The Molecule VFX Artists Stay Connected with Virtual Workstations on AWS

Boutique visual effects (VFX) shop The Molecule has carefully crafted digital content across media since 2005. Headquartered in New York and with a second location in Los Angeles, the bicoastal studio has most recently focused on work for episodic television, delivering shots for “Ballers,” “Billions” and “Happy!,” as well as feature thriller “The Report.” It’s long embraced Amazon Web Services (AWS) to render complex CG shots with cloud-based resources, so when exploring how to give its artists the flexibility to work from home, the studio looked at AWS-powered virtual workstations.

“We already built a VPC (virtual private cloud) on AWS for rendering so linking our artists to virtual workstations wasn’t a far leap. The goal was to create a secure, in-home experience that closely matched being in the studio,” said The Molecule Founder Chris Healer. “We also found that by using virtual workstations we could more easily give artists access to powerful machines equipped to handle the complex particle simulations required to create effects like smoke, fire and liquid. Rather than investing in new 96-core, 1 TB RAM machines, our artists can log into AWS, work, log off and power down.”

Historically, The Molecule purchased physical machines in batches of ten or more, requiring sizable upfront investment. Virtualizing its workstations has given the studio access to increased GPU power as their work requires it and for an hourly cost. To date, the studio has deployed various AWS virtual workstation configurations, including G4 instances, which feature NVIDIA T4 GPUs and Quadro technology, and are optimized for VFX and animation workflows. Linux-based virtual workstations are used to run Autodesk Maya, Foundry Nuke, SynthEyes, and Boris FX’s Mocha; Autodesk Shotgun production management software and custom in-house tools complete the pipeline, connecting the virtual and local pieces together across the New York and Los Angeles offices, which constantly share files. Additionally, The Molecule taps local Mac workstations when creating content in Adobe tools like After Effects. Storage is hosted on-premises in the New York studio and connected to AWS over VPN.

The Molecule Compositing Artist Jesse Speer and CG Artist Nico Del Giudice were among the first to test the studio’s virtual workstation deployment. Speer, who averages a three-hour roundtrip commute from New Jersey each day he goes into the New York office, noted, “Working from home is a massive upgrade in quality of life, and using virtual workstations is better than being in the studio in a lot of ways. Some local workstations are more desirable than others, mainly due to where they’re at in the hardware lifecycle. With virtual workstations on AWS, artists can always have their ideal specs and even go above and beyond from a creative standpoint because they can iterate more quickly and have more room to play within the budget, instead of worrying about clogging up the system.”

Del Giudice, who resides in Connecticut, added, “My big cloud illuminating moment came when we started using AWS for rendering. We have quick turnarounds working in television VFX and trying to execute massive 4K renders locally just isn’t feasible for us. With AWS, we realized our farm could be so much stronger and we could tap endless power to not only work more quickly but also create higher quality work. This applies to final renders and also to interactive rendering on virtual workstations. I find myself looking forward to taking on even the most challenging shots since I know I’ll have the resources to be successful.”

While The Molecule initially deployed virtual workstations as a perk for artists to occasionally work from home while also providing the ability to scale compute power on demand, working remotely recently became the new norm studio-wide as stay-at-home measures were implemented by governments worldwide. All artists now securely access the studio’s local network via virtual workstations, connecting their local setups to AWS using Teradici’s PC over IP (PCoIP) streaming protocol. Each morning, artists are emailed login credentials for the day, including licensing information for the digital content creation tool they’ll use. Outside of AWS, artists also tap into the company’s custom portal locally, which runs low-compute tasks like Slack and time-logging.

“The transition to remote working has been pretty seamless and our workflow has been largely unaffected,” Del Giudice shared. “I log into my virtual machine with my home internet and I’m up and running on AWS within seconds. I can easily do what’s needed in Maya, whether 3D modeling, screen sharing, rotating models, or rendering 4K image previews.”

“With virtual machines, changing workstations is instantaneous and doesn’t alter your physical setup. It may seem trivial but when you have to make ergonomic adjustments, such as swapping a keyboard, chair, or desk, it can hamper your creativity, whereas using AWS removes those limitations,” added Speer. “In some ways, remote collaboration has fueled our studio’s creativity and I’ve noticed increased input from some of our more introverted artists. That said, there’s still a lot of value in organic in-person encounters that happen at the office.”

The Molecule currently has nearly 40 users on virtual workstations with AWS, a setup that has laid the groundwork to scale with demand. They run on the US East AWS datacenter and are connected to The Molecule’s Manhattan headquarters via VPC. Healer mused, “We’ve been in the VFX industry for 15 years and, in that time, built seven office spaces across different cities, refining our setup each time. Even with key learnings, you can’t exactly replicate a local system. With AWS, we’ve built a virtualized setup that’s well-documented so that it can be recreated and deployed in any region. We change and upgrade our AMI (Amazon Machine Image) daily and implementing a change company-wide is easy. I’m familiar with other remote VFX workflows but have yet to see one that offers a level of customization as high as AWS.”

When artists return to The Molecule’s physical studios, Healer envisions using AWS virtual workstations to extend the life of on-premises hardware. He concluded, “We have a lot of previous generation computers, so being able to stream a powerful machine, like a G4 instance, on an older workstation with AWS extends their shelf life, giving us far more ROI. Having the flexibility to scale to service peak moments, and hire artists who can’t physically come into the office is also a huge value add for us.”

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