By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By IAN FAILES
Midway through 2021, Google Cloud officially shut down its Zync Render online rendering service. With this closure, along with the COVID-19 pandemic ramping up remote working experiences for a swath of visual effects and animation studios and artists, the state of play of cloud rendering has been evolving. Here, several cloud rendering companies – AWS, Conductor, Fox Renderfarm, GridMarkets, Pixel Plow and Renderro – discuss where the cloud rendering industry, mainly in relation to visual effects and animation, is currently situated and where they think the future of rendering in the cloud is headed.
A BRIEF CLOUD RENDERING HISTORY
If you’re completely new to cloud rendering, the concept is relatively simple. Instead of rendering 3D or other imagery on a local computer or a local render farm, that task is sent offsite – to the cloud. This means you may not have to implement a local render farm at all, avoiding the usual housing space, power and cooling challenges that can come with hosting the actual machines, graphics cards, and other infrastructure required for rendering.
“Cloud adoption is already far exceeding what was projected for this year, largely due to the pandemic and the resulting work from home scramble across the globe. The drive to meet the demands of these users is something that has sped up a lot of development timelines. The general concept of shifting to an operating expenses-based approach is taking root in our project-driven industry.”
—Mac Moore, President and CEO, Conductor Technologies
A cloud rendering alternative, or possibly hybrid model, is also sometimes used when there is high local demand on the render farm, allowing users to access as much compute power as they need, on demand. Plus, it’s a cost that can be put off to the time it’s needed rather than being spent upfront on equipment.
One other thing to note about cloud rendering is that it is intended to be a seamless process for users. In recent years, cloud rendering providers have invested heavily in providing users with support for the major digital content creation software such as Maya, Houdini and Cinema 4D, and for renderers (like Arnold, V-Ray, RenderMan, Redshift, etc.) as well. The idea, of course, is that the experience of cloud rendering should be just like sending a normal ‘job’ off for rendering on your local computer or render farm. Indeed, it can actually be faster in the cloud.
THE STATE OF PLAY
The companies spoken to all mention a growth in demand for their services and in their offerings. They say the big changes in the past few years have been the increased need for scalable compute resources online and access to virtual machines and other processing in VFX and animation. This has effectively matched an associated increased output in VFX and animation, and has also been commensurate with vast improvements in data speeds, CPU and GPU processing power, and the abilities of actual rendering software itself. Then, of course, there’s been COVID-19, which brought on a new wave of remote working and simply the need for studios to keep working. The general consensus: so much is changing right now in the industry.
“Every month, we’re seeing increasing usage of our cloud rendering and simulation services. While we would like to think that we are special, I suspect that all cloud rendering providers are seeing an uptick in their business volumes from their media customers. COVID forced the adoption; the many practicalities of cloud architec-tures will sustain the trend. For this reason, we are expecting the accelerating cloud adoption trend to continue.”
—Mark Ross, Co-founder, GridMarkets
“Cloud adoption is already far exceeding what was projected for this year, largely due to the pandemic and the resulting work from home scramble across the globe,” indicates Mac Moore, President and CEO at Conductor Technologies. “The drive to meet the demands of these users is something that has sped up a lot of development timelines. The general concept of shifting to an operating expenses-based approach is taking root in our project-driven industry.”
“There’s a lot of excitement around production techniques and technology that can help accelerate content production,” advises Kyle Roche, Head of Content Production Technology at AWS (Amazon Web Services). AWS got into cloud rendering out of its 2017 acquisition of Thinkbox Software, which was the developer of Deadline render management software, and has since then been offering cloud rendering, virtual workstations, storage, and other services tailored for content production using AWS’s broadly available cloud infrastructure.
“Every month, we’re seeing increasing usage of our cloud rendering and simulation services,” adds GridMarkets Co-founder Mark Ross. “While we would like to think that we are special, I suspect that all cloud rendering providers are seeing an uptick in their business volumes from their media customers. COVID forced the adoption; the many practicalities of cloud architectures will sustain the trend. For this reason, we are expecting the accelerating cloud adoption trend to continue.”
“Cloud rendering will develop drastically both offline rendering and real-time ren-dering in the future. Offline rendering in cloud meets the needs for big data and high-resolution projects, such as movies, advertisements and promotional videos, etc. Whereas, real-time rendering is utilized in the scenarios requiring an interactive ex-perience, such as VR, AR, AI, automatic driving and telemedicine.”
—Kenny Zou, Director, Research and Development, Fox Renderfarm
Others, like Fox Renderfarm Director, Research and Development Kenny Zou, see cloud rendering services very much following the trends in the entertainment industry, including in relation to the increased use of real-time rendering for interactive experiences. “Cloud rendering will develop drastically both offline rendering and real-time rendering in the future. Offline rendering in cloud meets the needs for big data and high-resolution projects, such as movies, advertisements and promotional videos, etc. Whereas, real-time rendering is utilized in the scenarios requiring an interactive experience, such as VR, AR, AI, automatic driving and telemedicine.”
Cloud rendering providers have observed that while some big players have left the market, many new ones have arrived. Companies have also both diversified their offerings and engaged in directly targeting certain kinds of users, from well-resourced studios all the way to small, independent operations or individuals. Clearly, visual effects and animation can be a complex process, and engineers within studios are often well suited to shoe-horning existing rendering workflows into larger cloud providers. But smaller outfits or individuals are often after simpler solutions. Indeed, both the big and smaller players in cloud rendering do push their ease-of-use, while some, like Pixel Plow, which was started by IT engineer and consultant Ty Christensen, aim to keep it simple.
“There can be only two basic needs that cloud rendering can meet for its users,” suggests Christensen. “These are freeing up their machine and meeting their deadlines. Many of our users simply want to offload rendering to something else to free up their computer to resume work. Others have deadlines for which they don’t possess the hardware capabilities to meet. The combination of those two basic needs is where cloud rendering continues to find its greatest customer base. It enables individual artists to take on projects they could not previously consider. Cloud rendering commoditizes hardware access.”
Renderro is another cloud rendering provider aimed at a simpler workflow model, and one more closely tied into the idea of a virtual machine offering. “For a long time, cloud rendering meant using render farms,” states Renderro founder Piotr Chomczyk. “What Renderro does completely different is that it gives you full access to the cloud desktop, where you can install any type of software and work exactly the same way you would on a personal Windows 10 machine. Through the Renderro application, you can connect your physical device, be it a five-year-old laptop or a Mac Air, to a powerful cloud desktop with just one click and start working on your project from wherever you are.”
THE FUTURE OF CLOUD RENDERING
So, where is cloud rendering headed, and what might it become for VFX and animation studios? The most obvious answer is: an even faster and cheaper service. But there are other aspects of the service that cloud rendering companies say are on the horizon or need to be considered.
“[T]he cloud rendering industry has to become more open to the needs of creatives. With tools like Blender becoming more advanced with plug-ins and updates, it will be extremely hard to keep up with all the news for all the types of software and ren-dering engines. That’s why the idea of cloud rendering should be democratized and should give much more freedom to the end-users.”
—Piotr Chomczyk, Founder, Renderro
“I think the cloud rendering industry has to become more open to the needs of creatives,” offers Chomczyk. “With tools like Blender becoming more advanced with plug-ins and updates, it will be extremely hard to keep up with all the news for all the types of software and rendering engines. That’s why the idea of cloud rendering should be democratized and should give much more freedom to the end-users.”
Meanwhile, Christensen is adamant that the future of cloud rendering will also remain about giving elaborate hardware access to users who might not normally or easily have that access. “The final push, for us at least,” says Christensen, “to improve that access is the continued development of in-app plug-ins. We presently have an in-app plug-in for Cinema 4D so that users don’t even have to leave the comfort of the render app when they submit a job. Other render apps may follow.”
Zou predicts that current cloud rendering services for VFX and animation will expand to other visual arts areas, especially those utilizing 5G capabilities via smart phones or devices. “Moreover,” Zou argues, “5G brings more possibilities because the speed that users access to cloud services is much accelerated. So far, we have the capability to provide real-time cloud rendering services for high-resolution VR content.”
In terms of other related developments, Ross notes the already emerging shift to virtual from local desktops, arguing this will continue to pick up steam. “HP and Unity are betting big on this trend with their acquisitions of Teradici and Parsec, respectively. The very efficient pixel-streaming technologies that Teradici and Parsec developed, and the many practical advantages of virtual machines, have brought an end to the days of studios investing in large local desktop and server infrastructures.”
Certainly, it’s the common experience of companies in the field that the market is increasing, owing to the current climate. “Cloud rendering in general is growing as studios realize how transformative and freeing it can be to move away from using solely on-premises compute, and those benefits can be extended throughout the content production workflow,” states Roche. “Adoption of the cloud has been further driven by the pandemic and necessity of remote workflows. As a result, studios have changed their cloud strategies, often moving up implementation timelines, and are finding success in doing so.”
Finally, Moore feels that there will be a maturing of cloud rendering technology, expanding deeper into the pipeline. “Cloud wasn’t built for VFX and its unique compute requirements, so the solutions to extend into our workflows are just now coming into focus. Customers in other industries like financial and scientific verticals don’t have such large and unpredictable compute demands. In VFX, a studio may need 10,000 machines in parallel for little more than an hour, then go to zero. This has always been the promise of cloud, but in actuality those cloud companies have been more focused on lift-and-shift until recently. Enabling this instant-on capability is key to expanding cloud rendering to the majority of studios in the coming years.”