Thanks to AMD’s partnership and technology, Fox VFX Lab achieves real-time virtual production capabilities—fundamentally changing the way movies are made
Successful virtual production—used by Fox VFX Lab to create high-quality previsualizations of films—hinges on having as few limitations as possible to the creative process. When the team needed the best in high-performance hardware for its artists, AMD suggested using BOXX APEXX workstations equipped with AMD Ryzen™ Threadripper™ as well as AMD EPYC™ servers. The BOXX workstations with Threadripper delivered significantly faster performance than other hardware—ultimately closing the gap to real-time creativity. In addition, the EPYC-powered servers proved advantageous for reducing final frame rendering.
CREATING THE 20TH CENTURY STORYBOARD
When 20th Century Fox Film needed its own in-house virtual production team, acquiring Glenn Derry’s company Technoprops to create Fox VFX Lab was the best course of action. Technoprops was responsible for the virtual production work on blockbuster movies such as James Cameron’s “Avatar” and games like “Call of Duty: WWII.” Today, with Derry as vice president of visual effects for 20th Century Fox, Fox VFX Lab continues Technoprop’s legacy, creating and executing creative content for film, TV, game, and VR productions. Currently, the team is working on “The Call of the Wild,” directed by Chris Sanders and starring Harrison Ford. Using advanced virtual production techniques, Fox VFX Lab is fundamentally changing the way movies are being made. In just two to three weeks, Derry and his team produce a previsualization of an entire movie by enabling real-time feedback—allowing studio executives to green light the project. The Fox VFX Lab team calls the process “pre-viz on steroids.” To combine previsualization with motion capture, it introduces virtual elements in the camera frame when shooting live action. This has artistic benefits, as it allows the director to interact with the environment and actors in real time. It also has functional benefits, because every detail—from cameras to lighting—can be worked out ahead of time. In effect, it produces the storyboard of the twenty-first century.
THE NEED FOR PROCESSING SPEED
In order to achieve virtual production effectively and economically, Fox VFX Lab needed processors and servers that could drive faster render times. “It’s important to get as close as possible to real time in order to leverage your creative instinct and feedback so you can make the right decisions,” says Derry. The two biggest challenges to this process were light baking and facial animation rendering. Due to the complex calculations involved, a great deal of the work had to be performed during setup.
ACCELERATING THE CREATIVE PROCESS
“Derry wanted his artists to have hardware that didn’t limit their creativity and enabled the team to work extremely quickly. “We have a very tactile, very fast flow of creative ideas, so you don’t have time to wait for renders. We’re essentially doing a live show every day,” he explains. “We were looking for the best machine we could get so the artists would never say, ‘If only my workstation were a little more this or a little more that.”
When his team started testing processors, they began with Intel® Xeon®, but the results weren’t as hoped. Enter James Knight, virtual production director at AMD, who worked as a producer with Derry on “Avatar.” With a deep understanding of what Fox VFX Lab needed and a sincere desire to enable the next generation of filmmaking, Knight and his AMD team suggested using Threadripper CPUs in customized BOXX APEXX workstations, along with two EPYC-based servers. Thanks to Threadripper’s 16 cores, the new workstations delivered lightning-fast performance when rendering. That meant that every machine was capable of working at the speed needed for real-time visualization. “We were pretty stunned to see the workstations perform 10 to 15 percent faster,” says Derry. “It was a notable performance advantage in base workloads. And that’s only gotten better over time with the next-gen Threadripper’s 32 cores, which allow us to shine in occasional workloads that depend on a high core count.” After initially employing the EPYC-powered servers for light baking, the team started to use them for extensive light art, photogrammetry and construction setup.
In the future, Derry is even planning to use them for neural network training. As a result of all these improvements, the creative process became much faster. Instead of waiting on rendering, the team gained more time and could focus entirely on creating. Everyone was delighted with the new hardware. “As an artist, it’s top-down, wind-in-your-face, artistic computing,” says Derry. “It’s exhilarating, being able to turn out high-quality work very, very quickly.”
WORKING ON “THE CALL OF THE WILD”
Fox VFX Lab’s work on “The Call of the Wild” has been greatly facilitated thanks to the new workstations and servers. Interestingly, the movie was greenlit based on a previsualization created by the team. Currently, Fox VFX Lab is working closely with director Chris Sanders, employing a simul-cam technique that superimposes some of the dog characters live into the camera’s view finder during live-action filming. The team’s ability to quickly take Sanders’ directions and relay them to on-screen visuals offers Sanders a high degree of agility in the storytelling process—something that’s needed when translating Jack London’s classic into a family-friendly movie.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE WITH AMD AND BOXX
Initially, Derry planned to add a significant number of servers. However, because Threadripper gave the artists the ability to render at their workstations, it was no longer necessary. Moreover, the workstations had a small footprint, which was beneficial on set. Fox VFX Lab is currently in the process of outfitting its 80 workstations with Threadripper processors in a combination of 16, 24, and 32 cores. But that’s not all. The team is so pleased with the AMD and BOXX hardware and how the combination makes virtual production accessible to everyone that they’ve actually recommended it to other studios. In addition, the team’s feedback has prompted AMD and BOXX to create even more powerful and innovative solutions. As a result, BOXX is implementing an overclocked version of Threadripper to increase speed and performance. And whereas APEXX 4 was a tall workstation solution, BOXX has developed a multiple rack-mounted configuration with many of the same sturdy, practical design features but equipped with next-gen Nvidia® graphics cards and a newly-developed Threadripper designed specifically for this kind of configuration.
Derry emphasizes how pleased he and his team are with both AMD and BOXX’s partnership, service, and technical support. “They really give us the white-glove treatment. Whenever we have any tech questions or ask for something, they respond immediately. It’s those little things that make all the difference.”
Link to full case study: https://www.amd.com/system/files/documents/fox-vfx-lab-amd-case-study.pdf
ABOUT FOX VFX LAB
Fox VFX Lab, the in-house virtual production team for 20th Century Fox Film, was founded in April 2017 when Fox acquired Technoprops, an industry leader in virtual production and real-time visualization that contributed to blockbusters such as “Avatar,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “The Jungle Book.” Under the guidance of Glenn Derry, founder of Technoprops and currently vice president of visual effects at Fox VFX Lab, the team’s capabilities span from creative content development and execution to cutting-edge previsualizations for film, TV, game, and VR productions.
For more information visit foxvfxlab.com.
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