Creative Effects Studio, Lexhag, Virtualizes on AWS
Along with S3 storage, Lexhag’s Linux-based workflow includes virtual workstations powered by Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) G4dn instances, Amazon FSx for file throughput, and a fleet of EC2 Spot Instances for tiered rendering.
With a background in special effects, founder Alexis Haggar established the boutique, UK-based visual effects studio in 2009 as a resource for filmmakers looking to solve creative problems.
In the years since, Lexhag has been the sole visual effects vendor for many episodic television and feature film projects, most recently the BBC period drama “Poldark” and Netflix’s star-crossed lovers saga, “The Innocents.” Ahead of its latest project, “Too Close,” a three-part psychological thriller for ITV and Snowed-In productions set to air later this year, Lexhag moved to a remote workflow entirely based on Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“We’re now 100-percent on AWS, and our old kit is being repurposed for on-set work. AWS does the heavy lifting so that we can focus on creating,” Haggar said. Lexhag’s journey to the cloud dates back to 2014, when they began using AWS primarily for back-up storage. After attending the AWS re:Invent conference in 2018, Haggar was inspired. He shared, “Once I saw the breadth of what AWS was doing in content creation, I knew it was the move for us. We were looking to virtualize our setup given how expensive it is to rent space in Soho, not to mention outfit that space with the render power we needed, and nothing else came close. I’ve been experimenting with AWS since then, and the lockdowns of 2020 were the catalyst to make the full switch. Now we use our time capturing and creating, instead of managing brick and mortar locations or workstations.”
Initially, Lexhag and a production partner teamed with Arch Platform Technologies to help with its cloud transition and create a two-minute, full CG proof of concept trailer. Built on AWS, Arch provides its customers with managed access to cloud-based content production workflows. “It was super easy for our artists to spin up a virtual workstation through the Arch layer, and they quickly got used to working without a giant machine under their desk,” Haggar explained. “That said, we’re tinkerers at heart and our team is pretty tech-savvy, so it made more sense for us to build our own bespoke setup specific to our market This provided us with more freedom and flexibility to customize our workflow. We also moved our pipeline to Linux, which was a priority, and now we can tap into its raw power.”
Replicating its on-premises workflow in the cloud, including more than a decade’s worth of legacy material, required a bit of planning. In preparation, Lexhag engaged IT solutions provider transACT to move more than 170TB of data stored in various formats on local hardware to an Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) bucket. Haggar and his team have since pruned and tiered the data, with most files going into an Amazon Glacier Deep Archive.
“What we have now on AWS is a mirror of what we had last year on-premises,” Haggar said. “Content creation is becoming increasingly complex, and delivering photoreal assets takes a lot of computing power. Until recently, only certain studios could execute certain shots due to the specialized kit required, but I think those days are starting to disappear. AWS allows us to think bigger creatively because we don’t have to worry about how we’re going to achieve something from a technology standpoint.”
Along with S3 storage, Lexhag’s Linux-based workflow includes virtual workstations powered by Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) G4dn instances, Amazon FSx for file throughput, and a fleet of EC2 Spot Instances for tiered rendering. The team manages render resources with AWS Thinkbox Deadline and taps Autodesk Shotgun for project management. Other applications used by Lexhag artists include Autodesk Maya, 3ds Max, and Arnold; Foundry’s Nuke and Hiero; SideFX’s Houdini; and Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve and Fusion.
“I love the way that all of the AWS services fit under one virtual roof,” concluded Haggar. “There are so many untapped worlds to explore within the AWS ecosystem, such as automation and robotics, and as we understand these different aspects, we can ripple that knowledge into other parts of our business.”