AWS for M&E Blog

Riding the wave of industry disruption in VFX and animation

Any industry that relies on technology inherently deals with disruption, and this includes the media and entertainment. What’s less definitive is how frequently waves of change occur and what impact they may have. Each new technological advancement can present challenges and opportunities, a theme that was readily apparent at a recent Amazon Web Services (AWS) for Media & Entertainment Symposium panel featuring VFX and animation industry leaders. The group came together to discuss the most pressing industry-wide disruptions, including the rapid emergence of generative artificial intelligence (AI), and predictions for the year ahead. Here are some key highlights and the session recording:

Generative AI is a tool, not magic

As EVP, Development and Production at Animal Logic, Felicity Staunton leads production at the animation studio, which is now part of Netflix. She focuses on packaging films together, so talent—directors and writers—is effectively her division’s North Star. While generative AI tools can help quickly visualize rough ideas, diverse and personal stories are needed to attract the attention of studios and audiences. Regarding the technology, Staunton shared, “We’re still in a very interesting, very nebulous sort of phase. It [generative AI] gives people like directors who don’t have the creative skills of an entire art department additional flexibility and the ability to pull things out of their head in a different way, but for us it stops there.”

“We spend a lot of time thinking about generative art specifically, but it’s going to take a little while to work out how we can use it,” noted Andrew Galka, Senior Vice President of Technology at Company 3. He also pointed out that many of the AI benefits currently being hyped are for automation, which can help save artists time. In his view, generative AI is potentially another tool for creatives and clients to better communicate.

Today, Gretchen Libby is the Director of Visual Compute at AWS, but she came to the company from VFX studio Industrial Light & Magic (ILM, a division of Lucasfilm), where she oversaw creative work on many blockbuster feature films, including several “Star Wars” installments. She stressed, “Generative AI is a good first pass, but an artist is needed to make it final.”

The importance of ethics

Collectively, the panelists agreed that while generative AI shows a lot of promise, there are ethical considerations to work out. Many VFX and animation studios are built on artists and creativity, which is something that cannot be replaced with software. Humans drive innovation, not computers, so companies must be mindful of how they use generative AI, or risk dimming their creative spark.

Parallels to virtual production

Though generative AI has grabbed industry attention, virtual production remains a vital content creation tool, with growing adoption. Considered disruptive when it was first introduced, virtual production flipped the industry on its head by forcing creative decisions early in the pipeline. It also opened new opportunities for different types of roles, such as artists and technologists working on real-time components. As Libby reminisced about her time at ILM and how each disruption rocked the boat, she noted, “We’ve seen lots of change. It’s always for the better. Everybody hates it at the time, but it usually means opportunities and efficiencies—time and budget savings. That’s great because then you can put your money on the screen.”

Similar to how productions had to troubleshoot virtual production and figure out what does or doesn’t work when filming in an LED volume, artists and studios will adjust their processes to generative AI-based developments. While generative AI may still be a work in progress, other AI and machine learning (ML) technologies are quickly being incorporated into production pipelines, and the cloud is key to supporting that development.

Balancing remote work

VFX and animation studios used to require in-person collaboration, but that changed in 2020, with remote workflows becoming essential. Once the appropriate pipelines were in place, studios found an added benefit to virtualized teams: access to global talent.

Animal Logic is an Australian company that prides itself on retaining talent from all over the world. Previously, this required people be physically present. “When it comes to hiring talent, it’s just been a complete shift,” shared Staunton. “We have story artists working all over the world, and we have access to the talent that we really want for a project.” She also noted how many directors of Animal Logic projects come from the live action world and aren’t necessarily familiar with animated production. With the strong collaborative workflows currently in place, content can move around to different locations more easily and lead to better end results.

“Technology is such an enabler, and one big shift that we’ve had with partners like AWS is the democratization of those enabling technologies,” said Galka. “When I started my career, one of the selling points of our company was remote sessions, but we had to have this huge infrastructure. Since AWS has become more common, suddenly anyone can do that. And that kind of also speaks to getting access to that bigger talent base and being able to collaborate across our studios.” Galka also reflected on how artists’ latency tolerance shifted when they were no longer required to be in studio, and emphasized that some in-person connection is needed to ensure VFX continues to be a mentorship-driven industry; he mused, “I think it’s really a balance in the end, right?”

Libby, who helped ILM with global expansion, understands the struggles of overcoming remote collaboration challenges and as well as the benefits. “[At ILM] we had buddy systems, we created little groups of people to collaborate and build relationships across borders, which was amazing. Now I have a global team from London through Canada, the US and down to Japan and Australia. We push hard to keep everybody as connected as possible. The VFX business has largely been a nomadic business. People would finish a job in one place, then have to move for the next gig. I love the fact that now people can move home.”

From creative to technology to audience expectations, change is constant in M&E. Check out the full discussion for more insights on riding the wave of industry disruption or peruse other sessions from the AWS for M&E Symposium to learn how studios are using AWS for content production.