Boutique commercial house ATK PLN is probably the best suited to talk about how it used Athera in production, and we spoke to CG supervisor Patton Tunstall at SIGGRAPH 2018 about the cloud and how the Dallas-based studio utilised the tool.
3DA: What drew you to Athera?
PT: I had worked on a project for a company in LA, for Nintendo and my client had access to Athera beta and he said he’d get me on it. So I played with it and thought, ‘You know what, I’m gonig to try it in production.’
I was tasked with doing fire simulations for all the Skyrim spots. What we did is, once we had everything lined up, I put it on my Dropbox and in Athera you can connect to Dropbox. SO I downloaded it from Dropbox and simulated it. And what was cool was not only could I simulate it on one node, but I could simulate it on multiple nodes and simulate it multiple times. So I could go back to the client after a couple of hours and say ‘Hey, here are 5 versions, which one do you like?’ and they can choose which they like.
For freelance, having the ability to not only do VFX, but to iterate quickly and give options in VFX is almost unheard of. There’s no one that can do that.
You’ve got to have all this hardware, software and access to all of these things in order to be efficient enough just to do a single pass let alone multiple passes in parallel. We shipped that and it all went well.
Recently we were tasked with doing a project for Exxon. It was a 360 experience, a minute and half long, 30 seconds long and 4K. I told the studio, ‘Guys there’s no way we can do this with 6 weeks and 8 artists’ and they came back and said ‘Yeah well all you have is 3 weeks and 3 artists’, so I was like ‘Okay cool,’ so I quickly went through our rollodex of FX artists because I couldn’t do all of it. Of course everyone was booked, Houdini artists are really hard to find and book. We have a guy we use often, but last minute he had to cancel on us because of a family emergency, luckily everything’s okay but we didn’t have an artist so I had to do it. So instead of cancelling Athera and doing it in-house, I kept it and thought it would be an interesting experience to see what happens.
What was neat about it, and kind of more of what I was saying about being able to iterate, is that not only has Athera fleshed out its interactive sessions but also its compute sessions. They have built into the product a way to spin up more nodes, and send things headlessly. You set up an output, tell it what node it needs and they send it to their cloud nodes that you don’t have to interact with. They do their thing and then dump files to the disk.
The product we created a spot for was a synthetic oil that washes the engine as it’s running, so it increases the life of the engine of the car, so we had to simulate oil. Heavy FLIP fluids simulations actually take a long time. They’re also unwieldy and hard to art direct. What we ended up doing was sending multiple versions, super viscous ones and non viscous ones, and other things to show the client and iterate quickly. Being able to do that on the cloud meant I didn’t have to be at the studio, I could be anywhere. I could be at dinnertime with my phone. Once you have it going and get [feedback], the settings to change that are very trivial as you’re just changing a few numbers. Timewise, as an artist, it’s not really much to alter it, it just takes a long time to simulate.
I don’t have to be at the studio to change these numbers as it’s on the cloud now, I can do it on my phone from anywhere and it can be anytime, Saturday, Sunday it didn’t matter. I was only working a couple of minutes every couple of hours, so my brain was freed up from having to stress about and worry about that element, so I could actually focus about the rest of the project.
I think that cloud is going to be like this across the board, not just interactive sections like this, but everything. The thing that Google, Amazon and these guys offer is a system that no one person can build and own themselves. It’s not just how many cores it has or how much RAM it has, it has to do with everything, how well it’s connected to an unlimited amont of storage. There’s A million factors, you could have a solid IT department, really quick network switches, SSDs and NVMEs. I don’t want to have to worry about that. I was on a talk with Lindsay and he put it really well ‘What business do I want to be in? I want to be in the VFX industry, make pretty pictures, tell stories. I don’t want to have to develop software or understand the inner workings of super high-speed network. I don’t need to know all that stuff, someone else can know about all that stuff and offer it as a service, that way it will empower me to be a better artist and a better storyteller.
3DA: Will you be using Athera more often?
PT: For this Exxon project, it was a crunch so it fit really well. You never have enough time or enough artists. For FX and most freelance FX artists don’t have their own rigs, and also I don’t want to build a remote pipeline for these guys, I think in the future if I have to bring on an effects artist I will definitely use Athera. The costs on the projects we do are reasonable. It keeps all the files and data in the cloud. I don’t have to worry about these artists pertaining in an inappropriate manner. It’s a well rounded system. I know that every artist will be given a consistent experience so that if there’s an issue, I know where it is and how to deal with it. Whereas if you hire a freelance artist, and his box doesn’t cut it, and I expect him to do work and maybe he’s not tech savvy and doesn’t understand they can’t do it, I don’t have to worry about that.
I know what Athera is built on is to do exactly what I’m looking for.
3DA: Is there any worry about security and the cloud?
PT: So security is a huge thing for the cloud. When working on big projects, it’s important to talk about. On the Google Cloud side, they’re ISS certified across the board. Athera is, I’m assuming on the way. You can’t deal with the scenario where some of this work requires it to be off the internet through some kind of direct/connect situation where nobody can have a cellphone out and take a picture of the screen. In our artist setup, I can’t be at this guy’s house 800 miles away making sure he’s not taking pictures of the screen so I don’t know how to deal with that situation in this scenario.
But I’ve got to say that the data is probably going to be more secure in the cloud than in some of the studios out there…
3DA: What excites you about cloud and its impact on VFX?
PT: The way that we look at projects, not including cloud, is just what are we capable of… Traditionally, we work in what is capable. Like I can’t say I can destroy buildings in a day, but what is possible in the cloud is significantly more. So I think working that into our production is going to open more doors, and let us offer more with very little compromise. The cloud is very accessible, very affordable. I think this industry benefits greatly from it.