A Mirror to Life: Glassworks [The Graphic Masters Series]
9 March 2016
Founded back in 1996 by current CEO Hector Macleod, Glassworks is a multi-award-winning post-production house that handles high-end digital animation and stunning visual effects across commercials, film and digital media, for big-hitting global clients such as Nike, Samsung, Coca-Cola and MTV. Particularly notable is the company’s incredible talent for blending photorealistic CG with live action, from the spookily accurate budgie and part-digital cat in its recent spot for Freeview, to the miniature 3D characters travelling home through a model village in its TalkTalk ‘Model Britain’ commercial.
The art of realism
Photorealism is a phenomenon that head of 2D Duncan Malcolm believes is very much here to stay. “Industry expectations keep going up,” he observes. “Often we’re ahead of those expectations, being pushed but also driving them up ourselves. It’s about attention to detail at the time of the shoot, so we can gather all that information and use it later.”
Malcolm joined Glassworks as a compositor back in 2004, having worked in the industry for 20 years at that point. A year later, he joined the board as head of 2D and now manages workflow in the London studio, with a watching brief on the other offices.
When it comes to truly seamless compositing, Malcolm notes that one of the biggest challenges lies in capturing as much real-time data as possible on site during the shoot: particularly HD images to record the source and direction of the light, and any other factors that need to be taken into account. “It’s just about being clever about what we reference, getting pictures of every bit of the shoot so we can brief the CG guys on everything that’s happening,” he adds.
Where possible, Malcolm’s team will attend the shoot to ensure that all of this data is captured correctly. “If it’s a complicated CG job then we’ll make a call on whether [we need] a 2D person who has more of a general eye on things, or a specific 3D person who will spend the time measuring distances between objects and mapping out the whole thing. Sometimes we have the whole team there.”
Another key challenge is dealing with complex or rapid camera moves. A few years ago, visual effects professionals would steer the production teams away from moving camera work for anything that required complex CG compositing – resulting in an often stark contrast between different shots.
“We almost encourage moving cameras now, because we know tracking is easier and lighting is easier. Moving cameras give us a whole lot more realism”
While Malcolm tries to avoid cramping the style of the production team by steering the shoot too much, he points out that advising against things that are prohibitively difficult to ‘fix in post’ is an important part of the role.
“For instance, if there are a lot of reflective windows we try to avoid shooting through those if we’re adding CG,” he says. “If [footage] absolutely has to be shot through them, we insist on taking shots of a black card behind so we can capture the reflections, or shoot separate plates to add the reflections back on top.”
Of course, the quest for perfectly seamless photorealism is as much driven by the high standards of the creatives as the demands of the commissioners themselves: “The client wants [the commercial] to be charming, but ultimately wants to sell products,” says Malcolm. “CG artists spend every minute of their day working out how to make CG look better. It’s up to us to make it 100 per cent perfect.”
The kit for the job
Powering this drive for perfection is the studio’s hardware, as head of engineering Will Isaac explains. Having started at Glassworks 10 years ago as a runner, Isaac became chief engineer after two and a half years, and is now responsible for the technical side of the company – including building and running the network between the three offices to ensure that staff are as productive as possible.
“My job is about enabling people like Duncan to spend more time being creative, rather than waiting for something technical to happen,” explains Isaac. “The main thing we need to think about is robustness. [Our system] has to work, and it has to work all of the time. There are a lot of things that can seem quite impressive on the face of it – the bells and whistles – but really, it comes down to being on all the time.”
To guarantee this level of reliability, for Isaac, HP workstations are the only choice. Glassworks’ standard model is a Z400 or Z420, with a six-core CPU, 72GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA Quadro 4000 GPU. “Having used other kit before, [HP’s] is much more reliable,” he reveals.
“The way the HP boxes are put together, they work well together and you know they always will. And when HP releases [its next series] of workstations, you know they’ll work just as well as the last ones, only quicker”
Ultimately it’s about finding the right balance between speed and reliability: “Usually the harder you push something to make it faster, the less stable it becomes,” observes Isaac.
“Our workstations sit in the suites, and they get a bit messy and dusty. It’s not a sealed environment like a machine room. They have to work in a warm environment, where there might not be a clean atmosphere, and not clag up with dust.”
Again, he praises HP’s Z-Series workstations. “The chassis design works well. The airflow through it means they just don’t get clagged up. It comes down to robustness. If you bought a consumer model off the shelf [and subjected it to the same conditions] it would probably fall over after six months.”
Besides its 55 3D workstations, Glassworks also maintains 14 Flame systems, two Smokes, one Flare, a 130-node Arnold render farm, a 2K Spirit, two Baselight TWO grading platforms, a 12-licence Nuke Farm, and four Avid edit suites.
“The Flame and Smoke workstations are set up by Autodesk to work perfectly with the software, and they’ve gone down the HP route too, with the Z820,” says Isaac. “These machines work brilliantly off-the-shelf.”
One part of Glassworks hardware set-up where more customisation is required is its render farm. Traditionally, the studio has relied on CPU-based renderers such as Arnold.
“[Production renderers] tend to be very CPU-based, so if you put a faster CPU in [a render node], it’ll render quicker: it’s very linear,” says Isaac. “We’ve been using Arnold for six years very successfully, and just throwing more computers at it helped it render faster.”
In March, however, Glassworks began beta testing Redshift, a new GPU-accelerated biased renderer.
“It’s quite incredible,” Malcolm enthuses. “It’s 10 times faster to render something. I don’t care about the technicalities – it’s about how quickly I can get [a shot] to the place that it’s the best it ever can be.”
As well as speed, Glassworks believes that Redshift’s GPU-led approach will help it get the maximum value from its hardware. Its render farm is built on NVIDIA cards, and the studio is currently working to find the optimal configuration for Redshift.
“We’re still trying to build the perfect machine with multiple GPUs, finding the most efficient pound-for-pound combination,” reveals Isaac. “It’s whether you fill one machine with as many GPUs as possible, or have more machines with fewer GPUs. I think we’ve concluded in the last few weeks that there’s no right or wrong answer to that, as it depends on the scenes that you’re rendering.”
As the standard of compositing work in commercials continues to increase, Glassworks continues to explore new technologies to stay at the vanguard of the industry. The studio is now delving into Nuke Studio, The Foundry’s new VFX, editorial and finishing product. “It won’t necessarily do things better, but it does do them differently,” says Malcolm.
And again, hardware processing power will play a crucial role. Given the luxury of unlimited time and budget, Malcolm comments that his team would take compositing to the next level by replicating the entire scene around an animated character in CG, to get lighting and reflections spot-on – and then dismiss all of it to combine the character with the live-action plate.
“We just don’t have time to do that at the moment,” he points out. “There’s definitely an advantage in doing a lot of things much faster.”
Read more in the Graphic Master Series.