Kevin Baillie, CEO of visual effects studio Atomic Fiction, who has served as VFX supervisor for a number of blockbuster hits, most recently Allied is a big fan of cloud computing. In this interview, he explains how it can boost productivity and cut production times in moviemaking.
Baillie: I wish they would expand to reflect the increased complexity but more often than not they are being compressed, especially as the film industry in general is trying to figure out how best to market itself in this new world where we have a lot of alternative forms of viewing with streaming services and things like that.
Release dates are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the strategy for some of the films we work on. More often than not the thing that drives our timeline is the release date rather than how much work needs to be done. That has a tendency to compress schedules.
Baillie: I think cloud computing has a huge role to play in helping to achieve these compressed schedules, while addressing the increased creative appetites for the complexities of films being produced today. I have never heard a director say “I would like you to create something just like we had before but a little less spectacular.”
They always want bigger and better, something that has never been seen before. So the compressed schedules and the increased appetite all point to needing a lot more computing power, faster access to information and a lot more reliability in the process.
I have been a fan of using cloud in a variety of different areas in the production process for six or seven years now, so I am hook line and sinker sold on cloud as being the future of our industry.
Baillie: I think there are two areas in which cloud has had a big impact for us. Allied was the first project on which we used Pulse. Pulse is an amazing system that stores all the footage we shoot on set and allows us, as a visual effects company and as the visual effect team running the show, to say “OK I need this clip of this footage here in the highest fidelity possible” and get it delivered to us automatically in a few hours, without a human being ever having to touch it.
That turnaround time and the lack of human involvement in the process were the two things that were really advantageous for us on Allied, because -- as we were discussing – the schedules were compressed.
On Allied we had just over four months to complete over 700 visual effects shots, which on a Robert Zemeckis film is equivalent to about 1600 shots on a normal film, because the shots are so long. So we had a lot of work to do and not a lot of time. And we could not afford to lose even a single day through waiting on something.
The automation was really amazing there. Also the fact that a human being did not have to get involved in the process removed a lot of the human error that enters the equation when a more technician-driven system is employed.
From the beginning of the postproduction phase of Allied we knew that the reliability and the turnaround time of a dedicated system were going to be huge for us, which is why we went with Pulse.
I could not have been happier at the end of the day with the way it turned out. We just would not have been able to get the show done without Pulse. We had vendors in California, in Montreal, in Prague, really all over the world, and having the cloud access and the reliability and turnaround time of Pulse was a magnificent feather in the cap for the cloud process.
The second area where cloud has really come into play for us is visual effects rendering. At my company, Atomic Fiction, we have been using cloud computing since our inception because we knew that the scale, turnaround time and the reliability cloud provides would be a huge win for us. So instead of building a data center to do our rendering we have been using cloud from day one to do all that offloaded processing.
A couple of years ago we spun off the software we had developed to do that, called Conductor, into its own company so now, just like you can sign up and use Pulse on shows, people can go and sign up and use Conductor to render their shows.
So, I think cloud will become more and more part of the production workflow in a meaningful way to help deal with these backloaded schedules where “I need 30,000 processors to render this thing and it is due tomorrow,” or “Hey I need this footage out of Pulse, get it to me in a couple of hours and make it mistake free.”
Baillie: I think there has been a real swing over the last two years, in particular in terms of the emotional acceptance of cloud. There was a perception for a while that it is not secure enough, that it is too slow, that it is too expensive, but there were shining beacons of light in the industry who said it was fine and did it anyway, and the proof is in the pudding.
They got things done faster, they got things done cheaper, the end result actually looked better because the artist got turnaround faster, or because the footage actually came to them right the first time so they had more time to work on it.
I think some of the concerns that have been around are more emotional than practical. A lot of the studio executives I have been working with are getting more and more excited about us using cloud as part of the process.
I had a conversation with Robert Zemeckis, who I have great relationship with, about using Pulse on Allied and he said ‘If it is going to help you do your job better and if its going to save us money and make things more reliable for me from a timeline perspective, by all means go for it.’
Baillie: Yes and no. The yes part of it comes from qualitative data analysis where we can say that, over the course of last year for rendering using Conductor, we spent half as much with Atomic Fiction as we would have spent if we had built our own data center instead of using cloud.
With Pulse it is similar. You could just make a comparison and say using Pulse would cost X and using people to do this work at another lab would cost Y.
The real value is in the reliability, in the turnaround time, the scale you can achieve. All those things help people save time. People are really expensive...and mistakes are even more expensive.
So it is really difficult to paint a big picture that harnesses all the data points you would need to say truly what the economic advantages of these cloud-based services are.
My gut feeling is that it could be anywhere between two and ten times cheaper when you account for all those things. So I think as we move forward we will see people do a better job than I just did of putting numbers to all those things. Some of them are just so squishy and interrelated and complex, but my gut says there is a giant saving.
Baillie: Absolutely. There are huge creative advantages. Some of the more jaded folk in our business might look at these processes and call them enablers for bad behavior, but I do not think they are that at all.
I will give two examples. One is that directors love to edit as late in the process as they possibly can. The movie takes shape through editorial and as Zemeckis likes to say, the last draft of the script is written in the editing room. A really important part of the creative process is to allow editorial to go on as deep into the show as possible.
When you are doing frame pulls as you would without Pulse, those take a long time and that process is fraught with error, so you are afraid to let editorial go too far into the schedule. If it is going to take your artists a long time to get the footage to work on you want to cut the editorial process off as soon as possible and remove some of that flexibility.
So I think it is great that tools like Pulse allow editors to go deeper into the schedule without having a negative impact on the VFX process.
It is the same with using the cloud for rendering and simulation.
Deadpool is a great example of a project that we did last year where 80 percent of the rendering of the show had to be done in the last month of the production schedule because we had to build this fully digital city environment for the opening freeway chase and every car, every building, every freeway overpass had to be built digitally. So we spent the first four months of the production schedule building the world and then having to render it all at the very end.
Being able to really scale the infrastructure and scale the process to suit the natural cadence of the production was really awesome. In the old model with traditional infrastructure you had to shift your process to suit the limitations of the infrastructure.
Instead of shifting your process to suit the infrastructure you really want your infrastructure to shift to meet your process and I think that is one of the really powerful promises of cloud going forward.
I think the cloud will enable us to go to a model where all the storage, all the rendering, all the content is in the cloud and the only thing on people’s desks is a monitor, a keyboard and a low-powered processing unit that is simply receiving pixels from the cloud.
Adoption of cloud by the movie industry will be rapid, because the benefits are compelling.
The cloud has the ability to be ultimately more secure than what we have today, and certainly a whole lot faster. I think the economic benefits will drive adoption as quickly as the technology can mature to enable it.