Axis all areas

Set up in 1999 in Glasgow, Axis Studios originally focused on creating animated cut-scenes for video games, before making a conscious decision to seek out work beyond the games sector in 2012.

The result was its new VFX studio, which was set up in Bristol in 2013. Pre-pandemic, Axis’ work tended to be a 60/40 split, leaning either towards games or film/TV depending on in which year you asked the question, with the award-winning team working with a broad range of clients including Netflix, Universal Studios, Riot Games, HBO, Amazon Studios and Blizzard Entertainment.

Whilst the world has been coming to terms with the restrictions of a global pandemic, Axis, like many VFX and animation studios, has seized the opportunities that remote working has ushered in. But beyond the not-insignificant feat of continuing to run prosperously in these strange times, the studio has actually grown significantly in scale and diversity of content.

How has it switched so seamlessly from full studios with around 220 people onsite in Glasgow, to the current situation with over 400 people now working remotely on various projects? As with anything, from the inside it didn’t seem seamless at all!

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Ahead of the curve

“Axis was about three weeks ahead of the Scottish government in terms of business advice,” explains Peter Devlin, Head of IT & Facilities. “We’d pretty much sent everybody home and were done and dusted before the lockdown was announced.”

“50% or more of our people come from outside the UK, so they have contact with people from Italy, France, Spain, America, China - take your pick. In those circumstances it made sense for us to try and get ahead of the curve and keep our people safe. That meant we needed to deal with the remote working challenges as early as we could.”

Luckily, remote working was something Axis had been investigating and testing for the previous few months - COVID-19 simply hurried things along. In addition to the obvious question of how many people could be up and running quickly, were the challenges around security and data integrity. “We knew we’d have to adjust some of our approaches to facilitate successful remote working, whilst maintaining the required level of data security.”

“It was something we had to address quite quickly,” explains Paul Mackman, Chief Operations Officer, “in a way that kept everybody safe, but which also kept our projects progressing to the same high standards of quality, to the same deadlines and while servicing our clients as we always have. We knew we’d have to do something at a scale we hadn’t previously considered, but thankfully, we already had a suite of options up our sleeve and could move essentially from zero to one hundred in a very short space of time.”

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Three viable remote working solutions

Axis believes that something is never tested until it’s tested in production, so with Escape Technology acting as a consultant Peter took the bold step of shortlisting and testing three options side-by-side on live jobs. The options explored the full spectrum of remote working, from the one-to-many virtual route, to a one-to-one workstation solution, and of course took into account what the end-user had at home, whether that was a workstation, a laptop or a thin client hooked into their own network.

Before testing began, Peter admits that they favoured the idea of rack-dense solutions, with an eye on minimising the physical impact on the studio, particularly as they quickly realised they were going to have minimal hands in the studio (ie just Peter himself!) to deal with any issues that arose.

Peter picks up the story: “We looked at a sophisticated hyper-converged solution using Dell EMC VxRail hardware with a significant amount of additional graphics capability fitted on top of its compute. The huge advantage to a solution like this is that it comes with an almost self-service capability for defining very quickly workstations, resources, spinning up images etc.”

“It was fantastic for IT and system admin in terms of provisioning different workstation builds and getting them out there, but the challenge was the upfront cost. We also found that we couldn’t adequately provision workstation builds to our requirements within the VxRail context, and were just too limited in terms of Nvidia driver support.”

Build-your-own solution

The second solution the team tested was a rack-mount chassis running Hypervisor software for VMware toolsets. “That single box had a lot of processor power and a high number of quality graphics cards. Teradici was the chosen client for accessing the virtual machines running on the box, while the virtual machines were provisioned in classic VMware scenario: one machine with VDI passthrough allocated a certain amount of resource on the graphics card, memory and CPU. It wasn’t such a hyper-converged solution, more a build-your-own-solution.”

“It was a powerful and theoretically expensive kit for a good per-user price point,” reflects Peter. “In effect we had the same feedback from the artists as we did for the hyper-converged solution. It was perhaps a little more unwieldy to set up for different tenants, requiring slightly more IT administration, but it was quite capable and up to the job… except, once we looked at multi-tenanted demanding artists i.e. those needing 12 to 16 gigs of VRAM we found that it wasn’t feasible for artists to share graphics hardware.”

“Theoretically Nvidia Grid can split graphics cards up and allow the artists to share the GPU. And that’s fine until an artist comes along and runs a hair simulation. Suddenly the artist sees his or her remote access experience degrade dramatically, along with any other tenant who’s also using that same graphics card. In the VFX and animation worlds, that’s just not feasible. Due to the time restraints we had, we weren’t able to solve that problem properly.”

Simply the best

So onto the third – and ultimately successful – solution that the Axis team tested. Technically speaking, this was the most straightforward of the three: 1U rack mounted workstations running Teradici Cloud Access, with each artist also running Teradici software to connect on a one-to-one basis from outside of the Firewall.

“This created the best user experience, but was also more challenging to operate. It was also the least expensive of the routes to go down. So after testing and despite our desire to save rack-space, resources and everything else, from a VFX/animation artist end-user perspective, this was the correct solution. Ultimately,” Peter concludes, “when it comes to rendering things on a graphics card, the limitation is the graphics card’s RAM. In theory you can chain up multiple Nvidia graphics cards and aggregate the VRAM using NVidia Grid, but at the moment the cost of doing that doesn’t make sense.”

One other solution that was considered, but which didn’t make it through initial testing was Sherpa with AWS workstations. This is something that the team is circling back around to, exploring the idea of building a virtual studio on the cloud.

Expanding into a global workspace

That virtual studio could be the perfect solution needed to support the studio’s continual growth in numbers, with its multinational team expanding across the world. Peter notes that the reality of a global workspace that doesn’t require (for example) an artist in Spain to move to Glasgow, has been the silver lining in a particularly horrible cloud. With work flowing into both the Glasgow and Bristol studios, further expansion is something that will very clearly need addressing sooner rather than later. Whatever solution Axis chooses, Escape Technology will be on hand to provide support and consultancy, adding its own expertise to Peter’s wisdom and pragmatic approach. 

As well as sheer numbers, the confidence to continue delivering work of the highest quality has also grown during the pandemic. It began with a YouTube project for Magic The Gathering which went live shortly after lockdown and garnered 29 million views, and continues with clients returning with more work, or expanding existing projects. The team has in fact completed Fourteen projects so far during lockdown, including A Discovery of Witches for Sky and the animated series Legends of Runeterra for Riot Games.

Peter and Paul see this as a tribute to the whole team, culminating in their work for Sony's Playstation 5 launch title game Sackboy: A Big Adventure  which challenged Axis to find a way to work in the game’s engine, using just the controller, from off-site. It was a problem the team solved, and the fruits of this next-gen labour was revealed to the world in mid November.

With thoughts on the Axis studio team who has overcome all kinds of challenges to keep delivering this high quality work, Paul makes a final poignant point: “Okay, we can all work remotely, but how does everyone feel about that? Focus is up, but the sense of connection is harder to achieve. How do we keep people feeling part of it? How do we nurture that group identity? We know that many of our solutions will need to be people solutions as much as technology solutions.”