Vine Post Production is a new, Soho based facility founded by seasoned VFX artist Michael Illingworth. Michael has extensive experience in post-production, compositing and visual effects supervision and has worked at many of London's major facilities including The Mill and Cinesite. His credits include an array of high profile commercials and features including Black Hawk Down, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the Harry Potter franchise. Michael was also part of the Oscar winning team on Gladiator. Having won a major new project that would require the expansion of their studio, Vine turned to the Escape Studios' Technology Team.
Michael had been running Vine as a smaller Flame based facility when, following the successful delivery of matte painting and compositing work for Merlin series 4, he was invited by the BBC to bid for the VFX work on Merlin Series 5. Michael saw this as the ideal opportunity to expand Vine into a full-blown 3D and VFX facility and having been awarded the contract, scaled up immediately, employing 14 new members of staff and moving to new premises in Soho Square.
Vine needed to build the new facility more or less from scratch, and be operational within a very short space of time to begin work on Merlin series 5. They needed to implement an efficient pipeline from day one which is where Escape Studios came in, as Michael explains; “I needed a set-up that covered all aspects of the VFX pipeline, some of which I didn't fully understand myself. I wanted to build a facility from the word go, and needed a full solution and lots of help to enable me to deliver the CG for this project." So Vine turned to Escape, and in particular their technology consultant Phil Darkin, who offered a solution Michael describes as "a complete service, quick, efficient and value for money."
Vine's requirements spanned the entire range of equipment and services Escape Studios Technology supplies. Already a Flame facility, Vine had existing tools in place yet needed to dramatically expand their compositing and 3D department to cater for the demands of Merlin series 5, in particular the ability to work as an integrated team and render all assets in-house. To meet these needs Escape assisted Vine in identifying a number of core elements;
- Unified Storage
- Render Farm
- 3D Workstations and High-End Displays
- 3D and Compositing Software
- Logging and Conforming Tools
When it came to setting up the new studio, Michael wanted to replicate the pipelines he'd experienced within the major Soho VFX facilities whilst working within the constraints of a smaller budget; "everything had to be industry standard and we needed to find quality operators quickly and easily, Escape made it easy to deliver both."
With purchases of multiple licences of NUKEX, NUKE Render, MARI and HIERO, Vine invested a considerable amount with The Foundry. Michael explained, “Using The Foundry software guaranteed quality and access to a bigger talent base of freelancers”. Vine's 3D animation software of choice was Autodesk Maya and Maya Premium Suite; again this gave them a dependable toolset they knew and the ability to hire from a large talent pool. Deadline by Thinkbox was chosen to manage their rendering pipeline which included Maya, Nuke, Arnold, Mental Ray.
When it came to hardware, reliability, expandability and value for money were the key factors. Michael settled for HP Z600 workstations, on the basis of their excellent reputation and Escape's wide install base across the industry. HP Z800s and DreamColor monitors were chosen for some higher performance systems, with EIZO Flexscan screens chosen as the standard panel across the studio.
All of the HP Z Series Workstations installed at Vine are powered by NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics cards. The Quadro 4000 is a tried and tested industry standard board for high-end visualisation, which has stable drivers for both Linux and Windows. This enabled Vine to pre-visualise their work from Autodesk Maya and NukeX from The Foundry before committing work to the Renderfarm.
All pre-visualisation work for Merlin Series 5 will be computed on NVIDIA Quadro GU’s.
When it came to storage and compute, Michael happily admitted this was not his area of expertise and placed his full trust in Escape, and Phil's capable hands. Phil recommended Supermicro based storage and render products, sourced in the UK from Boston Limited, as these would deliver the necessary performance and scale at a price that wouldn't break the budget.
A 48TB Boston 'Igloo' SAN, connected to a Windows and Linux licence server and 10Gb backbone switch were chosen as the central hub for the creative team to host their assets, whilst Supermicro Quattro render nodes became the basis of the render farm and provided a footprint for future growth; ”The entire system was designed to be modular", as Phil explains, "everything is expandable so that it can grow in tandem with the business and future projects".
As Michael said "when we looked at the various storage options we could get within our price range - Escape were able to offer extremely helpful and knowledgeable pre-sales support which helped us get one of the best deals around”.
In addition to the design and advice provided by Phil, Vine has also relied upon on-going engineering support from the Escape engineering team to guide them through the initial stages of implementation. Without the benefit of an in-house Sys Admin, Vine relied heavily on external help for configuration, advice, and installation, all of which Escape were able to provide.
Michael is delighted with the work that Vine is now producing, having achieved his goal of "creating feature film quality visual effects for TV."
“We needed to build a state of the art facility in a matter of weeks with the best available equipment. Phil and the team at Escape managed to put a solution together that has the horsepower to get us through our current project and a platform that we can also build on for the future. His extensive knowledge of both software and hardware helped us to make key decisions. Their helpful approach, knowledge of the market and technical support has been second to none; I’d happily recommend them to anyone in a similar position”.
Michael and his team at Vine continue to work on the final season of the BBC's Merlin, due for release later this year, and we wish them great success with this and all future projects.