In a scene from the recent film The Walk, artist Philippe Petit, portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, takes his first steps onto a high wire strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Clouds glide gently past his feet as the audience experiences the dizzying heights of drama.
Based on a true story of the ultimate high-wire stunt in 1974, director Robert Zemeckis’ film is a monumental achievement in visual effects production. Not too coincidentally, visual effects studio Atomic Fiction used technology in the cloud to create these epic scenes.
As a whole, the entertainment industry has been slower to adopt cloud computing than other major industries. Security has been a major concern, as has cost and performance—especially given the unique requirements of the entertainment industry, where file sizes tend to be large and data storage needs can quickly reach terabytes. On the other hand, large-scale computing has become so essential to movie production that many visual effects companies have set up their own private data centers (render farms), typically comprising hundreds to thousands of servers. However, industry attitudes toward the cloud have recently started to change.
Atomic Fiction’s Kevin Baillie is an early pioneer in the use of cloud technology for movie production. He attributes much of the challenge to the cost of transitioning from the current infrastructure and to concerns about security. But for him, the benefits are sky-high.
“From a business perspective, one of the biggest advantages of the cloud is the cost savings, but there actually ends up being a creative advantage, too,” Baillie says. “On The Walk, we saved about 50 percent over what we would have spent using traditional infrastructure. And that’s just if we leased 600 servers, which is the capacity we needed to hit the deadlines and get the turnaround that the artists needed. Instead of electricity, people, and leases, we only paid for what we used.”
The savings can be greater if compared to purchasing the computer equipment needed instead of leasing it. Cloud services can substantially reduce both the capital expenditure and the fixed costs of a visual effects company. They also can get things done a lot faster. According to Baillie, a scene from The Walk that would take 10 hours to get back using 100 computers could just as easily be done in an hour on 1,000 computers and for the same cost. “There’s no monetary penalty since you’re getting billed for a cumulative amount of time that was spent processing a task and not for the computers themselves,” he says. “You can actually get the results back much quicker when the ideas are still fresh in an artist’s head.
“When we explain this to people, you can see the light bulbs start to turn on, and they think, ‘Oh, going bigger is better,’” Baillie continues. “There is also a lot of benefit to having the improved creativity that comes from artists actually being able to work and iterate because they’re not sitting around waiting.”
Seeing the benefit doesn’t always equate to a massive exodus to the cloud, though. The infrastructure disruption and lack of expertise create significant hurdles. But many companies are working to provide solutions to these challenges.
“It does take time to create a massively scalable cloud implementation, which, to me, is the whole point of it,” Baillie says. “It’s not only years’ worth of development; it also takes web technologies that are really unfamiliar to people in the entertainment industry. It’s like speaking Greek to them. If you don’t work at Airbnb or Yelp, they’re not going to know about Docker and how containers work, which are key concepts to deploying applications on the cloud. But now there’s tools in the industry, including Conductor [Atomic Fiction’s platform that the company has now spun off as a product], that can help people get over that hump and take advantage of all the awesome technologies without having to suffer the learning curve.”
And then there’s the biggest elephant in the room: security. Nothing is more under wraps than a film and its assets, considering the concerns about potential leaks before a release. It literally can make or break a production. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) publishes guidelines on security compliance for cloud deployments, but this does little to alleviate the unease in the industry when it comes to security. However, there is a growing awareness that public cloud providers such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are spending far more time, money, and resources on data security and protection than even the largest IT departments in entertainment. As the Sony Entertainment hack in December 2014 showed, even the data behind the corporation’s firewall is far from invulnerable.
Baillie acknowledges this and agrees that the real security problem is in the traditional setup.
“The more we work with the cloud, the more I become convinced that a good cloud implementation can actually be even safer than the vast majority of local installations,” he says. “I feel that with a lot of local installations, there’s a false sense that because everything is inside the company’s walls and because they’re a good company, everything is going to be safe. That’s absolutely not the case.”
As the cloud continues to become more and more affordable and bandwidth continues to ramp up, smaller studios will be able to compete more effectively with bigger studios. The “little guys” will soon be able to access data centers as large as those of Digital Domain, Weta, or Industrial Light & Magic at a fraction of the cost. And when it comes to replacing equipment, the bigger studios will increasingly need to evaluate whether it still makes financial sense to buy the computer hardware themselves.
“Right now, it’s still mainly the midsize and larger companies that can access the kind of bandwidth needed to make the cloud work really well and quickly for their artists,” Baillie says. “Within a few years, that’s going to change. It’ll be the everyday Joe who will have this kind of creativity-enhancing access. When that happens, it’s really going to democratize computing and visual effects because Joe in his garage will have the ability to render files of the same size and complexity as Industrial Light & Magic or others.”
And it’s not just who is creating the visual effects; it’s how the entertainment industry will approach the entire production process. This trend is already clear in the rapid growth the industry is seeing in cloud-based production management, collaboration, and review approval and tools like Autodesk Shotgun and RV.
“The big, big picture for the industry is, we’re going to be moving everything to the cloud, and, by that, I mean every application is going to be running in the cloud,” Baillie says. “You’ll no longer have to synchronize data to the local sites. It will save people the cost of workstations, storage, render farms, and all the security infrastructure. I think it’s pretty amazing because it will enable companies to start up an entire studio at a snap of the fingers—fully armed and operational within a day and with a state-of-the-art studio structure.”
Studio in the cloud? End scene.