What motivated The Molecule to implement virtual workstations?

The Molecule has carefully crafted digital content across media since 2005. Headquartered in New York and with a second location in Los Angeles, the bicoastal studio relies on talent from across the country to deliver their projects. Most recently, the team has focused on work for episodic television, delivering shots for ‘Ballers’, ‘Billions’ and ‘Happy!’, as well as feature thriller, ‘The Report.’

“We’ve already built a VPC (virtual private cloud) on AWS for rendering so linking our artists to virtual workstations wasn’t a far leap. The goal was to create a secure, in-home experience that closely matched being in the studio”, said The Molecule Founder, Chris Healer. “We also found that, by using virtual workstations on AWS, powered by NVIDIA® Quadro® technology, we could give our artists access to powerful machines equipped to handle the complex particle simulations required to create effects like smoke, fire and liquid. Rather than investing in new 96-core, 1TB RAM machines, our artists can log into AWS, work, log off and power down.”

“Having the flexibility to scale to service peak moments and hire artists who can’t physically come into the office is also a huge value add for us.”

– Chris Healer, Founder of The Molecule

'Billions', Showtime

How has The Molecule’s infrastructure evolved over time?

Historically, The Molecule purchased physical machines in batches of 10 or more, requiring sizable upfront investment. Virtualizing its workstations has given the studio access to increased GPU power, as their work requires it, and for a hourly cost.

To date, the studio has been able to deploy various AWS virtual workstation configurations, including Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) G4 instances – which feature NVIDIA® T4 Tensor Core GPUs and Quadro technology – and are optimized for VFX and animation workflows. These Linux-based virtual workstations are used to run Autodesk Maya, Foundry Nuke, SynthEyes, and Boris FX’s Mocha. Autodesk Shotgun production management software and custom in-house tools complete the pipeline, connecting the virtual and local pieces together across the New York and Los Angeles offices, which constantly share files. Storage is hosted on premises in the New York studio and connected to AWS over VPN.

What’s it been like working remotely and in the cloud?

Compositing Artist, Jesse Speer and VFX Supervisor/CG Artist, Nico Del Giudice were among the first to test the studio’s virtual workstation deployment. Speer, who has a long commute, noted, “Working from home is a massive upgrade in quality of life, and using virtual workstations is better than being in the studio in a lot of ways. Some local workstations are more desirable than others, mainly due to where they’re at in the hardware lifecycle. With virtual workstations on AWS, powered by NVIDIA® Quadro® technology, artists can always have their ideal specs and even go above and beyond (from a creative standpoint) because they can iterate more quickly and have more room to play within the budget, instead of worrying about clogging up the system.”

“I find myself looking forward to taking on even the most challenging shots since I know I’ll have the resources to be successful.”

– Nico Del Giudice, VFX Supervisor/CG Artist at The Molecule

Molecule VFX

Now having to work from home every day, how did The Molecule find this transition?

While The Molecule initially deployed virtual workstations as a perk for artists to occasionally work from home while also providing the ability to scale compute power on demand, working remotely recently became the new norm studio-wide as stay-at-home measures were implemented by governments worldwide. All artists now securely access the studio’s local network via virtual workstations, connecting their local setups to AWS using Teradici’s PC over IP (PCoIP) streaming protocol. Each morning, artists are emailed login credentials for the day, including licensing information for the digital content creation tool they’ll use. Outside of AWS, artists also tap into the company’s custom portal locally, which runs low-compute tasks like Slack and time-logging.

“The transition to remote working has been pretty seamless and our workflow has been largely unaffected,” Del Giudice shared. “I log into my virtual machine with my home internet and I’m up and running on AWS within seconds. I can do whatever’s needed in Maya – whether it’s 3D modeling, screen sharing or rotating models.”

“With virtual machines, changing workstations is instantaneous and doesn’t alter your physical setup. It may seem trivial but when you have to make ergonomic adjustments, such as swapping a keyboard, chair, or desk, it can hamper your creativity, whereas using AWS removes those limitations,” added Speer. “In some ways, remote collaboration has fueled our studio’s creativity and I’ve noticed increased input from some of our more soft-spoken artists. That said, there’s still a lot of value in organic in-person encounters that happen at the office.”

'The Report', Amazon

How does The Molecule adapt their solution to meet their specific needs?

The Molecule currently has nearly 40 users on virtual workstations with AWS, powered by NVIDIA Quadro, a setup that has laid the groundwork to scale with demand. They run on the AWS US East Region and are connected to The Molecule’s Manhattan headquarters via VPC. Healer mused, “We’ve been in the VFX industry for 15 years and, in that time, we’ve built seven office spaces across different cities, refining our setup each time. Even with key learnings, you can’t exactly replicate a local system. With AWS and its support for the latest advancements in computer graphics by NVIDIA, we’ve built a virtualized setup that’s well documented so it can be recreated and deployed in any region. We change and upgrade our AMI (Amazon Machine Image) daily and implementing a change company-wide is painless.”

“I’m familiar with other remote VFX workflows but have yet to see one that offers a level of customization as high as AWS.”

– Chris Healer, Founder of The Molecule

'Ballers', HBO

Post-lockdown, how will the studio integrate cloud compute with their existing hardware?

When artists return to The Molecule’s physical studios, Healer envisions using virtual workstations on AWS to extend the life of on-premises hardware. He concluded, “We have a lot of previous-generation computers, so being able to stream a powerful machine, like a G4 instance with Quadro technology, on an older workstation with AWS extends their shelf life, giving us far more ROI.”

Molecule VFX

What advice would Hive VFX give to a studio considering the move?

Operating in the cloud works for Hive VFX – Bernie explained why he’d encourage others to embrace the change too: “Don't be afraid. I think so many people for one reason or another, dismiss it. It's essentially a free playground. Why don't you just play around with it a little bit and see what happens? Because you have no commitment whatsoever.”

“If you can come up with a good plan and a good team, you can do it now.”

– Bernie Kimbacher, Founder of Hive VFX

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