Preymaker's Latest Innovation: a Fully Cloud-Based Color Workflow

Angus Kneale on infrastructure for a remote world

Image: Xfinity, via Preymaker

Having championed technological innovation in the name of creativity for more than two decades, it's only fitting that Preymaker co-founder and chief creative Angus Kneale embraced a forward-looking approach to standing up his studio's infrastructure. Opting to skip hardware procurement and setup from a physical standpoint, he established the creative studio wholly on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Now, with more than a year of production under its belt, Preymaker, formed with fellow ad industry veterans Melanie Wickham and Verity Grantham, is hitting its stride. The company's diverse talent base is rapidly expanding worldwide, and the studio is becoming a go-to resource for agencies and brands for its ability to make things happen, quickly and beautifully. 

Preymaker was formed with a primary goal to constantly innovate and invent, fueling the ability to create and craft stand-out content and experiences. Prior to Preymaker, Kneale co-founded The Mill New York, where he led the creation of unique innovations like The Blackbird, Cyclops and Mascot, developments that leverage real-time technology to make high-quality computer graphics (CG) content production faster and more efficient. Continuing that pioneering legacy at Preymaker, Kneale ensured that the studio's fully virtualized workflow would be capable of facilitating visual effects, design, VR, AR and color grading—an industry first. 

"I'd been closely watching the evolution of the cloud for many years and was very interested in how to harness this growing power. Then, when we started building Preymaker, the timing was perfect, the cloud technology looked ready," Kneale explained. "We use a diverse suite of tools and software, from Unreal Engine to Houdini and Flame, so making sure all of these fundamentals were solid was key. Like building a house, your foundations have to be sound. We have strong relationships with Foundry and Autodesk, and we use a lot of Flame, so being able to use that in the cloud was pivotal. Fortunately, Autodesk was very supportive of our vision and, working together with AWS, we're now able to run multiple Flame workstations in the cloud and artists can collaborate simultaneously. Getting Flame to run seamlessly in our virtual environment was huge. Gradually, we have been getting each part of our process refined and implemented. It is very exciting."

Preymaker's infrastructure is entirely virtualized, even in its 10,000-square-foot Manhattan studio space. Artists in the New York office collaborate with talent working in locations around the world, including Los Angeles, London and as far as New Zealand. They connect to the studio infrastructure on AWS using various devices, such as Wacom tablets, and with a zero client or software client. Leveraging Windows- and Linux-based virtual workstations, the studio uses Weka IO's WekaFS file server linked to Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) for centralized data that can be securely accessed by Preymaker artists from virtually anywhere.

Embracing a 100-percent cloud workflow enables ways of working that were previously impossible. "It's remarkable how our artists are able to collaborate seamlessly across the globe. An artist in London can be working on a timeline and hit save, then an artist in New York or Los Angeles can take over in seconds. We don't have to move data around, it's already there in one place," said Kneale. "By making our cloud studio transparent to our whole team, it enables more time to focus on creativity, craft and innovation." 

In implementing a color in the cloud workflow, consistent playback initially proved a challenge. To overcome this, Preymaker built a secure, high-speed, low latency broadcasting platform that allows real-time streaming for anyone, anywhere in the world. For Preymaker, this was a game changer that meant no matter where the client was located, they can view a live session with Preymaker from their cloud studio within seconds. Having successfully bypassed this roadblock, Preymaker now implements the technology across all their systems in the cloud.

"Pre-pandemic, clients would come into the studio for reviews and we still do live working sessions. However, now more clients prefer to log onto their own devices and see a low-latency stream for real-time collaboration. Color calibration and monitoring are key in media and entertainment creation, so we try to make sure our environment supports widely accessible devices with quality color profiles," Kneale explained.

With a focus on innovation and crafting content, Preymaker's ability to quickly scale with cloud-based resources has helped it deliver high-quality projects even with incredibly tight turnarounds. The cloud has reduced traditional compute bottlenecks and freed artists to complete more iterations. The studio's global reach further bolsters its capabilities. 

"Schedules and timelines are always shrinking, and AWS gives us the agility we need to do projects we couldn't otherwise," noted Kneale. Sharing how the cloud impacted the studio's work for the Coors Big Game commercial, he elaborated, "Because we were using AWS and had artists in multiple locations, we were able to complete our work for a very high-profile [Super Bowl] commercial spot in about 24 hours. Our colorist in Los Angeles started the project, then it was picked up in London for the conform, which New York then completed, did the effects work and delivered. Ultimately, the cloud gives us the flexibility to execute complicated, compute-intensive work in a short amount of time and accommodate our clients' needs." 

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Along with Amazon S3, Preymaker leverages Amazon Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) G4 and G5 Instances to power its virtual workstations, Amazon EC2 Spot Instances for rendering, and AWS Thinkbox Deadline for render farm management. It's also begun tapping AWS Local Zones in New York and Los Angeles to further enhance the artist experience. In addition to Flame and Resolve, the studio uses Autodesk Maya and Arnold; SideFX's Houdini and Mantra; Foundry's Nuke; Adobe Creative Cloud services; and Epic Games' Unreal Engine, and works in the ACES color space. To facilitate collaboration, project management is done through Autodesk ShotGrid, and artists communicate via Slack. 

"Working across time zones forces us to plan ahead and maintain good communication, even more so when artists are remote. Nothing beats being in the same room, but being able to replicate that experience virtually and collaborate is a close second," Kneale shared. "With our workflow on AWS, even if artists are in-studio, they aren't tied to a desk. They have more flexibility and can achieve a better work/life balance."

As Preymaker continues to grow and thrive, Kneale anticipates further innovation in cloud-based color workflows, including the use of real-time technology. He concluded, "This industry tends to attract curious minds with a penchant for problem-solving and an adventurous spirit. We like to consistently try new ideas and find better ways of achieving them, and when it all works, it's an amazing feeling. We've entered a bit of a technology renaissance, with the cloud and real-time tools coming of age, and people are using them in unexpected ways to yield extraordinary results." 

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards, editor of Muse by Clio, and host of the podcast Tagline. He is the former creative editor of Adweek.

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