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What is AMD doing in LA? Helping more filmmakers achieve Hollywood-caliber VFX

amd studios creates custom production pipelines project 47 header
For any lifelong fan of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, watching Drogon the dragon sweeping over the onrushing Dothraki horde and spewing fire at the Lannister army was thrilling. Watching it in a TV show like Game of Thrones was simply remarkable — it wasn’t too long ago that such scenes were limited to feature films with blockbuster budgets. AMD Studios, a newly unveiled AMD venture that’s opened its first office in Hollywood, wants to make such scenes far more commonplace.

AMD Studios wasn’t involved in creating that scene from Game of Thrones. But if you’re a director who envisions a scene with 100 dragons instead of just one, then Roy Taylor, AMD’s worldwide head of media and entertainment, wants you to give him a call.

Scenes that cause a stir like that one from Game of Thrones S7E4, “Spoils of War,” are incredibly expensive to make. There’s a reason we don’t see many such scenes in a single season of a TV show, even one with an above-average budget like HBO’s production. AMD Studios wants to change that by lowering the cost of systems capable of creating those magical moments and making it easier for studios to pack more of them into a show — and for smaller studios to achieve them at all.

Being stealthy while the technology catches up

AMD Studios grew out of a friendship between Taylor and James Knight, a Hollywood veteran with production credits on films including Avatar and I Am Legend, as well as the Star Wars: The Old Republic video game. Two years ago, after Knight joined AMD Studios and became its virtual production director, the two set up shop in Hollywood and flew under the radar — listening to what Hollywood was looking for and waiting for AMD technology to catch up with the industry’s needs.

AMD Studios group shot
Left to right: Daryl Cameron, chief of staff; James Knight, virtual production director; Dominick Spina, head of film technology; and Roy Taylor, worldwide head of media and Entertainment Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Over time, AMD Studios added new team members with some serious media and entertainment backgrounds. Dominick Spina came on board as head of film technology, bringing with him two decades of technology experience in film, broadcast, visual effects animation production, and other industries. And Robin Prybil, AMD Studios head of TV technology, added to the team’s experience with her work on The BFG, The Adventures of Tin Tin, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

AMD Studios flew under the radar — listening to what Hollywood wanted and waiting for AMD technology to catch up.

During those first two years, the team used its location in Hollywood and its industry contacts to kick off its first collaboration. Fox’s FoxNext VR and Technicolor MPC were creating the VR experience Alien: Covenant In Utero, and the studios weren’t happy with the available 4K stereo video players. AMD Studios, much to the producers’ surprise, offered to put AMD software engineers to work writing a custom player for the production. According to Taylor, the resulting 4K player contributed significantly to In Utero’s success.

Next, Taylor was introduced to Red Digital Camera Company Camera President Jarred Land by a mutual acquaintance. He wasted no time in promising something that Land didn’t believe AMD could possibly provide: a solution for editing 8K footage in real time at 24 frames per second. AMD Studios is two blocks from Red’s offices, and Taylor and his team rolled a system down the street to prove they could deliver. AMD’s Radeon Pro Vega SSG with 2TB of RAM was the presented solution.  AMD software engineers were then once again put to work — this time in converting AMD’s code to support Red’s R3D file format.

Land was so impressed with AMD’s technology, and the work that AMD Studios performed, that he went on stage during AMD’s Capsaicin event, at SIGGRAPH 2017. He also took his plaudits to Facebook:

Now, AMD Studios is leveraging its prime Hollywood location to keep listening to the industry. At the same time, AMD’s recent hardware advancements mean that the team has an even stronger story to tell.

Bringing film’s relationship with technology into the 21st century

Taylor opened the AMD Capsaicin SIGGRAPH 2017 event by quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V. His point: to draw a direct parallel between resource-hungry writers leaning on the Bard’s writing skills in opening a new theater in 1599, and smaller Hollywood studios today facing their own unmet technology needs. That’s exactly what AMD Studios wants to offer — to act as a partner that can deliver end-to-end digital production capability that until now has been impossible or unaffordable.

Roy Taylor Introduction Capsaicin Siggraph 2017

Historically, technology has been involved with film from the very beginning, starting in 1895 with Louis Lumière adding a sprocket to something akin to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, thus creating the Cinématographe machine that could broadcast a moving picture to a screen. Today, everyone’s familiar with the impact of computer graphics (CG) in special effects. Less well-known is the use of video game engines in the 1990s for preproduction visualization, which let directors virtually place people and items in a scene on a display, without the cost of physically changing things on a set.

Next came virtual production in the mid-2000s, where actors could dress in jeans and T-shirts in real life, while being digitally displayed in full costume on a large screen suspended above a set. Virtual production allows a director to frame a final shot exactly as desired with minimal cost. Taken together, these technologies make for an end-to-end digital pipeline that includes digital preproduction visualization, digital virtual production, digital post-production, and visual effects.

Today, there is a shift from offline to CG production, or virtual production. Challenges remain, such as how to get actors into real-time CG production — consider the difference in reaction to Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher’s digital representation in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, for example. Further technologies such as volumetric capture and light-field capture should help make for more realistic movement, animation, and human expressions.

Where AMD Studios comes in is in bringing this technology down in price, making it available to smaller studios and productions with smaller budgets. Consider post-production rendering, for example. Larger studios have access to huge render farms that can churn through the special effects that make Avatar and Game of Thrones possible. Smaller studios, though, must make do with much less powerful hardware and software — so what’s possible for them is limited.

AMD Studios will help by going on set and into production houses and creating custom hardware and software solutions based on AMD hardware and software. They want to say to a director, as Taylor put it, “Oh, by the way, you want that shot to have another 10,000 troops? And you think it’s going to cost you millions to render? Well guess what, it’s not, and we can do that for you.”

As with In Utero and Red Camera, AMD Studios will pull AMD hardware and software together to create tailor-made solutions that let studios tell their stories in a more impactful way, for less money than ever.

Where the metal meets the digital cellulose

According to Taylor, AMD is uniquely suited for an initiative like AMD Studios. Intel can provide CPU-based solutions and Nvidia can provide GPU-based solutions while AMD can bring both to a studio. This is important because some tasks require superior CPU performance while others benefit primarily from GPU performance.

AMD’s recent advances in CPU and GPU technology are contributing to making AMD Studios a viable concern, which helps explain why AMD is the first chip company to set up an office in Hollywood. The company’s new Zen architecture, Ryzen and Threadripper CPUs  and Vega GPU architecture, are leading the way in providing the tools AMD Studios needs to create its custom solutions.

To meet the needs of smaller studios and lower-budget productions, for example, AMD has created RS1, a system aimed directly at 8K rendering at a significantly lower price. RS1 brings two EPYC server processors and up to four high-end Vega or SSG GPUs, providing up to 100 teraflops of half-precision performance. Just as important, Taylor expects the most powerful RS1 system to come in at half the price of a similarly configured Intel and Nvidia solution.

The first RS1 samples will be rolling out in the next few weeks, and AMD Studios will also be providing access to its Project 47 server rack that delivers a petaflop of full 32-bit precision compute performance via 20 EPYC CPUs and 18 Vega GPUs. Project 47 can be leased or purchased, and it’s intended to provide massive rendering performance to smaller production houses.

Project 47

While this off-the-shelf hardware will on occasion be offered up as a solution to a filmmaker’s problem, AMD Studios will be focused on providing custom solutions. That means AMD’s software engineers will remain busy, and that the usual applications in use by studios will increasingly be optimized for AMD’s newest technology. For example, two popular tools used in the industry, the Octane renderer used to create final photorealistic images and video, and The Foundry’s Nuke 11 Studio, for composing and editing scenes, now run on AMD. Adobe’s Premier is now optimized for SSG. And a fully AMD-optimized version of the popular renderer Redshift will be shipping in late September 2017.

40-percent talking, 60-percent listening

Taylor is enthusiastic about how AMD Studios will help push storytelling forward by using AMD technology, essentially “bridging the gap between Northern California’s Silicon Valley and Southern California’s Hollywood.” His team’s future success will derive from two primary efforts.

First, building on its Hollywood location and on its philosophy of “40-percent talking, 60-percent listening,” as Taylor describes it, AMD Studios will remain at the forefront of media and entertainment technology by constantly looking — and listening — for opportunities to push storytelling forward. Because its solutions will be custom-built based on what filmmakers envision, AMD Studios will avoid the tendency to let its current state of hardware and software resources define the solutions it presents.

For example, as Taylor points out, directors routinely look back after a shoot and imagine how they might have done things differently. “In an ideal world, a director should be able to wake up one morning and have a eureka moment. ‘What we should have done in Act 1 is, we should have taken this part and had that effect,’” Taylor said.

Today, studios balk at the cost of completely redoing a scene, but a fully digital production pipeline could make it possible to edit and re-edit on the fly, and provide directors with significantly more flexibility. The ability to virtually reshoot a scene could make the difference between a good film and a masterpiece — and it’s having that kind of discussion with filmmakers that will ensure that AMD Studios’ offerings avoid stagnation.

As Taylor put it, “The line between imagination and invention is indistinguishable.” He’s depending on filmmakers themselves to guide him across that line by telling him what they imagine and letting AMD Studios discover what’s possible. Taylor elaborated on this point:

“There may be some director, some writer, out there right now, who maybe has a scene envisioned for something, and they don’t really think it’s possible. But now there’s someone they can call up and say, ‘Is this possible.’ And you might very well say, ‘Yeah.’ And the impact on imagination is immeasurable.”

It doesn’t hurt that Taylor and his team are also heavily involved with media and entertainment organizations like the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). AMD Studios a BAFTA partner, and AMD will gain serious exposure at the upcoming AMD BAFTA Britannia Awards.

Teach them, and they will lead you forward

AMD Studios’ second tactic for influencing the industry is to work closely with film schools in England and the U.S. By introducing these technologies to a new generation of filmmakers, Taylor hopes to help create technology-savvy producers and directors who are fully prepped to hear AMD Studios’ message. In turn, those up-and-coming filmmakers will be the ones to guide AMD Studios’ efforts going forward, ensuring that it remains at the cutting edge of media and technology production.

AMD Studios makes digital production technology more affordable for smaller studios and productions with smaller budgets.

Some of Taylor’s most excited moments during our interview was when he talked about working with film students: “I really get a kick out of the students. They have such great ideas for the use of technology. The new generation of filmmakers is going to come through, which is going to say, ‘Alrighty, I’m going to keep challenging.’”

One place where Taylor is heavily involved with educating filmmakers is at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is setting up the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, and he is encouraging investments in advanced media technology like light-field capture. Another example is a scholarship that’s being established at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in Britain.

How will AMD measure its success?

The bottom line is this — providing filmmakers with access to more powerful systems at significantly lower prices means more and better scenes in more of our favorite shows. Imagine a Game of Thrones where elaborate Drogon and the Dothraki scenes aren’t limited to a single episode and a few minutes of air time.

Taylor speaks directly to AMD Studios’ potential impact by referring to one of his favorite TV shows:

“And so if you look at, for example, ‘Spartacus,’ which is a show that I love, at the very beginning they didn’t have very large scenes, and if you look at some of the crowd scenes at the beginning of ‘Spartacus,’ they weren’t that great. By the time you go to the finale, the budgets had improved dramatically and they looked that much better. I would have love to have been there and to have been able to speak to the director and producer at the beginning, and we could have helped them to make it look great right now.”

When we asked Taylor directly how he would measure the success of AMD Studios, his answer was immediate. He said, “If it’s as successful as I can imagine, we’ll hopefully one day be picking up some sci-tech Oscar awards, and we’ll be recognized for contributions to film, television, and VR. To think that we contributed enough to be recognized like that would really be terrific.”

For the larger AMD organization, the knock-on effect could be equally as profound. Just like Apple became the de facto platform for graphic artists by getting its equipment into creative schools early and making sure its technology met their needs, so, too, is AMD Studios getting AMD’s technology into media and entertainment.

And when we watch a TV show that blows our mind not just once a season but in every episode, then there’s a good chance that Roy Taylor and his staff at AMD Studios will have been hard at work making it happen.

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