Archiform 3D

Building your own 3D workstation

By Steve Bell

I am often asked my opinion on 3D workstations and render machines:

  • Should people buy or build?
  • What CPU should they get?
  • What video card should they buy?
  • How much RAM, etc?

This time I decided to pool what I can tell people into one article that breaks down my philosophy on the subject and how I go about building a 3D workstation.

First off you need to understand my background. I am a 3D artist, creating massive scenes and doing lots of animation – mainly for architectural and landscape work. My 3D needs can be extreme and even my smallest scenes eclipse the size of most artist’s largest ones. I don’t do photoshop or after effects touchups to my work and everything you see in my showreel is straight off the render farm. If you understand the ramifications of my workflow you will also understand that:

  • My time spent setting up a scene is extreme;
  • My rendering requirements are also extreme;
  • My scenes are huge as I dont rely on compositing in extra detail – all the minute and complex data is within the scene to begin with.

When you consider the above you may also think that I would be buying the largest Xeon based workstations available. You would be justified in your opinion but you would also be wrong. I love to build my own workstations and I have a philosophy of “if I can't run to CompUSA and buy a replacement part then I don’t want it”. It comes down to a desire to reduce complications. My strategy with the massive 3D scenes actually reduces complications for me as I have one process to get an awesome 3D scene, not two or three, so when I make a change to the project I only have one step to produce the new footage therefore fewer headaches, less room for error and less time lost in the long run as EVERY project is changed at some point.

Personally I use my own custom built PC for all workstation tasks and I have my MacBook Pro for everything else, such as writing this article.

Getting to the point of this article, the needs of every 3D artist are primarily:

  • A fast CPU coupled with lots of RAM;
  • A fast GPU with adequate RAM;
  • Fast access to a library of textures and models.

My needs simply extend to “more of the above” with particular emphasis on RAM for both the system and the video card.

I will break this down to key elements:

I wont get into operating systems, hackintosh or anything like that as they are a whole other subject and far less critical to this article. I am also not going to get into the details and techniques of assembling a system as that is adequately covered elsewhere.

Also keep in mind that I am not going to rewrite this article every 3 months so you can assume that if it is older than a year then it is going to be out of date with regards to models, specs and prices, but the theory is going to be the same and I will show you how to apply it to the very latest hardware.

Next: The unique needs of 3D rendering and animation >

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