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Moonbot Taps Google Cloud Platform for ‘Taking Flight’ Short

Colorful animated short combining 2D and 3D techniques relies on Google Cloud Platform and its Compute Engine solution to help the concept truly take flight.

SHREVEPORT, LA -- Moonbot Studios, a creative facility known for its Oscar-winning shorts, bestselling apps and charming animated TV series, is a multiplatform powerhouse where artists can explore new and inventive ways to deliver colorful ideas across a variety of media. A product of its environment, Moonbot’s latest animated short, Taking Flight is all about letting one’s imagination run wild.

Taking Flight, inspired by the life and heritage of Antonio Pasin, inventor of the Radio Flyer wagon, tells the story of a young boy and his grandfather who bridge the generation gap during a day of imaginative play.

Using just the famous crimson wagon as their prop, the pair dive into a fantasy land of lush green jungle where they narrowly escape pursuing wild monkeys, before taking to the cerulean skies in a biplane, and then finally plummeting into a sci-fi galaxy of invading laser-wielding aliens. By the time the short finishes, it’s deftly delivered its message: a reminder of what childhood is all about, during a time when many exchange playful imagination for staring into a computer screen.

In order to tell this story, Moonbot opted for a complex and colorful combination of 2D and 3D techniques, the boy and his grandpa a collection of carefully constructed polygons, but the environments they travel through being flat, Maurice Noble-esque backdrops of color and shape.

To bring this idea to life on the big screen, Moonbot needed a rendering solution that could transport their ideas between worlds and dimensions, and all within the tight four-month turnaround. They turned to Google Cloud Platform and its Compute Engine solution to help the concept truly take flight.

Moonbot was founded in 2009 by Lampton Enochs, Brandon Oldenburg and famed children’s author/illustrator William Joyce. The studio set up shop in Joyce’s hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana.

“It was about a year and a half ago that I received a phone call from Robert Pasin, chief wagon officer at Radio Flyer,” began Brandon Oldenburg, chief creative officer at Moonbot. “He really wanted to work on something with us. Once we started looking at the catalogs and talking to the family about the Radio Flyer heritage, we decided we really wanted to tell the story in a short film, one that’s about the power of imagination and how it can connect generations. That’s how Taking Flight began.”

Although the short hits each of its narrative beats within a compact five-minute timeframe, the project needed to be completed within a four-month deadline.

“The timeline was definitely the biggest challenge, especially considering that Taking Flight was one of three projects being worked on simultaneously at the studio,” says Brennan Chapman, lead pipeline Technical Director at Moonbot. “We have about 50 employees, so working on this five-minute short, an 11-minute pilot episode and a 30-second commercial, all with the same team and with the same resources in a four-month timeframe – was pretty ambitious.”

Rendering is one of the most time-intensive parts of any creative project and the part of the pipeline that can create the most bottlenecks. Moonbot turned to Google Cloud Platform’s Compute Engine for its power and simplicity.

“In the past, we rented on-site render nodes for expanded capacity, requiring advanced planning as the hardware has to be shipped to us,” explained Chapman. “Another problem on Taking Flight was that we needed 3-4 times the capacity we had planned on renting. This brought two challenges, finding enough render nodes to rent, and having enough space, power and AC in our server room. About one month into the production we realised that we needed to use cloud rendering.”

For the Moonbot team, the power of cloud rendering was a huge benefit, allowing them to increase their efficiency on what was both a creatively and a technically challenging project.

“We were working with a lot of scenes that required a high degree of rendering power,” continued Chapman. “Some shots required a few hours per frame to render. Hair and grass played a big part in these render times. We used XGen to add hair to the characters, fur to the Teddy bear, and grass to the environment. We also needed the ability to render shots multiple times in order to allow the creative team to get the exact result they were looking for. All this contributed to the need for the extra render power and flexibility Google Cloud Platform was able to provide.”

The first tangible and quantifiable difference Moonbot noticed was GCP’s raw speed.  The ability to utilize overnight renders with Google Compute Engine changed things in a big way for Moonbot.

“For the most part, artists work on their shots during the day, and submit their shots to render overnight,” explained Chapman. “It really impacts the studio’s productivity and creativity when those overnight renders don’t finish by the next morning. If the render load is high enough, it can turn into a snowball effect that just keeps growing day after day and causes the entire production to grind to a halt while we wait. When our iteration count starts to drop, so too does your potential for creative exploration.”

Using Google Cloud Platform and Compute Engine, Moonbot’s artists were able to submit work to the cloud when going home at night, and the render was ready and waiting for them the next morning.

“We can easily scale the render farm as needed each night to ensure renders complete on time,” said Chapman. “It allows us to take advantage of the down time when nobody is here. That efficiency frees us up artistically, which means more exploration of ideas, which means a better final product!”

Although Moonbot had used cloud rendering in the past, it had never been quite to this scale. “Using Google Cloud Platform, you can scale up within 10-minutes notice!” continued Chapman. “There’s no waiting; it’s there right away. And our capacity compared to what Google Cloud Platform has is just a drop in the bucket, we could use as much as we wanted, and it equated to about the same price as what we were paying before, if not cheaper!”

The team found the process of integrating Google Cloud Platform into their pipeline incredibly intuitive, with the toolset immediately communicating with out-of-the-box with solutions like Moonbot’s render management tool Qube!. This enabled the team to manage both its in-house and Google Cloud Platform nodes interchangeably, with artists barely noticing which solution was managing which shot.

Another major benefit introduced by Google Cloud Platform was that of physical space saving, an element of rendering that can often be overlooked until your render farm is taking up space that could effectively be filled by something more useful, like additional artists.

During the production of Taking Flight, Moonbot had completely filled its main rack of render nodes, and was struggling to find space to fit more hardware into the fairly small server room.

“Thankfully, rendering via the cloud makes considerations around physical space and extra costs moot,” said Chapman. “We don’t need to have the hardware on site, which means we don’t need to think about power, cooling or upgrades either. Google Cloud Platform handles all of that for you. It’s all happening on server side, leaving you to concentrate on making a great short!”

Google Cloud Platform and Google Compute Engine have become an integral element in the Moonbot pipeline, allowing the relatively small studio to render and iterate as if they were one of the world’s largest animation studios.

“We boosted our render farm capacity by five times in going with Google Compute Engine alongside Avere,” revealed Chapman. “It fluctuated, as we were working with burst capacity, but that gives an overall idea of just how much faster and more efficient using the solution made us. We went through 3,800 renders on Taking Flight, and that took 21,200 render hours. It would have been much larger if we were working solely with in-house hardware.”

For Chapman, that kind of extra capacity is vital, considering the relatively small size of Moonbot, “I can’t stress how important it is to have that extra capacity. We’re still very much a startup, and there are lots of really great opportunities that come to us that we need to be able to say yes to. These kind of solutions, which allow us to scale up when we need to and meet client demands, are what makes our company feasible here in Louisiana. We can present Google Cloud Platform as a benefit of the Moonbot pipeline to clients, instead of saying we can’t do something because of time constraints. It’s always nice to tell clients ‘yes’!”

Source: Moonbot Studios