How Oscar nominee American Hustle used cloud to recreate disco-era NYC

At first glance, American Hustle, which is up for 10 Academy Awards Sunday night, doesn’t seem like a poster child for computer-generated imagery (CGI) or special effects. There are no free-floating astronauts or meteor-torn space telescopes — but you’d be surprised. For one thing, it depicted New York and other locales circa the late 1970s, early 1980s. In case you weren’t around at that time, things have changed in the past 35 years. A lot.

“We actually had over 600 visual effects in the film, much of it was about making visible things invisible,” said Sean Devereaux, visual effects supervisor for American Hustle and for Zero vfx, the Boston special effects company charged with making 2013 Boston look like New York 35 years ago; converting a Worcester set into Studio 54; erasing the all-too-visible scaffolding over New York’s Plaza Hotel, and making modern vehicles disappear from the streets.

Solving the great eyewear problem

But probably most problematic was getting rid of reflections — of the camera, of director David O. Russell — from the oversized glasses worn by star Christian Bale and other cast members (see the trailor below). (FWIW, Devereaux noted that the extra girth Bale exhibited in the movie was real, not CGI. “He gained 60 pounds for that part,” he said.)

The FX tools Devereaux and team used for the movie included Zync to render the images and Shotgun Software to manage the workflow from creation of the effects to the final product. And much of the backend number crunching power and storage came courtesy of Amazon(s amzn) Web Services EC2 compute  and S3 storage.

American HustleFilm making, with its growing reliance on CGI, is a fairly ideal use for public cloud services. One day the FX specialists may need 1,000 servers right now to render high-definition digital video, the next day they might not need any. Shotgun used to rely on its own infrastructure but that grew prohibitively expensive as its workload grew.

Using AWS to sweat out costs

“As clients added more and more content to our servers, we had to start buying big servers, each with massive amounts of storage — they cost us $12K each,” said Don Parker, CEO of Shotgun. Since the company knew there would be spikes in demand, but was uncertain when they’d come, it had to buy back-up servers just in case. With its reliance on AWS, that sort of investment no longer needs be made.

“Now we just focus on our software,” he said.

But shipping all those digital images around has to be a bandwidth problem, right? Zync CMO Todd Prives said Zync has designed around that problem.  It provisions the user’s storage to keep a copy of rendered files in the cloud but manages file I/O so that the user is only working with the bits necessary for a given job.

Devereaux said he was able to do some pretty fast footwork on the set using his laptop and available bandwidth when push came to shove. For example, there was one take that both Bale and Russell loved but the focus was “soft.” Instead of reshooting the scene and perhaps losing the energy and nuance that the director loved, Devereaux was able to use his laptop, running Zync’s rendering software to take “footage right out of the camera tap and was able to fix it,” he said.

“It’s fairly easy to do that on a single frame but harder at 25 frames per second, so we uploaded the dailies to Amazon and (were) able to render that footage in 20 minutes,” he said.