Universal Shifting to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Platform for Live-Action, Animation Production

Universal - Microsoft Azure
Courtesy of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group

Universal Filmed Entertainment Group has its head in the cloud — and now it’s going to push its production teams there.

The company has embarked on a major multiyear strategy to move its studios’ film and TV production from in-house servers to the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform. The goal is to let creatives collaborate more easily and efficiently across geographic regions and with outside vendors, said Michael Wise, CTO of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group.

“It will unlock a new way to make movies in a way we haven’t been able to do before,” Wise said.

Universal is working with a team from Microsoft Azure to extend DreamWorks Animation’s proprietary production platform for animation to include live-action content, which ultimately will be housed in the cloud. With those workflows running on Microsoft Azure, according to Wise, Universal’s ecosystem of partners will be able to connect to them in open, standards-based ways.

The COVID-19 crisis has been an “impetus” for Universal’s cloud migration, even as the company has been in the planning stages for the move since late 2019, Wise said. He pointed out that it’s a near-term solution to accelerate a return to industry production during the global pandemic by letting production teams work with a broad array of industry partners remotely.

“COVID is certainly an accelerant… but we knew this was the way we had to go long-term,” Wise said.

The first order of business is to take DWA’s existing production platform and extend it into Azure, which will take about a year. Wise noted that animation projects currently in production will not be shifted to the cloud: “Our production cycles last a couple years, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move in midstream.”

In tandem, Universal and Microsoft will be layering in live-action production capabilities into the cloud starting with visual effects. Wise sees a big win with VFX, which on a major film can involved dozens of third-party partners. “This will save extraordinary amounts of time,” he predicted.

NBCUniversal’s Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, headed by chairman Donna Langley, includes Universal Pictures, Focus Features, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, and DreamWorks Animation.

A key reason Universal Filmed Entertainment picked Microsoft Azure is the roster of industry partners it has lined up. In the three years since the Azure group began focusing on the media and entertainment sector, those have included Avid Technology, Adobe Systems, Technicolor, Bebop Technology, StratusCore and Teradici.

By moving production processes to Microsoft Azure, Wise said, Universal can take advantage of the cloud platform’s global “hyper-scale” storage and compute platform, which will let studio teams tap into additional storage and processing power on an as-needed basis.

“You use compute power — and pay for it — only when you need it,” said Hanno Basse, Microsoft Azure’s CTO. Basse was formerly chief technology officer of 20th Century Fox Film (prior to its Disney acquisition) and joined Microsoft this past March.

According to Wise, Universal, in conjunction with Microsoft, will be developing and pushing standards for cloud-based production in two main areas: application programming interfaces (APIs) for third-party tools to access asset databases in a common way; and an industry-standard ontology for asset management systems.

“We’re gonna use this as a focal point to rally the industry behind standards and interoperability,” Wise said.

The promise of cloud computing is that it will increase operational efficiencies, and by extension free up creative professionals to be even more innovative in their craft, Basse said. “Together with customers like Universal and DreamWorks, we are prioritizing cloud and edge technologies to help transform workflows, increase production output and reduce friction for creatives,” he said.