Sliced Bread Animation thinks Sherpa is the best thing since…

Sliced Bread Animation is a small but perfectly formed London-based, award-winning animation and technology studio. It has built a worldwide reputation thanks to a diverse range of work including 4K, 360-degree VR projects in the healthcare sector; a CGI showcase for Academy Awards®-winning camera lens manufacturer Cooke Optics; social-media gamification for brands including Coca-Cola and punchy explainer animations for organisations such as Royal Mail.
The story of Sliced Bread Animation starts just over 20 years ago, when the cost to enter the world of digital animation went from sky high, to something much more affordable. Jamie Denham, Sliced Bread Animation’s Managing Director is talking to us from the studio’s Bethnal Green office, and tells us how this shift in pricing was pivotal in the formation of Sliced Bread.
“I was previously a Director at a new media agency in the 90s before we all went our separate ways. At that time, I had a Silicon Graphics machine. It wasn’t even the top spec one, but it was worth a considerable amount of money.” These were costs that would make it daunting, if not impossible, to set up a new CG-animation studio. Luckily for Jamie and his founding partner Christina Villics, as the leading manufacturers and developers sought to compete with one another, these high prices began to reduce to levels accessible to smaller studio customers.
“Around 2001, 2002, the costs began to fall rapidly,” Jamie continues, “and it made everything a lot more accessible when it came to animating CG content. My brother worked in tech, and he built a machine for me that was roughly the equivalent of that Silicon Graphics machine (but without its specialist chip set), for around £3,500.” This new level of affordability meant that Jamie and Aardman-animator Christina could start Sliced Bread and look to carve out their own niche in this burgeoning sector.



Stepping up

Jamie is quick to point out however that it wasn’t a world of instant glamour. “We got a fourth floor office in Covent Garden, so we had a desirable address. And we got it at a great price… because the lift in the building didn’t actually go up to the fourth floor.”
With an office, machines and ambition, Sliced Bread just needed one more thing: work. “In those days people didn’t really know where to get animation for their websites, so we did a lot of digital content for that, and for YouTube ads, until in 2005, we did an online animated series for Sony called Trona.”
This series was conceived, scripted and created by Sliced Bread, and demanded that the team come up with a pipeline that allowed for high-quality production, but that could also keep up with a schedule that saw a new episode published every week for six months.
“We did all the rendering in house, and did it using our workstations. We kept the resolution low, 640x540, and kept the scenes fairly simple, and I was going around the room at the end of the day and clicking ‘render’ on each workstation!”


Growing pains


With the learnings of that project behind them, Jamie began to look around for a more powerful and robust solution to animating and rendering. They bought some cheap servers, and began using RenderPal. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Jamie tells us that in their set up, it had a tendency to fall over and they just couldn’t deliver solutions in the timeframes that Sliced Bread needed.
The studio’s new servers also introduced additional issues into the equation. “Keeping them cool, maintaining them, ensuring they had all the right licences and keeping them all up to date brought with it a lot of extra work,” says Jamie. This is a theme we’ll come back to shortly.
Sliced Bread moved to its current home roughly six years ago and began working with Escape Technology for technical support, which began with exploring options to keep the studio’s render farm cool. “I think we looked at every single option, including having the servers in cabinets with vents going out of the windows,” laughs Jamie.



Moving to the cloud


As with most studios, the pandemic pushed Sliced Bread to accelerate its move into virtual workstations. To keep working, the team was having to move machines around, to get the workstations to where Sliced Bread’s animators were – something made even trickier when during lockdown Sliced Bread was locked out of its own studio by its landlord.
Jamie was approached by several companies offering cloud-based/remote-working solutions, but the combination of his existing relationship with the experts at Escape, and the power and flexibility of Sherpa, the cloud-resource management tool built from the ground up by Escape, meant that there was only ever one winner.
“Escape’s experience of VFX pipelines, animators, software like Deadline and Arnold, and handling all those licences was something the others couldn’t match. I felt that because Escape had done so much work with the big boys of the industry, the things they’ve learned would trickle down and help us.”

Sliced Bread’s Sherpa solution


Sherpa puts Sliced Bread’s render farm in the cloud, meaning the creative team doesn’t need to stop animating to render, or even wait until the end of the day, it can be done as and when it’s needed, with no impact on the studio workstations.
Everything in Sherpa is an extension of the studio it’s part of. It doesn’t impose any way of working, it can be tailored to fit around the way Sliced Bread works, and Jamie and the team are always in control thanks to the simple-to-use GUI.
These features bring with it a huge range of benefits. “We’ve got five render nodes set up on Sherpa, along with Nuke and Deadline – we’ve pretty much stuck everything to do with rendering and production up there, and we do the animation in the studio. Everything lives on Sherpa for us. We’re not worrying about air-conditioned rooms for servers, if we need more storage we can just add it, and Escape handles all the licences for us. But we’re not rendering all the time, and with Sherpa we can dial up and dial down to match what we’ve got going on.
“We have our build on Sherpa and we can turn it on or off really quite quickly. If a project comes in, we can check that our build is all ready to go, and if we need to, we can spec up our workstations as much as we need just for that one project. It’s a fantastic way to accelerate our production. This year we’ve had two projects where we’ve created VR animations. That’s 4K, 360-degree video, which is huge. But we haven’t got a project like that at the moment, we don’t need that rendering power so we’ve simply turned it all off.”
Sliced Bread’s core team of six includes an animator in Italy. But the connection to Sherpa works as if they are in the Bethnal Green studio. The inherent scalability of Sherpa means  Sliced Bread can pitch on bigger projects, then find and use the talent required, wherever in the world it happens to be.


Safety nets and budget controls


Jamie admits that before he started using Sherpa, one of his main concerns was about remembering to turn off his cloud-based workstations when the studio didn’t need them. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the VFX artist going on holiday and returning to find a massive rendering bill waiting for them. With Sherpa, that’s not a concern. Its built-in automatic scheduler means you can be confident it’s only on when you want it to be.
This is supported by another safety net that automatically powers everything down if usage drops below 7%. And with the ability to set up what you need, and see an itemised budget before you commit to turning it on, Sherpa is a great way for smaller studios to pitch on work with a clear idea of upfront costs, and keep a tight control of their spend.
Sherpa also helps Sliced Bread to keep a close eye on how renders are going. During a recent project, a check on progress revealed a problem with the lighting on every fourth or fifth frame. Escape quickly identified the issue was with the set up of one of the render nodes, and solved it quickly. Because Sherpa is an extension of Sliced Bread’s facility this could be spotted and corrected during the process rather than after, something that saved time and money, and kept the project on track.
The ability to keep an eye on progress is something Jamie particularly values. “I can check progress on renders at any time, and from anywhere. I can check it from home and even if I’m on holiday if I wanted.” He pauses and looks a bit apologetic, before continuing with a smile, “I think I’ve even done that.”




Focusing on what’s important


A recent project in which the power of Sherpa helped to deliver stunning visuals was for Cooke Optics, the UK-based camera-lens manufacturer which helped bring films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather Part II and Star Wars: A New Hope to the screen. To bring the brand to modern filmmaking, Sliced Bread created a series of stunning CGI videos and images to highlight the elegance and technical wonder that’s behind these lenses.
By using CGI rather than practical image capture, Sliced Bread could manage every detail of every frame. The resulting photorealistic videos and images demonstrate the vision of the Sliced Bread animators and the power of Sherpa to bring them to life.
As we end our conversation, Jamie reflects on how far Sliced Bread has come. Now that he doesn’t have to worry about power, cooling, licences and buying the equipment, he can focus on doing what the Managing Director of any small studio wants to do. “I never wanted to be bothered by doing the IT bit. If I think back to all the times I had to come into the office at night or weekends to sort renders out – I don’t want to count those hours! Now I can just get on with running the business.”


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