Emmy and Grammy nominated creative agency Untold Studios sees cloud computing as competitive advantage

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood March 6, 2024
Lacework’s automated cloud security and compliance functionality has helped creative agency Untold Studios make its vision of cloud-based efficiency more than a bit of movie magic

A series of images from Untold Studios’ creative projects, including a still from Dr Who and Mission Impossible
(Image sourced by Untold Studios)

A London-headquartered BAFTA, Emmy, and GRAMMY-nominated visual effects (VFX) studio called Untold says automated cloud security has let it focus on moving fast to deliver the best creative output it can.

By working with its chosen partner, Lacework, Untold says it was also able to consolidate its position as the digital effects market’s first truly cloud-only supplier.

That means, says the organization, it was able to enter the market just six weeks after its foundation in 2018.

It also says cloud-based business agility was a key factor in doubling in size over the past year. 

A big part of that agility is the ability to make highly profitable use of Amazon Web Services’ ‘Spots.’ Amazon EC2 Spot Instances is a way to take advantage of unused AWS cloud Elastic Cloud Compute capacity.

Though they carry the risk of interruption, Spot Instances are available at up to a 90% discount compared to On-Demand Amazon prices.

In other words, use of Spots means Untold’s team can quickly build solutions for clients at reduced cost—spinning up instances to create great digital visuals to complete a project, and then deleting the instances as soon as they are no longer needed.

Another operational win from working with security this way is the streamlining of its tight sector compliance obligations.

This has proven particularly useful around its sector’s important Motion Picture Association (MPA) reporting. Thanks to custom reports now built directly in its cloud platform, weeks of manual work to prove all the necessary MPA compliance has now been automated - making it much easier for the studio to win and quickly onboard new clients.

A better way to direct financial resources

Commenting on the success of its approach to both infrastructure and security, Untold Studio’s Chief Technical Officer, Sam Reid:

We're a full-service creative studio, which means we do origination - creating our own content - production, design, and a lot of visual effects.

Five years ago, when I met our founders, one of the first things we started talking about was what it would be like to start a studio in the cloud. Back then, lots of people were doing cloud rendering, and that had been happening for quite a while, but the industry wasn't doing a lot of cloud computing in the sense of the entire studio being in the cloud.

A lot of the people involved in the early stages of the business came from businesses that historically had built big data centers in the basement of their buildings, putting in substations to power them, and so they wanted this time to spend all their capex on attracting the best talent to the studio, which we knew would help us win work.

By going cloud, we have ended up with studios in Los Angeles, Mumbai, and so are truly international and can also genuinely work with all the sites in a global and cost-effective way.

Why that matters: with a mission of trying to shape culture through music, TV and advertising, Reid’s team has supplied visual effect help for movies such as Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1 and Amazon’s The Boys.

It’s also worked on music campaigns for artists like Adele and Rita Ora, as well as advertising production for B2C brands like Prada, PlayStation, and BMW.

Reid is convinced that these achievements could not have been racked up as quickly as they have been in just five years without cloud. But this novel approach needed to be managed properly too. he admits:  

With cloud, you can very quickly expand and that's the beauty of it - but that can also be pretty scary unless you’ve got your security right from the start.

Reid says that from the start he and his then much-smaller IT team recognized that it was going to become too much work for humans to keep track of all these different things in the cloud and it would be better to have software to do that:

Cloud is more secure than having your data on-prem - AWS can build much better data centers than we ever could ourselves. 

But we also didn’t want that to be software to just tell us what we were doing, but software that could alert us when to stop going wrong.

Reid says that is the key differentiator he is getting from his chosen cloud security partner:

All of us in the tech team, from entry-level to senior level, can get involved in the platform and both understand what the problems are and also how to fix them.

As stated, Untold’s cloud security tool also makes it easy to grab what Reid calls AWS Spots - “those thousands of random nodes that might be spinning up any one time” that otherwise would be too hard to work with at scale:

Spot is the compute that is kind of ‘spare’ in AWS terms, and we use Spot for a lot of our rendering.

For a lot of the great CGI that Untold does, that means spinning up what could be thousands of render loads at any time.

Buying all this capacity in advance would be economically extravagant, he says—but given there is this computing power waiting to be consumed, if the team moves fast enough, projects can be delivered very quickly.

He says:

We want to be able to say yes to these projects, and in month four of Untold we won the chance of providing 100 shots for series three of The Crown.

That was a huge amount of work for a new studio to do. There's no way that we could have predicted we would win that project in advance, or we might hope we'd take a while to get to that capacity. Doing it with Spot was really our only option, and we needed a program like Lacework to keep a lid on it all.

Spot workloads need to be both secured but also connected to the workstations Untold artists are working on around the world. By using the platform, they can stream their desktop experience to work with what is the equivalent of the local Untold server and so take full advantage of the opportunity of all that tasty ‘spare’ AWS capacity.

Summing up his views on cloud and operating it with automated security, for Reid, cloud pays for itself both by replacing the people salaries that you would otherwise have to pay to do this job = but that it often does the job better than they would.

He also says 24x7 security at the level a supplier to Hollywood needs to be at also was only possible through software.

Which really matters for his world—as, he says:

Being as secure as possible certainly helps our clients be confident that we know what we’re doing. Which we hope we do!

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