Whether it’s thrilling movie fans with the latest VFX techniques or blowing gamers’ minds with immersive ultra-real graphics, studios at the cutting-edge of entertainment must stay on the front foot to meet the demands of an industry that’s constantly hungry for more.
And as the technology we use to consume that entertainment continues to improve exponentially, every new experience in a series must be a marked improvement on its predecessor – putting intense pressure on studios to deliver.
“Studios are being required to deliver a larger volume of higher fidelity content than ever before, but they’re not being given more time to do it,” confirms Robert Hoffmann, Senior Worldwide Industry Manager for Media & Entertainment at Lenovo. “Budgets aren’t scaling either. There’s a chasm between client expectations, and the resources to meet them.”
Creativity without compromise
Headquartered in London, Moving Picture Company (MPC) has studios in LA, New York and six more cities around the world. MPC’s VFX work for movies such as 1917, The Jungle Book, Life of Pi and the Harry Potter series has won a string of awards, including three Oscars and three BAFTAs – so the bar is high.
“As far back as I can remember there has been an expectation of a great product in less time and for less money,” says Jonathan Davies, Managing Director of MPC’s London and Amsterdam studios. “We’ve always had to adapt to this: it’s the main driver of our business. Our ethos is to avoid brute force and push our ideas and technology to solve the issues.”
There’s a similar ethos at Framestore, which operates out of London, Chicago, New York, LA, Montreal, Mumbai and Beijing. Framestore’s Oscar and BAFTA-winning VFX has graced movies such as The Golden Compass, Gravity and Blade Runner 2049, and its ads have picked up awards at Cannes, the Clios and D&AD.
“From the beginning, Framestore has found creative solutions to briefs that on the surface seem impossible,” reflects Lottie Cooper, Managing Director of Advertising, TV and Immersive. “Collaborating as early as possible in the creative process is the best way to find cost-effective and timely solutions that don’t compromise on the quality of final images.”
Preparing for the 8K revolution
For Hoffmann, the next big challenge for the industry is the forthcoming ‘Resolution Wars’. “We’ve had the progression from SD to HD, and we’re now in the 4K realm,” he says. “Now, people are already looking toward 8K.”
“It’s an awesome time and a terrifying time,” he continues. “4K is roughly four times the resolution of Full HD content. If studios develop content for the previous format, it can look pretty bad. It’ll be very noticeable that the complexity of the content does not match the capability of the device it is being viewed on.”
When they first came out, 4K TVs were $10,000. Now you can get one for less than $1,000. 8K is on its way: it’s going to happen whether we like it or not
Resolution is a growing concern in ads too – the majority of vehicles in car commercials are digitally rendered, for instance, which makes the fidelity critical for consumers watching on higher-resolution screens. “Imagine if you walked down the street and saw a car at a quarter of the fidelity that it should be,” says Hoffmann. “It would definitely feel odd.”
Of course, with quadruple the resolution comes quadruple the complexity of work. “It’s an additional stress not just on the software but the workstation,” Hoffmann points out. “You may need four times the computing capabilities, or to move four times more pixels.”
With the tech reducing in price so rapidly, Hoffmann believes studios may need to be ready sooner than anticipated. “When they first came out, 4K TVs were $10,000. Now you can get one for less than $1,000,” he says. “8K is on its way: it’s going to happen whether we like it or not. And consumers will expect content in its native resolution.”
Staying at the cutting-edge
For Framestore’s Cooper, it’s critical to stay abreast of the latest developments to be competitive at the forefront of the industry. “All of our divisions benefit hugely from technical advances being made across the business,” she says.
“We’ve already seen a move towards more In-Camera VFX (ICVFX), such as using LED screens or virtual production techniques,” adds Cooper. “We are working to help our clients understand the different workflows that ICVFX can present.”
Studios must choose a workstation today while not completely knowing what it needs to do in three to five years
“Our clients rate us on our output and assume that we use the latest technology to get there,” agrees MPC’s Davies. “Artificial intelligence is the biggest leap that is affecting all of us: it will make us more efficient and sustainable.”
Manufacturers must stay nimble to support such explorations, says Hoffmann. As well as consulting top studios themselves, Lenovo collaborates closely with the organisations behind the ‘building blocks’ of tech – AMD, Intel, NVIDIA – as well as software providers such as Autodesk, AVID, Blackmagic Design, Foundry, EPIC, Adobe and more, to better understand and develop for future industry requirements.
“We’re not afraid to bring new technology to market, because the industry expects us to,” he explains. A recent example was AMD’s innovative Threadripper Pro technology, which Lenovo was the first to integrate into its ThinkStation P620 workstations.
“We must identify the challenges of the future and be proactive about it, eliminating problems before they become problems,” says Hoffmann. “Studios must choose a workstation today while not completely knowing what it needs to do in three to five years.”
Sourcing the right tools for the job
While the onus is on studios to find their ideal solution, Hoffmann points out that creative technologists have a responsibility to produce ever-more reliable and powerful solutions to help them rise to the challenge and continue to produce world-class creative work.
“Timelines are tight, and often immovable,” he says. “Studios can’t afford for a single artist to be sitting idle. If their workstation is not up and running, there’s a ripple effect. Everyone downstream is affected. One artist down for a day can actually add weeks to the production: the old adage of time is money; no truer words were ever spoken.”
From the studio’s point of view, providing the infrastructure that artists need to bring their vision to life will ultimately help attract and retain the very best global talent too – and make sure they’re as efficient as possible when they get there. “Every artist wants to work in a studio with the latest, greatest toys,” he adds.
Top image: Framestore delivered almost 500 VFX shots for The Midnight Sky, including CG facial replacements, spacecraft and sci-fi environments
Read more about Lenovo workstations at techtoday.lenovo.com/workstations/m&e