Milk Renders 170 Fluid-Simulation Shots in 6 Weeks Using AWS Thinkbox Deadline

In the opening scene of the STXfilms movie Adrift, based on the true story of two sailors caught in a Category 5 hurricane, it's obvious something terrible has happened. Debris and a body float in murky water. A bleeding woman regains consciousness in a flooded sailboat. As the boat wallows in the waves rolling across its deck, the woman searches desperately for her missing partner. Just how much trouble she's in is clear from the high-angle aerial shot that ends the scene. The crippled vessel is a tiny dot, surrounded for miles and miles by vast, empty ocean.

To all appearances, this scene was filmed on location, on a real sailboat, with three feet of water sloshing below decks—but that's an illusion. It was actually shot in front of green screens in a studio, the boat rocking on gimbals to simulate the motion of the waves, with only enough water on set to keep the actors' hair wet.

Milk added the ocean.

  • About Milk VFX
  • VFX studio Milk, winner of an Academy Award and three BAFTA awards, has credits that include Annihilation, Altered Carbon, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The company has studios in London and Cardiff, Wales. 

  • Benefits of AWS
    • Rendered 170 ocean simulation shots in 6 weeks
    • Scale of the render farm peaked at 132,000 CPU cores
    • Artists didn’t need to learn new tools or processes
  • AWS Services Used

Setting Sail with a Skeleton Crew

Milk, a London-based visual effects (VFX) company, has extensive television and film credits, and it has won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects on Ex Machina as well as multiple BAFTA awards for Doctor Who and other projects. Many VFX companies would be proud to have created this 7,000-frame opening scene alone, but—as the principal VFX vendor for Adrift—Milk generated 170 fluid-simulation ocean and storm shots. Those included a 62 TB, 3,000-frame sequence in which the sailboat is pitchpoled—flipped end over end—by a 100-foot wave. Rendering all the simulations and VFX for the film took six weeks, with daily resource needs averaging 80,000 CPU cores and peaking at 132,000.

To accomplish all this, Milk optimized its animation pipeline for extensive FX simulation by building custom scripts for SideFX Houdini and AWS Thinkbox Deadline—an administration and compute-management solution for cloud and on-premises render farms. Its artists could then simulate locally and render with Mantra in the cloud using thousands of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) Spot Instances.

"The scope of the VFX work for Adrift was easily 10 times bigger than anything we'd tackled previously, and it wasn’t the only project we were working on," says Dave Goodbourn, head of systems for Milk. “By using Deadline on AWS, even our modest-sized team was easily able to generate a ton of work.”

Achieving More with Less on AWS

Founded in 2013, Milk's fifth year saw it increasing its artist capacity to about 200 and expanding its London headquarters. In addition, it was taking on a raft of challenging television and film work, including the upcoming Dan Films/Kindle Entertainment feature film Four Kids and It and the Amazon Prime/BBC Studios series Good Omens.

Milk’s strategy is to use cloud computing to achieve what would otherwise be unheard-of capacity and agility for a company its size—just the right strategy to deliver the VFX for Adrift director Baltasar Kormákur's ambitious vision.

“Water simulation is unforgiving since audiences have an intuitive feeling of what it should look like, it’s highly complex to generate, and a ton of data is produced,” says James Reid, head of FX and CG supervisor for Milk. “Reliable, highly scalable render capacity was a primary consideration for the project, so we started looking at AWS."

Milk also saw value in the recent acquisition of Thinkbox by AWS. "Thinkbox Deadline has been an essential part of our pipeline and infrastructure since our founding," says Reid. "For a complex job like Adrift, our comfort level was higher knowing we would be working with the same company for both our render-farm management software and our cloud compute resources."

On AWS, Milk had all the scale it needed. "A lot of the pitchpole shot’s 62 TB of data was FX caching,” says Benoit Leveau, the head of pipeline for Milk. “Without AWS Thinkbox Deadline and the ability to scale up to thousands of Amazon EC2 Spot Instances whenever we needed, we simply couldn’t have rendered such complex shots.”

The AWS tools didn’t require time-consuming training sessions before the Milk team could get to work. “Because our artists were already familiar with Deadline, they had no new tools or processes to learn and didn't even need to specify how many nodes they needed,” says Leveau. “They just sent their jobs to the cloud, indicated when they wanted them back, and Deadline took care of the rest."

Reid explains that the vast scale of available render nodes on AWS was crucial to completing the project so quickly. "When you hit ‘submit to farm,’ you want see those frames return quickly, no matter how many there are. The unlimited capacity of AWS Thinkbox Deadline and Amazon EC2 Spot Instances makes for more fluid iteration and better results.”

The need for a massive amount of compute power doesn't arise all the time, of course—another advantage Milk sees in AWS. "To complete a project like Adrift using on-premises resources, we'd need 10–15 times more rendering nodes, but only some of the time," says Leveau. " On AWS, we can easily tap different resources—like 96 cores with 256 GB RAM, or even more cores or RAM—for as short or as long a time as we need and only pay for what we actually use. We wouldn’t have been able to do that with physical machines. In addition, reliable machines are readily available on AWS and the specs are constantly upgraded.”

Goodbourn explains why the cloud is now integral to the company’s strategy. "Without the access to unlimited resources we can get using AWS Thinkbox Deadline and Amazon EC2 Spot Instances, we wouldn’t be able to take on projects such as Adrift. Running on AWS allows a studio like Milk to punch massively above its weight—which just wouldn't be possible without the cloud."

Learn More

Learn more about AWS Thinkbox Deadline.