Cloud

The Walk movie shows how cloud is shaking up the visual effects industry

Conductor, the company behind the visual effects in the film The Walk, used cloud technology to bring the film to life. However, that's not the status quo for Hollywood movies.

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Image: Atomic Fiction

If you're scared of heights, you probably shouldn't see the movie The Walk. The film about Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers had effects that were so realistic, they actually made some viewers ill.

The Walk was directed by Robert Zemeckis, also known for his work on the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Polar Express, and Flight. With effects that impressive, you'd probably imagine an enormous budget and tons of proprietary hardware behind, right? Actually, that's not the case at all.

Atomic Fiction, the visual effects studio behind the movie, used the cloud and a tool called Conductor to achieve those results for 50% less than more traditional methods. They contributed 40 minutes of effects to the film, including the reproduction of the Twin Towers themselves.

Conductor itself was actually born at Atomic Fiction.

"We always knew that we wanted to do cloud rendering as a company, we never wanted to build our own data center," said Atomic Fiction co-founder Kevin Baillie.

The Atomic Fiction team had used a few cloud products, but nothing seemed to quite meet their needs. So, they designated a team to build out a cloud rendering technology which became Conductor.

They used it on Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Game of Thrones, Cosmos, and, of course, The Walk. After realizing its potential, Baillie said, they spun it out as its own company. Atomic Fiction is now a customer of Conductor.

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A wireframe from Atomic Fiction's work on The Walk.
Image: Atomic Fiction

Conductor manages the whole process of interfacing with the cloud provider, and spinning up and shutting down compute instances. It handles the uploading of the shot, and everything that's needed for the effects such as texture files. Then, it spins up one instances per frame, so a 120 frame shot gets 120 instances.

Once an instance starts up, it performs the rendering based on the instructions it received and then makes sure the new data is downloaded back to the user. That way,"it's almost as if they did it on their local computer," Baillie said.

Baillie also said they can get up to 10-15,000 processors running simultaneously if they need to. While creating the visuals for The Walk, the team logged 9.1 million processor hours for the project.

Currently, Conductor is running on Google Cloud Platform, but Baillie said it was built to be platform agnostic so it could grow along with new developments in the industry.

The company's success is particularly interesting because the film industry has traditionally been against the cloud. Hunter Williams, vice president of business development for Atomic Fiction, said that's due, primarily, to two reasons: Security and cost transparency.

"Security is a fairly obvious one, in a highly secretive industry having images leak is a major concern," Williams said. "Cost transparency stems from a fear of moving from a heavily Capex-focused buying model to an Opex pay-on-consumption model where expenses aren't pre-approved and, in some cases are difficult to forecast."

Conductor addressed the security issue with authentication and encryption across the workflow. However, the cost issues will take a little more time to be accepted. To help users better analyze cost, Williams said Conductor will be releasing analytics dashboard in the coming months.

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Conductor's processor use by month while working on The Walk.
Image: Conductor

Just like any data center operation, traditional visual effects companies have to be able to effectively predict how much compute they'll need in the future. Often, they are forced to build a data center to cover the absolute peak usage they might have. However, filmmaking is project driven, and usage will vary greatly over the life of a film.

"At the peak, it's almost never enough," Baillie said. "In the valleys and the quiet times, it's always too much. Companies are constantly going between too much and too little."

With the increase in cloud-based technologies, like Conductor, the market for visual effects changes significantly. The pricing model and availability could help the next generation of filmmakers create never-before-seen visuals on a budget that would have been previously unheard of.

"The lower cost, simpler access to resources, and pay as you go model enables significant democratization across the industry," Williams said.

And, of course, Conductor wants to lead the charge. In addition to the aforementioned analytics dashboards, the company is working on custom development features and more integrations with common industry tools.

According to the company's website, Conductor is currently open for private beta, and will be publicly available sometime before 2016.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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