Speed is King
February 25, 2016

Speed is King

Outpost VFX isn’t located in the bustling hub of Los Angeles or nestled somewhere in the heart of London’s vibrant West End. Instead, Outpost rests on the far more relaxing southern shores of England, in the coastal beach town of Bournemouth, where life is more tranquil and less expensive.

“The benefits are somewhat rooted in the lifestyle here, but a large part of it also comes down on the financial side – we can run a larger team on lower overheads, making us more flexible when bidding our projects,” says Duncan McWilliam, Outpost director.

This philosophy of finding the cheaper, easier option extends beyond the choice of studio location – it also influences Outpost’s approach to software. “We carry this ethos right across our pipeline of work,” says McWilliam. 

Soaring Above Shanghai

When Outpost set up shop in 2013 – not far from the lapping waves of the English Channel – one of the first jobs was evaluating the major renderers it could potentially adopt into its pipeline. 

“As a combined hardware and software cost, Redshift came out to be the most affordable solution – and not just in monetary terms,” remembers McWilliam. “Our biggest cost of all is artist time, and in that regard Redshift came out miles ahead.”

Artist time is always a huge factor when working on render-intensive projects. Take, for example, the recent Jaguar F-Pace commercial created by the talented Outpost team. In it, the new Jaguar release is assembled piece by piece as it soars above the neon-streaked Shanghai skyline, with thumping sound effects accompanying the high-adrenaline action.

“This being Jaguar's first ever SUV, the stakes were pretty high,” says McWilliams. “Creating dynamic movement through a nocturnal hyper-real city was the broad remit of the project, but a key part of it was to show off the precision design and engineering of the car without revealing its final form.”

It was up to Outpost to build, texture and light the CG components of the car, also creating the dramatic animation as the vehicle constructs itself above the nocturnal city streets. It was a challenging task to say the least.

“As with any shoot, on-the-day conditions can dictate the feel of the piece – in this case, the heavens opened shortly before shooting,” remembers McWilliams. “This added a layer of unforeseen complexity into the VFX work as now we had to build reflections into almost every shot.

“The car model also contained millions of polys, and we were using lots of 8K textures, so the density was high," he continues. “Thankfully, Redshift handles high poly counts with total stability – the way it manages memory is great: often the scene load time was longer than the actual render, which is crazy!”

Along with its stability, Redshift’s outright speed hugely impressed McWilliam. “Throughout the commercial we were test rendering at five seconds a frame,” he explains. “When it came to final production renders, our maximum time was 10 minutes per frame and our overall average 6.5 minutes per frame – this was with global illumination, in-camera depth of focus and in-camera motion blur. That’s fast.

Need for Speed

With increased speed comes increased creativity and decreased cost, allowing the team to develop projects in a way that previously wasn’t possible.

“In a high-end VFX facility, you have three considerations – quality, time and price,” explains McWilliam. “Quality is obviously key, and speed of render is intrinsically linked to this – if our artists can get 20 iterations of their lighting an hour on GPU as opposed to five or six on CPU, then they can try out more ideas and ultimately get more creative.”

As well as the creative benefits, Redshift’s speed also brings a host of practical benefits to the Outpost team, empowering the studio from a financial standpoint.

“With Redshift, the licenses and hardware are cheaper per frame created than any CPU system – meaning once again, if I have a fast renderer, I’m running a more efficient system. Having that speed allows us to increase both output and quality, and that’s invaluable.”

Flexibility Meets Power

Redshift’s raw power has also been something of an eye-opener. “One example of that is that there’s always been an issue with depth of field and motion blur as a 2D process – for years we’ve had to make a compromise between depth passes and motion vectors, and the results were never pretty,” explains McWilliam. “In the past, that would mean that for the real money shots, we would have to do it all in camera and then wait a really long time for the render. 

“But now, with the Jaguar project, we could set up the shot, balance the lighting, do a test render – at 6 seconds per frame, no less – then turn on motion blur and DOF and hit render, and it just worked. It’s incredible!” he continues. “These kind of capabilities are massive when it comes to the reality of a production pipeline: We could create all of those challenging shots for Jaguar with a compact team in under four weeks, from start to finish.” 

In the end, the project stayed true to the brief, delivered ahead of schedule, and received a standing ovation when presented to the Jaguar team, McWilliam says.

During his 10 years of visual effects supervising experience, McWilliams has experimented with a great deal of different systems and a huge variety of pipelines. Now that he’s running his own studio, however, making the right choice of renderer from both an artistic and practical standpoint is key. In that regard, McWilliams feels he’s hit the nail on the head.