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Hive VFX Cuts Upfront Studio Costs, Operates as Cloud VFX Studio on AWS

2020

Until recently, major Hollywood studios dominated the realm of visual effects (VFX). But cloud technology is changing the game, making it easier for small, independent studios to enter the market. In May 2019, VFX Supervisor Bernie Kimbacher single-handedly built a cloud VFX studio, Hive VFX, using only Amazon Web Services (AWS). Many studios run partly in the cloud—for example, rendering on AWS or using workstations to access local networks—but Hive VFX, a collective of VFX artists that specializes in 2D and compositing, is one of the first all-in cloud studios.

Kimbacher used AWS to develop a cloud studio that not only produces content that rivals major film production but also avoids the high costs of setting up a traditional VFX studio with an office and on-premises infrastructure. It also achieved location independence in the cloud, so it can recruit artists globally and enable them to work remotely, easily growing the team to match project demands. And Hive VFX reduced costs with a pay-per-usage infrastructure that scales to adapt to the studio’s project load and by relying on the fully managed services of AWS in place of an in-house IT team.

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I can spin up an Amazon FSx for Lustre file system in 5 minutes, and it’s all managed by AWS.”

Bernie Kimbacher
Founder, Hive VFX

Launching Hive VFX in the Cloud

Before starting his cloud studio, Kimbacher worked for 12 years as a VFX artist and eventually supervisor on productions such as Straight Outta Compton. He founded Hive VFX as an alternative to the traditional VFX studio that dictates how and where artists need to work. “I was drawn to the cloud for VFX based on lifestyle,” Kimbacher says. “My goal for Hive VFX was to rethink the traditional studio model and create a hub for freelancers that gives artists more freedom to choose their projects.” And on AWS, Kimbacher could set up Hive VFX with zero upfront cost—compared to a traditional studio that would require paying for an office and installing and managing the infrastructure for VFX workstations, a powerful computer system with high data capacity that artists use in VFX designing, manipulating, and editing. “If you want to build a high-performance infrastructure, the cost is such that I don’t know how one person starting a studio can do it without outside investment,” says Kimbacher. “It’s next to impossible.”

To achieve its entirely cloud-based production, Hive VFX needed to establish three systems: cloud storage, cloud rendering, and virtual workstations for artists and editors. Kimbacher, who considers himself “not an IT person,” migrated his entire workflow from Foundry’s former cloud platform Athera—which closed down in fall 2019—to AWS in about a month. “It can take some time to wrap your head around the cloud, and a lot of people don’t realize how accessible it is on AWS,” says Kimbacher. He first created his virtual private cloud. Then, for storage, he set up AWS FSx for Lustre, a high-performance file system, backed by Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), a highly secure and readily available object storage service. The seamless synchronization of file data and file permissions between the two enables Hive VFX to store a large volume of images and share project data across continents.

Connected to the cloud storage are the virtual Linux–based workstations, which enable artists to use digital content creation tools to generate VFX. The workstations were first deployed with Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) G3 Instances. But when Amazon EC2 G4 Instances—powered by NVIDIA T4 Tensor Core GPUs (NVIDIA’s latest generation of GPUs) and NVIDIA Quadro technology, the latest technology for high-performance simulation, rendering, and design—became available, Hive VFX was able to upgrade easily and quickly. “The workstation performance we get with G4 Instances is well above even some of the bigger studios’ and more than sufficient for our needs,” says Kimbacher. He also created a cloud render farm using the compute capacity of Amazon EC2 Spot Instances and AWS Thinkbox Deadline, an administration and compute-management solution for cloud and on-premises render farms, to render shots with incredible compute elasticity and cost control. Usually each frame or chunk of frames has to be rendered on a separate instance—a process that can take a lot of time with few instances. But since Hive VFX has a virtually unlimited amount of Amazon EC2 Spot Instances, it can render all frames at the same time.

Creating VFX from Anywhere in the World

Taking advantage of the global footprint of the AWS Cloud, Hive VFX can operate worldwide and isn’t limited by location in hiring the most talented artists, which eases recruiting. Artists work remotely from anywhere using the virtual workstations running on Amazon EC2 G4 Instances, which function across multiple AWS Regions. For example, over 2 months, Kimbacher worked on the Netflix original action flick Spenser Confidential with 11 other people across Europe and North America. “We mostly use the AWS US West Region,” says Kimbacher, “but it’s nice to easily switch to the US East Region or to a  Europe Region when needed. This gives us more agility because we can tap artists in other locales, including VFX hubs like Toronto, which also enables us to offer the best tax credits available to our clients.” Each region has an Amazon FSx for Lustre file system integrated with Amazon S3 so data is seamlessly shared across regions, meaning the common set of video assets in Europe and North America is always in sync. And tight security protects data across the AWS Regions. “All our data is hosted on AWS and remains there,” Kimbacher explains. “The only content transferred to our monitors is an encrypted video feed of the artist’s work, not actual data, which is tightly secured within AWS. To access a virtual workstation, the artist’s IP address must be allowed—even if they have the login information—and we have additional security measures in place, such as two-factor authentication.”

Creating a virtual workstation to onboard new artists is simple: Kimbacher spins up a new virtual machine in minutes with the saved, predetermined specs. “You build yourself what’s called an Amazon Machine Image (or AMI). One machine has all the software, drivers, and everything else you need installed—then you make an AMI out of that. Once you have the AMI, you can just spawn new workstations from the AMI, and it’s more or less at the click of a button.” New artists hit the ground running because the NVIDIA Quadro Virtual Workstation AMIs provide the same Quadro experience used by millions of professional designers and artists, though the AWS AMIs contain optimizations that improve the performance and run up to four 4K displays on a per GPU basis. Artists access their virtual workstations on their own devices through the internet, usually with a consumer-grade connection, using Teradici Cloud Access Software, which streams pixels to the artist’s monitor.

Hive VFX can take on as many projects as it has artists for, even doubling its workload, without worrying about infrastructure capacity. Using AWS, the studio created a cost-effective production-grade content creation pipeline on a pay-per-use basis. Amazon EC2 Spot Instances enable Hive VFX to spin up render nodes as needed by taking advantage of idle compute capacity at a discount without being locked in to high cost, giving it the functionality it needs at low costs. And using Amazon EC2 G4 Instances with the virtual workstations gives the studio the flexibility to provision resources on a per-project basis rather than be limited by the availability of on-premises hardware. “If you use it just for a day, you literally pay a few dollars for a very high-performing production environment,” Kimbacher says. In its idle configuration, Hive VFX only pays for Amazon S3: about 10 TB results in a monthly total cost of ownership of about $230. Relying on the fully managed service provided by AWS, Hive VFX reduces technical debt, operating without an IT team to maintain the system: artists can remain artists rather than having to be jacks-of-all-trades like in startups with on-premises infrastructure. “I can spin up an Amazon FSx for Lustre file system in 5 minutes, and it’s all managed by AWS,” says Kimbacher. “I don’t have to worry about the nodes in the background that are running it or the multiple network connections that are happening. For a small studio, access to that kind of infrastructure is crucial.”

Democratizing VFX Production by Using AWS

By going all in on AWS, Kimbacher was able to break free of the VFX studio paradigm. For an affordable cost, he launched a small, independent cloud studio that helps artists around the world remotely create quality content on par with or better than larger studios.

With streaming video services firmly established, there’s already been a significant shift in the media and entertainment industry. Looking long term, Kimbacher predicts that “the cloud will just be the norm,” but even in the near future, he anticipates big changes spurred on by the removal of previous entry hurdles such as funds and technology through cloud innovation. “You used to have a few fairly large studios, and they did all the work,” says Kimbacher. “I think now it’s getting democratized, where everybody can quite easily open up a shop.”


About Hive VFX

Hive VFX is an all-in cloud studio of VFX artists that specializes in 2D and compositing, including green-screen backgrounds and beauty work. The company’s projects include Netflix original films Spenser Confidential and Extraction.

Benefits of AWS

  • Set up a cloud-based studio with no upfront cost
  • Migrated entire workflow to AWS in 1 month
  • Spins up an FSx for Lustre file system in 5 minutes
  • Spins up a virtual workstation quickly and easily
  • Has a $230/month total cost of ownership for 10 TB in idle configuration
  • Supports running up to four 4K displays on a per-GPU basis
  • Upgraded from Amazon EC2 G3 Instances to G4 Instances in minutes
  • Scales easily to double the workload
  • Achieved location independence and global recruitment


AWS Services Used

Amazon FSx for Lustre

Amazon FSx for Lustre is a fully managed service that provides cost-effective, high-performance storage for compute workloads.

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Amazon EC2 G4 Instances

Amazon EC2 G4 instances deliver the industry’s most cost-effective and versatile GPU instance for deploying machine learning models in production and graphics-intensive applications.

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AWS Thinkbox Deadline

AWS Thinkbox Deadline is a hassle-free hybrid administration and compute management software for Windows, Linux, and mac OS based render farms, supporting more than 80 different content creation applications out of the box.

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