2020 was an extremely challenging year for all industries and digital content production is no exception. In order for artists to continue working on projects from home, visual effects and animation studios had to change highly secure workflows and pipelines to keep content from leaving the facility. And they had to do it quickly to keep deliveries on track, or at least as close to the right track as possible. Studio pipeline teams have gone to great lengths to achieve this and show remarkable ingenuity in their approaches. If we have learned something in the first half of the year, the unexpected is to be expected. One way to prepare for this is to rethink the norms for creative studios and how our circumstances and realizations today can inspire the next generation of decor.
It's no secret that VFX and animation can be capricious industries. Boom / bust cycles are part of the territory, and the edges are notoriously thin. Still, new artists are joining the ranks who are enthusiastic about the creativity of the craft and excited to see their work on canvas. Whether you're cleaning up footage or creating a full CG creature and everything in between, these talented artists have helped improve the visual standards of entertainment across media and platforms. Given all these advances in terms of the visual elements implemented, little has changed fundamentally under the hood, so to speak. That's not to say that there hasn't been incredible progress. Standard software tools are constantly being developed to support new resolutions and formats. Highly collaborative open source initiatives lead to innovative new workflows. Real-time game engines help developers turn LED screens into a galaxy far, far away.
However, all of these applications rely on some form of computing power – workstations at the feet of the artists, and storage and rendering nodes in a heavily juiced server room. This is the challenge because hardware can be expensive to buy, house, and maintain. ages quickly; and has a limited capacity. Increasingly, we see institutions using the cloud to quickly scale compute resources, whether it's a hybrid or an all-in approach. It offers the flexibility to flip up and down during peak hours and can mean the difference between meeting deadlines or missing them.
Established studios usually have an existing infrastructure so they can continue to amortize their investment through a hybrid approach to cloud rendering, but can scale as needed. Once studios are running in the cloud, they often find advantages in starting virtual workstations to quickly get artists on board and access the data already available in the cloud. Artists spend more time editing, tweaking, and repeating their assignments than waiting for the data to be transferred from the cloud back to their local network. These components – workstations and rendering – together with cloud storage form a complete cloud-based studio pipeline where the concept of next-generation studios is becoming increasingly exciting.
If you've been at SIGGRAPH for the past ten years, you've heard the buzz around the cloud and how it will transform media and entertainment with its agility and scalability. So far, that promise has been slowly and steadily kept as cloud providers assemble specialized computing resources tailored to the production of content, internet speed continues to improve, and people increasingly become familiar with it and work in the cloud. Now more studios are choosing to skip the physical procurement part of the entry-level phase and instead build their infrastructure in the cloud. Untold Studios was the first fully cloud-based creative studio in late 2018, and others have followed suit.
Being fully cloud-based means artists can work remotely, securely, and with a well-equipped workstation just over the internet and a connected device. Building on the cloud certainly seems like the smartest way to go when you're building a pipeline from scratch or replacing outdated equipment, but it can be difficult to do it on your own. Fortunately, you should be able to rely on your cloud provider for help and guidance, especially if the support teams are from the VFX and animation worlds. I wouldn't say that adding it to the cloud is plug and play, at least not yet. Once the industry gets to that point, it will change not only the way studios create content, but who can access high-end pipelines as well.
Sometimes you hear artists refer to a particularly challenging recording as building a car while driving. In a way, we're doing content production here with the cloud. There are many people who are testing full or hybrid cloud workflows and starting out, many of them quite successfully, but even the experts have more to learn. I think we're going to see a lot of continuous innovation in this area in the coming year, if not sooner. The studios faced completely new challenges in the first half of 2020, as did the technology providers who support them. The next workflow development will undoubtedly bring all the cloud-based parts closer together and change the artistic and studio experience with understandable and predictable prices. For studios that don't already have a cloud migration plan in place, this is expected to be the case within three years as the way data is managed changes.
Jay Maglione is Product Manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS), where he helps develop cloud-first solutions that enable artists to create content. Before joining AWS, he worked for the startup Nimble Collective for almost five years.