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Case study

Final Pixel advances virtual production possibilities with LucidLink

A bleeding-edge cloud-based creative-first international Virtual Production hub with superfast, secure remote distributed performance

The company

Final Pixel is a global creative studio specializing in end-to-end virtual production for film, TV, and advertising. Their methodology of blending realistic 3D worlds with real-world sets to create photoreal, cinematic environments filmed in real-time. Final Pixel’s team spans continents and time zones. Through Final Pixel Academy, they are training and upskilling the next generation of virtual production artists, technicians, producers, and directors in the latest technology that is constantly evolving and rapidly changing.

First to market cloud-based virtual production

One of the virtues of virtual production is the inherent flexibility for producers to base projects in any location. Final Pixel takes this to its logical next stage, which is VP-as-a-service.

“Since conception, every single shoot that Final Pixel has done has always pushed the boundaries of testing new hardware, new software, and new ways of doing things – that’s where LucidLink comes in,” says Dominic Maher, Technical Artist, Final Pixel.

Established in late 2020, Final Pixel is a fully remote creative-led virtual production house that services film, TV, and advertising productions end-to-end. It does not have any on-premise facilities. Instead, Final Pixel is completely remote and brings virtual production to their customers. Using cloud-based tools and in-house expertise Final Pixel provides everything from project management including bespoke Volume stage builds, to Virtual Art Departments (VAD), and production execution.

Final Pixel Executive Producer, Monica Hinden says, “Final Pixel’s approach is first and foremost from the producer’s viewpoint. We speak their language and realize the true potential of this convergence of production and technology. Since remote work is now a mainstay for most companies, the benefits are significant, and it feels like an extremely exciting time in the industry, reminiscent of the early days of film.”

It is an approach that has already attracted a slate of projects to shoot with Final Pixel, including ABC, Discovery, Scripps, and Shutterstock. Final Pixel’s mission is to develop virtual production solutions for clients who don’t have blockbuster budgets. For example, Scripps and Discovery used Final Pixel for their TV upfronts for their primary media sales event in the US taking advantage of their affordable virtual production solution.  

“From day one, we set up as a remote collaborative creative company,” says Maher. “Our founders are based in LA, New York, and London, and we scale to 20 or 200 artists and production talent depending on the scale of the project. Our vision was always to work with the best freelance talent from all over the world and connect them remotely.”

“The potential for our clients to save money, time, and effort, and also improve their creative scope, is huge,” says Maher.

Connecting to LucidLink

At that very start, Final Pixel used zip files to shuttle media between creative teams internally but knew that they needed cloud storage long term.

We’ve got artists all over the world. They’re working in different time zones. We quickly realized that this is a horrendous way to manage content for a global company.
Dominic MaherTechnical Artist, Final Pixel
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In 2021, Final Pixel began investigating solutions for cloud storage with a set of criteria. The solution had to be simple to use, transparent to users, super fast and secure.

Maher says, “We researched online and talked to several vendors, and LucidLink kept coming up time and time again. We had questions about how it would work, but there was only one way to find out.”

The team took it upon themselves to test a proof of concept with LucidLink.

“We set it up ourselves. It was straightforward to do just from the LucidLink website.  The questions we wanted to address were things like do we need a VPN or a separate application, and would it fit with the compliance protocols of our clients.

Maher adds, “LucidLink is a file stream protocol built on S3 object storage – but object storage doesn’t traditionally lend itself to this type of purpose. LucidLink is able to work some magic where it converts data on the fly into a usable file system. Once we got our heads around that and began experimenting with it, we thought this was almost too good to be true.

“There’s simply no comparison in terms of cost between using physical servers versus a cloud NAS solution like LucidLink, but LucidLink also has the performance of a full cloud NAS solution with the cost of object storage. That combination is a no-brainer.”

The end goal is to make the process of admin activity so simple that Final Pixel’s artists can do what they do best: create sumptuous 3D environments.

Iterating the creative in the virtual environment

VFX costs on a high-budget sci-fi or fantasy film can be as high as 20 percent of the total film budget, but shooting against an LED wall significantly reduces overheads for compositing and rotoscoping. That’s because VP flips the traditional linear process of making movies on its head.

With traditional VFX, if you want to make a change at any point, you have to go all the way back to that point and take the shot through the pipeline again. With game engines, all the individual aspects of a linear pipe are put into one environment to co-exist simultaneously. Potentially you have production design, lighting, layout modeling and animation all happening at the same time in one environment.

Maher says, “VP is very iterative in the sense that instead of working on shots sequentially, you do lots of different things in parallel and maybe sometimes out of sequence. LucidLink fits into that perfectly because the whole process is so transparent. We’re all working remotely from assets stored in the cloud, but with LucidLink it’s like there is a drive attached to your machine.”

This pooling of resources allows for greater creative freedom through more rapid iteration and feedback by seeing the results before principal photography. Final Pixel’s work ranges from creating internal presentations with massive video files to creating final pixel assets at every stage from pre-viz to post.

“LucidLink is the primary way we share all of our files,” says Maher.

Final Pixel’s core software is Unreal Engine. Teams of animators, VFX artists, and virtual art department designers also use staple video editing, compositing, 3D animation, and motion graphics tools like Nuke, 3DS Max, and Maya to build digital assets.

“The vast majority are working at home from either their own workstations or with Final Pixel hardware and directly from LucidLink,” Maher explains. “We’ve had them install the client. We’ve documented that process internally. Everyone is able to get on fine with that. They keep the files on LucidLink, they stream files to their workstation and send it back directly to LucidLink. Everyone has access to the same files and pool of storage.

“Simplicity and performance is what we need when we want to spin up a project for clients,” he adds. “We want to onboard them quickly, and with LucidLink you just add a virtual drive to your desktop. That was super attractive. The UI is extremely intuitive. Anyone with permissions can upload a file to the LucidLink drive and replicate it to everyone else in seconds.

The feedback we’ve had from our artists is that the performance is the same as if they were attached to a local NAS. They can’t tell any difference in speed, latency, or image quality.
Dominic MaherTechnical Artist, Final Pixel
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Compliant with studio security protocols

One of the factors driving Final Pixel’s adoption of LucidLink was the need to secure content. “Keeping data off local machines was a key consideration for us. We’ve done our due diligence and know our files are encrypted in transit by LucidLink from user machines to S3 storage.

“If we were to download data to our machines and keep it there it is a much, much riskier proposition but with LucidLink, that problem is solved. With LucidLink, data is being streamed in such a way that just a little window of data reaches the machine. No data is stored locally for any length of time, so from a security perspective, we felt much, much more comfortable.”

Results

LucidLink is now core to all virtual production solutions at Final Pixel. “It is,” says Maher, “an enabling technology integral to our workflows. It is the backbone of everything that we do collaboratively.”

He continues, “Being able to spin up virtual workstations in the cloud has only recently become a viable option for the industry. That methodology has been used for years in the banking industry, for example, but using remote desktops to handle the payload of assets that we need for film and TV requires grunt horsepower from a computer, plus it needs to be extremely responsive, and that’s only possible now.”

Cloud technology has not only reached a point of maturity, but the cost of ingress and egress in and out of a public cloud like AWS or Azure is now feasible. Many more creative production companies will launch using virtualized machines, interconnected cloud services, and geographically distributed teams instead of renting premises and populating dedicated suites with hardware. Final Pixel is ahead of the curve.

If we need to hire a team of artists at the drop of a hat, we can have that set up in our environment with LucidLink and access to Unreal Engine in just 10-15 minutes. That kind of flexibility is incredibly powerful. It has completely changed how we work.
Dominic MaherTechnical Artist, Final Pixel
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About Virtual Production

Virtual Production (VP) is the hottest new methodology in content creation. At its core is a real-time games engine and the representation of 3D worlds on a giant LED wall to create the illusion of a real environment.

In this sense, VP is an extension of classic filmmaking techniques like front and rear projection or green screen in which actors are filmed against artificial backdrops for cost efficiency and greater control. What is radically different with virtual production is the introduction of an interactive light source that enables the cinematographer to capture final frames in-camera.

Filmmakers are adopting the technique because it enables, among other things, the lead creatives to iterate decisions in pre-production and on set, taking the guesswork out of post-production. It also enables actors to respond to real environments improving their performance. This process can also save considerable time and money by not flying crew to multiple locations. The pandemic has accelerated adoption since production personnel, creatives, and on-screen talent can operate safely, often working remotely from the set.

Dozens of studios have launched worldwide to cater for virtual production, but none are doing so in quite the ground-breaking manner as Final Pixel.

SaaS offering, no hardware or IT support required

End-to-end security encryption

Works with any object storage

Instant on-demand file access from anywhere

Works with any OS