Category Archives: Workstations Edition

Choosing the right workstation set-up for the job

By Lance Holte

Like virtually everything in the world of filmmaking, the number of available options for a perfect editorial workstation are almost infinite. The vast majority of systems can be greatly customized and expanded, whether by custom order, upgraded internal hardware or with expansion chassis and I/O boxes. In a time when many workstations are purchased, leased or upgraded for a specific project, the workstation buying process is largely determined by the project’s workflow and budget.

One of Harbor Picture Company’s online rooms.

In my experience, no two projects have identical workflows. Even if two projects are very similar, there are usually some slight differences — a different editor, a new camera, a shorter schedule, bigger storage requirements… the list goes on and on. The first step for choosing the optimal workstation(s) for a project is to ask a handful of broad questions that are good starters for workflow design. I generally start by requesting the delivery requirements, since they are a good indicator of the size and scope of the project.

Then I move on to questions like:

What are the camera/footage formats?
How long is the post production schedule?
Who is the editorial staff?

Often there aren’t concrete answers to these questions at the beginning of a project, but even rough answers point the way to follow-up questions. For instance, Q: What are the video delivery requirements? A: It’s a commercial campaign — HD and SD ProRes 4444 QTs.

Simple enough. Next question.

Christopher Lam from SF’s Double Fine Productions/ Courtesy of Wacom.

Q: What is the camera format? A: Red Weapon 6K, because the director wants to be able to do optical effects and stabilize most of the shots. This answer makes it very clear that we’re going to be editing offline, since the commercial budget doesn’t allow for the purchase of a blazing system with a huge, fast storage array.

Q: What is the post schedule? A: Eight weeks. Great. This should allow enough time to transcode ProRes proxies for all the media, followed by offline and online editorial.

At this point, it’s looking like there’s no need for an insanely powerful workstation, and the schedule looks like we’ll only need one editor and an assistant. Q: Who is the editorial staff? A: The editor is an Adobe Premiere guy, and the ad agency wants to spend a ton of time in the bay with him. Now, we know that agency folks really hate technical slowdowns that can sometimes occur with equipment that is pushing the envelope, so this workstation just needs to be something that’s simple and reliable. Macs make agency guys comfortable, so let’s go with a Mac Pro for the editor. If possible, I prefer to connect the client monitor directly via HDMI, since there are no delay issues that can sometimes be caused by HDMI to SDI converters. Of course, since that will use up the Mac Pro’s single HDMI port, the desktop monitors and the audio I/O box will use up two or three Thunderbolt ports. If the assistant editor doesn’t need such a powerful system, a high-end iMac could suffice.

(And for those who don’t mind waiting until the new iMac Pro ships in December, Apple’s latest release of the all-in-one workstation seems to signal a committed return for the company to the professional creative world – and is an encouraging sign for the Mac Pro overhaul in 2018. The iMac Pro addresses its non-upgradability by futureproofing itself as the most powerful all-in-one machine ever released. The base model starts at a hefty $4,999, but boasts options for up to a 5K display, 18-core Xeon processor, 128GB of RAM, and AMD Radeon Vega GPU. As more and more applications add OpenCL acceleration (AMD GPUs), the iMac Pro should stay relevant for a number of years.)

Now, our workflow would be very different if the answer to the first question had instead been A: It’s a feature film. Technicolor will handle the final delivery, but we still want to be able to make in-house 4K DCPs for screenings, EXR and DPX sequences for the VFX vendors, Blu-ray screeners, as well as review files and create all the high-res deliverables for mastering.

Since this project is a feature film, likely with a much larger editorial staff, the workflow might be better suited to editorial in Avid (to use project sharing/bin locking/collaborative editing). And since it turns out that Technicolor is grading the film in Blackmagic Resolve, it makes sense to online the film in Resolve and then pass the project over to Technicolor. Resolve will also cover any in-house temp grading and DCP creation and can handle virtually any video file.

PCs
For the sake of comparison, let’s build out some workstations on the PC side that will cover our editors, assistants, online editors, VFX editors and artists, and temp colorist. PC vs. Mac will likely be a hotly debated topic in this industry for some time, but there is no denying that a PC will return more cost-effective power at the expense of increased complexity (and potential for increased technical issues) than a Mac with similar specs. I also appreciate the longer lifespan of machines with easy upgradability and expandability without requiring expansion chassis or external GPU enclosures.

I’ve had excellent success with the HP Z line — using z840s for serious finishing machines and z440s and z640s for offline editorial workstations. There are almost unlimited options for desktop PCs, but only certain workstations and components are certified for various post applications, so it pays to do certification research when building a workstation from the ground up.

The Molecule‘s artist row in NYC.

It’s also important to keep the workstation components balanced. A system is only as strong as its weakest link, so a workstation with an insanely powerful GPU, but only a handful of CPU cores will be outperformed by a workstation with 16-20 cores and a moderately high-end GPU. Make sure the CPU, GPU, and RAM are similarly matched to get the best bang for your buck and a more stable workstation.

Relationships!
Finally, in terms of getting the best bang for your buck, there’s one trick that reigns supreme: build great relationships with hardware companies and vendors. Hardware companies are always looking for quality input, advice and real-world testing. They are often willing to lend (or give) new equipment in exchange for case studies, reviews, workflow demonstrations and press. Creating relationships is not only a great way to stay up to date with cutting edge equipment, it expands support options, your technical network and is the best opportunity to be directly involved with development. So go to trade shows, be active on forums, teach, write and generally be as involved as possible and your equipment will thank you.

Our Main Image Courtesy of editor/compositor Fred Ruckel.

 


Lance Holte is an LA-based post production supervisor and producer. He has spoken and taught at such events as NAB, SMPTE, SIGGRAPH and Createasphere. You can email him at lance@lanceholte.com.

Doing more with Thunderbolt 3

Streamlined speed on set or in the studio

By Beth Marchant

It was only six years ago that Thunderbolt, the high-speed data transfer and display port standard co-developed by Apple and Intel, first appeared in Apple’s MacBook Pros and iMacs. Since then, the blended PCI Express, DisplayPort and power plug cable has jolted its way toward ubiquity, giving computers and peripherals increased speed and functionality with every iteration.

Content creators were the first to discover its potential, and gamers quickly followed. Intel, which now owns the sole rights to the spec, announced in late May it would put Thunderbolt 3 into all of its future CPUs and release the spec to the industry in 2018. In a related blog post, Intel VP Chris Walker called Thunderbolt 3 “one of the most significant cable I/O updates since the advent of USB.” The company envisions not just a faster port, but “a simpler and more versatile port, available for everyone, coming to approximately 150 different PCs, Macs and peripherals by the end of this year,” said Walker.

So what can it do for you on set or in the studio? First, some thumbnail facts about what it does: with double the video bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2 and eight times faster than USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 3 clocks 40Gbps transfer speeds, twice as fast as the previous version. T3 also includes USB-C connectivity, which finally makes it usable with Windows-based workstations as well as with Macs. On top of those gains, a T3 port now lets you daisy-chain up to six devices and two 4K monitors — or one 5K monitor — to a laptop through a single connection. According to Intel’s Walker, “We envision a future where high-performance single-cable docks, stunning photos and 4K video, lifelike VR, and faster-than-ever storage are commonplace.” That’s an important piece of the puzzle for filmmakers who want their VR projects and 4K+ content to reach the widest possible audience.

The specification for Thunderbolt 3, first released in 2015, gave rise to a smattering of products in 2016, most importantly the MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt 3. At NAB this year, many more flexible RAID storage and improved T3 devices that connect directly to Mac and Windows computers joined their ranks. In June, Apple released iMacs with TB3.

For directors Jason and Josh Diamond, a.k.a. The Diamond Brothers, upgrading to new TB3-enabled laptops is their first priority. “When we look at the data we’re pushing around, be it 24 cameras from a VR shoot, or many TBs of 8K R3Ds from a Red Helium multicam shoot, one of the most important things in the end is data transfer speed. As we move into new computers, drives and peripherals, USB-C and TB3 finally have ubiquity across our Mac and PC systems that we either own or are looking to upgrade to. This makes for much easier integrations and less headaches as we design workflows and pathways for our projects,” says Jason Diamond, The Diamond Bros./Supersphere.

If you are also ready to upgrade, here are a sampling of recently released products that can add Thunderbolt 3 performance to your workflow.

CalDigit docking station

Clean Up the Clutter
CalDigit was one of the first to adopt the Thunderbolt interface when it came out in 2011, so it’s no surprise that the first shipment of the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 3 (TS3) docking station introduced at NAB 2017 sold out quickly. The preorders taken at the show are expected to ship soon. TS3 is designed to be a streamlined, central charging hub for MacBook Pro, delivering 85W of laptop charging via USB 3.1 Type-A (plus audio in and out), along with two Thunderbolt ports, two eSATA ports, two USB 3.1 Type A ports, Gigabit Ethernet and a DisplayPort. DisplayPort lets users connect to a range of monitors with a DisplayPort to HDMI, DVI or VGA cable.

CalDigit also introduced the TS3 Lite, shipping now, which will work with any Thunderbolt 3 computer from PCs to iMacs or MacBook Pros and features two Thunderbolt 3 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio in and out, an AC power adapter and DisplayPort. It includes two USB 3.1 Type-A ports — one on the back and one on its face — that let you charge your iPhone even when the dock isn’t connected to your computer.

The Need for Speed
Like the other new T3 products on the market, LaCie‘s 6big and 12big Thunderbolt 3 RAID arrays feature both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 interfaces for Mac- or Windows-based connections.

LaCie 12Big

But as their names imply, the relatively compact “big” line ramps up to 120TB in the 12big desktop tower. The hardware RAID controller and 7200RPM drives inside the12big will give you speeds of up to 2600MB/s, and even 2400MB/s in RAID 5. This will significantly ramp up how quickly you ingest footage or move through an edit or grade in the course of your day (or late night!). Thanks to Thunderbolt 3, multiple streams of ProRes 422 (HQ), ProRes 4444 XQ and uncompressed HD 10-bit and 12-bit video are now much easier to handle at once. Preview render rates also get a welcome boost.

The new Pegasus3 R4, R6 and R8 RAIDs from Promise debuted at Apple’s WWDC 2017 in early June and were designed to integrate seamlessly with Apple’s latest Thunderbolt 3-enabled offerings, which will include the upcoming iMac Pro coming in December. They will deliver 16TB to 80TB of desktop storage and can also sync with the company’s Apollo Cloud personal storage device, which lets you share small clips or low-res review files with a group via mobile devices while in transit. When used with Promise’s SANLink Series, the new Pegasus3 models can also be shared over a LAN.

Lighten the Load on Set
If you regularly work with large media files on set, more than one G-Technology G-Drive ev series drives are likely on your cart. The latest version of the series so popular with DITs has a Thunderbolt 3-enabled drive for improved transfer speeds and an HDMI input so you can daisy-chain the drive and a monitor through a single connection on a laptop. Users of G-Tech ev series drives who need even more robust Thunderbolt 3 RAID on location — say to support multistream 8K and VR — now have another option: the 8-bay G|Speed Shuttle XL with ev Series Bay Adapters that G-Tech introduced at NAB. Shipping this month, it comes in RAID-0, -1, -5, -6 and -10 configurations, includes two T3 ports and ranges in price from $3,999.95 (24TB) to $6,599.95 (60TB).

Sonnet Cfast 2.0 Pro card reader

Transfer Faster on Location
One of the first card readers with a Thunderbolt interface is the SF3 Series — Cfast 2.0 Pro launched in May by Sonnet Technologies. Dual card slots let the reader ingest files simultaneously from Canon, Arri and Blackmagic cameras at concurrent data transfer speeds up to 1,000 MB/s, twice as fast as you can from a USB 3.0 reader. The lightweight, extruded aluminum shell is made to handle as much abuse as you can throw at it.

Stereoscopic-Ready
The Thunderbolt 3 version of Blackmagic’s UltraStudio 4K Extreme resolved two critical obstacles when it began shipping last year: it was finally fast enough to support RGB and stereoscopic footage while working in 4K and it could

Blackmagic UltraStudio 4K Extreme

be connected directly to color correction systems like DaVinci Resolve via its new Thunderbolt 3 port. The 40 Gbps transfer speeds are “fast enough for the most extreme, high bit-depth uncompressed RGB 4K and stereoscopic formats,” says Blackmagic’s Grant Petty.

Blackmagic introduced the UltraStudio HD Mini with Thunderbolt 3 at NAB this year. It adds 3G-SDI and HDMI along with analog connections for 10-bit recording up to 1080p60 and 2K DCI, likely making it the first of its kind. It’s aimed at the live broadcast graphics editing and archiving.

Connect Back to PCI-E and Be Eco-Friendly
OWC makes little black boxes that do two very important things: retrieve your PCI-Express card options, while also helping the planet. The zero emissions Mac and PC technology company began shipping the updated OWC Mercury Helios with Thunderbolt 3 expansion chassis in May. The box includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports, a PCI-E post, and a Mini DisplayPort, which lets you connect to high-bandwidth NIC cards, HBAs and RAID controllers and add video capture and processing cards and audio production PCIe cards. An energy saver mode also powers it on and off with your computer.

Dell 6.15

My top workstation accessories

By Brady Betzel

As a working video editor, I’m at my desk and on my computer all day. So when I get home I want my personal workstation to feel as powerful as possible and having the right tools to support that experience are paramount.

I’m talking workstation accessories. I’ve put together a short list based on my personal experience. Some are well known, while some are slightly under the radar. Either way, they all make my editing life easier and more productive.

They make my home-based workstation feel like a full-fledged professional edit suite.

Wacom Intuos Pro Medium
In my work as an offline editor, I started to have some wrist pain when I used a mouse in conjunction with my keyboard. That is when I decided to jump head first into using a Wacom tablet. Within two weeks, all of my pain went away and I felt that I had way more control over drawing objects and shapes. I specifically noticed more precision when working inside of apps like Adobe’s After Effects and Photoshop when drawing accurate lines and shapes with bezier handles.

In addition, you can program minimal macros on the express keys on the side of the tablet. While the newest Wacom Intuos Pro Medium tablet costs a cool $349.95, it will pay for itself with increased efficiency and, in my experience, less wrist pain.

Genelec 8010A Studio Monitors
One workstation accessory that will blow you away is a great set of studio monitors. Genelec is known for making some great studio monitors and the 8010A are a set I wish I could get. These monitors are small —  around 8-inches tall by 4-inches deep and 4-inches wide — but they put out some serious power at 96dBs.

Don’t be fooled by their small appearance; they are a great complement to any serious video and audio power user. They connect via XLR, so you may need to get some converters if you are going straight out of your station, without runing through a mixer. These speakers are priced at $295 each; they aren’t cheap, but they are another important accessory that will further turn your bay into a professional suite.

Tangent Element & Blackmagic Resolve Color Correction Panels
If you work in color correction, or aspire to color correct, color correction panels are a must. They not only make it easier for you to work in apps like Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve, but they free your mind from worrying about where certain things are and let your fingers do the talking. It is incredibly liberating to use color correction panels when doing a color grade — it feels like you have another arm you can use to work.

The entire set of Tangent Element Panels costs over $3,300, but if you are just getting started, the Tangent Element Tk (just the trackballs) can be had for a little over $1,100. What’s nice about the Tangent panels is that they work with multiple apps, including Adobe Premiere, FilmLight Baselight, etc. But if you know you are only going to be using Resolve, the Resolve Micro or Mini panels are a great deal at under $1,000 and $3,000, respectively.

Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard
This one might sound a bit odd at first, but once you do some research you will see that many professional editors use these types of pads to program macros of multiple button pushes or common tasks. Essentially, this is a macro pad that has 25 programmable keys as well as a thumb controlled joystick. It’s a really intriguing piece of hardware that might be able to take place of your mouse in conjunction with your keyboard. It is competitively priced at only $79.99 and, with a little Internet research on liftgammagain.com, you can even find forums of user’s custom mappings.

Logickeyboard Backlit Keyboard
Obviously, the keyboard is one of the most used workstation accessories. One difficulty is trying to work with one in a dark room. Well, Logickeyboard has a dimmable backlit keyboard series for apps like Resolve and Avid Media Composer.

In addition to being backlit, they also have two powered USB 2.0 ports that really come in handy. These retail for around $140, so they are a little pricey for a keyboard but, take it from me, they will really polish that edit suite.

OWC USB-C Dock
With ports on Mac-based systems being stripped away, a good USB-C dock is a great extension to have in your edit suite. OWC offers a Mini-DisplayPort or HDMI-equipped version in the colors that match your MacBook Pro, if you have one.

In addition, you get five USB 3.1-compatible ports — including two of those being a high-powered charging port and a USB type C port — a Gig-E port, front facing SD card reader, combo audio in/out port and Mini-DisplayPort or HDMI port. These retail for under $150.


Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on Life Below Zero and Cutthroat Kitchen. You can email Brady at bradybetzel@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.

 


Workstations and Accessories Virtual Roundtable

By Randi Altman

This industry relies on computer workstations day in and day out. So when pros embark on the journey to buy a new one, it’s not something they take lightly. Whether they work in films, TV, spots or VR, or are editors, colorists or visual effects artists, their journey to the right tool is the same. Making sure their workstation enhances their creativity rather than stalls it is paramount. Surrounding themselves with accessories that help speed up their process or just keep their hands from aching is important as well.

We reached out to a number of pros to talk about the journey to their workstation of choice —what do they look for, what questions do they ask, what’s important. Here you go…

AlphaDogs – Owner/Colorist Terry Curren
I currently go mostly with HP as they build for our industry, and have great support. Apple has been out of the workstation business since 2012, so that is a non-starter. Apple did come out and say they are working on a new workstation for pros that should come out next year. The biggest take-away from this is that Apple, a company famous for never talking about what they are working on, spilled the beans publicly. They must be worried about the shift away from their products in our market.

A workstation is a major investment. Most of it is infrastructure that doesn’t need to be replaced that often, like the motherboard and peripheral connections. The easy upgradeability of the CPU along with the flexibility of PCI slots is very important. I have many long-in-the-tooth workstations with newer GPUs, CPUs and I/O cards that work just fine for modern demanding workflows.

Many facilities are built around various PCI cards like fiber channel for storage, SDI and HDMI I/O for external monitoring of video and audio, etc. For example, over the life of AlphaDogs, I have been through 1Gb, 2Gb, 4Gb and am currently on 8Gb fiber. All I had to replace was the relatively inexpensive PCI cards to handle the increasing throughput demands, not the entire computer. With Thunderbolt, you need a new computer with each new iteration.

Heavier processing demand with applications like Blackmagic Resolve, which likes lots of additional GPUs, requires flexibility. To get that, you need PCI slots with their higher number of “lanes” of throughput. It is easy to add more GPUs to a workstation or even a breakout box if even more PCI slots are desired.

The bottom line is Apple is primarily a consumer product company. If you can get by with an iMac then go for it, but be aware you may be replacing it in a few years. If you need more options, and want to maximize your long-term investment, you have to bump up to a workstation.

The Foundation — Director of Engineering John Stevens
When choosing a workstation, I first look at the specifications of the application the system is being purchased for. Is it CPU-intensive? Is it GPU-intensive? Does the software vendor have any recommended configurations? Which CPU or GPU configurations have been tested by the software vendor? Where will the machine be used? On set? If so, then system noise becomes an important consideration. Can the system be rackmounted or will it be in tower configuration? If the system needs to be rackmounted are rackmount kits available?

Then I determine how much “horsepower” is needed to meet the expected performance level. Items that affect a decision are where is the sweet spot on CPU vs. price performance. I always like to purchase the fastest CPUs that I can afford.

Next, how much RAM is needed for the application, what is the optimum RAM configuration for the hardware? What type and number of GPUs does the application support? Can the power supplies support the number of GPUs? How many slots does the system have and what bandwidth are they? What type of support is available? What does the system cost?

I then think about the lifetime of the system. What is the possibility that the system will be re-tasked? Will the configuration I am looking at work in its second life? Then I purchase!

Writer/Producer/Director/VFX Supervisor —Hasraf Dulull
When getting a workstation, I want something that is easy to move around (like the iMac) and must have a lot of RAM and high-end graphics card for GPU. I use G-Tech G-Drives 8TB hooked up via Thunderbolt to access the footage, and if my SSD drive in the iMac is big enough then I use that for caching as its faster. I am currently using Mac because of the ProRes codec workflow. I’m also not too fussed about the graphics card brand as long as it’s a good spec.

HBO — Workflow Specialist John “Pliny” Eremic
The GPU matters more and more. Today, even Web browsers like Chrome offload compute to your graphics card in order to render their pages.

I almost always work remotely, so my laptop is my workstation. And while portability and battery life are important, with a “desktop replacement” it’s still all about horsepower. No, I don’t want to lug around a 19lb gaming laptop, but I will gladly accept larger form factors in exchange for better performance.

What we’re seeing is that laptops today can essentially have the same GPU power as their desktop counterparts. For example, the latest Nvidia 10 Series desktop GPUs only have a 10-15% benchmark advantage over their mobile counterparts. That’s huge. In the last generation, that delta was between 50% and 100%. So getting mobile GPUs on par with the desktop models is a game changer.

But it’s the best and the worst of times. Just when I want to upgrade my MacBook Pro, Apple has doubled down on emphasizing “lighter, thinner” over raw power in their “Pro” models. The latest MacBook Pro — including the new rev announced recently — can’t do VR and is underpowered for tasks like 3D or gaming. It’s hard to justify the sticker price for a machine that is partially obsolete right out of the box.

I see virtual content creation as integral to the future of filmmaking, including, and especially, Indie filmmaking. So this puts me in a tough bind: switch to Windows? I might have to.

 

Wairua Studios|Labs — Director/Cinematographer/Co-Founder Jim Geduldick


Because I work on a variety of technical and creative projects, my needs are pretty demanding. I look for workstations that allow me to customize and upgrade CPU and GPU and have robust I/O.

We are mostly an Nvidia-based studio, so all of our systems run the most recent Pascal cards. For our CPUs, its Intel Xeon and Kaby Lake processors. We look for vendors we have trusted over the years for I/O. The diverse projects and technology we use and develop at times use different technology per project — including that from AJA, Blackmagic, Atto, G-Technologies, Apple, HP and Dell.

Accessories vary, but typically it’s Wacom tablets and grading panels from Tangent and Blackmagic. Peripherals are also key to a workstation. We use Flanders Scientific for color-accurate work and a mix of NEC and Dell for HDR and 8K work. All the workstations in the studio are hooked up to a central SAN system.

The Molecule — CEO / CTO / VFX Supervisor Chris Healer
“We usually buy our systems from ICC because they deliver very quickly, usually in less than two weeks, and built to our specs for a good price. Ideally, the selection process wouldn’t be based on speed, but historically we never have enough future-outlook to know when we will need new machines, and end up buying them in batches of five or 10 at a time to satisfy new work that’s coming in.”

The Vanity — VFX Artist Naveen Srivastava
I don’t have a specific spec in mind; I’m almost always just looking for the fastest thing I can find. Our schedules get tighter and tighter every day, so if better hardware can buy me even a couple of minutes by rendering faster, it’s worth it. We’re constantly putting more and more weight on the shoulders of our workstations, so we’re looking for strength, speed and reliability. I use the Lenovo P910 and we also have some HP z840s.

As far as accessories go, we run an internal SSD RAID to get very fast access to our footage. We typically buy the fastest pro video card we can. We work with Eizo monitors exclusively for all of our Flame work.