the company’s lead developer, who recently worked with director Robert Zemeckis on the VFX for his Oscar nominated film, Flight.

The pair explained how they had both worked in studios before that didn’t have any money, which struggled to get the resources to fund on-site server farms to render images for high-value productions, as well as studios that had near-unlimited resources that struggled with waste and efficiency.

This led to Baillie setting up Atomic Fiction a couple of years ago, where he made it his aim to gather together a group of exceptionally talented artists, but use the cloud to cut costs on production – an unprecedented move in Hollywood.

“When we started this company we knew we didn’t have much money, but we knew really talented artists that could make incredible looking imagery. We wanted to differentiate ourselves by doing extremely high-end work,” said Baillie.

VFX studios use artists to create realistic images based on geometric wire frames, light and textures. Once the artists have created all of the data inputs, the heavy lift rendering is then carried out in a data centre to create the final image.

“The only problem is that extremely high end people are very expensive. We didn’t want to cut back in the area of talent, so we had to look at other areas to cut costs. That’s where the cloud came in,” said Baillie.

Baillie and Schworer explained that studios using traditional on-premise data centres are facing unnecessary costs, and that by using the cloud there is little to no difference for the artist creating the images.

“The traditional environments are expensive and they depreciate, they take a lot of manpower to maintain. Also, when you have 12,000 cores all humming away hitting disk, the disk has to be really fast. As a result, by using Amazon, we also don’t need a disk that is as beefy or network infrastructure that is as high-end,” said Baillie.

“We still have good stuff, but we have fewer requirements on the hardware that we own, because we offload all of the heavy lifting to EC2.”

Schworer agreed, and said that although there are some changes behind the scenes for Atomic Fiction, for the artists, the process is seamless.

“The nice thing for the artists is that the changes are really minimal. They send their render job, which is kind of like a batch operation, and depending on the complexity, can take anywhere from an hour to a couple of days to finish. For them it doesn’t matter whether it’s an on-site data centre or Amazon’s cloud,” he said.

“There is some technology behind the scenes that we use to keep data in sync across the Amazon data centres and our internal data centre, which has been developed by a company called Zero FX. They have written some tools that allow our assets to stay in sync with the cloud.”

He added: “Then conversely, once those render jobs finish in the cloud, there’s a process to sync them back to our network and alert the artist that it’s ready to go.”

Atomic Fiction believes it would have had to turn away the Robert Zemeckis project if it had not been created using Amazon’s hosting environment.

“Flight took us about four months to complete and the honest answer is that for us as a company it probably would have been impossible to complete without the cloud. We have been around for a couple of years, but we are still growing and a privately funded company,” said Baillie.

“When Flight came along at the beginning of the project it was supposed to be about 100 shots, most of them in the plane crash scene – probably around 10 to 15 minutes of VFX. Then Zemeckis had a lot of new ideas and the project increased to 400 shots, around 40 minutes of VFX.”

He added: “This all had to be done within the same deadline and for a company like ours it would have been impossible to grow fast enough to accommodate the extra work. We would have had to turn it down. But what the cloud allowed us to do is scale from a 120 shot infrastructure to a 400 shot infrastructure within minutes. That right there is a total game changer.”

The pair also insist that Paramount was more than happy for Atomic Fiction to use the cloud, given the cost savings it would deliver. Baillie estimates that to build a data centre to handle the Flight project it would have cost the studio roughly $1 million (£642,000), but by using Amazon, Atomic Fiction’s costs were less than a tenth of that.

Paramount was only concerned about security, but Baillie has ensured the assets are protected by using ‘bank grade encryption’ and because the studio is using Amazon’s virtual private cloud, the data isn’t accessible to anyone outside Atomic Fiction’s network.

However, there were challenges for the studio when using the cloud, where Baillie and Schworer warn that to make rendering in a third party data centre effective, given the size of the batches being sent to Amazon, you need access to a decent internet connection.

“It certainly helps to have a pretty decent connection to the internet, we rely on that to get data to Amazon quickly. Without that you’d have to take some extra precautions,” said Schworer. “We route everything over the public internet, but we can burst to gigabit speed.”

Baillie also warned other studios considering the cloud that the mind-set of the artists creating the images needs to be changed, as they aren’t used to working on a cost-per-batch-job basis. 

“The other thing that has been a particular challenge for us was making sure that the artists realise that this is compute resource they are using – we are paying for it every time that we put stuff in the cloud to get crunched away on,” he said.

“That means that we have to keep reminding them to optimise what they are doing, because the same exact image can take ten minutes to create or two hours to create just by changing a few settings, but wouldn’t look any different.”

He added: “However, this is still the case in a traditional VFX company. Just because there’s not a dollar sign attached to every job that’s rendered, people get the feeling it’s for free, but it’s really not. So having to be careful in the cloud is actually just bringing light to a problem that’s a reality in every other studio.”

Atomic Fiction has no intention of moving to a situation where it has to look after an on-premise data centre to create VFX for big budget productions, and Baillie and Schworer are strong advocates of Amazon’s environment. Baillie said that he fully realised the power of cloud computing for VFX rendering on the last day of working on Flight, where director Zemeckis demanded some last minute changes.

“On the last day of the project we had one shot left, which was the last frame of the movie. It was very simple work but it was long, about 800 frames. Robert Zemeckis was about 40 minutes away from our office doing the final sound mix balancing, so I drove up to him and showed him the final effects for this shot,” said Baillie.

“He looked at it and didn’t like it. So I went and sat on the couch and while he was doing the last 20 minutes of work I made the changes really quickly, sent the render off into the cloud, and got it back in time to show him before he’d finished what he was doing.”

He added: “It was just me, one guy, half an hour away from my office, being able to pull in the horse power of 100 machines in Amazon’s cloud to do the processing, and being able to give the director exactly what he wants. As long as you have an internet connection, you have the power of an entire data centre at your fingertips.”