When Untold Studios launched the first completely cloud-based creative studio it was ahead of its time in ways that even its founders could not have imagined.
When the global pandemic broke in early 2020, sending production into virtual shutdown and post producers scampering to set up remote workarounds, for Untold it was business as usual.
“We were already working remotely in our Studio due to the fact that all our artists could connect to virtual machines from any desktop,” explains Sam Reid, Head of Technology, Untold Studios. “The way we work has changed very little since the crisis, albeit we maintain social distancing measures and connect from home.”
Untold is a full creative studio based in London performing everything from origination to production and post. It works with an internationally based creative community of writers, graphic designers, directors and animators.
The studio’s design from inception meant that highly resource-intensive cloud computing workflows (virtual workstations, VFX rendering, transcoding, processing) are streamed securely from AWS over Sohonet FastLane, a private uncontended network which suffers no packet contention or loss.
“There’s been no change to workflows and our productivity has not dropped at all,” says Reid. “The only difference now is that artists are using their own internet connectivity for the first mile to the Studio. We created a VPN connection from artist homes to the Studio and from there the media travels as before over FastLane to AWS.”
When Covid-19 struck, Untold was working with AWS and Autodesk to migrate its final finishing review machines to the cloud. Without a hitch in workflow, the Studio switched this crucial part of the process to remote cloud workflows using Sohonet’s real-time, remote review tool, ClearView Flex.
“There are two review workflows we drive from the Flame—regular reviews between clients and creatives where we discuss VFX shots in progress—and the final review for the client to sign off on the project,” Reid explains. “For final review the picture has to be at the highest resolution and the highest possible quality.
Both of these are now being facilitated remotely by ClearView Flex.
“The critical thing is that you want everyone on the session to be looking at the same thing at the same time. The pictures must be in sync so when the artist operating in Flame pauses the video then that same frame is displayed to the viewer. It’s a key element so that everyone can be confident they are discussing the exact same thing. ClearView Flex delivers this.”
Untold Studios installed a Flexbox for each of its four Flame machines. The Flexbox connects to the video source via HDMI or HD-SDI enabling all parties to participate, viewing frame and colour-accurate footage, accompanied by stereo sound, in real-time.
“We worked on a job which required lots of people to view the timeline from the Flame,” Reid explains. “We are able to connect all four CVF boxes to allow 20 people including the client to view the same stream at the same time.”
The security of assets was arguably the main brake on widespread adoption of cloud production and post operations prior to lockdown. Untold Studios, though, was set up from day one with studio-grade security.
“It is another aspect of our workflow that we haven’t had to firefight overnight,” says Reid. “We had MPAA guidelines already in place. We rely on Sohonet to provide triple ‘A’ security on connections to our office. When our artists connect over VPN from their machines at home to get onto our network there are airtight protocols including multifactor identification.”
He continues, “Our studio is no longer constrained by the physical location of our data, so we don’t have to have artists in the office working on content – they can be anywhere in the world. That was as true before the pandemic as it is now.”
There are also positive lessons to draw from the crisis as production gradually returns to normal.
“We know that remote working can be as productive if not more productive than working in an office with all the distractions that can entail,” Reid says. “The Studio’s founders have said that they want all of us to let them know what worked best for them under lockdown and to maintain those workflows where it makes sense.
“Part of the original vision for setting up Untold was to give people the flexibility to work wherever they want. There is no reason why any creative community should be less productive because they’re not physically in a studio. Those days are long gone.”
As you can imagine, none of us know how long we will be in “full” WFH mode or when we will start to transition to a mode where “critical” personnel go to the office and others are still WFH. Our developers are working around the clock to increase the depth of colour quality (10-bit), chroma (4:2:2) and colour space (Rec 2020 and HDR) to provide an acceptable “critical review” alternative that can be delivered via high capacity home internet speeds. We are also working on 5.1 audio, to be delivered to the Apple TV, so that you can perform full surround sound audio reviews at home. Stay tuned — we are expecting to deliver this kind of capability on behalf of our industry before summer begins in the northern hemisphere.