The holiday season crept up on us again and before we knew it, it was time to create another spot for Zoo Lights at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. This time around the concept started out as an effort to use the billboard designs to create simple motion graphic animations, then cut together some existing b-roll and wrap it up with a title card.
However, the more we sat and discussed the final product, the more apparent it became that we had an opportunity to take it a lot further. True to our over reaching nature...that's exactly what we did.
When I was creating the project page for this project, I was struck by the thought that this entire thing wouldn't have been possible for us to do (as easily), just 3 years ago. Then there were huge barriers between a boutique and a polished high end 3d animation that pushed towards realism. The barriers were surmountable if you had the cash to invest in render farms and permanent licenses of software. So with that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to break down the 3 things that made this project possible that may or may not have been available a few years ago.
1. Subscription Licensing
As much as I adore working in Maya, purchasing a permanent license or even a year's subscription is just not cost effective for us. Especially with as often as they are updating the software now. It helps out immensely that when we have a project that requires high end 3d, I can buy a seat for a month or two and then cut the subscription off when the project is complete. This is useful for freelancers as well, because I can administer licenses to a distributed team through the Autodesk website. With the system that exists now, anyone on the project can be using the most up to date version of Maya from anywhere.
2. Arnold and xGen
Speaking of the most up to date versions of Maya. In the 2017 release they completed the turn away from Mental Ray and bundled a single license of Arnold. I'd done some testing with the demo version Arnold a couple years ago and really enjoyed it, but we had just invested in Renderman 19 so it never really went any where. Now that it is part of package, I am in love with it. The level of quality we were able to get out of our lighting, shaders, and subsequent renders took minimal effort and zero additional overhead since it was included in the subscription.
Similarly, a few releases ago Autodesk started bundling xGen with Maya as well. Before xGen, hair and fur was doable through nHair and Maya Fur, but xGen blows them both out of the water with its flexibility and robust toolset. For me, the learning curve was a little steep because documentation was a little lacking in the beginning, but that seem's to be getting better.
3. Cloud Rendering
All of that fancy fur and high quality rendering added up to some pretty decent render times. It wasn't insane by any stretch, but it was just enough that it would have been hard to meet the deadline if we had to re render anything. And of course we had to re render things. Twice. Thankfully there are a great selection of cloud renderers out there that allow us to offload that computing power to a virtual farm without having to maintain any equipment of our own.
For this job we chose to use Rebus Farm. This farm is based out of Germany and has over 71,000 gHz of processing power available. Their Rebus Drop software made is incredibly simple to sync our project and all the necessary files without ever having to leave Maya. Most of the time, once the files hit the farm rendering began immediately and was completed incredibly quickly. The rendered EXR's would then automatically sync locally. We only ran into one hiccup with some files that wouldn't sync properly, and their customer service was quick to fix the problem. All told we were able to render the entire animation in less time than our machines could have rendered a handful of frames. In most cases it took longer to sync files than it did to render them.
These three things are sort of the tip of this iceberg. It's a crazy time to be creating animated content. Being competitive in this industry used to be all about what tools you had on hand. But now, it's all about what you do with those tools. And that's a much more interesting playing field to navigate.