As visual effects technology advances at an incredible rate ever more avenues for creative exploration are opening up. Chief among them at the moment is the almost elusive world of virtual reality.
Much has been written on the topic and most articles come to a similar conclusion: that while there’s little or no decent content virtual reality simply won’t catch on. But there’s hope.
Boutique agencies like Analog are leading the way when it comes to working in VR. So much so that this two-floor Clerkenwell-based company won the prestigious Cannes Lion Digital Craft Grand Prix in 2017; an impressive feat for a young agency working in such a hot-topic area.
With a background as more of a traditional VFX studio the team at Analog were surprised by their recognition at Cannes. “We weren’t expecting to win the grand prix,” says Analog’s co-founder Mike Merron. “In fact, we weren’t really expecting to win anything.” Their winning project was Bjork’s now iconic Not Get VR experience. Featuring a performance-capture digital recreation of Bjork herself this trippy immersive environment was Analog’s breakthrough in virtual reality.
Above: Inside Bjork's Not Get VR experience
Already well known from their VFX work for the likes of Audi, Film 4, and Ubisoft, Analog became well established very quickly. As with many production houses they set up a VR team as something of an experiment - more akin to R&D than a fee generator. But they soon realised that it would form a vital component of the business’s future.
Working across multidisciplinary teams can, however, bring complications. Separated by a floor the VR and Flame artists - who are vital to the company’s core offering - were left feeling disconnected from the producers above them.
“We need to remember that we’re one team. Sometimes it’s easy to forget when you’re even just a floor away but our technical setup has helped solve that problem. Escape has been absolutely vital to our work,” Mike enthuses. “Without the service we get [from Escape] we’d find it much harder to work like we do.”
Above: Ubisoft's Steep
Analog Studio has been a client of Escape Technology since 2008 . “When you work with a company like Analog you get to see the best parts of innovation in the industry,” comments Nick Mathews, Business Development Director at Escape Technology. “We’ve seen them grow and develop into this award-winning creative team.”
Since moving to their new offices in Clerkenwell Escape Technology’s team of engineers and consultants has been on-hand with expert advice and assistance. Lee Danskin, Escape’s CTO, was instrumental in the setup of Analog’s east-London studio, recommending fundamental changes in the fit-out to ensure maximum networking efficiency. “It made most sense for them to move the location of the machine room,” Lee remembers of the installation. “We reduced latency, spent less on cabling, and made sure that the guys got the most out of their storage system.”
That storage is a 115TB PixStor from Pixit Media. Comprising 96TB of SATA bulk storage and 19TB of SAS for real-time 4K playback, the PixStor is connected to Analog’s network via six 1GB cables and directly to their Flame suite via a 40GB Mellanox fibre.
Alongside the more specialised Flame and Resolve systems are 25 artist workstations and 68-node Supermicro Quattro CPU render-farm. The workstations are also pooled into additional render capacity when needed. And everything is backed up to a Boston Igloo nearline storage system. This all gives Analog the ability to have their Flame ops working with 4K playback while other artists are using the central storage simultaneously.
To ensure a certain peace-of-mind Analog also benefit from a Silver Support Contract from Escape. Part of a series of short-to-medium term retainers, the Silver package offers a guaranteed response time and on-site support for business-critical matters, giving the team the confidence they need to push their hardware as far as it can go.
Escape Technology’s consultancy and pipeline development services made sure that Analog’s team would get the maximum benefits from their investments in hardware and software. Analog’s mature pipeline enables them to work with uncompressed 4K footage in their Flame suite while delivering award-winning VFX and virtual reality experiences from all corners of the studio. Though spread across two floors all artists share the same pool of storage, giving them the ability to remain fully integrated while working on individual and specific projects.
And with a Cannes grand prix under their belt they’ve got the technical and creative capability to keep pushing for ever greater experiences.