By Rodney Appleyard

Animal Logic discovered just how much technological infrastructure is required to produce a VFX-heavy feature during the production of animated classic Happy Feet. In fact, the company set up a computing system so complex that it was previously the bastion of science and research departments.

With decreasing budgets and shorter time frames, VFX companies are spending more money on infrastructure even though the computing equipment is usually only needed in short bursts.

The financial burden not only challenges the facilities' cashflow, but also limits the amount of money spent on material that should actually make it on to the screen.

Weta Digital's render farm is comprised of over 40,000 processors and 104 terabytes of memory, representing the processing capacity of one of the world's largest super computers. In essence, facilities have had to divert their efforts from being creative to also being infrastructure managers.

Stefan Gillard has spent the last years three years working at Omnilab Media and overseeing the design of George Miller and Doug Mitchell's new animation facility Dr D Studios.

During his time on their productions, he realised there was a need to set up a new service to provide a new service on a user-pays rental basis.

As a result, he set up new company Steam Engine with Michael Chanter and Steven Murphy. He says it is geared towards allowing facilities to easily scale up their infrastructure needs during times of peak demand.

Murphy is also the CEO of systems integration company Frontline Systems, which has been providing technology products and services to the enterprise market for the past 16 years.

Steam Engine will use its facilities to offer services to VFX companies in Australia, providing high-performance computing infrastructure for rendering, simulation and processing intensive applications.

“Over the next 18 months, we will provide in excess of $35 million of high performance computing infrastructure to VFX companies, excluding hosting, power and cooling costs. We call this on-demand access. This should offer significant savings for companies.”

VFX facilities currently spend enormous amounts of effort and budget on R&D to develop tools, processes and intellectual property.

Gillard says the services provided by Steam Engine will allow each client to extend their proprietary tools, processes and systems onto additional capacity, as required, without the headaches of hosting contracts, power charges and outsourced support.

It will also make it easier for different VFX facilities to work together.

“One of the most obvious challenges that faces any industry as it goes through a rapid growth phase is the need to be competitive and to distance yourself from the competition,” adds Gillard.

“This is very much what has happened within the Australian industry over the last 10 years. While facilities have collaborated on projects, collaboration as an industry has traditionally been facilitated through back channels.”

He adds that over the last three years there have been some very good relationships forged between facilities that are leading to a more collaborative approach towards pitching for more international work.

This kind of service has been attempted before in Australia, New Zealand and the US, but Gillard says it was previously aimed at individuals, not facilities. They also did not have the necessary scale to provide an enterprise level service.

Overall, Steam Engine aims to provide 30 to 40 per cent of each company's estimated capacity needs in the areas of CPU processing capacity and high performance storage over short periods.

“This will negate the need for substantial investment for what essentially will be short term production requirements. Without a core infrastructure, our industry as a whole has difficulty in delivering more of the quality output that is being directed to Australia for production,” says Gillard.

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