Cloud Computing Is Driving A Digital Arts Renaissance

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While cloud computing may be nothing more than pie in the sky to some, a smaller creative agency in Berkeley, CA, believes it is driving a real renaissance in the digital arts. John McNeil Studio recently began using on-demand datacenter processing power to help it make computer-generated animations. The agency discovered that it could create high-quality animations in less time at a reasonable price if it offloaded the rendering process to a cloud computing service.

“I could never compete or be able to deliver something at the level of a Pixar or a Disney, given what I have at my disposal inside the walls of the studio,” said John McNeil, the chief creative officer and founder of the digital arts and communication company.

“But if I factor in the cloud, all of a sudden I can go there,” he said. “And then the limitations of whether or not I can deliver something great will be on my own talent and the talent of the people that are part of the studio.”

(John McNeil, left). In September, John McNeil Studio was asked to create an immersive, 3-D animation using origami art to illustrate how a laptop unleashes human creativity. J. Watson, co-director of image and motion at McNeil, knew that the studio’s eight MacBook Pros wouldn’t allow it to meet the 2-month deadline.

“To make things move like paper, to model characters in 3-D that look like they could’ve been made from paper and then have the whole thing come together in a way that’s natural and tells a story is a big challenge,” said Watson. “And it required lots of computer-crunching power to render graphic images into motion.”

The need for compute horsepower led Watson and co-director Brandon Kuchta to try Amazon’s EC2, or Elastic Compute Cloud. The Amazon service allowed the McNeil team to access the processing power of hundreds of computers to simultaneously render several phases of the animation project and dial up or down the amount of processing power and storage space used for each phase.

“With Amazon, it’s pay as you go, so we can fire up 300 machines at once,” said Kuchta. “If we needed them just for a few hours, that’s all we would pay for and then we would spin them down until we needed them again.”

In contrast, the upfront cost of building an in-house render farm can seem astronomical.

“With just eight machines, you could be looking at $50,000,” said Kuchta. With only four big projects a year, he said that kind of investment might not be fully utilized.

“The cloud helped us finish in a timely manner,” said Watson. “We had 9,000 hours of rendering that had to take place. On one machine, that takes a year and yet we had a week to do the rendering phase of this particular project. If we were to try and render this project on our internal render farm, we’re talking more like 6 weeks to render everything.”

“We now realize that we have a big behemoth behind us that can render just about anything we throw at it,” said Watson. “We don’t have to lower quality or spend so much time fine tuning how long something is going to render; we actually can just get it going and move on to the next scene.”

From Big to Tiny Screens and in Between

“We’re seeing more and more artistic expressions that are borne out of the technology,” said McNeil. “There’s a much closer relationship between how you’re creating the art at the onset and how it’s going to be deployed digitally as an interactive program.”

Rebecca Lieb, a digital advertising and media analyst at Altimeter, isn’t seeing a rise in demand for high-production animations by advertisers.

“End users don’t have the latest browser or hardware required to play cutting-edge experiences,” she said. But she says that Immersive Lab’sinteractive retail billboard, Intel’s Museum of Me and even Burger King’s Subservient Chicken are just a few examples of companies creating engaging digital experiences, which are often designed for TV or the Internet, and sometimes both.

Hype or Game Changer

According to the Cisco Cloud Index, there will be 12 times more cloud computing traffic processed inside datacenters by 2015 compared with the amount of traffic in 2010. Yet Jon Peddie, a technology analyst and president of JPR research, doesn’t see cloud services as a major disruptor to the digital arts industry. Rather, he says it has more to do with Moore’s Law, which generally states that computing performance continues to increase over time while the cost drops.

“Using servers on a demand basis is certainly more economical than having your own rendering farm and the incumbent support and overhead associated with it,” Peddie said. “But there is no free lunch,” he warned. “All potentially faster and cheaper rendering does is move the problem to another part of the pipeline.”

Peddie points to Blinn’s Law, which states that as technology advances, rendering time remains constant because rather than using improvements in hardware to save time, artists tend to employ it to render more complex graphics. The axiom is named for Jim Blinn, a computer scientist who created animations for NASA’s Voyager project and worked on the Carl Sagan “Cosmos” documentaries.

McNeil says that the business model for his studio simply would not work without affordable technologies like cloud clouding, and increasingly sophisticated consumer-level software and hardware available today.

“This allows me to have designers working next to motion graphics people, working next to people doing web development, working next to people finishing video, working next to people editing video, working next to people writing scripts,” McNeil said. “And that creates a really interesting opportunity for us.”