M+E Connections

How Solstice Studios Saved $1.2M By Moving VFX to the Cloud With Arch

In even the best of times, finishing visual effects (VFX) for any movie is a challenge. COVID-19 only upped the challenge for Solstice Studios when it was looking to reap the marketing advantages of making its first film, Unhinged, the first movie in months to be widely released theatrically in the middle of the pandemic in August 2020.

As Arch Platform Technologies points out in an Unhinged Case Study, the founders of Solstice Studios “have a $5 billion production track record and a combined 80 years of experience, so they’ve seen just about everything that can go wrong on a movie.”

Typically, the worst offender comes in the VFX area: a disjointed, inefficient process that is based on legacy hardware starting with overpriced estimates and, predictably, the actual costs tend to just “spiral” after a movie is shot, Arch notes.

Arch’s proprietary, cloud-based platform, however, promised solutions to those problems. It almost seemed too good to be true.

However, after Solstice went to work on Unhinged, everything Arch promised came to pass. There was a whopping 65% cost savings on VFX, there were no crazy overages, the pipeline was much smoother and the work was completed faster, the quality of the work was high, and (thanks to the cloud-based platform) Solstice was able to hire top artists in a remote location in Vancouver to take advantage of government incentives, Arch says.

“Arch is the best thing that’s happened to movies in the last five years,” according to Mark Gill, Solstice Studios CEO. “The Arch platform allowed us to save $1.2 million or 65 percent on the VFX budget for our first film, Unhinged, starring Russell Crowe,” he explained, adding: “The savings and flexibility are too good for us to do it any other way. We’ll be adding the Arch to our post-production efforts on all our upcoming movies.”

Benefits Across the Board 

Shifting the VFX infrastructure to the cloud provides benefits “across the board,” Arch says. Although the financial savings on the VFX budget are simple to quantify, the increased flexibility and efficiencies that the Arch Platform brought to the table also stood out for Solstice.

“Not only can VFX be completed with a 65% savings but also the cost to start a cloud-based system is minimal,” according to Arch. “There are no capital expenditures for costly computer hardware and no depreciating assets to sell at the end of a production. Set up is fast, easy and the Arch platform allows for instant scalability as the movie’s needs change,” the company explains.

In addition, a team can easily be set up in a jurisdiction where tax credits are advantageous, or locations can be moved as needed. Meanwhile, when the VFX team has fast access to other production departments and controls the technological infrastructure, everything becomes easier and faster, Arch notes. “The middle man between artist and production is removed, improving and speeding up communication around creative decisions and data flow,” it says.

Along Comes a Pandemic

When the pandemic started, suddenly the entire Unhinged team working in an office together in Vancouver was forced to move all work and operations to their own homes quickly.

However, because they had been working on the Arch cloud-based VFX platform, the VFX team “made the pivot without missing a beat,” according to Arch. The artists and supervisors were set up remotely and ready to work in only a few hours. No film assets had to be transported to their homes and the team was able to pick up from where they left off earlier in the day.

An End-to-End Solution

The Arch Platform provides an “end-to-end solution from ingest and project management to review and delivery, so there is no need to shuttle around data or drives for review and approval,” Arch explains, adding: “Security is maintained at all times while maintaining ease-of-use. This workflow is made simpler by the multiple integrations that allow simultaneous VFX review by studio creatives while creating proxy versions for editorial to cut into the film.”

Collaboration between all the creative stakeholders is key in filmmaking. This can’t be compromised and Arch makes it significantly more efficient, allowing better work to be done in a shorter period of time, according to Arch.

On the Arch Platform, the Solstice shot tracking system, Shotgun, was set up to work with third-party software Moxion for VFX shot review.

Review clips could be sent to the director, producer and other stakeholders, and their notes were sent back to the artists automatically with minimal manual entry required, it said. Visual artists saw creative notes in Shotgun, fixed the shots, then added their own notes in Shotgun, which were visible to reviewers using Moxion. “All with one simple, clean round trip of information. All trackable and fast. All in the world’s most secure global infrastructure on AWS,” Arch says.

As with most movies, creative feedback changed the scope of VFX work on Unhinged.

The scope of work on many VFX shots in the film was expanded and many new VFX shots were added. But, thanks to the Arch platform, the Unhinged VFX team completed the extra work on the original tight schedule, with minimal financial impact to production, according to Arch.

More Challenges

On Unhinged, only days before delivery, the Solstice legal team called out more than 250 shots that required car brand logo and text removals.

However, on the Arch Platform, the VFX team was able to accommodate the requests and met the deadline at no additional cost.

In May 2019, “with an eye to the enormous marketing advantages of being the first film back into” U.S. theaters in the COVID pandemic, Solstice moved up the delivery date for Unhinged by nine weeks.

To accommodate the new release date and all the new shots, artists were added, doubling the team size. The teams worked in two eight-hour shifts, all working remotely from home, using the same number of workstations – and they “got the job done on time with no overages, no rush fees [and] no extra license charges for their VFX shots,” Arch says.

Summing up the experience, using the Arch Platform, with artists spread across Vancouver, the director in Virginia and the editing room in Los Angeles, Solstice was able to save 65% on its VFX budget compared to the street bid price of going to an outside VFX company.

Plus, the film “not only finished on budget, but two months ahead of its original schedule, and it was easy,” Arch says.

The updated timeline enabled Unhinged to “reap the benefits of being the first movie back” in theaters, Arch notes. “In the process, Solstice helped theaters reopen, kept artists working, and “will make a significant profit on the movie in the midst of a pandemic – one of the only films to do so,” according to Arch, adding: “None of this would have been possible without Arch Platform Technologies.”