With their data storage costs on the rise as visual effects companies render more and more work, vfx and animation houses are finding a silver lining in a shared cloud.

And while the idea of basing render farms in the ether has been around for a long time, it’s only recently that faster and higher-capacity transmission capabilities, plus greater assurances of security, have enabled the technology to take hold.

In Vancouver, where many vfx and animation houses have set up shop to service the region’s growing film and TV production business, three of the city’s top shops — Rainmaker, Digital Domain, and Image Engine — among the converts that are switching over to a cloud-based media storage and rendering system, eliminating the need for each of them to maintain a costly inhouse system of their own.

The facilities were all facing the same issue, says Image Engine head Jason Dowdeswell. Each time they tackled large-scale projects they were forced to purchase more storage and rendering capability. However, once a show was done, there was no way to scale back down.

So the studios — partners in the Vancouver Studio Group, a 16-member association formed in 2009 to identify production efficiencies — looked into a way to share rendering computers. After entertaining various proposals, they decided to go with RenderCloud, from Toronto-based technology firm Scalar Decisions, and set to launch Feb. 15.

The technology allows users to share a hub of high-performance off-site servers that are controlled, managed and maintained by a third party. Rendering takes place via a high-speed connectivity. This sharing of resources lets the studios take on larger projects and become more competitive in attracting more 3D, animation and vfx work to Vancouver.

Scalar Decisions has invested more than $4 million to launch the service, and already has better than 1,000 servers in place; it expects to expand to 1,500 by summer. In addition to Vancouver, Scalar will market RenderCloud’s services in Montreal, Toronto and Los Angeles.

Great Northern Way Campus — a joint venture between the U. of British Columbia, Simon Fraser U., Emily Carr U. of Art + Design and the British Columbia Institute of Technology — is a partner in the initiative, which turns an 18-acre industrial site in the heart of the city into Vancouver’s “digital district.”

Rainmaker, Digital Domain and Image Engine are RenderCloud’s first customers and have each signed three-year agreements. The three studios are the founders of the initiative, but Dowdeswell says that they’re also inviting other local animation and vfx shops to join in. “We’re all looking out for each other. We all recognize that the more we help each other, the better off everyone’s going to be. As independents, we all want to remain competitive, but we all also want to eliminate the common issue that we have, which is having to spend cash on systems that (often) sit dormant.”

Darren Sharpe, Scalar’s general manager for Western Canada, says the company’s ability to provision resources collaboratively is what sets it apart. Although the studios will be accessing a common location for rendering through RenderCloud, their work will remain secure. Each facility’s activity will be controlled by and visible only to that facility.

“We were at a crossroads where we had to decide to either build out yet another server room on our premises that might give us another year or two of expansion or find another long-term solution like RenderCloud,” Dowdeswell says. Now as the company expands, instead of buying more rendering capability, it will be renting it from Render Cloud and paying as it goes.

Image Engine will be using the new technology for all productions starting with Sony Pictures Entertainment’s “Elysium” and Universal Pictures’ “R.I.P.D”.

Dowdeswell is confident that RenderCloud offers the kind of flexibility and scalability that is needed to meet production demands as animation and effects continue to grow in Vancouver. “Directors and clients now have the expectation that they can be working on every shot right till the bitter end,” he says. “The only way that we can support that type of service is to have the quickest, easiest way to expand our capabilities.”

High capacity and fast connectivity “ensure that there are no latency issues,” says Sharpe, referring to the possibility of an annoying lag in rendering time.

Although many facilities with existing rendering capability might find it difficult to consider switching over to cloud technology and decommissioning their servers, Sharpe says that there’s not just the hard cost of hardware to consider, but also soft costs like power and manpower. He suggests that studios look into scaling out gradually. “The (return on investment) of no longer having to expand their render capability is impressive,” he says.

And while Sharpe admits that RenderCloud can be susceptible to lines being cut or major outages, he insists that the “connectivity we offer is very much in line with that of major telecommunications and Internet providers.”

Nonprofit government org BC Film + Media is assessing how studios from outside Vancouver can take advantage of British Columbia’s tax credits for post-production when they use RenderCloud.