Rendering an Animated Film

By Matthew Satchwill, Independent Filmmaker

Last November, my team entered a TELUS-funded competition called Storyhive for a chance to pitch a web series pilot. After the kickstarter-style phase one of the competition, TELUS awarded us $10,000 to make our pilot episode. While every other team that was awarded the money went on to film their pilots, we had a different idea: we’d spend our time and money making an animated film. It was an ambitious way to start our project, since we had no experience with long form film storytelling (when you’re used to making 30 second TV spots, I call seven minutes ‘long form’), and even less experience with 3D animation. But caution be damned!

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Rendered on the right. Differences can seem subtle, but notice his shadow, motion blur, and more nuanced lighting. All the fussing in this article is about that.

And so began the animation process. The award money kept me fed while I devoted my days to animating this ever-evolving idea, and everything was moving along fairly slowly… but there was a constant gnawing in my gut. I knew that eventually we had to stop ignoring the question of how we would render this thing.

Before a computer animation is finished, it needs to go through a process called rendering. This takes the simple computer geometry and adds layers of reflection, refraction, focus, blur, and other realistic lighting properties. Even for the best computers, rendering is a complicated task that takes a lot of time. A lot, lot of time.

We partnered with Cybera, who offered us their farm of computers to handle this monumental task. Rather than me having to buy 10 computers and plug them all in, and run them around the clock for a month, I could ship the work to their farm of computers (or, as it’s called… ‘the cloud’). In real life, this cloud looks sort of like how you’d imagine it: lots of wires, lots of machinery.To render it ourselves on our own computer, we estimated it would take about 203 days of around-the-clock CPU time. Way too long! But if we had two powerful computers, we could do it in about a 100 days. Four computers would take 50 days. The math continues along this trajectory until the amount of time required becomes manageable. This is where Cybera came in.

There’s been a lot said about ‘the cloud’, but lately the conversation has boiled away and left this residue of ‘cloud storage’, or some limp Apple service that lets you track your iPhone or print your photos. My team learned that having Cybera and it’s powerful cloud-computer-army (called the Rapid Access Cloud) at the direct disposal of Albertans is a spur to innovation and creation. Without Cybera, the animation would be sitting half-complete on my hard drive rather than competing in a cross-province film contest. My honest hope is that Cybera continues this outreach and technology-to-the-rescue style support of small business and art. I currently have some future projects ideas in the works. I would normally assume CG animation is out of reach, but I hope working with Cybera makes it much less so.

Check out our feature film below: 

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