A Deal with the Devil
Karen Moltenbrey
April 7, 2014

A Deal with the Devil

Ted Schilowitz made a name for himself – and for the Red Digital Cinema camera company – by thinking outside the box and “leading a rebellion” in the industry. Now he is back, leading the charge again, this time with a supercomputing strategy that is driving what he believes will be a revolutionary way to present films.

It’s a lot to digest all at once. But welcome to Schilowitz’s world. 

First, a little history. Last year he left Red with plans to take some time off before launching into something new and exciting. Two days later, he found himself at Twentieth Century Fox with the title of Futurist. That led him to Barco, where he is sharing his expertise as Cinema-Vangelist. Moreover, he joined supercomputer company SilverDraft and helped launch The Devil & Demon Strategy brand, serving as president. Now, to tie it together: Barco is exploring something it calls “Escape,” which changes the cinema experience by using additional wraparound screens (and its projectors) to immerse viewers in the content. Fox is exploring content for this new format. And, Devil & Demon supercomputers are part of this story, rendering (in a fraction of the time of a normal renderfarm) one of the key pieces of content that Fox showed off in the Escape format – for the first time at the recent CinemaCon in Las Vegas, with an encore presentation during NAB. 

Here, Schilowitz discusses his new roles and visions with CGW Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey. 

You had a busy week at CinemaCon.

I did. We just launched a new cinema-of-the-future concept that I have been working on in secret with Barco for about six months now, and the news just blew up. It has a lot more pixels and information that requires a lot more computing power and graphics power than a traditional motion picture. 

My role at Fox is about driving the future, and I am responsible for helping them look at next-generation cinema.[To this end] Fox said it is looking at creating scenes of a new movie, called “Maze Runner,” in the Escape format and showing it at the Zanuck Theater on the lot at Fox and to movie-going audiences worldwide in theaters equipped with the Barco Escape setup. Fox has shown a real commitment to this by creating one scene from “Maze Runner,” directed by Wes Ball, as well as Wes’ next project now in development at Fox called “Ruin.” Both were shown to CinemaCon audiences and will be shown at NAB on Monday night.

How did you get from taking a break to all this?

The idea was to retire and relax a bit after driving so hard for seven years as one of the guys who helped create the camera and develop it, and put Red on the map. But, that [break] lasted for just two days. The president of feature-film postproduction at Twentieth Century Fox called and said, ‘Your rest is over. It’s now time to come play with us.’ I was really surprised. I had no idea what I was going to do after I left Red other than take the time to see what might be around the corner for me. But things happened really fast. I got involved with Amy [Gile, CEO and founder of SilverDraft] and came up with the Devil & Demon idea. And then I got involved with Barco on its secret project. Now I am helping to define the future of all kinds of media-related opportunities.

How did you get involved with SilverDraft?

I was introduced by a mutual friend, a very future-thinking kind of guy. They had this amazing supercomputer technology for the VFX and film industry that fits on wheels and was called the SilverDraft Rig. It’s basically a truck with a supercomputer inside. We have since rebranded it The Devil’s Playground, and launched The Devil & Demon Strategy. Just recently, Fox used The Devil’s Playground for the new Barco movie concept.

What attracted you to SilverDraft? 

The technology and the spirit. They are in the early stages of the company, and I felt there was really something going on there, that this was some incredibly powerful technology and they needed someone to help define the strategy around it. It was similar to what I did at Red: taking some extremely powerful technology that had the potential to take the world by storm and change the rules, and crafting a story that makes sense to people. Even though many think of Red as a camera company, it is really a computer company because the camera itself is actually a computer. Everything we do on the Red side is all a big data [exercise] – shooting data, loading the data into the computer. Every single step of our creative motion-picture process today is visual computing; all the steps are digital, and the computers work in different formats. So, this was a logical next step for me, to tie what I knew from Red on the camera computing side and apply that to the computing part of what people needed on the back end after they shot stuff and had to render the very high-res material. They needed a better toolset than typical desktop computers.

SilverDraft was born from some pretty high-level research?

Amy’s idea for a mobile digital and visualization system led her to Virginia Tech’s Dr. Srinidhi Varadarajan, one of the supercomputer industry’s leading experts. His underling technology fills our supercomputer logic, making our machines faster and more powerful than any regular computer.

When did the company launch?

SilverDraft has been around for a few years, but we relaunched it with the Devil & Demon Strategy a few weeks after I joined last fall. 

What is your vision for Devil & Demon? 

Computer companies need to be more than compute companies if they are going to strike a nerve and move a needle in our creative industries. The work that needs to be done in our industry is very heavy and computationally and graphically intensive. The idea of trying to network together desktop computers and jack them up with components necessary to get the job done doesn't really get you all the way there. You are using the wrong tool for the job and trying to make it the right tool. Instead, we build ground-up technology using the best-of-breed components for every single piece of the computer’s needs. We work with AMD and Micron to ensure they are finely tuned. 

What is the difference between your Devil and Demon offerings?

Demons, our deskside machines, are for the creative artist. They are twice as big as a typical deskside machine. They have a lot of volume in them, which means we can overclock the processors without any risk to the extra clock cycle, but we keep them silent and liquid-cooled, and we can get in and out of them easily to add more sophisticated components or graphics capability. It is just a better box. 

We can put the right kind of connectivity, which is ultra, ultra-fast I/O, between the Demon boxes that live by the artists and the Devil, or the Devil’s Advocate, which are hyper-accelerated render machines that are GPU- or CPU-centric, or a combination of both, depending on what software the creative machines are running. Everything works in tandem. 

What else makes these a better choice for our industry?

If you think about what all the big, medium, and small VFX companies and post houses in our industry go through just to build up their IT infrastructure, it is an experiment every time. They have to roll their own stuff, it costs a lot of money and a lot of time, and they never get it 100% right. Our thought was this is a part of the industry we can help. We can define tools and get [clients] to this level of sophistication in computing and do it pretty much plug and play – that is, they would not need a full-time IT professional to help install and run the computers; they just need them plugged in and turned on. It’s all prebuilt and predefined. It’s like prefab for the computer industry at the highest possible level. 

The Devils come in mini-fridge type of configurations that plug into the wall. They don't need their own servers or IT room. Demons are twice the size of a home computer and live with the artist deskside. They are silent, super fast, and are designed for the artists to interface with directly to do their drawings, 3D renders, their creative. Sometimes, though, they get used in different configurations, and we have built Demon technology because the client didn't need the power of the Devil but wanted a different form factor. We built Demons for YouTube Nation, and they are using them to run their whole 4K infrastructure. 

How do Devils and Demons differ from a traditional computer workstation? 

The form factor is a bit larger than that of a regular desktop PC. It’s a big square. It can certainly fit on the desk, but I see it more logically next to an artist’s desk. They really need one or more high-res monitors on their desk taking up that valuable space, not the computer itself, and the Demon can live quite comfortably next to the desk, in my opinion.And there’s a huge difference on how fast and good it is. It doesn't look like a computer you buy at Best Buy or Staples, so if clients walk into a professional VFX or post environment, it doesn't look like the artists have the same computers that you do. It looks like they have special tools to do special things, and in fact, when you are running a Demon, you do have a special tool by your side. 

This almost sounds like the SGIs from the 1990s. 

In a way, yes, but without the ridiculous price tag. Now we can target the economics to what people actually need. If our machines ran way faster and are a better choice for those in this industry, and if they cost 20% to 30% more [than a workstation], you would probably still be good with it because you are going to get so much value out of it. But if I told you that because of what we do and how we do it, and because of our partnership with Micron and AMD, we can sell these Demon computers for 20% to 30% less than you would pay for a regular computer with all the same components. This is when it gets really interesting. 

Other workstations from large vendors use best-of-breed components, so where do you get your savings? 

Those companies focus on many industries and do a lot of volume, so they can drive the price down. And that makes sense, but look at all the things they put into a computer that those in this industry really don't need. We focus on the key core components that artists, the creatives, need, and then built the relationship [with AMD and Micron] in such a way that we are able to offer a better price.

Can you configure your machines as a renderfarm? 

That is the whole idea. Demons are deskside; Devils are server-like and act as a mini renderfarm and are very much supercomputers. We are building the right solution and refining it for a customer’s needs. 

Are the processors exclusively AMD?  

No, we can work with Nvidia and Intel, but we have a partnership with AMD because we believe they are the best choice in terms of power and compelling price. We use AMD for the CPU and GPU side, and that is how we end up at a much lower price point. We can use Intel and Nvidia for clients who want those options, and it will still be less expensive than a workstation, but not in the 30% range as it is with AMD.

What sparked this evolution on the deskside?

I spend so much time in the industry that I really see what is going on. There are only a few big companies that need the massive amount of computer power that our supercomputer on wheels (The Devil’s Playground) has – there are almost 1,800 cores in there, making it one of the fastest computers on the planet. But only the top-end customers benefit from that. I wanted to make something that everyone in our industry has access to and can use. There are thousands that could not touch that in their infrastructure but could benefit from putting in real supercomputing power into their office and work environment. So where we see the most interest is from the 20-, 30-, 40-person creative shops that cannot afford to hire full-time IT people to keep the computers running. The studios with hundreds of employees can benefit, too, but they have large, specialized IT groups.

The industry is changing into these smaller or independent shops that are delivering the highest end work for the big movies and TV shows, and doing it at a budget that is dynamic, and that is where we fit in. We are tuned for medium shops. The smaller guys are the ones who need our help.

So, what’s the bottom line?

These computers save you money and let you work faster – they are faster than other computers and render blades. We can speed up your rendering, speed up your processing. NAB is our coming-out party. We are offering excitement to an industry that, in many ways, is not all that exciting anymore because the computer stuff feels like it has all been done. I don't think it has all been done. I think there is a lot less to be done in creating the right toolsets that people can really use, and if we can do it at a price point that can actually help people, and if we do it at a speed that can help people render faster, that is interesting and exciting. We got excited, and AMD and Micron got excited. Neither company has to get involved with a start-up, but they did. We have a tech partnership with one of the biggest companies in the industry, AMD. That does not come easily. They see that we can elevate their game. Micron, too.

Lastly, what is the significance of the product names?

We thought, what would be a fun thing to call this? These computers are like devils and demons – they are mean, fast, crazy. And cool. So, the names are perfect.