Axis Animation delivers Halo 5 with Deadline
There's no franchise more closely associated with Microsoft's gaming arm than Halo. The sci-fi series has been there since day one on the original Xbox, making several return trips since to reinforce Xbox as the essential destination for shooter fans.
The latest entry was 2015's Halo 5: Guardians, which presented a new challenge to Microsoft and developer 343 Industries: it was the first entry into the seminal shooter series to land exclusively on the Xbox One, while also introducing a collection of new characters to the franchise’s canonical universe.
343 Industries knew that it needed to kick things off with a bang. To do so, it collaborated once again with steadfast Halo animation experts Axis. The two studios worked closely to deliver Halo 5’s monumentally exciting intro movie.
In fact, the project was so big, it required an unprecedented level of interaction between the two studios. An astounding one-shot camera move spanning 8,000 frames – and countless fried aliens along the way – the sequence certainly sets the tone, but it was a huge project to deliver on such a tight timeframe.
But, thanks to Thinkbox Deadline, Axis wasn’t concerned: the studio could monitor its rendering facilities, both on-site and remote, ensuring that the team stayed organized, productive, and on target.
Even by the standards of top-tier video games – which continually find new ways to conjure never-before-seen moments – Halo 5: Guardians’ opening sequence is something special.
It starts out calmly, with a group of armored Spartan super-soldiers discussing a battle plan in an airship. Before long they've hopped out the back and into action, and by the time the game's logo flashes on screen they're diving gracefully through the air towards the snow-capped mountains below.
And then the real fun begins: the uninterrupted camera shot spends the next two minutes highlighting these incredible warriors as they slide down the mountain, blasting and battling Covenant aliens from all angles as a crashed ship triggers an alien avalanche.
It's rousing, exhilarating, and intricately complex CG work, priming the viewer to grab their M6H magnum and join the fight – which is exactly what they do once the gameplay kicks in.
For Axis, the sequence was the culmination of previous work carried out in partnership with 343 Industries: Axis previously completed 60 minutes of original CGI animation for Halo 4’s Spartan Ops multiplayer mode. As such, 343 knew Axis’s impressive pedigree, which extends to other monumental gaming brands like Assassin's Creed, League of Legends, and Call of Duty.
“To put it simply: Deadline changed the way we operate as a company"
Given the importance of this clip in setting the stage of Halo 5's narrative campaign, 343 Industries sought a collaborative workflow for the project. "It was probably the most involved we have been on any project, regarding how deeply we were sharing work with one another," begins Axis co-founder and creative director Stuart Aitken.
343 tackled the layout and animation of the sequence, while Axis handled all lighting, shading, VFX work, and rendering. That kind of in-depth alliance required some careful maneuvering, naturally.
"We had to allow for 343’s iterations on the animation whenever necessary, while also allowing for our team to provide solid render previews, which would in turn give 343 a better sense of how their animation was going to look in the final sequence," explains Aitken. "There were some huge technical hurdles that we needed to tackle to ingest animation updates from 343, without having to redo or risk breaking the work already in progress at Axis."
Rendering done right
Luckily, Axis Animation has Deadline to help manage its rendering needs – a solution that the studio has been using since 2012.
Back then, Axis wanted to grow its business and expand into the leading animation house it is today, but was hampered by a previous render management solution that was causing frequent problems. Axis knew it needed to update.
"Deadline offered a level of reliability we didn't have before, as well as features not previously available to us," explains Peter Devlin, head of IT for Axis Animation. "Now we couldn’t imagine not using Deadline!
“The deep statistics and analytics give us a real understanding of what's happening with our render farm in real time, which in turn helps us work out our queue management,” he continues. “At a macro level the analytics allow us to observe overall render utilization – we can drill down into the data and discover which projects are not getting render farm capacity, or which are hogging render capacity, and adjust capacity allocation to fall in line with our planned schedules or to deal with poor usage forecasts. The analytics also give us real-world metrics at the farm/project level that we can use to inform future render forecasts and costs associated with rendering.
“At the micro render job level we can see whether jobs are hitting the shot render time targets; if not we can flag problem jobs while providing feedback to project leads. Producers and leads are provided with easily understandable alerts or actions from the farm about what is happening at the user/shot/project level – all of this together makes Axis a more more efficient studio.”
Another area where Deadline helped out was in handling multiple projects, as Jamie Murray, Axis render manager and pipeline developer adds: “With Deadline we can handle several projects at once, all at varying stages in production, without worrying about one project affecting other projects on the farm. That means taking on projects like Halo in total confidence that everything will run smoothly.”
When it came to the intricately detailed and tremendously complex Halo 5 opening, Axis knew it needed to find quick and simple ways to optimise workflow, however possible. As both Axis and 343 were using Maya, options quickly presented themselves.
“For instance, we had agreed on a referenced file workflow split into agreed 'zones' on a map of the overall terrain the shot was based within,” explains Murray. “These zones could be updated in isolation, which helped cut down the chaos and complexity. Our R&D team created some custom scripts that would go through these files and, based on a consistent naming convention, spit out alembic caches that dovetailed into our existing lighting and FX pipeline.”
When it came to rendering, the Axis team adopted a ‘render everything in one scene’ approach, rather than facing the nightmare of hundreds of comp layers, tricky timing, and depth-based composition problems.
“Individual shading and FX tasks would be handed out to artists and then reintegrated into one master lighting scene via Houdini HDAs,” says Murray. “That lighting scene was effectively permanently re-rendering on our render farm for about four months, so we had regular updates we could review internally and share with 343."
“Deadline’s procedural intelligence saves us time and money”
Using Deadline, Axis was able to isolate the intro scenes that contained the heaviest data render. Using this process, the team could then prioritize the lighter shots as needed.
Devlin says the historical data from such processes has been a huge benefit as Axis applies information learned on past projects to new ones: "By doing so, we’re able to anticipate and predict the schedule of a new project early on, which means we can more accurately plan and manage projects.
“To put it simply: Deadline changed the way we operate as a company."
Murray praises the flexibility of Deadline, which enabled the team to create its own custom tools to better support the use of offsite rendering facilities. Along with the aforementioned custom scripts, Axis also developed tools that allowed for seamless onsite and offsite rendering, which Murray says made it possible to push through the more extensive rendering timeframes.
And yet, although the team praises the adaptability of Deadline and its API, Devlin also confirms that the solution meets most of Axis’ needs out of the box – especially so given its quick and easy integrations with tools like Maya, Houdini, Mantra, and Fusion.
“Things like Deadline’s procedural intelligence also save us time and money, as it alerts us to active nodes when they aren’t needed, or conversely, when more nodes would help,” says Devlin.
“That kind of knowledge is key,” he concludes. "If you’re in the CG business, you need reliability and predictability – something you can grow a business on. The render farm is the heart of our business, it needs to just work. With Thinkbox Deadline, we fully trust we have the right tool beating at the core of the production.”