Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Estela knows firsthand how important a render queue solution is to managing an efficient production pipeline. Tapped by the BBC to produce two episodes of the U.K.’s long-running children’s television series Jackanory in less than 12 months, Estela and his team faced the considerable challenge of building a post house from the ground up in just 30 days.
Jackanory director Nick Willing—who has a background in effects-heavy projects such as 2000’s Jason and the Argonauts and the 2007 Sci Fi Channel miniseries Tin Man—had a vision to evolve the series from the staid, comfortable show that led to its cancellation in 1996 to a more interactive version comprising an arsenal of in-your-face visual effects. The revival of the BBC children’s classic immerses its celebrity storytellers into the world of the characters in the book, surrounding them with lavishly animated landscapes and 3D CG characters.
Willing approached several large U.K. post houses with the project, but none of them was able to bring their costs down enough to fit within the Jackanory budget. Willing then consulted with Estela, who advised him to do the post work in-house rather than go through a third-party vendor. Willing liked the idea, which would allow him to get the most value out of the project’s postproduction budget. He hired Estela on the spot.
From the Ground Up
The first step was to create a post facility. After being given an enormous space inside the BBC’s massive studios, Estela hired 20 staffers and started searching for solutions to furnish the cavernous studio space on budget.
“Essentially, we were given a very large, empty room,” says Estela, “and it was our job to get it up and running in only a month. We had to buy furniture, hire staff, acquire equipment, everything.”
Ever mindful of Jackanory‘s limited budget, Estela initially decided to use a free render farm solution, but he discovered quickly that free software can be very expensive in the long run.
“We had renders crashing all over the place, and everything was falling apart,” explains Estela. “Normally, this is something I would have been able to handle on my own, but with the compressed timeline we were working under, I was essentially performing several jobs at once. We needed a render farm management system that would work perfectly, with no compromises, right out of the box.”
The Search for a Flawless Render Queue
Estela consulted with several local facilities and came up with numerous recommendations, but only one of them promised the hassle-free solution the Jackanory production demanded.
“Deadline appeared to be exactly the thing we were looking for. It was pricier than other options but completely worth it because it always worked exactly the way it was supposed to,” Estela says. “I installed the trial version, and it was amazing. I ran into a couple of snags initially, mostly because I was rushing things, and whenever I contacted Frantic Films for support, they were just fantastic, asking what we had tried and offering suggestions. And this was before we had spent even a penny!”
Once he saw how well the software was working, Estela was sold. He had Deadline installed across the Windows-based render farm, whose 23 nodes include 10 Intel Dual Core Xeon processors for the farm itself and an additional 13 workstations. Software packages sent through the render farm include Autodesk Maya 7.0 and Autodesk mental ray for Maya.
“With Deadline up and running, our render farm was flawless,” Estela boasts. “It never gave us a problem from that day forward.”
With the visual effects team submitting between 30 and 40 shots a night, the Jackanory render farm was working overtime, but the project managed to stay on schedule. “If we hadn’t installed Deadline, we probably wouldn’t have finished both shows on time,” Estela claims. “It was that good—we went from having endless problems to having no problems at all.”
The first Jackanory episode, “The Magician of Samarkand,” contains 400 to 500 VFX shots alone. The 45-minute episode, narrated by Ben Kingsley, is a lavish mixture of beautiful animation and hand-painted illustrations inspired by Victorian illustrators.
“We would come in every morning and everything was rendered,” Estela continues. “We could look at the logs and see that Deadline was doing a massive amount of behind-the-scenes housekeeping so we never had to worry about it. Machines would be crashing and failing and Deadline would see that and quietly re-start them. If a machine was causing issues, Deadline would stop it from rendering and flag it for our attention. Machines performing well would be given more work to keep the overall project on schedule.”
The second Jackanory episode, “Muddle Earth,” is a tongue-in-cheek homage to The Lord of the Rings. Read by acclaimed British stage and television actor John Sessions, the 45-minute episode was brought to life with a mixture of CG animation and live action; it contains more than 400 VFX shots bringing viewers into a world of ogres and goblins, batbirds, a floating lake and exploding gas frogs.
“Before using Deadline, managing the Jackanory render farm had become a real thorn in my side,” says Estela. “Deadline is so clever and efficient that all of that just stopped. It was fantastic. I’ve become a complete Deadline evangelist and sing its praises to the heavens because it just works. Deadline is simply brilliant.”