Look skywards for solutions: cloud computing in screen production

Cloud computing enables organisations to rent their information technology (IT) needs on a monthly basis, with data and applications accessed from remote data centres via the Internet. This eliminates the high upfront costs of buying servers and software licences for new projects.


The model has attracted clients ranging from Australia’s biggest banks to its smallest enterprises, and is starting to catch on in the screen production industry. The massive cost of hardware needed to render animated and visual effects-heavy productions has led producers to look at renting hardware for the periods when they need it.


Some production companies are using cloud services to supplement their own resources, including California-based Atomic Fiction, which has utilised US company Amazon Web Services for VFX production with positive results.


Australia has a wide range of cloud service providers, ranging from the large telecommunications companies such as Optus and Telstra to smaller service providers such as ninefold, UltraServe and OrionVM. But most are focused on standard business applications and are yet to engage with the Australian screen production industry beyond initial discussions.


But some specialist film and TV cloud services do exist, with many of them focused on streamlining production workflow. The German company 101Media, for example, has created a cloud-based secure content management and distribution service whereby producers can store media on its cloud service and access it from anywhere in the world on a pay-as-you-go basis. Mojo Media Solutions has represented 101Media in Australia since late 2011 but is yet to announce local clients.


Media delivery service provider Dubsat has also created a cloud-based broadcast media management service, called Dubsat Syndicate, which is being used in Australia by Foxtel. According to Dubsat, Syndicate has enabled Foxtel to streamline its traditional workflow requirements with media agencies MCN and Ignite Media Brands and take advantage of their modern broadcast environment.


Numerous tools are also available as cloud-based services. Adobe has launched several services within its Creative Cloud package, for instance, including services for file sharing, collaboration, and publishing, that are accessed through the Internet.


The focus on business computing by most Australian cloud service providers has created a wide opening for Stefan Gillard and his company StudioEngine. Gillard has extended the cloud concept by creating an entire VFX and rendering facility delivered as a service. StudioEngine includes a complete studio solution, backed by a high-performance cloud computing facility called EngineRoom.


Gillard says EngineRoom has been used by companies including Rising Sun Pictures, Dr D Studios, Ambience Entertainment and ZSpace, with low cost being its primary attraction. He says the facility was used to render approximately 90 per cent of Happy Feet 2 for Dr D.


EngineRoom was also used by production company Ambience Entertainment to render its children’s series Figaro Pho. Ambience co-founder David Webster says his company utilised the complete StudioEngine service for the project, as well as 32 remote render nodes from EngineRoom.


“I’ve done 15 years of having all the headache of the overheads, and so this is a great situation,” Webster says. “As soon as we are finished we walk out the door and it is all Gillard’s equipment to deal with.”


Webster says when working with a cloud provider it is important that the right effort be put into ensuring both organisations have determined the right hardware specifications for the project.


The cloud model also enables some productions to make better use of the 30 per cent PDV (post, digital and visual effects) offset and the 40 per cent producers offset. The cloud service is considered to be operational expenditure, which means it can be claimed in full in a single year rather than over three years as is the case for capital expenditure.


Gillard says Dr D achieved massive savings on Happy Feet 2: “The cost of building an environment to render that film, including all of your ongoing op-ex, is probably about $8 million. They were able to rent the capacity they needed for a quarter of that — because they only needed it for six months — and then claim the rebate.”


He says he has taken great care to ensure the security of the service, given the sensitivity that many producers have to data being processed and stored outside of their premises. But he does not see cloud computing as a complete replacement for a production company’s internal resources.


“We are in a position where we can offer 40 to 50 per cent of the capacity they need over a short period, because over a three-year term you are probably better off buying the gear yourselves,” he says. “But for any period shorter than that, in a short burst, it actually stacks up that you are better off renting it.”


For this reason cloud computing has proven popular with many smaller businesses. Rotor Studios, for instance, uses EngineRoom when its workload exceeds its equipment’s capacity.


Rotor technology administrator Oliver Timm says the service integrated easily with Rotor’s existing IT, acting as an extension of its network.


“We needed a lot more grunt and more processing power for a period of time,” Timm says. “The work came from nowhere, and then all of a sudden we needed to fill a hole that we couldn't fill otherwise.”

 This article first appeared in IF Magazine Issue #147

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