Hollywood-based Muse VFX is no stranger to producing epic visual effects for prestigious clients including Sony Pictures, Warner Bros and DreamWorks. They’ve risen to become one of the top VFX houses for episodic television, creating complex sequences for shows that have been a staple for many, including Star Trek Voyager, Star Trek Enterprise and Lost. They’ve garnered quite a few loyal clients over the years, largely in part to their ability to continuously evolve their skillset and pipeline, all while maintaining an unwavering passion to deliver quality work with impressively quick turnarounds. As Fred Pienkos, the studio’s founder and VP states, “together, we solve problems and create beautiful imagery under extremely short deadlines and tight budgets. At the end of the day, we still absolutely love what we do.”
VFX pros across the industry understand all too well that their choice of rendering solution can make the final process either efficient or infuriating. As Muse does not shy away from large-scale projects, they are rightfully picky about the software they can rely on to generate high-powered effects. The studio came to a crossroads in their rendering workflow one morning when they were tasked with delivering a large format project consisting of a dozen, 20-second-long sequences, all at 12K and 30 FPS. To raise the stakes even higher, they only had a 2 month turn around, which amounts to a blink of an eye for a project of this scale. As Lead Artist/TD Stefan Bredereck states, “I knew that with the render workflow and the CPU based render engine, we would not be able to finish the project within the proposed schedule.” The scope of the project was simply too large, and the team did not yet have enough render power to rely on. As it was, their CPU rendering pipeline was enough to elicit a “big audible sigh when needing to render legacy assets.”
Not being the type to give up easily, Bredereck began seeking out alternative options. While researching, he happened upon Redshift and was quickly impressed by its GPU rendering capabilities, the first he had seen that produced production-grade results. “I thought the ideas were incredibly smart, and this is the way it should be done,” states Bredereck. After a phone call from Pienkos, it didn’t take long for a relationship to emerge between Redshift and Muse VFX. The project was delivered to satisfaction, as would be many others to come, as the studio integrated Redshift as their main render solution with 100 GPUs replacing most of their former CPU nodes.
Recently, Muse VFX was brought onboard MTV’s hit series Teen Wolf, where the team was tasked with two especially challenging sequences to bring the series to a close. For the first, the goal was to help break the show’s heroes out of stone shells in which they were encased by the show’s villain, the Anuk-ite. This sequence was complex, requiring a combination of rigid body, particle and fluid simulations. It would warrant multiple iterations and client revisions but, to fit with the studio’s running theme, also had to be completed quickly. The second sequence dealt with the defeat of the Anuk-ite, in which a substance called Mountain Ash would surround the villain in a “dark creeping vortex cloud,” and eventually turn him to stone. The shot required expertise in creating a variety of dynamic effects that interacted cohesively. Bredereck knew that Redshift and its recently released Houdini integration would be perfect for the job.
The combination of Redshift and Houdini was especially suited for these difficult sequences because it allowed the team to directly render volumes of fluid simulations at incredible speeds. Using Redshift’s native volume shader, the team was able to render everything in one engine with one lighting setup. Since they knew any completed work would likely need further iteration or art direction, this added a refreshing efficiency to the look development process that allowed them to direct their focus towards the quality of the work, rather than towards worrying if it would be completed on schedule.
The quick turnaround was one of the most significant obstacles facing the team, as they were granted only 2 weeks of post-production per episode. John Gross, the studio’s founder and VFX Supervisor on the show, would address any aesthetic changes with his team on site, and then watch as his requests were implemented right before his eyes, in near real-time. This enabled Gross and the client to choose, without delay, which option would be the best fit for the show. With Redshift, Bredereck states, they could “render 3 different looks overnight, where with our CPU renderer we would have barely finished one version.” The artists were also able to push the boundaries of their own workflows for FX with Redshift’s capacity to handle complex lighting and global illumination along with volume effects. As Bredereck explains “using global illumination in combination with glossy surfaces, frosted reflections and complex volume renders of fluid simulations… and not waiting 5 hours for a frame or getting a super noisy result, that is just amazing.”
The effects industry is ever-evolving, and with this, prominent VFX houses like Muse face increasing requirements for powerful and effective rendering solutions. Studios will need more machines, more render power and more room but will likely be continuing to face the same tight turnaround times. Grabbing more machines might seem like a quick fix, but eventually space will run out and studios will be left facing the same issues, perhaps on an even grander scale. Muse VFX has effectively resolved this issue by switching over to GPU rendering. The studio is currently using quad GPU nodes with 4 Pascal Titans in one render node. They’re finding that Redshift running on a single Titan is still able to outperform as many as 9 dual CPU nodes. According to Bredereck, “the benefit of using any number of large textures and billions of polygons and not being limited to just the GPU memory are the features that get us through the work day and enable us to deliver on time.”
Since the wrap of Teen Wolf, Muse continues to take on high-volume projects with Redshift. The studio has taken the time to shop around for any and all GPU rendering options to make sure that they move forward with the one that is best for them. “At the end of the day,” says Bredereck, “our philosophy is to use the right tool for the job. Based on the project, that may be Maya, 3ds Max or Houdini, but in all cases, it is always with Redshift these days.”
All images in this article are Copyright 2017 MTV.