Toronto-based visual effects studio Spin VFX is in growth mode. Fuelled by increasing viewer appetite for adventure and fantasy content, the Emmy-award winning studio is building considerable reputation in the video world for its work on projects such as Game of Thrones, The Borgias, and The Twilight Saga, high profile items in the studio’s portfolio of 70 feature films and 13 television series, and has effectively doubled in size over the past year and a half. To accommodate growth, Spin VFX recently moved to a new Toronto location, equipping this space with the IT infrastructure needed to drive staff productivity and support the tight production scheduling that is key to success in the video effects business.
As Spin VFX president and executive producer Neishaw Ali explained, the graphics intensive visual effects industry is highly dependent on IT: “everything we do in the video media environment, everything we create is done with computers. We might look at John’s paper note, but everything we produce is done digitally.” Spin VFX has always been on the “bleeding edge of technology,” she added, due to time and production constraints. “We always want the fastest processors — the straightest way to get our work completed.” This requirement has taken on added significance with the company’s greater involvement over the past year in the TV feature business, which has even shorter timelines and demands even tighter production scheduling of Spin VFX. “If we don’t meet our deadline, it goes up the chain,” Ali explained, “and the broadcaster doesn’t get the show to air in time — we would basically be out of business,”
Scheduling requirements meant that the studio’s move to its new King St. location — which occurred mid-production on a couple of projects — had to take place with no downtime. To achieve this on the technology side, Spin VFX turned to Dell, an established IT supply partner with a growing base of clients in the media world. Dell “knew our pain — that our production schedule could not be compromised,” Ali stated, and hence could be relied on to complete the relocation with minimal disruption. Trust in Dell technology was important to Spin VFX’s upgrade decision, but even more importantly, the relationship established with Dell over time meant that the company would not have to go back to the drawing board to rehash business and technical requirements. “About 70 percent of the decision [for a particular vendor] is about the technology, but this is often similar — the rest of it is about the understanding of your business and the ease with which you can work with them,” Ali noted.
According to Ali, Dell equipment arrived before construction was complete, in advance of the studio’s actual move to its new space, and a lot of the equipment set up on the effects artists’ desks on a weekend to minimize downtime. The Spin VFX IT team, which now boasts five members, worked with Dell professional services (ProSupport) and with Island Digital, an implementation partner with specialization in the film and entertainment business, on a staged roll out, keeping parallel systems in place until deployment of the new Dell infrastructure was complete.
While some older Dell equipment migrated from the original location, Spin VFX took advantage of the opportunity the move provided to upgrade much of its infrastructure to technology that would be faster and robust enough to support the company’s growing production pipeline. The company deployed six compact Dell PowerEdge R420 rack servers with Intel Xeon E5 processors, 48GB of memory and 600GB hard drives; and on the artists’ desks, it installed Dell Precision T5600 workstations with Intel Xeon quad-core processors, NVIDIA Quadro 4000 video cards, 32GB of memory and 500GB SATA hard drives. These were paired with Dell UltraSharp U2413 PremierColor monitors, 24-inch diagonal displays that feature Widescreen Ultra Extended Graphics Array (WUXGA) technology, and both 1920×1200 pixel resolution with a 16:10 screen ratio, and 1920×1080 pixel resolution with 16:9 aspect ratio.
The Dell implementation effectively doubled the number of artist workstations to support peak periods at Spin VFX, which can see the number of artists grow from the 70 workers that are currently employed full time to 125 with contract artists. As Ali explained, the ability to scale IT in support of business needs is a key requirement: “We have to have a solid infrastructure and IT partners we can rely on because we could get a job tomorrow that would demand 20 workstations and if our pipeline is not able to grow to that immediately, we would have to turn down a job, or not deliver and neither one is an option for us.” Spin VFX views itself as one of three strong studios that are capable of excellent work, and differentiates itself from competitors though responsiveness, timeliness of delivery and ease of production management — qualities that enabled through a reliable IT foundation.
While the requirement for scale flexibility would suggest a cloud option, Spin VFX has yet to find a cloud-based solution that meets its needs from the perspective of price point or value proposition. While the company is currently involved in a pilot project with a local provider to test out the cloud case and would consider this for peak times since the commitment is short term, as Ali explained, this is a potential option for the future only. Today, the company must have a “tried and true” solution: “we don’t have the luxury of not delivering a show so we have to ensure that our infrastructure is strong and that we have reliable partners. Having infrastructure on site is our first preference because we can walk over and check that everything is working. If there is a backlog, we can see it right away,” she added. In many ways, Spin VFX’s relationship with software partners has provided the kind of flexibility needed to service fluctuations in the company’s workload. Spin VFX works with Pixar’s Renderman, Autodesk’s Maya, Side Effects’ Houdini, and MARI, Katana and NUKE from The Foundry, and has been able with many of these vendors to purchase extra, short term software licenses (including one month packages).
On site, the new Dell servers have provided Spin VFX with the computing capacity needed to meet production demands placed on infrastructure by these processor-intensive applications — some shows can generate upwards of 20 terabytes of data, and the company typically works on several projects simultaneously. According to Ali, the servers have also helped the company to generate five times the productivity from individual artists, who are now able with increased speed and processing capacity to work on several projects in parallel. For example, an effects artist can use one workstation to send a project to the server for rendering, and then move on to another workstation to initiate work on the next simulation. Increased productivity does not come from the workstation per say, but rather from the artists’ new ability to work on several shots at the same time. When combined with efficiencies the company has built into its production pipeline, Ali explained that this new work flow process means Spin VFX can accomplish “much more work than if things were done linearly.” This type of process innovation, developed with partners Dell and Island Digital, is the kind of opportunity that Ali believes can help businesses like Spin VFX manage issues around the fact that there are never enough artists or enough tech resources.
With a quarter century history in the visual effects business, Spin VFX has been witness to many changes in the tech landscape that in turn have impacted its business. According to Ali, the current video marketplace is a challenging one, but one of the ways to succeed is to make technology even more prominent: “Our competition now is global — by virtue of technology — and we have to look at efficient ways of maximizing our return. We have amazing artists and that is a staple — but the other thing we have to have is a very robust, secure, stable and efficient pipeline, which is driven by technology.” While providing the foundation for onsite visual effects creativity, for Spin VFX, technology also enables the sharing and collaboration with partners and vendors from around the world that allows the studio to stake out its place in the global marketplace.