For visual effects studios, most of the challenges that occur on a day-to-day basis have been identified to the point that there are very few true surprises. In many respects, solutions to these challenges are readily available and it just comes down to figuring out which one works best. Whether it’s specific project management styles, accounting and bidding practices or determining which creative software best fits within their current pipeline, studios quite often have many options available to them.
One studio, Atomic Fiction, headquartered in Oakland, California, not only identified a need but they also created an exciting solution that works not just for their own studio but they have high hopes other industries that need to process, move and store massive amounts of data will agree that this is the time and money-saving product for them.
That product is Conductor, Atomic Fiction’s platform to easily make available the scalable power behind Google’s Cloud Computing in order to, as Conductor’s website states, “give anyone, from the largest corporation to the individual in their garage, access to their very own, nearly limitless, datacenter.” Really, though, what does that mean in practical terms? For large VFX studios, it means that you can know that, due to the efficient per-minute charges provided by Google and facilitated by Conductor, you can decrease your bids because of all of the money you save by just spending on the render time you use with less chance of overrun. For those of us who are independent contractors or who work in small visual effects houses, we can take on more work than normal because we can turn our tiny two or three machine render farm into a 1000 machine render farm in just a few minutes, allowing you to quickly grind through a client’s shots in a day or two instead of a week or more. You make the client happy by delivering your work early and it gives you a greater chance to increase the number of clients you can take on at any one time. If Conductor delivers on its promise to improve the economics and availability of large scale computing power, the industry could be in for a shift in the way visual effects are produced.
CGCircuit recently had a chance to sit down with Atomic Fiction’s co-founder, Kevin Baillie, to discuss Conductor and what it really means to the entertainment industry and how it plans to solve the economics and scalability issues large studios and independents alike must overcome, as well as how well the cloud is being received by potential client studios. We also had a bit of time to talk about Atomic Fiction’s expansion into Montreal and the role Conductor played.
So, Kevin, give us a brief overview of what Conductor can mean for all sizes of VFX studios and industry freelancers.
For us, Conductor is super, super exciting because it is a way not just for shops like Atomic Fiction and even the bigger [VFX studios] to make infrastructure more scalable and more economical but it also really
helps to democratize computing where a guy in his garage can have access to the same amount of computing power as Atomic Fiction.
It obviously would come down to budget at that point, but if you’re a single guy and have a project you can handle artistically on your own and you need to be able to render it and need 600 machines to render it on over the course of 10 days, Conductor can provide that.
Movie studios have a bit of fear about the safety and security of content moving about and stored in the cloud. How do you talk to the studios when it comes to the cloud and are you doing anything to help those who use Conductor to interface with the studios to convince them that the cloud is a viable option?
We work pretty regularly with the studios security teams and are embarking on talking to the MPAA and the Cloud Security Alliance, as well, to help solidify a framework around the cloud. The cloud can be unsafe but it can also be incredibly safe and it’s all about making sure you have the right safeguards in place. In a way we’re opening the kimono to the studios and saying, “Hey, take a look at our architecture. Look at how we handle encryption.” All of those things. Because this is easier to control and doesn’t have hidden legacy cruft in it like a lot of the local infrastructures that companies have, that it’s actually safer than the local infrastructure. So even though the data resides off site, it’s easier and more feasible to put security controls in it that allow security to actually surpass what local infrastructure has.
We’ve worked with several studios using the product, they can say, “We’re using the thing that Atomic Fiction has already used on three shows with you,” that’s going to be a comfort factor for both the customers of Conductor and the clients that are using it to do work for.
It’s one thing to develop something in a vacuum and it’s another thing have a product that — the proof is in the pudding. We’ve already rendered out 10 million processor hours in it and have had some of these conversations with the studios. It’s definitely part of why we were so excited to release it to the public. This has been helpful for us and we can prove that we saved a ton of money, been able to scale and it’s secure, in production, so it would be a crime not to share this with the community.
The other thing that we love bringing up is that Google — we use Google’s Cloud Platform — has a security team that is three times as big as our entire company, filled with PhDs and really smart engineers and all they think about all day long is security. Google makes their business out of security, so to think we could do a better job with our local infrastructure with the limited IT resources that we have than Google with all their clout is just unrealistic. So by relying on people whose jobs it is to keep things secure and have huge teams to do it as well as us just paying attention to how we use the cloud, we take advantage of all the security safeguards the cloud has to offer.
How receptive have the studios been to the idea? Telling them is one thing and having them believe it is another.
Studios have been really receptive. Three studios are on board with us working this way and we’re actively working with two others to go through their security vetting process. It’s generally the people in the information security teams who have issues and have questions, and very rightly so. They should be questioning it and making sure that it’s safe. What we’ve found is that we’re getting a lot of support from the producers and executives at the studios because of how much it helps from a price perspective. And also, from the perspective of the producers and the executives, the other thing that it does for them, is it helps to mitigate some risk from a deliverability standpoint, because if we ran into a crunch or a bunch of stuff changed last minute on a project, creatively, and they go, “here, you have to do these hundred extra shots,” a lot of small to medium studios would just be out of luck. They wouldn’t be able to handle the demand, whereas, anyone using Conductor would know that they can scale up within seconds so that the physical limitations of infrastructure are no longer an issue and no longer a concern. Every time a producer asks us, “So how big is your render farm? Are you going to be able to handle this show?” we can just smile and say it’s as big as you need it to be.
And the cloud is getting cheaper as well. Google just announced price cuts between 15 and 30 percent two days ago and, of course, as part of the Conductor product we’re going to pass those kinds of price cuts on to our customers. Another thing that is non-obvious is that when you buy a render farm, whether it’s a small one or a big one, you lock yourself into a single price for the three to four years of useful life of that equipment, whereas, with the cloud, the price keeps going down and down and down so it actually ends up being cheaper in the long run.
Not too long ago you opened up an office in Montreal. What was it that Montreal provided you that you couldn’t do by expanding in Oakland. Was it simply the [tax] incentives in Montreal or was it something more?
Three’s really three factors. One is that we were shooting “The Walk,” which is Robert Zemeckis’ new film, in Montreal and I was going to physically be there for six months and could personally oversee the buildout of the new studio. So that was really convenient. The tax incentives are great things that allow our customers to do things with us that they not be able to afford to do otherwise. They might be forced to cut scenes or maybe the film wouldn’t get greenlit to begin with if it weren’t for those incentives and we wanted to be in a location for our clients to take advantage of those. And, thirdly, it felt like a place where the vibe is so similar to San Francisco in a lot of ways and there’s a long and rich history of visual effects in Montreal, so we felt like the artists were really well suited to doing the kind of work that we really wanted to do, and so far that’s turned out to be very, very true. We have an amazing space up there, our team up there is genuine, excited and, in a lot of ways, the teams in Montreal and Oakland complement each other because there’s different skillsets between the two. Our Oakland office has a lot of great character teams and a lot of really awesome senior artists, and Montreal has a ton of amazing environment and effects artists that tend to skew on the side of having a little bit less industry experience but are equally exuberant and ambitious. It’s a great opportunity for both groups to leverage each other’s strengths and to learn from each other.
And with Conductor it’s easier to work on the same project?
Absolutely. Same projects. We actually use Conductor behind the scenes to synchronize data between the sites. so when one site needs to work on a shot the other site is working on it’s all synchronized up into Google’s infrastructure pretty much instantaneously replicated through Google’s nationwide fibre network.and then download it to the office that just requested it. It’s a pretty quick process. So, essentially, we’re using googles fibre network to do all our data transfers from site to site, and the side benefit of that is when we go to render that shot in Conductor, everything we need to render that shot is already in the cloud. So not only does it help to keep our sites in sync, but it also speeds up the cloud rendering process itself.
Are you guys going to open up an API for Conductor?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve already developed a full featured API for production use for Conductor and are going to be fleshing that out continuously, but very significantly between now and September.
When is Conductor going to be available for general consumption?
We’re aiming for September for a public launch. We’re starting to bring on private beta customers right now. We’re actually doing an installation at a facility today. Atomic Fiction is continuing to use it hot and heavy as if they were a customer and we’ll slowly be bringing on customers between now and September and are looking for the right partners to help us to make sure that it meets the most common needs of production that maybe Atomic Fiction hasn’t run into by the time we start to offer it to the public at large.
We want to thank Kevin for taking time out of his busy schedule and being so generous with his answers. If you’re interested in finding out more about Atomic Fiction, Conductor or any of the other sites and organizations discussed in our interview, we’ve included some links below to help you get started.
As is the case with all of our interviews, we’d love to hear from you, dear reader. Tell us what you think! We have some great interviews lined up and your feedback on this and others we’ve done help to shape the types of questions we ask.
Until next time…
Atomic Fiction (http://www.atomicfiction.com/)
Google Cloud Platform (https://cloud.google.com/)
Cloud Security Alliance (https://cloudsecurityalliance.org/)