The field of 3D in itself is a complex one – so much so that much of it now has fragmented into sub-fields. If you are to be an all-round 3D artist and animator then you need to be part artist, programmer, mathematician, physicist, computer technician, business person and circus juggler.
But there is one complication that everyone involved in the 3D field has to deal with and it is the ire of most clientele – Render Processing. Every image and every second of video needs to be processed out and that often equates to delays and/or expense. Clients that are not familiar with the process get uptight at something that makes no sense to them and 3D artists lose sleep over an upset client and/or the profits that may be lost to services that specialise in providing the processing power needed to complete a job. Just like “a watched kettle never boils” it seems that the most urgent rendering never finishes processing.
For the artist that only does simple renderings it is not so bad. One high-resolution image, provided it is not too complex or full of niggly items like trees, may only take a few hours to process and then a few more hours of Photoshop. These types of services rarely do animation at all and prefer a flat “cut-out” trees pasted in Photoshop than a detailed landscape of leaf-by-leaf 3D trees that are often more complex in just one plant than the whole building or scene that they decorate.
For the artist or studio that aspires to a pure 3D scene, multiple renderings and animation there are no shortcuts. Intensive human work needs to be put in first and then intensive computer processing, not just of one highly detailed image put of thousands. Animation is a series of images played back quickly and today’s standards mean each image is high-definition and there are between 24 and 48 for every second of video. If one image takes an hour to process then one minute of 3D animated video will take between 60 and 120 days on one computer.
After all the effort that goes into creating a 3D project can you imagine many people being happy about waiting that long again to get finished artwork and video? Can you imagine the angst of an artist who has already expended all his effort and must now wait for a computer to deliver? What if he has only one computer and must use it for other jobs during the day? What about the fact that most good corporate or property presentations are between two and three minutes long, which blows out the processing time again? And then there are inevitably changes, which normally means repossessing out some, if not all of it again.
Computer time and power costs money
As you would expect, 3D studios buy spare machines for processing images and now there are large services located around the world that specialise in nothing but processing out work for those in need.
To add some spare machines is not too costly, as while they need state of the art CPUs they don’t require expensive monitors, a desk to sit them on or anything fancy. Those systems can process out renderings and animation drafts while the artist keeps working. Out of business hours the artist’s own machine can help too but still there are weeks or months of processing to do if the job is a complex animation. There is no chance of a few PCs in an office processing out the likes of “Avatar” in less than 20 years.
Render services, or “farms”, are here now to handle the big stuff. They are high-tech, expansive and carefully maintained. They can cut a years processing down to a day – possibly even less. But as you may expect, they don’t come cheap, in fact a studio may have a quarter of the overall fee set aside just for processing expenses. If you have your budgets together then that is fine, but what happens when something goes wrong and you need to reprocess? I can also promise you that half the time the client will want to make a change in direction and NOT expect to pay for it.
The need for render bureaus on projects can sink a 3D studio quickly and I can, from past experience, testify to watching any profit I had left in a project be consumed by these behemoths. It is horrific to watch your credit card balance reduce every couple of days and devastating when you discover that your own people may have left something out and it needs to be done again.
Increasing expectations and requirements
There is another factor that is contributing to the pain of processing: while you may jump to the conclusion that every year the computers get faster therefore less render time and less expense, you may not know that the expectations and accepted formats are growing just as fast – sometimes faster. This is clearly evident when you compare 3D work from 20 years ago to today. When 3D first came out people were amazed that the work had some realism, but now they are upset when they can spot the 3D at all and expect photographic quality. That added quality is definitely from the efforts of artists and software but it often requires a disproportionately higher level of processing power.
A good example is Pixar’s “Luxo Jr” animated short film that took the industry by storm in 1986, put Pixar squarely on the map and in a whole new and exciting direction. It is estimated that processing on this project would have been about a year on one computer back then. On today’s desktop systems it would process while the artist broke for lunch, but would people accept the quality of Luxo Jr today? Not a chance – they would want a refund!
Years ago we watch TV based on CRTs (the big boxes that sat in our living rooms before flat screens) that produced an image of only 640x480 pixels in size. The broadcasts that went to these were often only the equivalent of 320x240 pixels, which was the most you could expect out of a normal VHS too. Today we buy HD TVs that receive and display images at up to 1920x1080 pixels. Do the maths from VHS quality to today’s standard and you find that there is 27 times the image size and that means the same factor in processing.
It is fair to assume that today’s expectation of quality requires 30 times the processing power and when you multiply that with the latest formats you are now need 810 times more processing power than you did 20 years ago, not accounting for the other expectation that we deliver in a timely fashion. For the other geeks out there who are rushing to their calculators now, that doesn’t keep up with Moore’s law. Consider that many of us are now switching to stereoscopic 3D video, which requires twice the processing again and you have smashed Moore over the head with a baseball bat.
Bureaus vs In-House
A studio like ours, or bigger, needs render power – lots of it. When you come to realise that you will always have projects that need to process you need to consider the difference between “renting” processing power or owning the actual hardware. Both ideas have their pros and cons.
When you use a bureau you don’t need to maintain anything and only pay for what you use. Not only is that rendering power simply “pay per use” but it is normally quite fast and well supported. The downside is that it comes at a heavy price and any unavoidable and un-budgeted reprocessing can destroy your profit margin.
Owning a render farm means you have it on tap exclusively. When you need a rendering or animation you can load it onto the system immediately and not have to worry about burning up bureau fees. Any reprocessing is done in-house and at your own cost, which is significantly less that outsourcing. The downside is the large investment, not just in the initial outlay but in the upkeep. Floor space, electricity and cooling are also significant factors. You also have to consider that it is unlikely that you will have the budget to match the big render farm services in size, so your processing is going to take a little longer.
Archiform 3D has a continual need to process both single renderings and animation. We are unique in that we have been in business and creating animations before any render farm services existed, so we were an early adopter of in-house processing. In fact the hardware suitable for such processing was not readily available either as the need was so new we had to build computers that were clustered together into what is now known as the modern render farm.
Today Archiform 3D’s render farm is still growing, either in numbers or in ability. Our philosophy is that with every project that we process we invest back into the farm, so when other companies may budget $10000 for render farm service we budget $2500 for upgrades and new hardware. Ultimately our farm is a little slower than a big service but it is always available and it allows us to offer as many renderings and as much footage as our clients need at no extra cost – something that fits perfectly with our model of production.
Our strategy actually aids our clients the most. Draft footage is easily created, changes made effortlessly and we don’t go begging for more funds if the project accidently extends past its budget. We balance our expenditure per month and project to continuously maintain a render farm that keeps up with our client’s expectations, deadlines and budgets. Every system in our render farm is hand built and planned out for the needs of today and the year after. With things like stereoscopic footage and a fresh economic cycle at our door we need to make sure we are ready to process out more renderings and 3d animation than ever.