A few weeks back, a suggestion by Bill Desowitz popped into my email box. He mentioned that a new company, Silverdraft LLC, had created a vfx/previs studio on wheels known as MobileViz. “I would be curious,” he mentioned, “to hear your perspective on this technology.” After looking at some initial pictures and reviewing the base line specs, I had to know more.
My father is a cross-country semi truck driver, and it never ceases to amaze me just how much he shoves into the little sleeping quarters behind the main cab. Without question, it’s his home away from home complete with a refrigerator, satellite TV, blue-ray player and twin beds. However, I am pretty sure that a 30 teraflop supercomputer would require a little more space than the equivalent of his laptop tucked away in the sleeper’s foldout desk.
I gave Silverdraft a call and had an enlightening conversation with Amy Gile (Founder and CEO), Michael Cooper (Sales and Marketing) and Ron Prince (Publicist). While it was unfortunate that I could not go and see the trailer personally, it was deployed at the company’s first secret client’s location, we spent considerable time discussing the rig’s capabilities. For those of you who want me to cut right to the chase, MobileViz is simply a computational monster on wheels. While I don’t want to spend too much time on the specifics, its safe to say that MobileViz’s 36 rack mounted CPUs, each equipped with 48 cores and 128GB of RAM each, will likely make short order of any visual effects demands that are placed on it. Who wouldn’t like to put 30+ teraflops of computational power towards their next project? Deck it out with Nvidia based GPUs, 20TB of SSD storage, 12TB of recordable storage, Fiber Channel interconnects, a Utah Scientific 48x48 router for network connections, a Knight Vision MoCap daylight compatible volume, multiple stations of Maya, Motion Builder, Max, Mental Ray, Vray, Flame, Final Cut, all within a mobile, self powered, self cooling trailer, and you’ve got the power take on Skynet when our robotic overlords attempt to take over the planet. There’s even talk of more advanced deployments reaching 350 Teraflops making future MobileViz trailers amongst the top 50 supercomputers on the planet.
Gile pointed out special “symbiotic” partnerships with The Third Floor Inc., Autodesk, VFX artist/director Alex Frisch, motion capture specialists Knight Vision and system Architect Dr. Srinidhi Varadarajanas as part of their brain trust when conceptualizing MobileViz. I have no doubt these collaborations were extremely beneficial to Gile and Silverdraft when attempting to figure out the best ratio of cost versus performance to be successful. But with any new business, figuring out the best operating workflow can be tricky, especially for something as novel and untested as this.
While not intended to replace traditional brick and mortar facilities, Silverdraft is clearly attempting to redefine the practicality of using traditional solutions when production requirements demand this level of power on set or on location. Previs struts its stuff best when it picks up its artists and their gear and collocates with the director and/or the VFX supervisor. But when combined with the tax incentives supplied by bringing production to other states, MobileViz suddenly shows its viability as a potentially money saving solution to traditional facilities when short-term remote work or supplemental computational power is required. Silverdraft was reserved to actually quote numbers when I asked about MobileViz’s price tag and its rates, but that’s not surprising. Systems like these are considerably customizable and obtaining prices for a unit like this typically requires the client to define its requirements in order to get a price quote.
Wanting to know more, Silverdraft offered me the opportunity to watch an upcoming promotional video piece on MobileViz. It was well crafted and provided a nice overview of the system’s capabilities. The emphasis seemed to be placed on the unit’s ability to act as a virtual stage solution. Combined with Knight Vision’s infrared motion capture system, MobileViz is able to provide live integration of digital video, computer generated sets, and mocon previs characters all within a monitor next to the director’s camera in real time. When combined with the array of software and hardware tools found inside the trailer the potential seems unlimited. What was even more remarkable was seeing these virtual capabilities being performed outdoors all the while taking advantage of the motion capture stage, the surrounding environment, and the integration of virtual set enhancements. Impressive.
While I am personally thrilled by the prospect of this technology being available to anyone practically anywhere, my time in the military deploying remote communication service trailers and later running a previs company makes me want to ask the tough questions and point out a few concerns.
Here’s my advice for the folks at Silverdraft.
1. Be careful to not position or market MobileViz as the solution to every situation. While having a trailer that wants to be all things to all clients might seem nice, such versatility comes at a managerial and logistical price. It seems to make sense to offer everything but the kitchen sink, but those unused components endure wear and tear every time they’re deployed whether the client needs them or not. Unused systems means lost income while they just sit idle. Instead, consider making Silverdraft’s fleet modular. Detach the supercomputer cluster into its own trailer pulled by a smaller vehicle and deploy the computing cluster with the semi-trailer configuration that best matches the client’s specific needs. You're already parking a 50' trailer, so I doubt a separate computational cluster will be a problem. This will give the main trailer more internal space for more workers and clients, reduce internal trailer noise, and provide Silverdraft with the ability to ensure redundancy with its main computational core. When it comes time to upgrade you don't want to take the whole system down while you're assembling a new one. A separate core is more flexible. Plus it could be advantageous to leave the core behind to supplement computer power for the production or the vfx company attached to the film rather than leaving an entire semi trailer that could be better used elsewhere attached to yet another core.
2. Virtual film production, along with previs, is still seen as a luxury for the rich. MobileViz gives the initial perception that seems rather inaccessible to the average vfx/previs client. Be prepared to provide evidence to the contrary.
3. Be ready to address sustainability. Logistically speaking, remote deployments become exponentially more difficult to sustain, the longer and further they’re away from home. My time in the Army showed me that as workers tire, equipment breaks, and replacement parts were in short supply, my ability to sustain services could be easily compromised by a single glitch in the system. While civilian “supply lines” are probably more reliable than the military’s, MobileViz will have to address those issues to ensure the production isn’t waiting on a 50-foot supercomputer that can’t get the job done. Unlike the military, paying clients tend to sue when things don't go as expected.
4. Watch out for reliability issues and bullet proof the virtual filmmaking pipeline. Virtual production and previs, are not always clear-cut sciences, especially when conceptual ideas are being explored. Its getting better, but projects like Avatar relied on a lot of unrelated components coming together to produce a totally new workflow. Technology changes fast and adopters of virtual filmmaking will expect MobileViz to have a proven system in place. If not, the pipeline will become MobileViz’s achillies heel. The advantage of traditional brick and mortar facilities is their ability to setup a system, perfect it, and maintain it without the constant worry about breaking down and reassembling components which can cause downtime and confusion.
5. MobileViz is basically a mini vfx studio, sans personnel, for hire. There is no dedicated creative staff, unless you count the driver and a technical support engineer required to keep the unit functional. Thus MobileViz effectively requires itself to become an extension of existing previs or vfx company looking to supply a technical and/or logistical solution to productions located on set or remote location. Thus consider finding very distinct incentives to attract existing artistic teams and previs companies to truly learn how your system works. Don’t rely on a subcontracting team to just waltz in and use it without knowing its full capabilities because paying clients don’t like to pay people to learn on the job no matter how experienced they are. Consider building a mock trailer for training purposes and build teams willing to deploy with your system.
While I may have seemed a bit harsh on Silverdraft with my ideas, the fact is they’re paving the way of the future. That’s never an easy task. Digital technologies are changing the way films are being made. Previs has altered the pre-production phase of filmmaking, while virtual production and solutions like MobileViz stand to change the way production and principle photography is handled.
I commend Silverdraft for the MobileViz effort. Its a remarkable achievement. The day of fixing everything in post-production is starting to become an obsolete axiom when presented with options like this. I'm looking forward to stepping foot inside this beauty whenever you're ready. Good luck and much success with this inovative system.