Ryan Tudhope and Kevin Baillie started their journey with Autodesk software while they were still in school. It’s been 18 months since the launch of their company, Atomic Fiction.
At forty five employees, the crew at Atomic Fiction is at present working on several hundred shots for Robert Zemeckis’s first live action movie since Cast Away, called Flight, with the team doing a wide range of work: everything from simple compositing to full-CG shots. “The show was shot on the RED Epic at 5K, so the footage is beautiful and there’s a lot of data to handle,” explains Kevin Baillie. They also recently delivered around 80 shots for Rian Johnson’s Looper, and digital prosthetic work on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire for which Atomic Fiction’s character supervisor, Anton Dawson, won a VES Award earlier this year. Another piece of work they are presently working on is a CG cinematic that will be released at E3 in June 2012, featuring photoreal CG human figures for a game company they cannot reveal.
“This hop across industries is part of our plan,” explains Tudhope. “Bridging the gap between games [cinematics] and VFX has benefits for both industries, whether it be more efficient rigs in VFX, or better looking CG characters and overall production value in games. Game companies are now looking to us for the skills we have in bringing photoreal characters to their audience.” Kevin concurs, “Yeah, y’know, there’s been talk for about 10 years that ‘video games are gonna merge’, and we think that’s on the verge of actually happening. The processing power is going to be there soon, especially with the new generation of consoles hitting the market. We’re excited to help these companies define the new look of games through the use of this technology.” Pressure from movie studios and this industry in general is to have VFX studios deliver faster, better and cheaper work. “Studios keep looking for the price to come down, at the same time the game market quality is being pushed upwards. We’re seeing so many examples of economics and technology forcing these industries together. It’s bound to happen and we’re happy to be a place where we can help people take advantage of it,” adds Kevin Baillie.
“Having used Autodesk products since we were 14 and 15 years old, we were given a head start in the industry,” says Kevin Baillie. “Autodesk has worked to help students gain access to the best software at the early stages of education, so that when they come out into the workforce, they have a real advantage. They can realize their passion. When we were first learning the software, we didn’t even realize that we could make a career in VFX but, by the time we were both 25, we had the fortune of being visual effects supervisors on ‘gigantic A-list movies’. We would have never planned out that path for ourselves but Autodesk’s software helped us find that.”
Kevin and Ryan worked at The Orphanage as well. In fact, they were the Orphanage’s first two employees. Together with this and their later experience working at ImageMovers Digital, there was ample opportunity for the duo to learn how medium and large-sized VFX studios run. What tools and software need to be bought and developed on its own. In the end, they took all of that knowledge and mixed it with some core values they wanted to work within, and they created Atomic Fiction.
“Just a couple years ago, a studio of our size, with our resources, doing this kind of work, would be impossible,” explains Baillie. “Character work is known to be one of the hardest things to set up a pipeline to do. But with Autodesk’s software, we use Mudbox, 3ds Max, Maya, Motion Builder and even MatchMover. These packages individually are great and the intricate tie-ins between the packages are what made this kind of production work possible for us.
One of the first things Atomic Fiction had to work out was how to render all this work they were being approached to do. They didn’t have capital to build a world-class render farm of the magnitude they knew they’d need, and weren’t particularly interested in being in the datacenter business, so they knew that cloud rendering was their only option. To make this happen, they formed a partnership with a company called ZYNC, a spinoff from Boston’s ZeroFX. “The guys [at ZYNC] have created a service where individual artists and small-to-medium sized companies with the talent to work on the big stuff can make that dream a reality! It allows them to grow their infrastructure massively when they’re busy, but instantly shrink when the demand isn’t there. It’s a very easy and transparent experience working with ZYNC. I actually had an artist, two weeks into his gig at Atomic Ficton, ask me when he could start using this ‘cloud’ thing he’d been reading about. He was shocked when I told him he had been for weeks,” explains Kevin.
Atomic Fiction has found Autodesk to be hugely supportive, working with both Atomic Fiction and ZYNC in their mission to develop this business model around scaling up and down with productions’ ebbs and flows. The same cooperation is being found from The Foundry for their stable of software and Chaos Group for the use of V-Ray. “There are a lot of companies who are happy to jump in and see where this will go - how to make a viable commercial model around the cloud philosophy. The future for cloud rendering is so bright. We think it’s where the entire industry is going to be in a few years – we just happen to be the first. The proof is in the pudding: just last week, had a bottle of champagne delivered to celebrate our 10,000th job using ZYNC,” added Kevin.
In San Francisco during their Press Summit, Autodesk emphasized the importance of its cloud computing program, Autodesk 360 (formerly known as Autodesk Cloud). Autodesk 360 now provides even more cloud benefits to those Autodesk Subscription customers, including additional cloud storage and the ability to access cloud services for rendering, simulation, design optimization and energy analysis. Subscription customers now have up to 25GB of storage and between 100 and 500 Autodesk cloud units per user, based on the suite edition they purchased, providing a competitive edge to respond to changing business requirements.
“Our use of the cloud is born out necessity in a way, because we didn’t have the funds for doing this on our own. We’re pushing over 400 shots through the cloud right now for two of our projects. What the cloud allows a company like Atomic Fiction to do is to have an ‘ILM-scale’ resource available to an artist one hour, then once we’re done, the next hour, it goes back down to just the Mac they might be working on,” explains Kevin. “We would be cranking on 1000 cores right now, but later tonight it will be down to literally nothing. Just like electricity, we only pay for what we use.”
If they’d needed to build a render farm to handle peak capacity during their first year, Atomic Fiction would have had to lease over 100 eight or twelve-core machines, along with all of the supporting space, gear, power and cooling. “Some of the shots for Transformers 3 were truly huge,” adds Baillie. Usually to gear up for that level of work would’ve cost about $300,000 for the year. Instead, last year Atomic Fiction paid only $40,000. “It’s an order of magnitude more efficient for us, and we don’t have the depreciating assets sitting around that we would then have to replace on a rotating basis,” Ryan explains. Using the cloud also helps Atomic Fiction deal with unexpected leaps in clients’ appetites. “We were rendering 2K on Transformers and Boardwalk but, for our latest projects, we’re rendering 5K frames for some shots and 60fps on others!”