Nimble Collective co-founder Rex Grignon and Kyle Roche, Head of Immersive Technology for Amazon Web Services, talk about their recently-launched cloud-based production service.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the Media & Entertainment industry to adapt to nonlocal ways of working, the advantages of remote production were increasingly being recognized, and innovative pipeline models were gaining traction throughout the sector. Among those who first saw the potential in cloud-based animation platforms to both reduce costs and streamline production was Rex Grignon.
A longtime luminary at DreamWorks Animation, Grignon worked as head of character animation on such films as Antz, Shrek, and Madagascar and its sequels, and was the lead designer of the animation software Premo, which won a Technical Achievement Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2014, along with fellow DreamWorks alumni Jason Schleifer, Bruce Wilson, and Scott LaFleur, and with the backing of a number of VC investors, Grignon founded the Nimble Collective. Four years later, they launched Nimble Studio, the industry's first end-to-end cloud-based platform for commercial studios and enterprise animation production.
The next milestone came less than a year later, in May 2019, when Nimble Collective was acquired by Amazon. “We found our visions in helping M&E companies move their workloads to the cloud to be very much aligned,” co-founder Grignon says of the acquisition. “Nimble was born on AWS [Amazon Web Services], so it was the perfect home for us!”
Fast forward to April 28, 2021, when AWS announced the general availability of Amazon Nimble Studio, a pay-as-you-go production service providing unlimited access to high-power accelerated workstations, high-speed storage, and on-demand rendering resources across Amazon’s global infrastructure. With no upfront fees or commitments, Amazon Nimble Studio enables customers to set up a content production studio – utilizing only the resources initially needed – in hours instead of weeks, and then to scale up resources when rendering demands peak, and spin them back down once projects are completed.
“We’d been interested in helping customers with these large workloads in M&E for years,” says Kyle Roche, Head of Immersive Technology, AWS. “Customers had challenges with moving massive amounts of data up to the cloud, getting things staged and organized before they could render. So, over the years, we started to see the push for virtual workstations come up. Because if you're rendering in the cloud, getting your data next to where you're rendering really helps streamline that process. You don't have this abrupt end of your on-premises workload, followed by your cloud workload.”
Roche also emphasizes that their goal is to provide end-to-end services to clients of any size, from major studios to independent artists.
“That's one of the important distinctions of our platform,” he confirms. “We want this to work for all different levels of studios. There’s full API support, with the ability to configure everything that the bigger studios need. And then there’s a wizard-like feature called StudioBuilder to help the smaller indie shops get set up more easily.”
An example of Amazon Nimble Studio at work is Spanner, an animated short created by FuzzyPixel, a production team within AWS made up of artists and creatives that test new technology to help ensure it stands up to the rigors of real-world production. Read more about the project here, and take a few minutes to enjoy the film.
Yet, given that studios have a large variety of technologies – from licensed software, to their proprietary systems, to renderfarms and workstations – is it really plausible to effectively integrate everything? Or is it more realistic for established studios to create an essentially self-contained environment on Amazon’s platform that would interface with their in-house systems, but would be a separate entity?
“I think it depends a lot on where they are in their ‘cloud journey,’ for lack of a better term,” Roche says. “If a studio is already using virtual workstations, they've done some of the work in moving their pipelines, their licensing servers, things that are happening on the creative side, and those will immediately move over to Nimble. We provide what we call an AMI, which is basically a template for a machine image. And some studios can customize that right away.”
He continues, “Then there are the folks that are coming into the cloud for the first time possibly, and they have an opportunity to look at whether they want to change the way they work. They get to reevaluate how things work, differences in flexibility, the ability to scale out your infrastructure remotely, things like that. So their onboarding experience might be a little different. You might also see a studio that picks one project to run on the cloud to see how it goes, or maybe creates a smaller sub-studio first. I think we're seeing all of those different patterns today.”
In addition to the potential cost savings and the much greater flexibility that comes with working in a scalable virtual environment, Roche also points out a less obvious benefit, especially for major studios that need to protect IP.
“If you're working on a project where you need to onboard extra artists, but you have assets that you want to keep under wraps as much as possible, we can protect the assets on the workstation,” he explains. “You can have an artist come in and work on textures or materials, but they never actually touch the asset. They're working on it just in the context of that workstation. And I think those things are probably going to help specific studios scale up and down and take work on more quickly.”
Finally, asked what he finds most exciting about the new paradigm and the kind of impact it can have, Roche talks about an internal project Nimble ran last year where they produced an animated short. The goal, he says, was “to not optimize anything.”
“And so,” he relates, “we had 16K textures on like every single thing, and we basically just went nuts and we didn't optimize any of these things. And then, as we watched the project unfold and we went through the cost tracking, we noticed that some of the artists were working in a different way. One in particular was running seven workstations at a time to cycle through variations of his Houdini simulation. And that's something that’s simply not possible with the way people work today. At most, an artist might have two of those huge machines on their desk, so they can cycle back and forth, but nobody's buying seven or eight of those high-power GP machines. So what really excites me is watching artists evolve, and change the way they work, just because they're given more choice and options.”
As for the man who started it all, Grignon is currently the director of the Go-to-Market team for Amazon Nimble Studio, which gives him the opportunity to talk with customers and studios on a daily basis (“which is what I love to do!”) and work closely with the engineering and product teams at AWS.
“Cloud-based production,” he says, “enables artists to have the option to engage with interesting opportunities without uprooting their lives and families. They can live where they choose and still work in an industry they love, and that’s the whole reason why I began developing cloud-based production tools. For studios, they can easily reach global talent, bring in new perspectives, and connect with artists around the world. I think the past year has really shined a light on the importance of being able to work flexibly, and showed that not only can remote production be done, but it is preferable in a lot of ways.”