How M&E is spurring innovation in cloud tech: Sony Pictures Imageworks’ history and future with Google Cloud and SADA
CTO, Sony Pictures Imageworks
Tony Safoian [00:00:18] All right. More than anything else, we love having our customers and our clients on the podcast on Cloud N Clear. So today we have one that’s been with us for many, many years, Sony Pictures Imageworks is with us today. And I have the pleasure of joining and maybe announcing, co-announcing to the world Mike Ford, the new CTO of Sony Pictures Imageworks. Welcome, Mike.
Mike Ford [00:00:40] Thanks a lot, Tony. Appreciate it.
Tony Safoian [00:00:41] This is coming back on top of an amazing joint success story that we released together with Google Cloud on the Google Workspace implementation for Sony Imageworks through Covid. And we’ve been together for, as a client partner, for 10 years. I loved how that write-up came out and I’m just so glad we’re here today recording this episode as well.
Mike Ford [00:01:02] Yeah, I felt like it was a pretty good story, talking about not only obviously our relationship, but just the studio in general. So it was a good write-up, yep.
Tony Safoian [00:01:12] Studio has gone through a lot, I mean, you’ve been there for a long time, 20 years? But we’ve seen a lot.
Mike Ford [00:01:18] I have, yeah, pre Google days, obviously, back in the dark ages of pagers being handed out at the studio. So that’s how far back I go. I have been there at Imageworks, at Sony Pictures Imageworks for about 20 years, a pretty good run so far.
Tony Safoian [00:01:33] You’ve seen a lot of change and evolution and innovation with regards to how films are made, movies are made, the application of digital technologies. Do you want to take us through that, maybe a little bit of that, the highlights and the lowlights of the 20 year journey. And even maybe going before that, I always like to set the stage for our audience, the person I’m talking to, their whole career story, like how it all evolved.
Mike Ford [00:01:57] It’s a pretty standard story, I would say, for the people that are of age. Like we in the industry, I think part of what we all, for the people that got into filmmaking, we really fell in love with cinema. And I think the idea of actually sitting in that dark theater and watching a story unfold in front of you, I think is it’s a story, right? It’s age old, beginning a time kind of thing for humans and their ability to just sit back and enjoy a good story. And I think that I, what movies did for me is that they did that exact thing. It was whether it was an escape or whether it was just something where I could see a completely different place. And as most people of age that I am as well is that Star Wars sort of just, it cracked the door open in terms of like you just didn’t have anything else that looked like that. You didn’t experience something like that. And I remember telling my mom when I was, I think I was five when that movie came out, Mom, that’s what I want to do. And so that stuck. She told me that story when I was, you know, a little bit older because obviously I didn’t remember. But, and I really fell in love with this idea of how did people do this? How did they make these movies? How did- you know? And I grew up in the sort of the golden age of Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. I would just pull them in and just go and be there in the first day. And I really loved the filmmaking process. The other thing is, I really I was more of an artist growing up, but I also had a real bent towards learning about computers and programming. And what I had always dreamed of is how do I put the two of those together? And I went to school at UCLA for design and it just so happened 1993, Jurassic Park, a watershed year for obviously for computer graphics. And that, again, just blew the doors off of, woah you can do this with a computer. Like I can make movies with a computer. I like both those things. I like drawing. I like all of these things. And so it really gave me an opportunity to jump into that role, so.
Tony Safoian [00:03:52] It’s amazing how those disciplines have come together. I think we see that in today’s economy, more and more like these seemingly disconnected things being brought together to do amazing things. And what I love about cinema or entertainment in general is how it actually has been the thing to really push the boundaries of what technology can do. I think if you just fast-forward 30 years, you’re talking about Cloud maybe would not be what it is without Netflix, for example, pushing the boundaries on streaming, etc. But I think processing power, rendering, graphics cards, AI. Like these things would not be where they are in the industry if it was not for Universal Pictures, and Sony, and Disney like pushing on the hardware manufacturers, the chip makers, the networking equipment designers. Like it’s so interesting how probably the industry that’s pushed technology the most for the last 30, 40 years has been the industry you work in.
Mike Ford [00:04:58] Yeah, they’re real- it’s interesting you say that because the part of like this digital age that we’re living in, right? A lot of the things that we were doing as filmmakers, even as early as in 95 and 93, like the 3D things that you’re seeing are now making their way onto mobile devices, which are way more powerful than the computers that we were originally using back in the mid-90s. So you’ve got this thing in your pocket that can make a movie. Like my kids, they can make a movie with 3D in it without much of a problem. And if you go back in time, back when we were working on film and basically running dailies every night and we had to make times on film outs and things like that, it’s just a completely different world. And it’s pretty it’s fantastic that us as a business and within the movie industry has really accelerated a lot of other things. I think games have benefited from 3D and I think we’re going to see more and more adoption. I saw an ad the other night for Google and they’ve got an AR octopus floating around in a room. So it is coming and it is the 3Dization of the world is coming. And I think it really started in this game and media entertainment space, no question.
Tony Safoian [00:06:06] Yeah. And, you know, Back to the Future with the augmented reality and holograms. And again, like as far as things influencing each other, I had a tour of the Sophi Stadium, like the IT infrastructure that runs that place with this crazy screen. They call it the Oculus. There’s literally a, essentially a movie production house, a TV production house on site where they’re making content just for that screen in real-time and all this other stuff. And then you think about how film and games have influenced each other. It used to be that games were made from movies inspired by movies. And now we’re having movies inspired by the games. And then you watch sports. You’re like, wait a minute, that camera angle is from Madden, like, we didn’t have this camera angle before.
Mike Ford [00:06:56] I was just about to say that because those, I watch a lot of sports and they’ve got these cameras now they’re shooting on and they have active depth to field that like they’re basically autofocusing and getting these amazing shots that look straight out of Madden or straight out of like- and you’re like, wait, I always say I kind of feel like I’m always living in the future. And that’s the way I feel about it, is that there’s something new and cool that happens every day. When you watch something, you say, wow we’ve been doing that for a really long time and now I see it on a sports broadcast. That’s pretty cool. That’s pretty unique.
Tony Safoian [00:07:29] Let’s talk about where Sony sits in the world of entertainment and filmmaking and how you interface not just with Sony but other studios. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Mike Ford [00:07:41] Sony Pictures Imageworks. I mean, we’ve been in existence since 1992, really just one office on the lot over in Culver City. And we’ve really obviously over the past couple of decades, we’ve really grown into obviously a powerhouse in terms of the industry. We’re a Academy Award-winning studio. We’ve really also set the standard in terms of creating open-source technology that is used industry-wide. We’re a proud member of the Academy Software Foundation, where we participate in a group of industry leaders that comes together and really talks about and produces open-source software for the industry. We’ve always been a leader in the industry. And it’s something that in terms of the work that we do, especially right now, we’re really obviously working on a lot of animated features all at once. So we work on animated features for our partners over at Sony Pictures Animation. We’ve made films, we make films for Netflix, we make films for Warner Brothers Animation and many others. So we’re really proud of the work that we do on our animated features, as well as the work that we’ve done on countless visual effects films over the years. We’ve worked on over 100 films in our history. And really the diversity of the work, I think is the thing that makes us stand out the most, whether it’s from Spider-Verse, the animated film.
Tony Safoian [00:08:59] That was so good. That was such a good film, oh my god.
Mike Ford [00:09:00] Or working on an actual live-action Spider-Man with Tom Holland. So we do it all. And that’s, I think, something that we can hang our hat on and be really proud of.
Tony Safoian [00:09:10] I think when you combine, just amazing visuals, a deep emphasis on exceptional storytelling, I mean, that’s what generates, creates new franchises. And now you’re in an environment where content is more important than ever. Like it’s literally you see some of our other clients in the space, a bunch of M&A, right? Happening. That with Discovery recently, Time Warner and AT&T sort of media properties and of course, MGM and Amazon, Fox and Disney and so on and so forth. It just Netflix spends 15 to 17 billion dollars a year on just content and just such an exciting time and a competitive time. But I think the markets spoken, we knew this for a long time, but its content is what everything is about. And playing a key role in telling those stories and making them visually interesting, like Into the Spider-Verse was, like that was like a comic book had come alive and it appealed to kids, adults loved it. And when we watched it, it was like, I’ve never seen anything like this. And to be able to still do that after so many years of cinema being around and all sorts of technology being available to everyone, to still be able to create stuff like that is it’s quite an achievement.
Mike Ford [00:10:27] Yeah, I think that’s what keeps me excited about working in this industry, is films like that. And every once in a while you get one of those that comes along that you just go, wow, was that possible before or did we just figure it out as we went? And that ultimately is what I love about this process of being in computer graphics and working in this industry is that every once in a while you just get something that kind of pushes everybody really, in a way, and you get to see other things. And I think we’re seeing that with- as this content boom that you’re talking about. We’re seeing lots of different stories being told, unique stories that maybe weren’t going to be told before because they needed to be this big budget. Now we can do it episodic and we can spread it out. We can put it on all these different channels. So there’s a lot more stories that can be told, diverse stories and stories that speak to a lot of different cultures. And I think that that makes this time, I think, really unique.
Tony Safoian [00:11:18] I was going to say that about the increase in global content, international content, different languages, different diversity being represented. There was a film called Skate Girl or something, we started watching with the girls. I was like, wow, this village in India and this girl, and picks up like it’s again, those two worlds like Western culture and Eastern culture coming together like that. It’s really cool stuff. Look, again, in your 20 years, you’ve seen just a quantum leap in terms of capabilities and also just how the digital work is being done. Like my perspective of when these fully digital films started to be made that required tremendous amount of storage and processing power and all of that. Like pre-cloud my perspective was like, oh my God, they’re basically buying these studios are buying massive amounts of hardware, standing them up for five years, and then just like throwing them away. Is that just, like my pedestrian perspective of how it used to go down, but is that accurate or no?
Mike Ford [00:12:20] I think we try to be as economical as possible within our business as any business needs- so we can use latest and greatest hardware. And then as that is the most processer intense thing that we have, and then we can tend to roll those things down into areas that don’t need as much power. But in the big building days, like where you had a million dollar Onyx or something like that, in the SGI days. Yeah, that’s really the only choice you had. And there was only a couple of games. I think hardware has certainly changed. And what you’re talking about relative to Cloud really changes the way that you’re really dealing with like utilization issue of like how much are we going to be busy? What do we need to buy? That obviously has changed, right? So you don’t necessarily need to know exactly because you have this opportunity to do something else and basically go and extend your environment, extend what you can actually- again, makes it a lot, you just have a lot more flexibility now. There’s a lot more flexibility also from a hardware standpoint as well. It’s just there’s a lot of different choices and that’s good for everyone.
Tony Safoian [00:13:25] In what ways can you point to the cloud technology and say, we could not have done that without cloud or we could not have made that without cloud?
Mike Ford [00:13:33] We have a really large data center that we use, so we have a lot of capacity because we’ve built it that way. Because when we need to throw a lot of compute at something, we have the capacity. But I think what cloud opens up is it does open up that opportunity to do not only just the compute piece, but just a lot of different ways of actually doing- really if I needed to, is the way that I would look at it, if I needed to scale and if I needed to just max out what I needed to get done overnight. Now that’s possible. Now I can just turn that knob and the knob is basically I can just keep going. And I think that’s the difference now is that it’s sort of like an end compute model is I can say if I want to pay for it and I need this thing done, I can get it done. Obviously, from a utilization standpoint and from a we’re always trying to fit into what we have. But to extend beyond what we have is very easy to do for us now. And we’ve done it. We’ve done it a ton of times, so.
Tony Safoian [00:14:31] I think that’s an exact kind of explanation of why hybrid is a sort of a permanent state for a lot of organizations, and I think that sort of Google’s perspective on hybrid and multi-cloud is also very, I think, candid and transparent. And they’ve been talking about that for a long time. And I think that for media and entertainment and there’s other sectors, obviously the retail endpoints have that need, you have financial services and other health care, where endpoint, on-premise processing or storage is going to always be part of the overall architecture. But I think that’s a great example of where the role for both exists. But you also did put out something that you opensourced that runs on GCP, if I recall.
Mike Ford [00:15:20] Yeah, it’s called OpenCue. We really partnered with Google on this. We basically what we called our Q3, which is the third version of this queuing software that we built, which is really a schedule. What we have at Imageworks is we have a bunch of what we call jobs. And those could be renderers. They could be, you know, compositing that was done. They could be something that was kicked out of Maya, which is a DCC we use. And all of those things are just tasks that can be run on a computer. And we built a system to be able to do that. And so when I was talking about that opensource idea before and being a leader in that space, we put OpenCue out as an idea for people to basically democratize that scheduling process. So we use it every day. We’re using it right now, to schedule all of our jobs. And it’s a really functional, flexible piece of software and an application that you can- we’re running, we’ve run probably millions and millions of jobs through that system. It helps kind of create the films that you see up on screen.
Tony Safoian [00:16:24] So another part of the story and our relationship together and your relationship with Google is really around Workspace, Google workspace, formally G Suite. Again, I think the organization has been using it at varying degrees of adoption for about a decade. But the story that we put out together in the last couple of months had to do with how the platform really showed up for you in this way, when, of course, when the pandemic hit and you built up a couple of great bots and a bunch of things during that process to make not only people be able to just do normal type of information worker type stuff, corporate stuff, but really continue to make movies. You want to talk about that a little bit for this audience?
Mike Ford [00:17:06] We are in the business of making movies. One of the big things is we have really big teams. So these teams are, some of these teams grow to like 400 people and all 400 of those people need to talk to one another. And I use that sort of loosely. We talk to one another in so many different ways now. And obviously, the primary way that we do that within the organization is using Google Workspace. Because we have a studio in both Vancouver, British Columbia and in Culver City. We have, back when we made the choice to obviously go to Google Workspace, we’d been using Google Meet ever since that choice. So it is part of what we need is we need teams to really connect with one another. We need teams of people. So we have set ups in rooms. And then obviously when the pandemic hit, we all went to this individual method of communicating this box that we love and hate now. And we in many ways, because we were trained and this way of communication was trained and we’d been doing it for quite some time, really didn’t skip a beat when we went home because people were used to it. They knew how to do it. Just the way that we communicated it was almost like we didn’t have to think about it. We’d always use chat and we had always used basically the Google Docs in order for ways to communicate. In many ways, that was one thing that we didn’t have to think about, which was good because we had a lot of other things to think about. Making movies from home is not for the faint of heart, but we managed to do it.
Tony Safoian [00:18:29] That story is actually, I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it in various flavors, but very similar thematically. And like, you know, if you’re already on the platform, this shift home was actually not a very big deal or a lot of the work. Obviously, you need some specialized equipment to keep making movies and it’s not available, everybody’s home. But as far as communication, collaboration, etc., our customers who are either very close on finishing this journey with some massive roll outs they were like we accelerated when this hit because people needed to move to go home and work from home faster than they thought. But the customers, even like City of LA, who’s been a customer for 12 years, as far as a municipality experience and work from home, like 12,000 employees? No problem, like they’re like, we got this. And I thought that was really interesting and a technology that wasn’t built in anticipation of a global pandemic. But now it’s another way I feel like working in this way, like having excess capacity to burst and do other things, like if you’re running parts of the business on cloud, it really is like this modality of ready for anything. Which I think is so important in this world where it’s like we’ve just learned it’s very unpredictable and just be ready for anything is almost like a superpower, right?
Mike Ford [00:19:48] I totally agree. And I think the main thing for me as well as that is, is the accessibility. So I think, you know, even during that time there was a lot of if we can’t communicate because the computer that we have isn’t permanently set up, yet I can still communicate. Maybe it’s from my mobile device. Maybe it’s from my laptop. So I think that universality that the platform itself has that advantage. When the decision was made a long time ago to go with Google, I think that was a good choice just based on that solely. And I think the rest of the world is effectively sort of caught up to that, that’s just the way that we do it now. So it was good to make the decision when we did.
Tony Safoian [00:20:23] Awesome. So looking forward, whether it’s the balance of the year, next couple of years, you just got this job. Congratulations. The role that you greatly deserve. What are you most excited about? What do you foresee for Sony Pictures Imageworks? I think there’s a sense of optimism now with summertime. Restrictions are lifting. There’s a general air of optimism, but particularly in your case, and for Sony Pictures Imageworks, what do you see?
Mike Ford [00:20:49] Yeah, I think for me personally, I think it’s sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers and watching a movie again. I think that to me that experience that I miss, because, I mean, I just haven’t done it since March of 2020. It’s something that I do miss. And I miss that kind of going back to that kid in me. That kid has not left me. So I really want it. I love that experience. I love the fact that Sony is going to be releasing some films like in the theaters at the end of the year. For me, that’s going to personally, like get me back to, like, why I like working in this in this business and not working for- . I think, for us, I think that the key drivers have always been innovation for us. And I, you know, we’re looking at innovating, continuing to innovate. We work with our film partners to try and make those next stories. And that, to me, is the exciting part of the business as well, that as we as somebody comes to us and says, hey, we want to make this movie with you. That is honestly it’s like my favorite part of that process, back when I was a supervisor. Yeah. Let’s look at this together and let’s look at how we can make this movie together. And I think that’s going to continue to be what we do obviously at Imageworks. And we’re just going to try and do it better. We’re going to try and do it, make, you know, improve the workflows for artists through the tools. It’s like continuous innovation within not only our business, but within Imageworks in and of itself. That’s what keeps me going every day, so.
Tony Safoian [00:22:10] Hey, the wonderful thing about working in entertainment, media and entertainment, is that the public gets to see the output of the work. It’s on public display, accessible to everyone. So for myself personally, as a fan of film and cinema and a fan of the work that Sony Pictures Imageworks does, I can’t wait to see what you have next up your sleeves. I also can’t wait to go back to the theater with my kids and family and friends. Appreciate our partnership. I appreciate you as an amazing part of the SADA family. And I also would love to see you in person.
Mike Ford [00:22:46] Absolutely, yeah, how good would that be, right?
Tony Safoian [00:22:51] It would be amazing. It’s starting to happen, and I look forward to it very much. Thanks for being a guest on Cloud N Clear, Mike, and congratulations once again for the promotion to the CTO. You deserve it greatly.
Mike Ford [00:23:01] I appreciate it. Thanks a lot, Tony. It’s been great.
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