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.