WAM!NET at SIGGRAPH 2000

Working on a production that is taking place on three different continents? Need to see that footage today? Need more rendering horsepower to boot? Then you need to meet WAM!NET, a real production service solution. Stephanie Argy explains.

As visitors to SIGGRAPH 1999 may have learned, WAM!NET offers a way for companies that create digital content to store, share, transmit and render their projects. "We try and remove a lot of the headaches of putting together a computing system," said Anne Wagner, the company's manager of marketing programs. "WAM!NET takes on the burden of putting together the infrastructure."

Now networking... © WAM!NET

Founded in 1995, WAM!NET began as a network enabling media-related businesses to collaborate online. Today, the company has approximately 6,800 users who connect to the service via the Internet -- usually T1 or ISDN lines -- and another 1,900 direct users who connect via "purple boxes" provided by the company. The purple-box service provides a server, a router and a communications box that connects the company directly to the WAM!NET network.

WAM!NET has clients ranging from newspaper publishers to pre-press firms to 12 of the 20 largest retailers in the United States, but the company is also building a strong presence in the entertainment industry, especially in the visual effects and post-production communities.

Among the company's early entertainment industry clients were the Mill and Mill Film in London. "About two years ago, we were approached by someone we knew in a previous life who had just started working at WAM!NET," recalled Roy Trosh, head of technology at the Mill. The Mill and Mill Film were offered a chance to beta-test a direct WAM!NET connection. "I guess it was quite successful, because we didn't give it back," Trosh said.

Trosh explained that the service is used extensively by both the Mill, which does post-production work on commercials, and its sister company, Mill Film, which specializes in effects for feature films. "About 20% of the work we do at the Mill is for U.S. agencies," Trosh said. "We use it for that, for our commercials."

On the feature side, he said, the arrival of the WAM!NET connection coincided with a number of projects on which the directors wanted to stay in close contact with the facility as they worked.

WAM!NET worked with Mill Film on Gladiator.

On the movie Gladiator, for example, director Ridley Scott shot at locations ranging from Malta to Morocco, then went to Los Angeles to edit the movie. By using WAM!NET, he was able to stay in touch with the London-based visual effects team throughout the process. "It just stops directors having to fly around the world to see viewings," Trosh said. "Everybody's used to double-clicking on their PCs and seeing a Quicktime movie." He said that working via a network also accelerates the post-production process, eliminating the need to strike a tape, mail it to a director on the other side of the world, then wait for the reaction. With WAM!NET, feedback is almost instantaneous -- or, as Trosh said, "It eliminates that five-day turnaround."

Trosh emphasized that one of the biggest changes in WAM!NET since its early days has been the improvement of a client's ability to follow the progress of a transmission. "WAM!NET enables a user to send a data file, go to the Web site and see where that package is," Trosh said. "Since the information is accessed through WAM!NET's Web site, the customer can track the package from any computer, logging on from home to see if the file has actually been delivered."

While WAM!NET continues to promote all of its various services, at SIGGRAPH 2000 its emphasis was on ROD! and ROD! Lite, the company's render-on-demand services.

According to WAM!NET estimates, a 100-frame sequence that would take about 16 and a half days to render on a single desktop computer could be done in about four hours using the ROD! service. The render-on-demand services thus make it possible for both large companies and boutiques to take on larger and more complicated projects.

At SIGGRAPH 2000, the company unveiled ROD! Lite, an Internet-based rendering service expected to be available by the end of this year. Providing access to the company's 350-computer render farm, ROD! Lite initially will support Windows NT, with support for additional platforms scheduled for 2001.

Several companies that encountered WAM!NET at SIGGRAPH 1999 have since taken advantage of ROD! Norm Stangl, CEO of Spin Productions, said that at last year's gathering, his company had just agreed to generate about 11 minutes of 3D work in Cyberworld, an animation showcase for IMAX theaters. "We were looking for render solutions," Stangl said.

GOAT's Dixie tricks. © Goat.com.

Each computer-generated Cyberworld frame had between 100 and 150 layers and required an average of four hours to render. Furthermore, because this was a 3D project, each frame was doubled -- one frame for the right eye, one frame for the left. As a result, the project comprised approximately 30,000 frames, which required about 58,000 hours of rendering time. "Rendering the whole film on one processor would certainly have been a daunting task," Stangl said.

After examining the various options available, Spin decided to use WAM!NET. "The deciding factor was whether WAM!NET had enough processors on-site to manage our job," Stangl said. "They had the horsepower. They also had the bandwidth to make it practical for us to send them images to render (which) they could send back, rather than sending them back and forth on tapes."

The rendering process nevertheless required a degree of faith. "It was quite a render task all around, and to be doing it remotely was quite daunting," Stangl said. "We were also beta-siting WAM!NET, so we were in a very risky position. We entered into this knowing that in beta mode, you have to work through issues." WAM!NET technicians did their best to resolve any problems. "They responded well to our challenges," Stangl said. "It was a good working process to get this up and running."

Spin's first renders went to WAM!NET in February, and Stangl estimated that at one point during the process, there were 500 to 600 machines working on the project. When Spin sent its shots to WAM!NET for rendering, he added, they were sent in multiple layers. "The file sizes were so huge, it was the most practical approach," Stangl explained.

WAM!NET also enables artists to collaborate with others from around the world, even if they don't have a single central headquarters. Another early customer for the ROD! service was GOAT (Gurus of Abstract Techniques), a design collective of people working in different professions. "Everybody does something of a creative nature," said Jake Morrison, one of the founders of GOAT in London.

Morrison has since moved to San Francisco, while other members of the group live in places ranging from Sweden to Hawaii. Although they continue to work together on projects such as a recent music video for the Dixie Chicks, "Cowboy, Take Me Away," they lack some of the resources of a brick-and-mortar facility. "Because we don't have an office per se, we don't have a base of machines," Morrison said.

At SIGGRAPH 1999, Morrison spoke with officials from WAM!NET and arranged for GOAT to do some beta-testing. In addition to the Dixie Chicks video, GOAT used WAM!NET for two corporate presentations -- one for Sun Microsystems and the other for sap.com. Morrison has seen WAM!NET evolve over the course of GOAT's productions. "On our first job, we were literally telneting into their machines," Morrison said. Soon, though, WAM!NET established an Internet gateway. "These were simpler FTP sites," he continued. "They now have this whole Web-based system, which is pretty slick, I think.

"The most important thing for us was that WAM!NET were extremely responsive to our needs," Morrison continued. "If we had a big render coming up, they would render a file frame and send it back to me so I could quality-check the scene before we started the full render. The only delay for us was in downloading rendered imagery at GOAT via our DSL connection. The people at WAM!NET were actually rendering faster than we could download."

Sunspot by GOAT. © Goat.com.

WAM!NET's rendering options vary, depending on clients' needs. "Rendering is a flexible science," WAM!NET's Wagner said. "Sometimes you want it completed in a certain period of time, other times you want to try out different approaches." Accordingly, the price of WAM!NET service also fluctuates. "Cost varies based on a number of variables," Wagner said. "The type of connection and whether the client wants to do tests or an entire film both influence the cost. We also sometimes have special offers to coincide with trade shows and events."

The underlying pay structure can even differ between companies. GOAT, for example, hires WAM!NET on a project-by-project basis and is charged per hour of rendering. On Cyberworld, Spin paid for rendering by the frame. "We knew roughly how many frames we would have to produce," Stangl said, "so early on we negotiated a rate with WAM!NET that was sensible and workable to our budget. Obviously, a good deal has to be a good deal for everyone."

Although the Mill has not yet made use of WAM!NET's rendering capabilities, Trosh is confident ROD! may prove itself a useful tool in the near future. "We foresee a large demand for rendering in our upcoming projects at the Mill," Trosh said. "We're going through the numbers, so it's a purely financial consideration for us now."

Trosh noted that one important financial question when it comes to rendering is the issue of additional license fees. While some software manufacturers offer use of their render engines for free, others charge a hefty fee per render license. As a result, even if an effects facility wants to bring in an extra server for a heavy render job, the expense of license fees may lift the cost out of the viable range. WAM!NET, though, has already paid the relevant fees, so its users can render images using programs from a range of companies, including Alias|Wavefront, Softimage and Pixar.

According to Wagner, WAM!NET's mission is to free artists and other creative people from having to spend too much time thinking about their equipment. "All the creative people need to worry about is hiring WAM!NET," she said. "We provide an end-to-end rendering solution." Ironically, the company offers so many options that the biggest problem customers have, according to Wagner, is choosing from among them. "The most interesting issue that I have found is that there are various opinions about the best way to go," Wagner said. "Ten people will want to take this resource 10 different ways. Building a consensus is often the most difficult thing. It's not a technology barrier."

Stephanie Argy is a regular contributor to VFXPro.com.

Republished from VFXPro, a fellow Creative Planet community Web site, and on-line news resource for the visual effects community affiliated with the Visual Effects Society.