The VFX Platform: Interview with Nick Cannon from MPC

(Interview performed in October 2014 for Seekscale company, a cloud rendering startup)

Linux has been the main OS for VFX studios since the end of the 90’s, and whether you’re an old Linux old-timer or you’re considering it for your pipeline, one of the main concerns are always dependencies and interoperability.

Similarly to the VESTECH conference in 2000 that triggered the vast migration of studios to Linux, and the ensuing heavy development to standardize many things (drivers etc), the VES  (Visual Effects Society) Technology Committee is once again taking the lead to push standardization further.

Seekscale interviewed Nick Cannon, Director of Technology at MPC, and member of the VES Technology Committee, about their most recent initiative, the VFX platform.

– The VFX platform aims at standardizing Linux components for VFX pipelines. Can you tell us which studios are involved, and what was the trigger event to engage in this endeavour?

Software ‘versionitis’ has long been a discussion point in the industry and the trigger for this initiative came from challenges experienced by members of the Visual Effects Society and some large M&E customers of Autodesk. Incompatibilities between software packages and slow adoption of Linux by software vendors are a problem for many studios.

This spurred collaboration between some software vendors and the VES stepped in to be an independent facilitator.

At the SIGGRAPH BoF this year, pretty much all large VFX and animation studios were represented as well as a number of mid-size studios and there was universal support from them for this initiative.

– We can see on the VFX Platform website that it is distro-agnostic. Nevertheless, picking a distro is often about making an arbitrage, what is your experience in that matter?

There is no quick or easy answer to your question, there are a large number of pros and cons to different operating systems. The main reasons studios choose Linux are that it’s very reliable, low cost, easy to develop for, a more open platform for workflow automation / software integration and there is no need to rely on a 3rd party for support or customisations in the heat of production. All in all, legacy and available skill is often one of the main drivers when picking a particular distro.

– What is the most natural pipeline segment for a linux transition?

Rendering can be a good way to start, as can storage, or central web/application servers. Basically any segment on which you can experiment a little bit without disrupting your artists work.

– Linux is the most natural platform to build custom software. Generally what kind of custom software studios develop? Renderer, shaders, farm management software?

Every studio is different. Some studios use almost only proprietary software, although they are rarer these days, most mid-large studios use a mix. Common in-house developments are asset management systems and production-specific tools to achieve new/specific types of effects.

Cinefex magazines and usually do a pretty good job at describing what software studios choose to develop.
– The VFX platform is about standardizing libraries and dependencies, so that studios can more easily interface custom tools with commercial tools. Where in the pipeline such interoperability problems are the most painful?

File formats, network paths, shaders compilation… but also simple python/Qt tools used to ‘glue’ different parts of the workflow together.

Pipelines are integrated, a lot of linking of libraries goes on which is why compatibility can be challenging.

– What is the reaction of studios to the VFX Platform initiative so far? Is sharing your dependencies and libraries perceived as a threat to custom IP protection?

Studio’s reactions are universally positive, sharing dependencies is not considered a risk.

– Are you planning to expand the scope of software components covered by the VFX platform?

We will continue to evolve the scope as per the feedback from software vendors and studios alike. We do have plans to extend it already based on feedback we received at SIGGRAPH.

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