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The Crown in the cloud

How the award-winning in-house VFX team for the Netflix drama completed 600 shots in eight months on AWS

With work on season four of Netflix’s The Crown hit by the pandemic, the show’s VFX team adopted a cloud-based workflow from Amazon Web Services to complete more than 600 shots while working remotely.

“With the show’s increasing popularity, its VFX needs have grown, and we’ve expanded our internal team to handle much of the work,” explains The Crown VFX Supervisor Ben Turner.

“We’ll contract vendors for shots that require significant CG, animation, or tracking, but keep things like matte painting, set extensions, TV monitor inserts and car green screen in-house, which allows us to work much more quickly and efficiently.

“Before the pandemic, we colocated our team with editorial, so that we could be physically closer to the director and producers throughout post, and further accelerate the creative feedback loop,” he adds.

Ahead of Season 4 plates arriving, the VFX team readied its pipeline. Having found success with the cloud for the previous season, but looking to bolster its capabilities, Turner looked to AWS. From demo to implementation, the team were up and running in less than a month, ready to tap into AWS from Intel NUC boxes.

They connected via AWS Partner Teradici’s Cloud Access Software, and worked on Linux-based virtual workstations powered by Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) G4dn instances running Foundry’s Nuke, with Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) housing assets, Amazon FSx file server for enhanced throughput, and Amazon EC2 Spot Instances for rendering. And then the UK’s first lockdown hit.

“We are super fortunate that we were already using AWS, so when all of our artists went home, they each took a NUC and a monitor, and we proceeded with our work as intended, apart from being together for reviews,” Turner explains. “Everyone was initially based out of London, but as the summer went on, some artists relocated and the transitions were totally seamless, which is one of the real benefits of having an AWS based pipeline. We can work with artists no matter where they are globally and more easily enlist bespoke talent to solve specific problems.”

“Our team doesn’t run year-round, only when the season is in post, so we wanted our workflow to be as turnkey as possible,” adds The Crown’s VFX producer Reece Ewing. “I didn’t want to deal with painful scenarios like running out of storage mid project and the added stress that comes with scrambling for hardware and space. With all of our media securely on AWS, we have the flexibility and muscle to scale on demand, and can turn it off when we don’t. Sometimes our artists would need a bigger box to complete a shot and being able to call up more RAM or increase storage as needed to get a shot over the line was invaluable.”

As Turner and Ewing prepare for production on season five, their team will continue using a cloud-based pipeline on AWS, although likely with artists back in the studio.

“In creative industries, it can be tough to quantify things like productivity and artist satisfaction, but the numbers speak for themselves,” says Turner. “Our team was able to complete an incredible amount of work this season, despite the challenges, and I definitely noticed a jump in happy faces. Working on AWS allows artists to create in a way that’s familiar and close to an on-premises experience, which helps the tech fade away and allow them to focus on creating.”