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.


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