Coronavirus Has Moved VFX Work to the Cloud — and It May Stay There

Brent Lang

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The coronavirus pandemic may push more visual effects work into the cloud.

That business, like many others, is heavily dependent on cramming as many people as possible into office spaces where they can work on tight deadlines, racing to create the kind of elaborate digital wonders that enhance movies and television shows.

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But that’s no longer possible in the age of COVID-19. Visual effects, like most post-production work, must now be accomplished remotely as people social distance in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. Arch Platform Technologies, a provider of cloud-based infrastructure for visual effects companies, has seen interest in its product soar in the wake of the shutdown.

“There’s been a massive upsurge in demand,” says Guy Botham, the company’s founder. “All these artists are working from home now, and this allows you to scale up or scale down based on your workflow.”

That’s increasingly important as gigs and jobs have dried up for some effects companies because production on many movies and series has shut down. This has left some studios with virtually no revenue, but a great deal of overhead to service. Not only do they have to pay the rent on workspaces and lease machinery, but they also have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on air conditioning just to cool down the hardware. That’s because in order to safely store the renderings that visual effects artists create, most companies need machine rooms, which represent huge capital commitments to both set up and maintain. They run so much power through them that they occasionally lead to brownouts and even, in rare cases, catch fire.

Cloud-based storage is nothing new, of course. What makes Arch so attractive is that the platform uses the technology to enable companies to set up secure workstations, render farms and storage and workflow management without having to rely on machine rooms. It also means that productions can be more mobile, establishing visual effects outposts anywhere in the world to maximize tax incentives. That’s doubly appealing because visual effects work can be a low-margin business. Companies grapple with the demands of a competitive bidding process, and the tight turnaround times on effects-heavy films often force them to shoulder enormous overtime costs.

“Hands down this is where our industry needs to go,” says Steve Griffith, vice president of production at Legend 3D. “This gives one comprehensive solution and means I don’t have to carry the overhead I once did.”

Arch has already served as the cloud-based platform for the work done by Botham’s visual effects company, Vitality VFX, which has in turn used it to power contributions to the likes of “Wonder Woman,” “Stranger Things” and “The Irishman.” The cost savings associated with the work helped find investors for Solstice Studios, a new movie company that Botham co-founded with veteran producer Mark Gill and others. Solstice has used the cloud-based platform on upcoming releases such as “Unhinged,” an action thriller with Russell Crowe, and estimates it has been able to complete the work for roughly a quarter of the cost.

“With this technology, you can set up 1,000 workstations in less than an hour and have people working on a project simultaneously in Mumbai, New York, Dublin and Vancouver,” says Botham. “It’s a seamless process.”

Botham has started to offer the technology to other providers. He charges them to set up the tech and then bills them a monthly fee to use it. One of the first companies to sign up was Track VFX. Its co-founder Joel Sevilla, whose credits include the upcoming Tom Hanks thriller “Greyhound,” says that using Arch let him cut back dramatically on his startup costs.

“It was great because we got to mitigate a whole bunch of huge capital expenses upfront,” Sevilla says. “And we were able to get things set up much more quickly.”

It also meant that when stay-in-place orders took effect in March, Track’s employees had little trouble shifting from an office setting to working on projects from their homes or apartments. That may be increasingly important even as restrictions lift.

“This experience is going to change the way we think about office environments,” says Sevilla. “This is great because it allows people to feel safe and gives them the option to work remotely even as the country starts opening up. All it means is that everyone spends a little more time doing Zoom calls.” 

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