Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc: Moving toward a worldwide virtual studio model

About Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc

Sony Pictures Imageworks, the visual effects and computer animation unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment, has received Oscars for its work on Spider-Man 2 and the short film The ChubbChubbs!

Industries: Media & Entertainment
Location: Canada, United States

About Intel Corporation

Intel Corporation, a Google Cloud Technology Partner, is known for being a market leader and one of the world's best-known chip producers, but Intel does much more. Harnessing the capability of the cloud and the ubiquity of Internet of Things, Intel is disrupting industries and solving global challenges.

By augmenting its production pipeline with Google Cloud Platform based on Intel Xeon Scalable processors, Sony Pictures Imageworks juggles multiple projects with greater cost savings and less production time.

Google Cloud Results

  • Saves 30% in rendering costs compared to other cloud providers
  • Makes creative teams more efficient, which speeds approvals and production workflows
  • Keeps intellectual property highly secure while leveraging flexible cloud services

Doubling the size of its render farm easily, affordably

Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc. creates visual effects and computer-generated animations for Sony Pictures as well as for other production company clients. The company has earned its share of accolades — including Academy Awards® — in a business landscape that poses its fair share of challenges.

For example, the longer a film is in production, the costlier it becomes, so there's pressure to keep production schedules as tight as possible. When the financial stakes are sky-high for tent pole movies, there's more creative input during production from more people. Though increased collaboration ultimately can be beneficial to the finished film's quality, all the additional input and resulting edits and changes to the film can further eat into the already-tight production schedule.

In addition, blockbuster films with computer-generated visual effects and animations tend to be released largely during the summer blockbuster season and the year-end holidays. The net effect is that Sony Pictures Imageworks' production team may be working at full tilt on multiple projects for several months, followed by a slow period, which is followed by another surge of activity.

"Compared to our other cloud providers, we're saving 30 percent on our rendering costs because GCP preemptible machines and other services are less expensive and provide about double the rendering performance with Intel Xeon Scalable processors."

Steve Kowalski, VP of Systems Engineering, Sony Pictures Imageworks

"In the past, we had to expand our on-premises infrastructure to support those peak periods," explains Steve Kowalski, VP of Systems Engineering for Sony Pictures Imageworks. "We'd try to rent 10,000 or 20,000 extra computer graphics rendering machines to get us through 10 to 15 weeks a year of peak production activity. We'd need extra graphics workstations for the 150 or more artists we added during peak periods. But the companies that rent the equipment typically want much longer time commitments."

When a peak period was over, Sony Pictures Imageworks would have to take offline and return all the extra rendering machines and workstations. "The whole process was inefficient," Steve says. "It just didn't make sense financially. And it was starting to hinder us from being able to take on multiple, simultaneous projects."

To augment its hybrid infrastructure for visual effects and computer-generated animation production, Sony Pictures Imageworks turned to Google Cloud Platform (GCP), which now helps with bursts of computer graphics rendering. Sony Pictures Imageworks relies on Compute Engine for custom machine types and temporary preemptible virtual machines (VMs) to handle larger workloads; Dedicated Interconnect for direct physical connections between its on-premises network and the Google network; and Persistent Disk for high-performance, reliable block storage.

Sony Pictures Imageworks began with GCP by pilot testing the platform during production of Smurfs: The Lost Village followed by moving some final production work to GCP during the making of The Emoji Movie, both 2017 releases. Seeing strong results during these pilot tests, Sony Pictures Imageworks creative teams turned to GCP to simultaneously work on three film projects in various production stages within a span of two months, including 2018's Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation and Smallfoot.

"Given the difficulty we've had before in getting the necessary compute resources for a spike in activity, there's no way we could have successfully managed those three major projects at the same time without GCP," Steve says. "We were able to easily and affordably double the size of our render farm during that period with Compute Engine custom machine types and preemptible VMs. It worked so well that we're planning to work on four big productions simultaneously in 2019."

The migration to GCP went smoothly, as GCP became essentially an extension to the existing rendering environment. There was no need to rearchitect anything because Sony Pictures Imageworks' rendering queue managed the GCP hosts in the same way it managed the on-premises hosts, according to Steve.

"With Google Cloud Platform, we can flood a project with all the rendering resources we need to significantly speed up rendering times, which makes our artists more efficient and helps them move on to the next iteration much faster."

Steve Kowalski, VP of Systems Engineering, Sony Pictures Imageworks

Saving 30 percent in preemptible VMs and custom machine types

Sony Pictures Imageworks currently runs its visual effects and computerized animations workflows in a hybrid environment, which combines an on-premises render farm and storage as well as services from other public cloud providers along with GCP. "Compared to our other cloud providers, we're saving 30 percent on our rendering costs because GCP preemptible machines and other services are less expensive and provide about double the rendering performance with Intel Xeon Scalable processors," Steve says. "The lower costs and faster performance help us better optimize and utilize our rendering resources, which is a big help during busy periods and is especially helpful when the production schedule is tight."

Sony Pictures Imageworks is using Intel Xeon Scalable processors in Compute Engine VM instances. "The performance we get from Intel Xeon Scalable processors within Compute Engine either matches or exceeds the performance we see from our on-premises Xeon servers," Steve says. "That's impressive, considering that we're rendering on bare-metal on premises." He adds that Intel has been a collaborative partner for Sony Pictures Imageworks. "Recently, we began collaborating with Intel to use the Intel Rendering framework and optimize the rendering performance of Arnold, our rendering engine, on the Intel Xeon Scalable processors platform," he says. In addition, Sony Pictures Imageworks has collaborated with Intel to accelerate compute-intensive workloads. In the context of rendering, AVX512 is used to optimize OSL to speed up rendering, enabling the artist to create content faster.

Enhancing artists' productivity

With compressed production schedules, you can't always hire all the temporary talent needed to push a project to the finish line. As a result, it's crucial to help the team members you have become as efficient as possible. "When an artist finishes rendering an effect, they'll need a supervisor to look at it and provide feedback before that artist can move on to the next iteration," Steve says. "With Google Cloud Platform, we can flood a project with all the rendering resources we need to significantly speed up rendering times, which makes our artists more efficient and helps them move on to the next iteration much faster."

Keeping intellectual property more secure

GCP is audited quarterly to meet the specific security guidelines of Hollywood studios and to have its controls mapped to the Motion Picture Association of America's best practices for cloud providers, which helps give teams at studios like Sony Pictures Imageworks greater peace of mind.

In addition, Sony Pictures Imageworks' intellectual property is accessible only via its secure, internal-only content network. GCP Dedicated Interconnect more securely connects the content on Sony Imagework's on-premises servers and storage to GCP services such as virtual machines over a high-speed, 10GB connection.

"We can deploy virtual machines in GCP and have all the nodes we need for rendering, and then give those nodes access to all the data that lives on our on-premises storage through a highly secure high-bandwidth Dedicated Interconnect connection," Steve says. "We're able to extend our highly secure content network into the cloud to take advantage of GCP, and yet, we can keep our clients' intellectual property off the cloud, because some clients aren't fully comfortable with the cloud yet." In turn, the level of security Sony Pictures Imageworks provides is a selling point the company can leverage in attracting new clients.

"With Google Cloud Platform, we can spread our production pipeline anywhere more securely, so we can attract the world's best talent. That's a huge win for us."

Steve Kowalski, VP of Systems Engineering, Sony Pictures Imageworks

The potential for a 15 percent boost in rendering efficiency

Sony Pictures Imageworks has open-sourced the render queuing/scheduling system it developed internally and has worked with Google engineers, who have rewritten parts of it to run on GCP. The end result is OpenCue, with which Sony Pictures Imageworks plans to replace its own queuing software.

"Google has put a lot of resources into the open queuing project, and we're really excited about what they have developed," Steve says. "We'll be able to dynamically augment our on-premises infrastructure resources with GCP resources, pushing big workloads through in the most efficient way possible. Having the queuing system orchestrate rendering jobs across all available resources could save us another 15 percent in efficiencies."

Eventually, the plan is to leverage GCP machine learning capabilities to make the open-source queuing system even more beneficial. "Google is a leader in machine learning, and we want to leverage that leadership to help the queuing system predict the resource requirements for a particular job and even tell us what the projected costs of those resources will be, all in one screen," Steve says. "That could help us save money by allocating jobs to the best, most economically beneficial resources that are available."

Further, the finalized OpenCue open source queuing/scheduling software has been accepted as a project by the Academy Software Foundation. As a foundation project, other member studios will contribute improvements and additional functionalities to the software.

Moving toward a virtual studio

Like any company that's been around for a few years, Sony Pictures Imageworks has custom, in-house software designed to manage its on-premises workflow that has to be adapted before the company can fully leverage the cloud. But over time, and by working with Google, Sony Pictures Imageworks plans to move toward a virtual studio model that's based entirely in the cloud.

"A virtual studio model will allow us to quickly and efficiently scale our studio, so we can take on additional work we would have had to turn away otherwise," Steve explains. The virtual studio will also enable Sony Pictures Imageworks to bring artists and tools directly to its clients. "That's a big advantage because our ability to support clients' creative efforts to make the best possible pictures is key to building strong relationships with them. And the virtual studio makes it easier for us to support teams who travel to a set. We'll be able to leverage the global reach of Google to quickly and seamlessly connect remote teams to the tools and artists working back at the studio."

"We want to do business anywhere in the world," adds Steve. "We want to bring the best talent in the world to Sony Pictures Imageworks. Not everyone wants to relocate to our offices in Vancouver or Los Angeles. With Google Cloud Platform, we can spread our production pipeline anywhere more securely, so we can attract the world's best talent. That's a huge win for us."

About Sony Pictures Imageworks Inc

Sony Pictures Imageworks, the visual effects and computer animation unit of Sony Pictures Entertainment, has received Oscars for its work on Spider-Man 2 and the short film The ChubbChubbs!

Industries: Media & Entertainment
Location: Canada, United States

About Intel Corporation

Intel Corporation, a Google Cloud Technology Partner, is known for being a market leader and one of the world's best-known chip producers, but Intel does much more. Harnessing the capability of the cloud and the ubiquity of Internet of Things, Intel is disrupting industries and solving global challenges.