Examining Modern Content Production
In 2020, at the onset of COVID-19, the industry found itself yet again at a tipping point in its evolution. Content creators had to rethink how to plan, shoot, and edit projects, and in some cases, adopt technology they either hadn’t considered or had planned to adopt later on. Fortunately, the necessary tools were production-ready, and many studios found that integrating the cloud whether via hybrid or all-in scenarios – allowed them to not only survive but also capitalize on unprecedented opportunities.
The rise of remote work
Although some creative studios were choosing to move their production pipelines to the cloud pre-pandemic, it was rare for a VFX or animation studio to operate remotely. Due to infrastructure constraints or reluctance to alter decades-long practices, studios preferred artists to be physically present to work on projects. This meant that studios were bound to talent recruiting based on geographic location. Now, newer studios are increasingly opting for a more agile approach to infrastructure, while established facilities are rethinking their hardware roadmap.
With successful implementations of remote production and cloud-based collaboration prompted by the pandemic, many studios’ preference for on-premises hardware has begun to fade. Cloud-based remote production workflows provide access to a larger, more accessible talent pool, allowing studios to benefit from more diverse skillsets and perspectives. In turn, artists are able to choose the projects they want to work on without uprooting their families. At the same time, cloud-based pipelines can also be deployed in-studio, providing companies with more flexibility in how they work and eliminating the costly upfront expenditures that come with purchasing and managing on-premises compute resources.
Using the cloud, Netflix has found an incredible benefit to remote work, allowing its team to tell more authentic stories and creatives to be more imaginative. Global production is here to stay, according to Laura Teclemariam, Director of Product, Animation at Netflix, and companies that don’t lean in will be left behind. Netflix connects with artists globally using its NetFX cloud-based pipeline, which provides the infrastructure needed to create Netflix-caliber projects. Netflix Director of Engineering Rahul Dani, who oversees NetFX, noted that the pipeline has been deployed on 35 productions spanning four continents.
Meeting an ever-increasing demand for VFX and animation
As the content quality bar continues to rise, the demand from streaming services and studios for compelling visuals is outstripping the pace at which creators can deliver. To ramp up capabilities, Weta Digital is taking a two-pronged approach: empowering more artists and harnessing infinite compute power. Alongside a shift from on-premises resources to AWS, a move announced in late 2020, Weta also develops tools that increase creativity by decreasing the time needed for work that can be automated. Weta Digital CEO Prem Akkaraju referenced the studio’s proprietary tree growth software that procedurally generates geographically-accurate forests, and was used on the “Planet of the Apes” films. He also touched on the role of advanced digital humans in storytelling, from “Gollum” to a 23-year-old version of Will Smith featured in “Gemini Man,” and how other studios can leverage Weta tools via WetaM, a cloud-based software as a service offering that was recently announced partnership with Autodesk.
Transparent infrastructure and ‘compute from anywhere’
Company 3 SVP of Technology Robert Keske began investigating cloud-based workflows in 2011 as a cost management solution. He noted that a CapEx approach to infrastructure had previously hindered the company’s growth, but using AWS allows them to scale from a few users to hundreds of users and thousands of render nodes, basically at a moment’s notice. He also stressed the importance of making infrastructure as transparent as possible to artists, and having a ‘compute from anywhere’ approach to bring the resources to the talent, instead of the other way around.
Lightbulb moments and cultivating diverse voices
This artist-first mindset also inspired Rex Grignon to develop a solution that helps animation and VFX studios move more of their workloads to the cloud. The idea for Nimble Studio was sparked when Grignon accessed his office computer from a training room, calling it a ‘lightbulb moment.’ Once he realized that a powerful workstation doesn’t need to be located under your desk to do work, he started learning about the cloud and the pieces came together. As Director of Amazon Nimble Studio Go to Market at AWS, Grignon now works to ensure that it provides a frictionless yet customizable experience for all artists. That inclusive spirit also informs AWS’ support for important industry organizations promoting open source and diversity, including the Academy Software Foundation (ASWF), The Blender Foundation, and Women in Animation, of which AWS recently became a corporate member. AWS CG Supervisor Hayley Kannall noted her excitement for the new partnership, first announced during the keynote, citing the importance of having women and other underrepresented communities in decision-making roles.
The Future of Content Production
Offering insights on virtual production from differing yet complementary perspectives, Amazon Studios’ Ken Nakada, who serves as Virtual Production Supervisor of Prime Video, and Epic Games Industry Manager David Morin, found significant common ground in terms of the impact and anticipated direction of the technology.
Noting the contributions of virtual production pioneers James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis, Morin emphasized that the game-changing capabilities of real-time CG tools have made virtual production a more accessible tool for filmmakers, not just those with multi-million-dollar budgets.
Morin explained how essentially every department on a production has a use for virtual tools to augment what they’re doing in the real world. Looking to the future, Nakada emphasized the importance of making virtual production technology more intuitive to reach a broader set of filmmakers, predicting significant progress will happen in the next year.
Technology in Action
The shoot’s three-camera setup included an ARRI Alexa Mini and two Sony Venice cameras. With 270-degrees of displayed imagery across more than 35 million pixels, the stage featured ROE Visual BP 2.8mm LED panels in a curved configuration for linear display, and Planar Systems LED panels for ceiling imagery, with LED video processing handled by Brompton 4K Tessera LED processors. Motion tracking was achieved with Stype. AWS services used by ICVR to create the background imagery include Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), and Amazon Route 53. ICVR also used AWS Fargate serverless compute and Amazon Cognito for managing their proprietary RendezVu interactive 3D world app.
The keynote can be viewed on-demand via the SIGGRAPH website until October 29, 2021. For free registration and access, visit: https://pages.awscloud.com/siggraph2021