The technology behind Captain America: The First Avenger

CTO of Fuel VFX talks about the role the Australian visual effects studio played in the film

Fuel VFX chief technology officer, Dylan Penhale, and co-founder and VFX supervisor, Dave Morley, spoke to Techworld Australia about creating some of the visual effects in Captain America: The First Avenger. The Sydney-based company delivered 120 shots in six sequences for the Marvel film.

Can you explain what your role is at Fuel VFX?

Dylan Penhale: I’m the chief technology officer, manager of the IT and R&D departments, and look after technology architecture and provisioning.

What does your IT team look like at Fuel VFX and how big is the company?

Penhale: Currently there are over 100 people working at Fuel. Alongside myself, there is an IT manager, a Linux admin and a technical support person. In R&D we have a development manager and programmer, two pipeline programmers and a generalist technical director. Many of the technical directors and supervisors also code, so in total we have around 10 people developing and coding.

In an industry that moves so quickly, how do you keep on top of all the changes that happen in the special effects space?

Penhale: The VFX [visual effects] industry is close knit, so lots of information is shared between other post houses. Lots of the technology is artist-driven; for example, if a project requires something that hasn't been done before the VFX supervisor will involve as many people as possible to find the best solution. In addition there are some great forums and newsletters such as the SSA, which also puts on industry evenings.

Trade shows such as the IBC, NAB and Siggraph are often used as launch pads for new technologies and releases.

What kinds of software and hardware do you have in place? Which vendors do you partner with?

Penhale: We use a combination of vendor-based software such as Baselight Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Flame, The Foundy Nuke alongside propitiatory software such as our pipeline and asset management tools.

We use NetApp filers which are accessed though our own virtual file system (VFS). The Fuel VFS system allows us to break free from vendor-locked VFS solutions and gives us the flexibility to easily leverage VFX specific requirements such as media asset management, asset publishing without duplication, instant storage performance tuning and automated data cycle management. Because not all of our data needs to be stored on tier one storage we can quickly and seamlessly migrate data to nearline storage and even to tape while offering users a global file system.

We have recently added SimplStor servers for our nearline storage. All infrastructure servers run in VMware VSphere. Backups are a combination of off-site rotating tapes sets and on-site DR.

Image rendering is processed through our on site render farm, which is a large number of Linux render nodes with gigabit network connections, large local cache disks, lots of cores and lots of ram. We also have a smaller utility processing farm for repetitive computational tasks.

What led you to get involved in the Captain America project?

Dave Morley: We’ve been building a strong relationship with Marvel over the last few years. They were happy with the work we delivered on Iron Man 2, which was the first film we worked with them on, and that was followed by Thor. So it’s a mix of gaining trust and doing good work.

What other projects do you have coming up?

Morley: We have a few projects currently in production, but the only one we can mention publicly at the moment is Ridley Scott’s Prometheus for Fox — which of course is extremely exciting to be a part of.

One of our recently completed projects, Cowboys & Aliens is screening in North America at the moment, and just opened here in Australia. We did some very complex CG fire work on that for Industrial Light & Magic which we are really proud of, as well as a CG bird.

What are some of the larger IT challenges you’re currently battling with?

Penhale: We are working with other studios and software vendors to help develop Cloud-based rendering solutions.

In-depth: Cloud computing strategy guide.

Data transmission to other locations is always a challenge when dealing with large data sets, but FASP [Fast and Secure Protocol] technology is making this much easier. Power consumption and cooling of large amounts of render servers is always a challenge, but with some smarts and lots of Perspex significant savings can be made. Working on stereo films effectively doubles the amount of data storage and throughput, as well as requiring modification to tools and pipeline.

Follow Lisa Banks on Twitter: @CapricaStar

Follow Techworld Australia on Twitter: @Techworld_AU

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