The Technology Behind Hollywood’s Crazily Realistic Special Effects

JANUARY 21, 2016 • Blog Post • By Atlantic Re:Think


  • Movie studios are shifting the process of special effects rendering to the cloud
  • When their changes are processed quickly, filmmakers can make even greater improvements, generating scenes that look shockingly realistic

If you think special effects are getting crazily real, you can thank hybrid IT infrastructures and increasingly powerful cloud-based computing

Kevin Baillie’s moment of epiphany came at the 2013 Academy Awards, when he watched a competitor accept the visual-effects Oscar for “Life of Pi“. As movie fans cheered at home and A-list celebrities applauded from their seats, the “Life of Pi“ guru explained how, just two weeks earlier, his company had been forced to declare bankruptcy.

It may have seemed bizarre to film lovers that a company creating such amazing effects couldn’t survive financially, but Baillie feared the same fate. His own firm, Atomic Fiction, had recently wrapped special-effects work on the Denzel Washington movie “Flight“—yes, that amazing inverted-plane sequenceas well as several scenes for “Star Trek Into Darkness“. Despite the commercial success of those blockbusters, though, he too was trying to figure out his company’s future.

The reason was the cost of infrastructure. To create the kinds of scenes that won Oscars a few years ago, companies had to build enormous “rendering farms“—buildings filled with hundreds of computers that did nothing but process special effects. A creative artist would click her mouse to shift a shadow or enhance a glimmer of light, and then she had to “render“ the changes into film—a process that could take 300 to 500 hours of computing time for every second that ends up on screen. A rendering farm with 500 computers working simultaneously was the only way to produce the effects in months rather than years. Joining the computer-power arms race was the only path to success for a special-effects company, and buying all those computers was very expensive.

The answer is in the cloud

Trying to carry that infrastructure in the no-income periods between projects was the financial burden that crushed the “Life of Pi” company at its creative height. And the desire to be increasingly creative without committing financial suicide is what got Baillie thinking about eliminating the computer farms altogether by moving the process of rendering into the cloud.

Baillie became one of Hollywood’s early adopters of cloud computing, creating a system that eventually spun off into its own company, Conductor. Atomic Fiction most recently used Conductor to create “The Walk,” in which a high-wire walker crosses between the towers of the World Trade Center. The rendering for those scenes was done in the cloud, where 15,000 processors reduced a millennium’s worth of rendering time to 9.1 million hours, completed in a matter of months. “The Walk” premiered in September as the most prominent use of cloud computing in the history of film—and as proof that a company like Atomic Fiction can be both immensely creative and financially viable.

“We saved 50 percent, any way we cut it, just for those seven or eight production months, and that’s totally ignoring the four months after in which we didn’t need a render farm at all because we were ramping up on the next project,” Baillie says. “This is a legit, big Hollywood movie where the special effects were done in the cloud at half the cost.”

In the not very distant past, studios would have to work with third-party hosting companies to access these kinds of cloud services, and mega-corporations would need to combine multiple cloud services that they could not ultimately control or coordinate for use as a single tool.

“This new generation is much more available and reliable and simple to use,” says Bobby Patrick, chief marketing officer for Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Cloud business. “You don’t have to call and say, ‘Order me a new server,’ like you used to. Their IT has the resources in place to use something that isn’t being utilized and apply it as a solution to the problem.”

Having those augmented capabilities available at a moment’s notice is making special effects and experiences possible that seemed unimaginable even six months ago. The scenes in “The Walk” look so real because the reduced rendering time let graphic artists not only tweak the big stuff, but also tweak tiny details such as nuts and bolts in the World Trade Center buildings and the flicker of car headlights more than 90 stories below. By getting their changes processed faster, they could make even more changes, generating scenes that look shockingly realistic.

What the future holds

What Baillie is doing with “The Walk” offers a hint of what the future might look like. After finishing the film, the Atomic Fiction team was able to take its files and work with Sony as well as Create Advertising to build a virtual-reality experience that will soon be released as a game—a feat of rendering that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

“To get that stuff transferred took about 20 hours every time we did it, whereas rendering a frame for a movie took about 20 minutes,” Baillie says. “Rendering into a 3-D asset is orders of magnitude harder. We used Conductor to do that, and at the end of the day, when you’re in the virtual-reality experience, it looks like you’re there in the movie. You get to be on the Twin Towers corner and you get to step out. I did the final version of it last week. I’m not afraid of heights, and it was terrifying. There’s no way you’re going to keep your balance.”

Baillie says, “Today, the cloud gives the 130 people in his company access to the equivalent of 30,000 computers in a rendering farm.” Within one year, he expects the computing power in the cloud to grow to 100,000 processors.

“If a 130-person studio can have access to 100,000 processors, that means one person can have access to 100,000 processors,” he says. “Then it becomes a matter of how much one person can process in their brain in a day. What can you imagine?”

Curious how the cloud can benefit your business? Click here to learn more about HPE Helion cloud solutions.


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