How a London VFX studio is ditching desktop workstations for cloud-based creative power

Neal, the laid-back sloth, was created for Sofaworks ad campaign by Jellyfish Pictures.

Jellyfish Pictures is giving more creative power to its expanding team of 3D and VFX artists using tools from Nuke to Softimage (and saving money) by using virtualised desktops.

London-based VFX house Jellyfish Pictures is moving away from desktop workstations for cloud-based creativity. This is being done to allow it to scale up for big projects more easily and open a second office where staff can work seamlessly with those at its home base – and its artists won’t notice the difference until they realise they don’t need to be tied to huge, powerful workstations anymore.

The firm behind VFX for Dr Who, Line of Duty and the Natural History Museum Alive 3D was previously working with the traditional studio set-up of lots of powerful but expensive desktop workstations for creative work – assisted by racks of servers for rendering, storage and asset/project management. While it’s keeping its workstations – ditching them would be a waste – Jellyfish is expanding with a cloud-based platform that manages and processes everything.

Those not using the company’s current batch of workstations log onto Jellyfish’s network from computers, laptops or even low-cost thin clients – from the company’s base in Soho, its soon-to-open studio in Brixton, on-set or from freelance staff’s homes – and are given a virtualised desktop with all of their usual creative tools from Nuke to Softimage. From there, artists and editors work as if they were on a traditional workstation – though as they’re essentially accessing a datacentre, they have access to the power of the platform for both application performance and rendering. They also have asset management and storage taken care of too – so nothing is lost if the computer or terminal that the artist is working on crashes or fails.

This move is part of a growing trend for VFX and post-productions studios to use cloud services to use creative power more wisely – and scale up and down as needed. The standard ‘creative workstation’ model has the main flaw that workstations have fixed amounts of graphics and processing power – and if they’re not being used to their fullest, there’s no way for others who are maxing out the power of their workstations to tap into what’s not being used elsewhere. The datacentre model divides graphics and processing power as needed from a central pot, so everyone gets what they need when they need it.

There are many ‘shades of grey’ between the traditional workstations-and-servers setup and the datacentre-and-thin-clients approach. These can range from powerful workstations for creative work with Internet-based rendering to desktop tools that run on PCs and laptops as full applications, but which access media and processing in the cloud – such as the Adobe Anywhere video editing environment).

Dr Easy is an animation about a robot with medical training dispatched to defuse a dangerous situation. It was directed by Shynola.

To create this platform, British cloud network provider Exponential-e built a cloud platform known as a DaaS – GPU (Desktop-as-a-Service for Graphic Processing Units). This is built on Nvidia’s GRID technology, which uses servers packed with the company’s GPUs – the powerful chips as used on the company’s Quadro graphics cards. VMWare’s Horizon DaaS platform provides the virtualisation, while 100Gig Ethernet to, from and around Jellyfish’s two studios means that those using the virtualised desktops don’t have any problems with what they’re viewing due to network lag.

For the virtualised desktops, Jellyfish is using a mixture of thin clients from Dell, HP and Intel – plus some older PCs.

We caught up with Jellyfish CTO Jeremy Smith to find out what prompted the studio to go down this route

Michael Burns: What were the pressures facing the company that prompted this move?

Jeremy Smith: “The nature of the VFX industry is project-based, and we often require technology resources and freelancers on demand. We sought a cloud-based solution from Exponential-e in order to enable us to quickly respond to these fluctuating project requirements.

“We’re also opening a new 4,000 sq ft office in Brixton, where 60 artists and supporting production staff will be based, so we needed the flexibility to cater to our fast-growing business. We chose to go down a hybrid cloud-based route so that we can concentrate on what really counts - delivering award-winning, state of the art animation and VFX for our clients.

Photo-real CGI birds steal the show as they star in bird food commercial

MB: What benefits does it have for Jellyfish – creatively as well as operationally?

JS: “Scaling up and down for productions – where you might be operating remotely from several locations, such as on set, on location and in the studio, at speed with security and privacy centre stage – is inherently difficult. Operationally, we no longer need to rely solely on our existing architecture when further processing power or capacity is required. Instead, our staff can spin-up additional resources on demand.

“By operating in a virtualised desktop environment, DaaS - GPU ensures that our staff can work on graphics applications from any device, from any location.

“Jellyfish Pictures is now capable of moving from a capital expenditure business model to an operating expenditure structure [which reduces upfront costs when Jellyfish needs to grow to take on a big project and instead sets them against revenue from the project itself]. For the first time this means that we are highly flexible when bidding for future work.

“We can now also foster a much more creative environment for our employees. They will be able to share work in real time between our studios which will help with creative development. We can also make the most of the best of creative British talent, we can hire the best staff regardless of if they prefer to work remote and contract.”

MB: How does it change the way you work on a typical project?

JS: “In the past, the huge amounts of processing power needed for VFX work meant that our artists, designers and developers were tied to a physical desktop. But now, the traditional VFX workstation has been transformed by adopting a hybrid, cloud-based platform – we can work from anywhere and on any supported device that we want. This also means that our contract and remote workers can now collaborate on projects – all in the same logical work space.”

Jellyfish Pictures collaborated as associate producers with Kibwe Tavares to create the film Jonah's anti-hero – the world's largest fish. 

MB: What technology/infrastructure investment did you have to make?

JS: “The network investment was absolutely key. The performance of our cloud services is directly dependent on the speed of the network infrastructure on which we connect to the datacentre. As such, we needed to invest in private gigabit connectivity infrastructure to support our Cloud ambitions. Exponential-e’s Layer 2, low latency network was the ideal choice to support fast access to our cloud services.

MB: Did you face any challenges in incorporating a cloud-based VFX platform?

JS: “One of the potential challenges is the installation of the dedicated connectivity. A three-month lead-time is standard for installation, but always subject to surveys and the buildings themselves, so this needs to be planned for."

This bear-starring commercial for Samsung Appliances received more than 15 millions views.

MB: How would you respond to fears that this technology heralds more and easier international outsourcing from British VFX studios?

JS: “We believe this strengthens the UK’s position and provides more opportunities for British-based studios and artists. Our new studio has already secured its first project, a 52 x 11 minute children’s series. The series has been commissioned with the assistance of the government’s animation tax credit scheme, which sets out to support the UK’s creative industry."

“Without the benefit of animation tax credits, the production would most likely have been made in Asia or Canada, with a commensurate loss in job opportunities and associated business for the local community.”

Elsewhere on IDG sites

Read Next...