GridMarkets checks in with Youxi Woo, the Visual Effects Supervisor of the 2018 Official Selection of Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca Film Festivals, "Dinner Party." Youxi managed the post production phase of this project with a distributed team using GridMarkets’ virtual studio solution - to provide the Houdini, Cinema 4D, Nuke and Redshift rendering services.
Read on for insights into his background as a VFX supervisor and his work on productions like "Star Trek Beyond" and "How To Train Your Dragon." He goes behind-the-scenes of the "Dinner Party" production to describe why he took the virtual approach, the resulting challenges that he faced and the valuable lessons that he learned.
This will be a helpful read for anyone who is considering sticking a toe in the virtual vfx production waters.
GRIDMARKETS: Hi Youxi, Thanks for meeting with us today. Tell our viewers a bit about your work in entertainment.
YOUXI: I’ve been in the industry over 15 years and have been blessed to work on all sorts of complex but fun projects including features like “Star Trek Beyond” and “How To Train Your Dragon”, games such as MechCommander, on-location events, interactive TV shows and VR-based projects.
GRIDMARKETS: Do you have a favorite media type, between live action vfx, animation, games or any of the others?
YOUXI: I think it would be hard to compare them all because I served in a different capacity for many of them. Every new content type has really unique challenges - which I’ve enjoyed diving into. Out of the movies though, my favorite one to watch was “How To Train Your Dragon”.
"Honestly we wouldn’t have been able to pull off the project without the support and technology provided by GridMarkets. We had a ridiculously tight time line, without enough prep time to actually build out a reasonable render schedule, and so we had to send final work as soon as it was done or we would never have made it to the finish line. GridMarkets helped push all that through, expanding our total machines from 30 to 100 instantly and made themselves available to help tech and troubleshoot when things needed to be adjusted. In this world, nothing ever goes smoothly, but that’s why you need a flexible team that can pivot and problem solve on the fly."
Sam Gezari - Director of Photography
GRIDMARKETS: Which “How To Train Your Dragon” did you work on?
YOUXI: All 3 actually! So I guess it’s not fair to say the first was my favorite yet - we’ll have to wait for the 3rd one to come out to properly compare!
GRIDMARKETS: You produced the Sundance film “Dinner Party” - is that right?
YOUXI: I was the Visual FX Supervisor for Dinner Party. I had the opportunity to collaborate with extremely talented folks from various studios including Telexist, Skybound, Ryot and Little Minnow Productions. One of the fantastic things about the team was that it was a blend of talents from various studios: the Director, Angel, from Ryot, the Writers Charlotte and Laura, DP and Producer - Sam and Erik from Telexist, and Art Director, Jessica, from Little Minnow. Having creative ideas from so many backgrounds lent itself well to this type of storytelling.
"Being able to send off huge simulations & have the resulting data in place for someone else across the world to light and render, was, exceptional."
Youxi Woo - Visual FX Supervisor
GRIDMARKETS: We hear that that "Dinner Party" played well at Sundance!
YOUXI: It’s playing great! We received very good reactions and had lively discussion on the street. After Sundance it played at South By Southwest and is currently on its way to Tribeca.
GRIDMARKETS: What is the story line and what is special about Dinner Party?
YOUXI: Dinner Party is set as a reimagining of the first Alien Abduction experience that was widely publicized in 1960’s America. This is the story that created that image of bright alien lights behind your car, down a lonesome road.
The substance of this story, and what makes it topical in today’s America, is that the characters abducted were a biracial couple - Betty, a white female, and Barney, a black male - living during the height of the civil rights movement. We wanted to remake this story in a way that permitted our audience to perceive how the same event could be received so differently by these two characters, in such a polarized world. We wanted viewers to experience the story from a perspective and from an environment that wasn’t necessarily their own.
GRIDMARKETS: It is fascinating that the film was created using a virtual team of artists and cloud rendering. I’m sure our audience will be interested in hearing about the challenges that you faced and how you overcame them.
YOUXI: Right, we worked with artists spread across more than 6 countries since we wanted to pull top talent from across the world. Rather than limit ourselves to those that were local, we needed to allow for flexible locations. Some artists were working from studios while others were working from home.
Having worked on a fair amount of projects with off-site collaboration, we knew what it took to connect the pieces. But at larger studios like DreamWorks and Bad Robot, using remote teams also meant having large budgets, vast engineering resources and relatively robust and reliable communication infrastructures for coordinating among the studios. With Dinner Party, one of the biggest challenges was to be able to scale that process. Like you said, setting up a “virtual studio”.
There are definitely a lot of solutions out there and they all have different capabilities. Some provide a fuller cg pipeline that tend to have a more rigid workflow or at least a healthy set of requirements to follow. Some are purely transactional render farms, where it has a more singular purpose - you send all your data up, and you get back images. But these didn’t facilitate the artistic collaboration and sharing that we needed.
Also, our constrained schedule and budget necessitated onboarding artists quickly for arbitrary periods of time. We needed new additions to the team, regardless of where they may be located, to become quickly comfortable and effective with our workflow without the benefit of dedicated “tech support”. In short, we needed a pipeline that was simple enough for anyone to ramp up on, but robust enough to handle all our application integration and data needs. Easy enough, right?
We opted for GridMarkets’ virtual studio platform. We were using Houdini, Cinema 4D, Redshift, Arnold and Nuke - all of which GridMarkets supports. We also needed our data to be integrated - this was key. Like any studio environment, what we modeled and animated and simulated needed to be available to what we rendered and what we composited. Everyone from all across those 6 countries had to be working on the same page, at the same time. I also needed to be able to review all the imagery and to get my hands in there and modify anything and everything as needed.
GRIDMARKETS: What made GridMarkets stand out as a solution for you?
YOUXI: One feature that I enjoyed was that artists could shoot movies in the cloud. So instead of having the artists download all the images, then transcoding or linking them to a reviews application like Shotgun, I asked them to setup their render dependency graphs to transcode a movie out of the rendered images. After the images finished, I could just grab that one compressed movie file to review. With the amount of AOV’s we ended up asking for, it was a blessing to not have to transfer that every time. I think GridMarkets might even be able to play back that movie while it’s still up in the cloud. I didn’t try, but I think they have some Dropbox integration, so I suspect you could at least watch mp4’s from your Dropbox app - maybe do a cell phone approval. Heeh, no I didn’t do any mobile approvals.
Probably my favorite part of the GridMarkets pipeline was their Houdini offering. Being able to send off huge simulations and have the resulting data in place for someone else across the world to light and render, was exceptional. If we instead had to consistently transfer TB’s of sim data from artist to artist to render nodes - that would have been prohibitive. Then to be able to the render 60 to 100 frames in parallel was a lifesaver - particularly as we neared the deadline. It was like running jobs at the big studios.
The support interaction with GridMarkets was really special. We contacted them ahead of time to coordinate our crunch periods - which we slipped, like any normal productions - but they worked with us on these schedule changes and their designated points of contact stayed with us to the end. It was like having a dedicated TD to our production. Pretty convenient.
GRIDMARKETS: What advice do you have for our viewers - who may be considering producing or joining a virtual project like Dinner Party?
YOUXI: I wish I could say you could do it with a push of a button. But the reality is that having a collaborative, remote workflow is a commitment. You’re better off making that decision up front, to reap the rewards more fully. What I mean by that is, that data transfer and sync is one of the main elements you really need to keep on top of. If your geometry isn’t physically where you’re rendering or your image layers aren’t where you’re compositing, then that’s a time consuming transfer for each iteration! If you run your applications remotely, like a VPN-type solution, that will have a big dependency on bandwidth and the quality of view and work can suffer.
Artistically, it was essential to have a very well defined artistic direction - more so than working on site because you don’t have as much access to do “walk arounds” or the ability to be as involved with interactive sessions. I was lucky to have an extremely talented Art Director and Vis Dev artist - Jessica and Fernando - who could deliver very finished style guides and color and emotion scripts. This allowed the artists to have less contact but still stay on course. It was even easier for the producers, as they could see more clearly where in the scripts the artists were, and adjust bids and schedules based that. To speed up production, we were able to integrate the art team’s workflow into the virtual pipeline as well - they were able to mark key frames to be automatically downloaded. So right when an artist’s renders would finish, both the art director and the artist would receive it at the same time, and she would be able to return draw-overs without waiting for dailies. This was great for the comp team too - Jeff, our compositing lead set up their systems to just pull down key frames while comping sequences directly in the cloud.
I guess it goes without saying that you have to have a lot of trust amongst your team.
GRIDMARKETS: Do you see this type of virtual studio progressing in the future?
YOUXI: Without a doubt. We’re already there actually - big studios and small ones. It will continue to be refined, with more and better solutions coming out. The Foundry is launching its Elara solution, along with a lot of others. Just like software applications are switching over to subscription pricing, it flows towards the same model. I guess the Millenniums call it the “gig economy” right? People used to look for where they want to work. Now they look for when.
GRIDMARKETS: Thank you Youxi!
Executive Producer . . . . . . . .
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Director of Photography . . . .
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Visual FX Supervisor. . . . . . . .
Managed Services . . . . . . . . .
Simulating. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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Angel Manuel Soto
GridMarkets Production Details:
16,000 render hours
Houdini (sim & rendering), Nuke, Cinema 4D
Redshift, Arnold, Mantra
100 32-VCPU machines and 60 2xTesla P100 machines