Sofronis Efstathiou (Saf) is a principle lecturer at Bournemouth University and Joint Programme Leader for the MA 3D Computer Animation course. Saf is also the BFX festival director which has just celebrated its sixth year.
Saf shares insight into the BFX competition and explains how YellowDog’s Cloud Render Service has helped student competitors deliver their 3D renders with a new level of professionalism.
Originally, the BFX Competition wasn’t for charity but before the third year, Peter Truckle, director of The VFX Hub in Bournemouth, talked with Kingston Smith who had just finished funding an animation created by Aardman for charity.
Kingston Smith wanted to do more charity work with animation studios. Peter was able to propose using the BFX competition as a collection of student studios, whilst being mentored by world-class industry practitioners. That is how we started the BFX Competition as people know it today.
This year we had students from universities in Falmouth, Dundee, University South Wales, Ulster, and Northumbria, as well as from Arts University Bournemouth (AUB) and Bournemouth University (BU).
Students stay on campus for seven weeks and studios including MPC, ILM, Framestore, DNEG, Blue Zoo, JellyFish Pictures, Hibbert Ralph Animation and Outpost VFX plus freelancers such as Tessa Mapp and Paul Campion commit to coming down every other week to mentor the students. The studios usually send artists who have supervised or directed shots and led teams. It is an incredible collaboration.
We give competitors a shopping list of what pipeline software is available off the shelf. If the students need something that we don’t have, then they tell us and we do our best to source it for them. For example, students requested Toon Boom and they provided some licensing. The same happened with TVPaint so I think it is fair to say that we’re well looked after by many software vendors.
Most students come from an Arnold background but when they come here, they often use V-Ray for the first time and they pick it up quickly.
The general toolset students use is Maya and Houdini for animation, rigging, FX, shader dev and layout, Z-Brush for sculpt, Mari or Substance Painter for texturing, Nuke for compositing, and the Adobe suite will also be used at various points. As well as learning how to animate a film from start to finish, the students really get to figure out how to move assets from one software to another. That’s a skill in itself!
For the first time ever, they used YellowDog for all the rendering.
Tom Box at Blue Zoo referred YellowDog to me and the team here. A referral from one of the best loved animation studios in the UK comes with gravitas. His experience rendering Redshift with YellowDog was really good for some of their work including their Christmas Short ‘No More Stuff’.
As Tom and Blue Zoo had been involved in the competition as mentors, he had seen the problems that YellowDog could solve.
Bournemouth University has a local render farm. In previous years, at the same time as the BFX competition, there are 80 post graduate students rendering their films. When we have another 50 students from the competition added to the farm queue, it becomes a bottleneck.
The render farm uses Qube to manage the upload and slots but the students don’t really see what’s happening. They just send it off from their desktops and hope for the best. It is a stressful time; there have been times when they just didn’t get their renders finished.
Being able to give the students a reliable way to produce and manage their renders for the first time ever was invaluable and important to us as staff. We’re just so impressed with YellowDog!
Traditionally, the last two weeks of the competition is crazy chaos. It has never been unmanageable but students get tired, they pull famed all-nighters, make mistakes and send off often incorrect renders without being able to control when they’ll get them back.
Rendering is the worst part of the pipeline; everything else can move in a production schedule but render deadlines can’t. YellowDog enabled students to observe rendering progress and have the power to guarantee correct renders were delivered on time.
YellowDog is ridiculously easy to use, especially in Maya and V-Ray. I can’t believe that you can click one YellowDog button from inside Maya and have that scene with all its references and textures zipped up, uploaded, and rendered perfectly without you doing anything else.
The finished frames appear back in a local file without any complex file management; it is a perfect workflow for artists.
The technical support in terms of automated feedback or quick messages from the team was out of this world. It was like working in a studio with a dedicated render wrangler. The whole experience felt as though we had a data operations team looking after us, spotting if something didn’t look right. We would love to have that expertise in our university department but we’re never going to get that internally so accessing that was invaluable.
Students loved the speed the most. When we wanted to increase the speed of rendering, we could increase the number of machines (36 core, 72 thread) on a job from 10 to 100 in a single click. Without us doing any scripting or further work, progress just got faster. One of the student films (30 seconds of V-Ray for Maya) was rendered in just two hours with YellowDog. Without YellowDog, it would have taken days.
Students have never worked in an environment where they could increase an already lightning rate of production by a factor of 10 without moving from their seats. Some teams would sit and stare at the progress bar of their renders and downloaded frames in disbelief and relief.
It goes back to 2011. NESTA produced a report called ‘Next Gen’ which was co-authored by Alex Hope, one of the founders at DNEG and Ian Livingstone, probably best known for being co-founder of Games Workshop and Eidos Interactive. The report looked at the UK talent pipeline for visual effects, animation, and games. Bournemouth University were involved in the report; we were asked to feed data and opinion to it alongside hundreds of industry academics and professionals across the country.
It was an accurate analysis of the UK’s talent pipeline from primary to higher education and beyond; as well as its ability to compete on a global stage; it was hard to read and certainly a wakeup call for the industry and government. I’m fortunate to be at Bournemouth University which was named as being one of the best talent contributors to the industry, but it laid many of the industry’s future challenges squarely at education which I think wasn’t the whole picture.
In my view, if you were to look at other universities analysed at the time, the courses were either very new or lacked meaningful industry connections or suffered from both. The collaboration between education and industry is vital and after reading the report, I was determined to be a part of finding ways to improve it.
We played around with a few ideas; one of the more successful models was Abertay University’s ‘Dare to be Digital’ event in Dundee, Scotland. ‘Dare to be Digital’ challenges students to compete in teams to design and make a game. The ‘Ones to Watch Award’ at the BAFTAs is in association with Abertay. It resonated with the event that we had begun designing and gave us the confidence to approach different partners across the UK: using Dare as a stellar example of what could be achieved if we focused on Animation and VFX production instead.Discover The Dare Academy
I took it to Alex Hope who co-authored the infamous Next Gen report. I wanted his feedback and input and to see if he and DNEG could offer support to the students through some sort of mentorship.
Alex and DNEG were incredibly enthusiastic about it so we were able to go back to Bournemouth University with a solid plan and industry advocacy which the University were incredibly happy to support. With both DNEG and the University signed up, Framestore, Blue Zoo, MPC, and others committed to mentoring students too. It really was an incredible list of world class studios and that gave everyone confidence that we could make the competition a success.
They all get the finished films that they can use for whatever marketing campaigns they choose. They will (and have done in previous years) make a material difference to a wide number of charitable causes.
You can see all the finished films here.See all the films from BFX 2019
They deal with sensitive issues from domestic abuse to disabilities so they quickly adapt to navigating and producing tricky material to a hard production deadline. They learn how to deal with feedback directly from the charities and their often critical, but supportive, industry mentors. These aren’t soft skills; students get first-class real-world experience as well as the tangible upskilling of CG pipeline knowledge.
The format of the competition won’t change. It gets better every year and with YellowDog, it really allowed both the look dev and final look to be the best and most consistent it has ever been in 2018. This year was the first time that no-one failed to render something and I hope that we can take that on again next year. We will work with charities again of course.
With the help of technology like YellowDog working alongside our other pipeline tools, we hope that we can continue to make a real difference to student prospects and the talent pipeline for the visual effects, animation, and games industry.
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