VFX studio opts for Amazon cloud to create scenes for Oscar-nominated film

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.

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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.”

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