is a global post-production studio headquartered in Hollywood recognized with Emmy and Visual Effects Society awards. From episodic television, feature films, to branding spots. Having first set up shop in 1985, Encore quickly established itself as an industry leader in the post market, and is now a division of Deluxe Entertainment.
Over the last several years the Encore team has worked on feature films such as Maps to the Stars and Forsaken, while also providing high-class visuals for television straddling sci-fi, drama and comedy in award-winning projects such as The Newsroom, Orange is the New Black, Falling Skies, The Flash and Extant.
For its latest work, a new approach was required. Encore was hired by Cineplex Entertainment – one of North America’s largest movie theatre operators – to create a 35-second spot in stereoscopic 3D.
“It was a different kind of project for sure,” begins Michael Kowalski, Director of VFX at Encore Toronto. “Often, given the time and budgets, working in high-quality visual effects means taking a lot of creative approaches and methodologies to make stuff really work. The Cineplex brand spot for its UltraAVX theatre experience was a prime example of that – and Zync Render proved to be just the kind of creative methodology we needed to get the job done.”
is Google’s cloud rendering solution for the creative industries. Built on Google Cloud Platform, it allows studios and freelancers the ability to quickly and cost effectively send rendering-intensive jobs up to Google’s cloud infrastructure with a turnkey solution that is easy to use.
A transformative process
The Cineplex spot may have been just 35 seconds in total, but those 35 seconds needed to contain an epic story along with a great deal of rendering-intensive detail – all in stereoscopic 3D.
“The intention of the spot was to illustrate that when you watch a movie in an UltraAVX theatre the experience is bigger, better, and more vibrant,” explains Kowalski. We show that by demonstrating the difference to audiences through a fully CG metaphor: “The spot starts with a dragonfly on the macro level, then the camera follows him as he flies across a CG backdrop and through a portal, and comes out transformed into a CG dragon breathing spirals of flame. The message is clear – UltraAVX transforms your viewing experience.”
With the outro card not taken into consideration, Encore had just 25 seconds to tell the transformative story, hitting each narrative beat without making the whole experience feel rushed.
“Another big challenge was that, artistically, we had to carry all of the colours and the characteristics of the dragonfly over to the dragon, while ensuring it still felt absolutely majestic,” explains Kowalski. “That meant using the same bright, iridescent blues and yellows of the dragonfly and applying that to the dragon, without straying too far into the cartoon side of things.”
The challenges went beyond the artistic and into the technical – not only did the high-resolutions textures and stunning CG backdrop need to be rendered with the utmost quality, it needed to be done so twice, given the project’s stereoscopic requirements.
“Considering that we were working with assets like the dragon and the portal, and a landscape with elements ranging from tree and fog to mountains and planets, the renders were very heavy, and that meant using more CPUs and taking more time to process.”
Although Encore had several months to design the characters, create the environment and carry out the animation, they knew the last 5 weeks of the project would be key. Encore knew it would need to turn around multiple iterations of the project each week – and that’s when the studio turned to Google’s Zync Render.
With renders on the Cineplex short taking three-four days to render, Kowalski knew the team needed a new solution.
Previously, Encore had been able to run projects using its in-house render farm, as they mostly involved the integration of invisible VFX or CG elements into live action environments. With a full CG project, however, a greater degree of power was required.
“When rendering using our in-house environment we would have to launch renders on a Friday and leave the hardware chugging away over the weekend,” he explains. “We knew that ultimately we would need to work faster than this, and that this would require more horsepower than our setup would allow. That was when we turned to Zync – suddenly we were able to turn things around in a night, instead of a weekend!
“Zync really gave us that extra capacity – and it was really easy to use,” beams Kowalski. “We could just upload our data onto the cloud, let it render, and then have it all download back to our servers – it was just like rendering in-house.”
Zync integrates natively with a variety of industry-standard applications and renderers. The team at Encore were using Maya, NUKE and V-Ray on this project.
This streamlined workflow, empowered by efficiency and performance of Zync, meant that the Encore artists could get even more creative than usual: “One of the big problems with rendering locally is that it can take literally days to see the result, and if you don’t like it and want to make changes, you’re then waiting another couple of days to see those alterations,” explains Kowalski. “Thankfully, with Zync you have that flexibility to start the render, go home, then come in in the morning and start making changes right away. That means more iterations, which in turn means greater scope for creativity.
“For example, at one point we were getting close to finals, and the client was giving us notes on the changes they wanted us to make on the spot,” he continues. “We only had one or two days to make them and show the results. Using Zync we could do that. We could accelerate our artist process overall, and that means quicker changes, which means more iterations, which means better final output. It’s invaluable! In total we ended up logging over 10,000 hours of render time on Zync.”
The future is in the cloud
For Encore and many studios like it, this enhanced pipeline is absolutely key when working in a fast-paced, time-sensitive industry. Not only does it empower artist creativity and help meet those deadlines, but it’s also beneficial from a practical standpoint, allowing studios to operate in a far more efficient manner.
“The benefits of Zync and cloud rendering go beyond the empowerment of the artist,” explains Kowalski. “One of these is that, by taking the rendering off of our networks and placing it on Google Cloud Platform, we don’t have to worry about the network slowing down when there’s so much data going across. We can work internally without fear of interference [with our projects].”
Zync offers on-demand per-minute billing, so Encore can scale up and down as per the needs of each project paying only for what they render.
“We can keep a small render farm for our day-to-day stuff, but when we have deliveries or unique projects that requires a lot more rendering – like the Cineplex short – we can turn to Zync and really ramp things up,” says Kowalski. “A lot of our work comes in bursts, so four-five days per week our render farm might be adequate. But when we get to delivery you have a crunch. At those times, having access to that extra CPU is vital – it gets you over the hump versus having that extra gear here all that time when you’re not using it.”
Encore has also been satisfied with the security of the cloud: “Security was something we investigated as it’s always a concern, but the Google Cloud Platform team provided us with details around audits done by one a major studio that covered the underlying infrastructure and storage, so I was more than happy with the security measures in place.”
Considering the broad benefits realized, Kowalski sees a bright future for cloud rendering. “It’s definitely the future – not just at Encore, but for the entire industry. The cloud is where it’s at.”