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Weta Digital going "all-in" on the cloud

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 03 September 2020, 6:51 am
Weta Digital going "all-in" on the cloud

It's demanding visual effects requirements for movies like Avatar and King Kong saw it develop some of the country's most powerful supercomputing infrastructure. 

But now Sir Peter Jackosn's acclaimed effects studio, Weta Digital, will migrate the "vast majority of its IT infrastructure" to Amazon Web Services, in a multi-year deal with the cloud computing company.

Rather than own and maintain servers to render massive amounts of video and animation content, Weta will send visual effects tasks to Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) platform, where graphics processors will grind away on the work in Amazon data centres dotted around the world. Weta had increasingly outsourced more of its local IT infrastructure management in recent years to Fujitsu.

It will be now be able to take advantage of Amazon's machine learning tools to enhance its workflows by drawing on the cloud-based compute, storage, security, machine learning and analytics capabilities to better manage Weta's workflows.

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The remote effect

But Covid-19 has clearly been a driver for the wholesale shift to the cloud.

"Weta established a remote collaborative workflow in March due to the pandemic to seamlessly continue work on the Avatar sequels and other films. With the power of AWS, we can now take that success to a global scale," said Weta Digital's chief executive, Prem Akkaraju.

"Drawing on AWS's virtually unlimited compute capacity, we can empower our artists to work safely and securely where they want without technical limitations. In addition, using the breadth and depth of AWS services we can more easily test new ideas and technologies as we continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in visual effects today," he added.

While the financial details of the deal were not announced, the tie-up will likely make Weta Digital Amazon's biggest New Zealand-based customer, despite the fact that it has no local server infrastructure here. The closest Amazon data centre is based in Sydney.

But with Weta's legions of film-making and visual effects staff spread around the world and likely to remain so with the pandemic's lingering travel restrictions, local proximity to servers is increasingly less important.

The AWS infrastructure will apparently support "a pipeline that includes 100 proprietary tools and its LED-stage virtual production service" which is used to create on set the elaborate scenes that have become Weta's calling card. Animated movies developed by new off-shoot Weta Animated will also be working on using AWS infrastructure.

Spreading the load

It spells the end of an era of local innovation at Weta around computer processing capability that, by necessity, had to be developed here to allow Jackson's film making vision to be realised in Wellington.

Weta's one-time IT manager Scott Houston oversaw that infrastructure and struck on the bright idea of renting out Weta's considerable computing capacity to other companies when the studio wasn't producing a movie.

Houston went on to form the New Zealand Supercomputer Centre with Telecom and Gen-i, then the company cloud computing company Green Button, which was sold to Microsoft in 2014. The rise of hyperscale cloud computing facilities owned by Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others has lessened the need for serious computing hardware to be owned and operated locally, particularly with increased undersea cable connectivity added in recent years, making hops to data centres more affordable and reliable.

But some big computing jobs will continue to be handled locally. Crown Research Institute NIWA in 2018 opened a new supercomputing facility spread between facilities in Auckland and Wellington with a $23 million capital spend. That infrastructure is used for scientific research, including demanding climate modelling.

Microsoft will boost New Zealand's cloud-based compute capacity in the next 18 months when it builds dedicated data centre facilities here to support its Azure service, making it the first of the big multinational cloud operators to build a physical presence here.


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