AWS for visual effects explained
Visual effects (VFX) help drive storytelling, whether through eye-catching intergalactic showdowns or subtle CGI that transports modern viewers to bygone eras and locations. VFX artists pour countless hours into crafting and perfecting shots, often iterating on data-heavy files up until the last minute before final export. Cloud-based technology removes many of the traditional physical and logistical limitations facing VFX studios, and enables creative visionaries to instead focus on content creation.
The high availability, spiky resource demands and timebound nature of VFX make AWS the perfect solution for creating, storing, and rendering projects in the cloud. Multiple VFX studios of varied sizes use the combination of AWS render farm management software and compute resources to increase their capacity and agility at scale, and to support the creative vision of their clients – while paying only for the compute resources they use.
For example, Milk Visual Effects used the cloud to scale its render farm 10x, largely with Spot Instances, to create compute-heavy simulations that resulted in stormy ocean sequences for the feature film “Adrift.” FuseFX scaled their render farm 10x with using AWS Spot Instances for “The Orville” to hit tight deadlines and deliver complex VFX sequences. Untold Studios built its entire pipeline on the AWS cloud, embracing the “Studio In The Cloud” concept by leveraging AWS infrastructure. Tangent Animation rendered more than 65 percent of the animated Netflix feature “Next Gen” on the AWS cloud, with more than three million render hours completed in just 30 days. Barnstorm VFX has used AWS to scale the compute power of its on-premises render farm 77x for shows like “The Man in the High Castle.” Everyday more VFX facilities request information and commence with tests using AWS cloud services such as virtual workstations, cloud rendering, and tiered storage; from immediate hot data all the way to cold S3 Glacier long term archive storage.
With any new technology adoption, especially in VFX, the proof is in the results. AWS Thinkbox is on the front lines of the shift to the cloud, helping studios architect new, more efficient and flexible ways of creating VFX with the near-infinite resources of AWS. This enables studios to scale their compute, talent, and ultimately deliver better results. Using the AWS cloud enables VFX facilities to speed up their workflows and present more iterations faster to a client. This accelerated workflow also allows facilities to fully embrace the creative process, and allows VFX facilities to take on more work and with overlapping deadlines. VFX has always been a tightly-budgeted, thin margin business, and with AWS cloud support, facilities can successfully take on more work and become more profitable since talent will be able to spend more time creating and less time waiting for results to render.
It has long been standard practice for studios to call a VFX company and check if it has “capacity” for a certain project, and it’s becoming increasingly common for studios to also ask if that company has a facility in an “incentivized location.” It is only a matter of time until studios start to inquire if the company is “cloud-enabled” and can therefore utilize near-unlimited compute resources, should a show, specific shot, or overall schedule change require it.
Will McDonald, Head of Business Development for AWS Thinkbox, recently spoke to VFX Voice about some of the most common questions he’s encountered in this transformative time. Building on his insight, here’s a closer look at how AWS is empowering studios to rethink traditional VFX workflows in favor of a more elastic alternative in the cloud.
Here is a brief overview of relevant terminology:
- Amazon EC2 (Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud) – A scalable computing capacity in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud, Amazon EC2 can be used to launch as many or as few virtual servers as needed, configure security and networking, and manage storage.
- Instances – These are virtual computing environments that can be configured and customized with various CPU, memory, storage, and networking capacity, depending on application needs. Preconfigured templates for instances are known as Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) and they package bits needed for the server (including operating system and software). There are three types of instances: Spot Instances, On-Demand instances, or Reserved instances.
- On-Demand instances – Instances that are paid for when needed, by the second, and can be utilized through capacity reservations. These are typically used for virtual workstations, and continuous workloads, like a license server.
- Reserved instances – Instances that have been purchased for a certain duration, usually one to three years, and at a significant discount.
- Spot Instances – Amazon EC2 Spot Instances let users take advantage of unused EC2 capacity in the AWS cloud. Spot Instances are available at up to a 90 percent discount compared to On-Demand prices. These are ideal for rendering due to the spiky nature of VFX rendering demands.
The ability to scale, quickly and substantially, is a key benefit of using the cloud, and AWS capacity is more than the next ten competitors combined. AWS currently supports 66 Availability Zones within 21 Geographic Regions around the world, with announced plans for four more regions. This means AWS offers data durability and significant spare capacity that can be used via Spot Instances, resources that cost up to 90 percent less than On-Demand instances, and due to high availability, nearly all jobs rendered using Spot Instances are completed without interruption. If a frame fails for any reason, AWS Thinkbox’s Deadline compute management software will automatically reassign that frame to another render node.
The benefit of having access to the depth and computing power of the AWS cloud within the VFX marketplace is academic. Studios heavily consider the capacity of VFX facilities when determining how to award work, especially if the bid requires particularly challenging or ambitious visuals. When AWS cloud utilization has been pre-wired, those resources can be leveraged within minutes; this is in stark contrast to the weeks or even months it can take to procure and set up physical workstations and render nodes.
The AWS infrastructure is built to satisfy the requirements of the most security-sensitive organizations, including the United States government. This VFX industry-specific document, “Studio Security Controls for VFX/Rendering,” was generated by Independent Security Evaluators (ISE) and outlines secure workflow requirements on AWS. Separately, AWS Thinkbox has also developed a ‘Quick Start for VFX Burst Rendering’ template that can spawn a VFX studio infrastructure on AWS that achieves the security requirements of MPAA and Disney/Marvel, and an accompanying document listing the best practices as a checklist.
Security in the AWS cloud is recognized as better than on premises. Broad security certification and accreditation, data encryption at rest and in-transit, hardware security modules, and strong physical security all contribute to a more secure way to for VFX studios to manage IT infrastructure.
When the types of instances used in an Amazon EC2 fleet are varied, resource pools are spread out, and that makes them stronger as a whole and less likely to be disrupted. Keeping track of resource usage can be done via custom tagging and the AWS Billing Console. With custom tagging, VFX facilities are able to track specific cataloged data, such as all shots for a particular sequence, episode, series, etc. Usage thresholds can be set to trigger notifications or actions, and by reviewing historical usage data, facilities can better determine activity trends and estimate future resource demands and budget projected cloud usage at the bidding stage.
For more info on leveraging the AWS cloud for VFX, drop the AWS Thinkbox team a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org.