How VFX and animation studios are using virtual workstations today

Untold Studios, Tangent Animation, and Hive VFX among those embracing new ways to produce content.

Anyone familiar with the visual effects (VFX) and animation industries is well-aware that compute power is an essential part of the digital artistic process. Historically, studios had to fork over a serious chunk of change to purchase the machines needed to create, render and store content. The associated costs of this sizable investment made it difficult for studios to get started, and also forced them to make decisions about hardware without knowing what kind of projects it would be used for (and manage on-going maintenance costs).

A more fluid alternative to infrastructure, cloud has been helping drive innovation across industries, including VFX and animation, due to the flexibility and scalability it provides. Imagine being able to work however you want, without being tied to physical hardware (literally and financially). It’s a promising prospect for most artists. Until recently, the cloud still seemed like future tech, but this new approach to digital content creation is becoming more common. The first fully cloud-based creative studio, Untold Studios, was founded in late 2018, and other new companies have followed suit, while studios with more legacy hardware have increasingly been augmenting existing infrastructure with a hybrid of local and cloud-based machines.

One of Untold’s projects included this Churchill Insurance spot.

Virtual machines had been gradually gaining favor among the industry, then in early 2020, the world as we knew it completely changed and working from home became a global mandate. VFX and animation studios in every region were forced to rethink their workflows to keep delivery schedules on track. Virtual workstations, and cloud-based tools in general, have proven essential for studios during this time. Based on those studios’ experiences, we could be looking at an impending paradigm shift.

Virtual workstation 101

Though physical workstations have progressively advanced and become more accessible, they’ve remained rather costly. Conversely, a virtual workstation runs on the cloud. Deploying a virtual workstation only requires a connected device and an internet connection, even for complex, compute intensive tasks like 3D animation or particle simulation, and the user experience is comparable to that of a physical workstation.

How AWS virtual workstations work.

Pricing is the big distinguisher between physical and virtual workstations. Virtual workstation pricing is determined by usage, whereas investment in on-premises workstations is paid up front. Virtual machines are further set apart by the fact that specs can be adjusted based on the project. Making a machine more powerful can be done by adjusting a few settings when it’s virtual. Cloud providers, like Amazon Web Services (AWS), offer different types of instances – the term for combinations of virtual compute, memory, storage, and networking capacity – that have been customized with VFX and animation in mind. For example, AWS offers virtual workstations that run on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) G4 instances, which feature NVIDIA T4 Tensor Core GPUs and Quadro technology, and run any digital content creation application.

Tangent Animation: working in the cloud

Tangent Animation embraced the cloud early on, delivering its animated feature project, Next Gen, using Blender and rendering on the cloud. The studio had already planned to extend its workflow further into the cloud with virtual workstations to handle upcoming projects, including Maya and The Three currently in production, when the shift toward remote working accelerated that timeline.

A Tangent Animation artist works on ‘Next Gen.’

They’d been testing virtual workstations on AWS since late 2019 and had already installed an AWS Direct Connect, which provides a secure dedicated connection to AWS. When they transitioned to a virtual office setup, they were able to augment that connection to accommodate VPN routing and artists have been able to continue working on projects as they normally would.

Untold Studios continues to push creative boundaries with cloud

Untold Studios broke new ground in content production when it eschewed traditional workflows and studio real estate at launch, becoming the world’s first cloud-based creative studio and community. From live action production and motion graphics design to creating photoreal creatures and developing original content, Untold Studios works across formats, infusing every step with boundless imagination and artistry. Since all of Untold Studios’ compute power and storage reside on AWS, artists are able to work from anywhere in the world.

This flexibility has proven advantageous to the studio and its clients as the studio transitioned to a full work from home model. Artist collaboration has also benefitted from the studio’s embrace of the cloud. Each individual can access and view project files securely and instantly from anywhere, whether inside or outside the studio. They can work alongside their teams and take immediate action, allowing for a more fluid creative journey. In terms of future plans, Head of Technology Sam Reid envisions that Untold Studios will continue to grow its talent pool and broaden capabilities using the near-infinite capacity of AWS.

How Hive VFX went fully virtual

Similar to Untold Studios, Hive VFX is operating completely in the cloud. It’s also a fully virtual company so it has continued operating with relative normalcy. The untraditional studio founded by Bernie Kimbacher is a collective of artists that come together on a per-project basis for 2D and compositing work. Recent projects include Netflix action films Spenser Confidential and Extraction, Netflix’s most-watched original feature to date.

A scene from ‘Spenser Confidential’, one of Hive’s recent projects.

Hive VFX artists use a standardized workflow made up of off-the-shelf and proprietary solutions, an approach that keeps overhead low while simplifying the artist on-boarding process. Each virtual workstation runs on AWS, and features Foundry’s NUKE compositing software as well as Boris FX’s Mocha and Silhouette for specialized tasks. Autodesk Shotgun is used for project and asset management, and software licenses are managed on a virtual server, from which the virtual workstation accesses a floating license. During project lulls, the ability to spin down machines has been just as important as scaling up.

A virtual future?

No matter where incorporating cloud-based solutions into workflows may have previously fallen on the priority list for VFX and animation studios, the events of this year thus far have catapulted them to the top. While virtualizing workflows was at first a presumably short-term necessity to maintain operations, many studios are finding surprising benefits through this new way of working and gaining freedom from hardware considerations. As the world begins to reopen and we all adjust to the new reality, it will be interesting to see which changes that studios have made will be permanent and could shape the future of the industry.

Head here for more information about virtual workstations on AWS.

Feature image: a scene from the John Lewis & Partners Christmas 2019 Ad, with VFX by Untold Studios.

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