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Cloud technology: tackling the VFX industry’s cost prediction challenge

Studios planning VFX projects today have two significant cost considerations: talent and infrastructure. They’re addressing the associated challenges with increasing ingenuity, but advances in technology - available to studios of all sizes - are driving change for the better.

There’s no endless pool of talent

VFX artists, and the ingenuity they bring with them, aren’t exactly two-a-penny. And, when you’re tied to a certain geographical location – or even locations, if you’re big enough to have offices worldwide - that talent pool is finite and highly competitive.

Look at Vancouver, Canada, where the British Columbia government brought in subsidies for film and TV companies - including VFX studios. A raft of companies set up shop. So many, in fact, that the Government ended up cutting the tax credit scheme because it couldn’t afford to keep it going.

Suddenly, all those studios were competing to hire the same people. At the same time, projects have scaled over the years to become behemoths - needing a larger and larger workforce. That has lead to many studios subcontracting their workload.

Vancouver is home to many a talented VFX artist, but there are also limits to how fast studios can grow - and how quickly physical headcount can be increased - not least due to work visa limitations and housing market conditions.

Render farms don’t come on wheels

Where infrastructure is concerned, the biggest challenge is that capital expenditure has already been sunk into creating a physical base capable of executing those monstrous projects.

Artists, while not an infinite resource, can move from studio to studio and have a degree of elasticity. But you can’t say the same for a room full of servers, or software licenses for that matter. Projects come in peaks and troughs, and once you’ve shelled out for a render farm or an expensive annual subscription you’re stuck with it - whether there’s work or not.

Some studios have been creative with that resource - renting out server capacity to other studios while they’re not using it, for example - but our industry is so unpredictable for all parties that it can be nigh on impossible to manage.

Designers at work

The cloud on the horizon

As we’ve looked at before, there’s huge potential for cloud to play a leading role in alleviating all of the above. Cloud technology can revolutionize how you work right now - it can be the very foundation of your work, not simply an extension.

There are already studios using cloud platforms to run entire projects and reaping the rewards. Cloud provides the freedom to collaborate with artists, wherever in the world they may be and at any time, while removing the need for capital expenditure on servers and licences you might end up not needing.

While larger studios will eventually follow, they’ll naturally be slower to disrupt their current ways of working as they have the most legacy structure in place. In the meantime, fast-moving smaller studios, collectives and freelancers will show what can be done.

If it’s broke, fix it

Of course, it’s not always that black and white. There’s a significant change in mindset that needs to happen for cloud to take off in the VFX industry.

Right now, most studios use a ‘waterfall’ approach to budgeting for resources. They buy everything up front, making educated guesses at how much render capacity they’ll need and how many software licences they should buy.

The studio Rhythm & Hues infamously went bust a few years ago. Yes, there were several factors involved in that, but what didn’t help was two major projects towards the end of its existence being severely delayed. Without a way to mitigate costs during such periods of sudden downtime, the worst can - and will - happen.

Instead, what cloud offers is the opportunity to flip the resource model to one of buying ‘just in time’ - taking every project as it comes and being able to scale up or down depending on workload, without losing money.

However, that means it’s difficult to compare apples with apples. Cloud can actually seem more expensive on paper, because the savings you see will come when you’re not using resource, rather than when you are - you only buy what you need, when you need it. No more servers and licences lying dormant despite having already been paid for.

The move to cloud is an inevitable one. Studios are subcontracting more and more, and projects are growing to sizes never seen before. As the structure of our work changes, so too should the way we budget for it.

Next month, Foundry Trends will look at the incredible potential of data aggregation through cloud platforms - and how sharing information between rival studios could transform the industry as we know it.