This month we talk to Alexis Haggar, Visual Effects Supervisor at award-winning independent visual effects studio, Lexhag VFX, about how they recently began working with Arch Platform Technologies; the scalable, pay-as-you-go cloud-based system for content creation.
Lexhag is renowned for its work for high-end television dramas in the UK film and TV industry, supplying the VFX for BBC’s Poldark and supervised and completed 150+ shots for Netflix’s The Innocents. What have you seen in recent times that you think will be a game changer for the VFX industry?
High performance graphics cards and game engine technology are starting to make real-time filmmaking a viable alternative to traditional VFX. We’ve been using a range of real-time tools to design environments and other elements for several years and we’re developing pipelines to deliver these final images in-camera in a virtual production environment. It’s inspiring to be part of this evolution of the industry.
Which projects are you most proud to have been involved in?
The project I’m most proud to have been involved in was a cinematic installation piece by the artist Isaac Julien. The work is titled Stones against Diamonds and was inspired by a letter written by the architect Lina Bo Bardi. What made this project special was the true adventure we all went on to accomplish the images. The piece was shot in various stunning locations in Iceland, including an ice cave where much of our visual effects work took place.
The core of our work was to relocate a 5M³ wooden staircase, originally designed by Lina Bo Bardi, now found in a museum in Brazil, to a remote Ice Cave. We used a mixture of practical & digital effects. This included installing a scaled, partial build of the spiral staircase into the cave and extending it with VFX.
Back in London, we filmed Vanessa (the star of the piece) on a rigged version of the staircase. Built to scale from the original plans on a very high stage, we were able to create the full height of the stairs. Vanessa walked all the way to the top. This element was composited onto the digital staircase, creating the illusion that the structure existed in the cave.
How did you hear about and get involved with Arch?
I was first introduced to Arch by Andrew Prendergast. Andy and I go way back, meeting first at Film School. Andy was producing a post-grad film with vampires and zombies. Naturally I wanted to be a part of it, so befriended him to see if I could play a part in the creation of the SFX. Andy and I remained good friends and have worked together on many projects since, sharing the same passion for filmmaking and innovative storytelling.
Can you describe the project which you first used Arch for? Was it a good experience for your company?
We first used Arch during lockdown for a pilot trailer. The entire production was made with small teams of people that were never in the same room. The shoot was remotely supervised and shot over an IP system. The VFX production was created with Arch workstations, storage and render. We generated full CGI scenes and augmented live-action shots with LED displays, enabling a small set to appear bigger. We also achieved some more traditional shots, shooting elements and compositing them onto CGI backgrounds.
It was a great experience; simple to deploy and easy for our artists to use. During a global pandemic, it was an obvious choice. Groups working in remote locations are the future of filmmaking. We had artists all over the UK working on the shots; Arch enabled us to work on them efficiently and allowed us to scale quickly, as and when we needed to.
How does the workflow differ using Arch as a remote, cloud based platform, as opposed to a traditional ‘on prem’ studio facility?
The most significant difference between ‘on-prem’ and cloud, is you pay for what you use when you use it. The film industry is feast or famine, and it’s tough to predict when either state will prevail.
Traditional ‘on-prem’ setups are designed to accommodate the technology of the day and for the projects in hand. For example, when we first started, we built our studio to deliver HD images, even though the industry was still transitioning from SD. This gave us some room to grow until the technology was fully saturated. In today’s cloud environments the virtual workspace can be spun up to deliver the specification of the show. Why pay for 4K infrastructure when you’re only delivering 2K? Not all of our projects are the same specification, so we can ramp up and down depending on the need.
From a seat capacity point of view, the virtualized studio is now only bound to how many people you can employ. Most importantly, this applies to the studios capacity to render. When it comes to crunch time and traditionally every machine you can lay your hands on is used for render, using a virtualized set-up means just more render nodes are deployed and trashed once they’re finished. It’s a perfect world for industries that need to do a lot of very heavy lifting for a short amount of time.
The COVID pandemic which began to affect the industry in March, 2020 has affected the whole industry. As a timely solution to working remotely how has Arch increased your productivity?
Arch has increased our productivity enormously. We’ve been able to centralise our data and have remote artists working from their homes anywhere in the world with little more than an internet connection and a thin client. It’s more secure than previous methods. Original data doesn’t leave the “building” and artists are only manipulating streamed encrypted pixels. It’s boosted our productivity because it’s taken out all of the hard work and costly system admin tasks that are needed to run a post facility. It’s transforming our workflows, never will we be beaten by a Soho power surge or overheating machine room again.
Can you describe the infrastructure, i.e. what tech or kit or equipment is required to use Arch’s cloud based platform?
We deployed several workstations, some Linux, some windows with shared storage and some spot render. Users connect to their remote workstations with either a thin client or a software client. Keyboards, mice and Wacom’s run in the same way as if the machine was under your desk. We use Shotgun for client reviews and finals are downloaded for review on a compliant screen.
How does the platform integrate with AWS? Is there any learning curve to working in this way?
Using AWS out of the box is really the same as setting up a physical studio, albeit with no actual hardware. There is a high degree of knowledge needed, not just from a standard Sys Admin point of view; from an AWS perspective, too.
The Arch system removes this need and simplifies the front end, to the point where our non-technical production staff can administer studio hardware and software. It’s very clear and easy to use. We had a pool of machines that individual users could start, stop and use as if the machine was under their desk. It’s secure and straightforward, Arch mitigates any fuss and complexity that one might get from cloud computing.
Arch presents a very secure solution to producing VFX for any client. How does it differ from using other methods such as Dropbox, G-Drive and any other solution which companies have been using to share work remotely.
All of these other shared methods rely on moving original data from one machine to another. It’s very ineffective from a time point of view; having to upload and download GB’s of data for each artist to use. It’s also very insecure; data is essentially leaving your controlled domain.
With the Arch system, data is centralised in the same way it might be ‘on prem’, and your artists connect to that system and never move data from one location to another. It enables good organisation, there is no duplication of data; it maintains control of your projects.
Most importantly, it does not change the way artists used to working. The software tools and environments are the same. The workflows are not changed; they are enhanced.
Allowing for the high costs of maintaining a studio and the hardware that goes with it in the city, do you think that the industry will recognise that a secure VFX platform like Arch which allows companies to work remotely will be the future for the VFX industry?
Yes. COVID has catalysed the move towards remote working, but some in the industry have been quicker to recognise this. Change is always a challenge, but we welcome change, and we’re problem-solvers by nature. Reacting to these changes is no different from reacting to problems on-set: things often don’t go to plan, but you still need to get the shot. You work through it and find a safe solution, that’s what filmmaking is all about. Responding to COVID is no different; we’ve been forced to adapt to survive, to ‘get that shot’ and, coincidence or not, the technology and tools provided by Arch enable us to adapt now. If the technology is right and managed well, it gives creative control to the artists, and if you have a good team that you trust, the results will be better than with the old fashioned tin we used to put under our desks.
How do you see the VFX industry changing in the next few years? Do you have any particular ideas or strategies which you will implement to stay at the front of what’s going on in the industry?
As with every industry, COVID-19 is playing a big part in our changing industry. From remote work to virtualising on-set scenes, VFX is becoming a more crucial part of filmmaking. When it’s difficult to gather lots of people safely, broadcasters and studios will look towards the image-makers of the post-production world to make more of their content. We regard ourselves as filmmakers, not technicians, so this prospect of change is ideal for us. The VFX industry holds many keys to future content creation and, as technology advances, it enables us as content creators to make believable content in innovative ways. We are already working with scriptwriters, starting to realise our own stories and ideas. As time goes on and the industry calls for more content, a content making strategy will come into its own.
Thank you for your time Alexis!
Find out more about Lexhag VFX at: lexhag.co.uk/
Find out more about Arch Platform Technologies at: archpt.io/