Fireside Chat: Untold Studios Leads the Way for Cloud-based Production
In this webinar, Frame.io’s Jeff Hodges talked with Nathan Wilson, Head of IO for London-based Untold Studios, about the company’s bold, fully cloud-based setup. You may already know Untold Studios from their work on John Lewis & Partners’ Christmas Ad, or more recently, for their VFX work in season three of The Crown. So if you’re looking for inspiration about how remote working works, especially from a VFX and production context, you definitely want to listen to what Nathan has to say.
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In Nathan’s own words, Untold Studios is made up of two parts: VFX and production. The company itself is relatively young, having been formed in October 2018, and already has an impressive portfolio ranging from commercials and TV shows to music videos and fashion lines.
Among all of this, Nathan’s role is to implement and manage the workflows and media pipeline for all these projects, as well as the solutions in play for sharing, review, and approval.
One of the things that set Untold Studios apart from traditional brick-and-mortar production companies is that they’re fully cloud-based, which helps this creative community access talent from around the world. Their file system and approximately 100 cloud-based workstations sit on an Amazon S3 infrastructure, with their workers only needing a thin client and a Wacom tablet to get up and running.
“There’s nothing to manage inside the building,” says Nathan. “It was like that from day one.”
Untold made the decision to avoid heavy investment in on-premises storage infrastructure and machines from the start, preferring to utilize cloud services and a pay-as-you-go structure, which gives them a more flexible approach to resource management.
How does that actually work? Every morning, every artist and creative on the team gets a “fresh machine,” with each of them having their personal folders and files restored as new, wherever (or whenever) they might connect. And it’s this flexibility that allows them to avoid the typical pain that sudden scaling can bring.
According to Nathan, “We went from about 20 of us in the office to around 60 when The Crown came in, so when you can just scale up and down at will it really changes a lot of things.”
In line with this scalable approach to production, Untold Studios has been using Frame.io to support its operations. As Nathan explains, because Frame.io also sits on AWS, it allows tighter integration and extremely high-speed movement of assets between sites.
To see a demo of how Untold Studios uses Frame.io combined with Slack to empower their staff and clients, you can join the video at the 09:23 mark.
In short, it’s a combination of slash-paths and links along with a notification channel (which was written by Nathan using the Frame.io API) to submit content to the approval process.
And this is all capped off with re-branded links using Rebrandly.
At 15:07 we turn to our audience for questions, so from this point onward, you’ll find a ton of useful technical detail regarding Untold Studios’ setup, including specifics on how they handle reserved and spot instances, managing to deadline, using I/O ops to spin up and down their render resources (and using Weka to overcome some of the speed limitations of S3).
It’s inevitable that the topic of security will be raised whenever the conversation is about data sharing via the cloud. And this happens at 18:20. According to Nathan, “We work with a lot of clients that are extremely tight (about security).”
He adds that without physical premises and systems to worry about, the risk of someone simply plugging a USB drive into a local network system is entirely removed. He finishes by noting that everything is audited and logged, so data egress points can be located should something leave the network without permission.
Then at 20:23, you’ll find some useful insight into what’s possible with custom actions on the Frame.io platform, with Nathan giving a demo at 22:34 that shows how Untold Studios generates use-specific transcodes and download options, which stops their clients from downloading multi-gigabyte assets when all they need is a viewable H.264 file.
The final half of the video focuses on audience Q&A, so if you’re curious about the questions your peers are asking about the technical challenges of remote working, and how Untold Studios is handling them, you can pick up from the 28:18 mark.
A big thanks to Nathan Wilson and the team at Untold Studios for being not just generous with their time, but also for sharing such a wealth of detail regarding their cloud-based setup.