It’s been the better part of a decade since Atomic Fiction transformed the world of VFX production with its work on Flight (released in 2012). The staggering reveal was that all of the rendering on the film had been achieved without the use of a single computer in the studio – but it was the remarkably low budget for top quality effects that really grabbed industry attention.
The news was nothing short of revolutionary at the time, swinging the door wide open to a new VFX production option that didn’t require the use of the traditional render farm. As it was then, render farms continue to be costly to establish and maintain, bogging down smaller studios in particular with the dilemma of figuring out what to do with expensive machinery in between projects. The financial burden has literally bankrupted studios that couldn’t find the next gig fast enough, or come up with creative ways to barter and lease out equipment during lulls.
Cloud rendering allowed studios to alleviate the pressures of that reality – a pay-as-needed model that could be scaled up and down according to project needs.
Moving your renders to the cloud also meant a project could get done faster, and without compromising quality. For an artist concerned about their work, and a producer concerned about timelines, it was a definitive win-win.
Today, cloud rendering is the go-to standard for pushing out projects as they become increasingly complex in nature, requiring maximum compute power – the public tastes demanding ever more dazzling effects, and the studios obliging by devising ever newer and better quality in the hopes of making their mark in an overcrowded marketplace.
Yet as transformative as cloud rendering has been to VFX workflows since taking off in Flight, the traditional process still has friction points and logistical challenges.
The first hurdle – getting your files over the wall
If you want to use cloud rendering on a project, the traditional approach is to launch the VFX application on your desktop, then use the compute power of the cloud for your rendering. It sounds simple enough, but the sequence of events it takes to accomplish this is typically laden with snags.
The first issue is the length of time it takes to move files from your studio into the cloud.
“Gigabytes of data, sometimes hundreds of gigabytes of data, can take hours just to move one shot – and that’s just to move it into the cloud, and it hasn’t even started crunching it yet,” says Mathieu Mazerolle, Athera senior product manager.
That problem can be more or less solved if the tedious time consideration is sacrificed up front by moving everything onto the cloud at once. By doing this, the cloud remembers all your original files, and only moves new files over on the next render job.
This sort of synchronization hack works quite well, explains Mazerolle, but does present another problem – as it leaves you with two copies of your data.
“So now there’s a higher cost associated with storing your data. You have to pay for all the hard drives at your studio, and you have to pay for all the storage in the cloud,” he says.
Reliability can’t be guaranteed
The second issue surrounding traditional cloud render solutions is the increased margin of error risk – all of which can be costly. Due to the complexity of a scene, each having hundreds of interdependent elements, these dependencies can be expressed incorrectly – or something can get missed altogether when sending files over the wall. Consequently, a job that worked on a local machine can fail in the cloud.
“So sometimes you send your stuff over into the cloud and realize ‘oops – we forgot to send that bit of key lighting that was pointing up to the face of the character’- and then if the key light’s not there, guess what? The render comes out wrong. And if the render comes out wrong, well too bad, you’ve still paid for the render,” says Mazerolle.
Guard frames were introduced as the solution, but still offer up no guarantees.
“So it’s a bit of a hack process of throwing stuff over the wall, seeing if it’s probably going to work, then saying go for it, and then spending the money. And then you still need to pull the stuff back,” says Mazerolle, pointing to yet another stumbling block with the traditional process.
Pulling the results of your renders back in-house from the cloud is as time consuming as it is to get them over the wall to begin with. When you do finally get them back, only then might you discover mistakes and imperfections. To fix problems as they crop up, frustrating delays result – not the best scenario for a project faced with a glaring deadline, and antsy artists relying on steady momentum for the creative process.
How Athera does cloud rendering better
With Athera, both the application and the rendering are located in the cloud – meaning that all of the problems mentioned above disappear.
“We actually think this is really the next step, like the third revolution of rendering. From doing it in your four walls, to doing it in the cloud, and your own four walls-hybrid approach – we think the next revolution is going to be the pure cloud approach,” says Mazerolle.
With a pure cloud system, everything gets put into Athera and stays there, removing the standard trials and tribulations of launching and retrieving your files securely to and from the cloud.
The elimination of those time consuming, often costly issues produces an interesting set of advantages.
The first major benefit is that your cloud render is almost guaranteed to work. Artists no longer have to worry about implementing guard frames and de-bugging oddities, worrying about what went wrong when the files got sent into the cloud.
“If it works in your VFX tool, and you hit render, then your render is 99.9% likely to be a success. So that’s a really big peace of mind,” says Mazerolle.
The second advantage it that your files don’t need to travel – instead, everything happens in real time, right inside your cloud storage.
“This means that any one of my collaborators anywhere in the world can sit there and look at the folder and just see the files popping in, and they can start reviewing them in real time. I don’t need to package all that stuff up and send it to my producer to say look at those results…it’s happening right there, which is really cool,” says Mazerolle.
Athera’s third major advantage is tighter project control, and increased security.
With traditional cloud rendering options, the permissions, quotas, and limits you may have placed upon your various resources and licenses cannot simply be replicated in the cloud.
“It’s very hard, because you almost have to go in and clone your entire studio’s IT systems and move those in the cloud. The cloud is just crunching numbers for you in a way that’s in a way that’s disconnected from your studio’s resource management system,” points out Mazerolle.
The difference with Athera, he says, is that when you launch a render job, it’s exactly the same as if you were launching an application, set precisely with the same permissions and quotas. From there, the Athera dashboard tracks the render jobs just as it tracks the applications and storage used by your studio.
Having just one bill to survey is an added advantage to a studio manager, who gets a complete budgetary overview of the project happening all under one hood. This beats the alternative of collating many different bills from many different sources.
“And even better, I can actually go in and look at the database with the real actual analytics that the bill is actually built up from. Then I can make some really smart business decisions – I can put guard-rails in place, and control my cost, and then I can look at that data over time and make predictions, and kind of fine tune stuff, and it’s just so much easier,” says Mazerolle.
The future of the render farm
It can be tempting to use cloud for your rendering alone, just as so many studios have been doing for the last many years. But Mazerolle explains that Athera is not about getting rid of the render farm, but rather about having a more evolved version that can easily adapt to your studio’s unique requirements.
“The future is really about the render farm not being this thing that’s separate. It’s like a throwback all the way to the early 90s, where everything was within your four walls and your render farm and your artists were all in that place. The difference is that your render farm has superpowers thanks to the cloud. It can grow and shrink in size, and only cost you money when you actually use it,” he says.
Mazerolle says the traditional cloud rendering model may have served a great purpose in the industry – but burdened as it is with persistent inconvenience and awkwardness, it is now simply being outmoded by the more integrative pure cloud model that Athera offers.
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