INCREASE YOUR RENDERING POWER
Masses of linked servers, dedicated solely to ploughing through the rendering of animation and VFX frames, are within the reach of all artists. Key considerations You should follow a checklist before any job is submitted to rendering, whether it s to your own render farm or an external service Is the geometry efficient? Is the scene optimised? Is there geometry you really don t need? Are the materials optimised? Use node-based material editors to check for unnecessary texture map duplications How many reflection bounces are necessary? Do you need Gl (Global Illumination) enabled? Only use Gamma if you understand it. Leave it at default settings otherwise Remember that external companies may not have the same plug-ins or scripts in use as you Are unnecessary plug-in references removed from the scene? (Look for helper objects) Do any messages appear when you load the file? These may pause or stop the rendering process Use literal rather than relative file paths Don t use duplicate file names Test, test and test again! Friends on the outside Sometimes, though, you need a bit more power or flexibility than you have on-site. Enter the outsourced render farm services. These are companies that offer you time slots on their network of dedicated rendering workstations, usually based on an hourly rate. The process typically involves contacting the service to discuss the render job first, then sending the files via FTP, courier or dedicated GUI. For example, Render Rocket (www.renderrocket.com) enables customers such as Psyop, THQ or Lockheed Martin to upload their render job via an interface called Mission Control and download the finished job once completed. "In that interface, the content creator can track their job, the credits they ve purchased and much more," says Ruben Perez, CTO of Render Rocket. "We provide a number of different pricing options to accommodate any kind of job and rendering environment. What s more, we maintain the licences on most rendering software, so content creators need not worry." Render Nation (www.rendernation.com) is another render outsourcing company, based in Liverpool, with a 120-server render farm available on-demand. "Rendering comes down to capacity management," says the company s technical director Jim Mooney. "If an artist primarily produces still images and can manage the rendering on their PC when itnot being used then it s cool. The satisfaction stops when a deadline is pending. If an artist is still finishing off one on their PC but they have to deliver two images by morning, then it s suddenly an issue. If an artist or studio has an animation to deliver in a short period, then it really gets tough. Rendering is very parallel. Essentially the more PCs you have the better. But it can be very costly to purchase enough PCs to cope with peak demands, given that they can sit idle." Under such circumstances, in order to deliver a project on time there may be no alternative than to look at third-party support —either by using a service like Mooney s, or by doing what the big VFX houses do and co-locate some render capacity externally. An example of the latter route is offered by ZYNC, an invite —only cloud-based storage and rendering solution (www.zyncrender.com). Project Pandora is a joint research project between NVIDIA and Autodesk for 3ds Max iray users. "This technology brings iray to the Pandora cloud, but can be accessed by any 3ds Max machine that has Flash installed," says Jamie Gwilliam. "The process uses a technique similar to progressive and distributed rendering, where all the cloud GPUs within the cluster nodes work on the current frame. Once the 3ds Max scene is uploaded to the Pandora cloud, it can then be viewed within a web browser using Liveview." The Foundry s Andy Lomas (www.andylomas.com) has experience in using cloud-based rendering. "The cloud is obviously very attractive from the point of view of having huge amounts of rendering resources available just when they are needed, and without companies having to build their own data centres," he says. "The big challenges are dealing with the enormous data sets that are often used in production. Typically the data needed to render is [a lot] larger than the size of the final render frames. Getting such data sets to computers on the cloud is a big challenge. If you re dealing with smaller data sets, the cloud is already a great solution." Graven Images Graven Images outsourced its rendering when it had to balance photorealistic animation quality with a short amount of time. Graven Images (www.graven.co.uk) in Glasgow was asked to produce an animation of a contemporary office that it was designing, to present the design proposals and act as a marketing resource. "The office had several key areas with bespoke furniture arrangements and a variety of finishes that all needed to be communicated," recalls artist Andy Pennington. "The animation was... to be informative as well as photoreal. Given the short timescales, we knew early on that we would require the services of a render farm." Graven Images approached Render Nation following a recommendation. "They were able to accommodate our requirements on short notice and they had the hardware to cope with it effectively," says Pennington. "Due to the complexity of coordinating audio with camera work and postproduction, we underwent rigorous in-house testing before issuing to the render farm. In order to ensure things went as smoothly as possible we did all our lighting pre-calcs in-house and produced some test segments of animation. We also consolidated our textures and proxies." The time between upload and rendering completion was roughly six to seven hours. "Render Nation carried out lots of testing for us and advised on some adjustments that would make the process faster and more efficient," says Pennington. "The animation was rendered out faster than expected and there was nothing in the way of errors. I can t disclose the costs but we felt that it fairly reflected the service and we were happy with it." Down on the farm Andy Pennington, an active freelance visualisation artist (www.andypennington.net) as well as an employee of Graven Images in Glasgow (www.graven.co.uk), has used outsourced rendering on a number of occasions when producing high-level marketing images and product visualisation. Pennington says: "Wherever possible we try to render in-house but we have had both high-resolution still images and animations rendered for us. Time is almost always the deciding factor but economically it makes more sense to have your work rendered off-site if it frees up chargeable time that would otherwise have been halted. Although costs are always a consideration, most of the 3D visualisation we produce is considered an integrated part of a wider project and so the costs incurred often become secondary to fulfilling our obligations to the project and our clients." In Pennington s experience, a good external render farm can typically turn over a reasonably sized animation in anything from a few hours to overnight. "If they are a reliable service, this [saves] valuable productive time which can be invested back into your scene in the form of better modelling, texturing and postproduction. Your quality images and animations will directly benefit as a result." "The obvious benefit is the raw rendering power that dedicated rendering companies provide," says Craig Ramsay. "With today s technology, clients expect animations to be provided in at least HD-720p resolution. Realistically, there s no way I could render an animation in-house at HD resolution in a reasonable amount of time. Having the option to use a dedicated rendering service means I don t have to turn down animation jobs and can actually get everything rendered out very quickly." Another such customer is Cadpeople UK (www.cadpeople.com). "We do visualisation and animation of architecture and product design that are used as either standalone marketing materials or integrated into our e-learning solutions," says company director Jonas Andersen. His experience with outsourced rendering as a whole has been positive: "We have only used Render Nation within Cadpeople but I also have previous experience with render-it. The choice was hugely influenced by the ability to speak to a real person with solid software know-how. "[Outsourcing rendering] is not cost-effective compared to in-house rendering, but when faced with impossible deadlines it seems fairly economical," he adds, "It probably was a one-off as our in-house farm is quite substantial, however it gives us confidence in tight deadlines, knowing outsourcing is a viable solution when needed." "I outsourced rendering to RebusFarm due to their [Farminizer] software that lets you upload your scenes to their online farm directly from 3ds Max," says Ramsay. "It also checks your scene for any potential writing problems before the upload-it s pretty clever stuff. The other way to increase you productivity can be done by using online writing jobs service" Ramsay also has experience of using Render Nation as a solution: "I was very impressed with the service that they provided-working on a weekend to help me meet a very tight deadline and even installing a specific plug-in that I requested," he recalls. "Being able to pick up the phone and have instant support is very important to me." Error-checking However, Pennington admits there is almost always a pressure element when using a render farm service. "Typically you are using it at the end of your project timeline," he explains. "This leaves little or no margin for error when setting up your scene." Jonas Andersen definitely agrees: s very easy to make costly mistakes," he says. Jamie Gwilliam says most of these mistakes can be avoided with a bit of planning. "Remember external companies, or even internal departments in other geographies, may not have the same plug-ins or scripts in use," he says. He suggests having a look around your office and seeing if there is an old machine that you can use as a testing device to load files, with a clean install of the specific software. "This will allow you to test the scene and examine if anything is missing before you submit the project to an external or in-house resource," Gwilliam advises. "Just because it works on your local machine, does not mean it will work on the farm." "The key thing to remember to make rendering more efficient, either in-house or externally, is to test [again and again]," says Jim Mooney. "This makes the process much smoother, and when scenes are left to render overnight, we all have the confidence that they will be correct the next day." Render farms can help all types of 3D artists, from a one-person setup in a single room, through to companies working on a large commercial scale. The next time you find yourself stuggling to complete a job, why not try the render farm solution?