Audionamix – 7.1.20

Category Archives: Workstations Edition

Workstations Roundtable

By Randi Altman

In our Workstations Special Edition, we spoke to pros working in offline editing, visual effects and finishing about what they need technically in order to keep creating. Here in our Workstations Roundtable, we reached out to both users and those who make computers and related tools, all of whom talk about what they need from their workstations in order to get the job done.

The Foundation’s Director of Engineering, John Stevens 

John Stevens

Located just across the street from the Warner Bros. lot, The Foundation provides post production picture services and workflows in HD, 2K, 4K, UHD, HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR. They work on many episodic shows, including Black-ish, Grown-ish, Curb Your Enthusiasm and American Soul.

Do you typically buy off the shelf or custom? Both?
Both. It depends on the primary application the system will be running. Typically, we buy off-the-shelf systems that have the CPU and memory configurations we are looking for.

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
There is no defined time frame. We look at every system manufacturer’s offerings, look at specs and request demo systems for test after we have narrowed it to a few systems.

How important is the GPU to your work?
The GPU is extremely important, as almost every application uses the GPU to allow for faster processing. A lot of applications allow for multiple GPUs, so I look for systems that will support them.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

What are the questions you ask yourself before buying a new system? And what do you do with your older systems?
What is the primary application that the system is being purchased for? Does the software vendor have a list of certified configurations? Is the application well-threaded, meaning, can the application make efficient use of multiple cores, or does a higher core clock rate make the application perform faster? How many PCI slots are available? What is the power supply capability? What’s the reputation and experience of the manufacturer?

Do you feel mobile workstations are just as powerful for your work as desktops these days?
No, systems are limited in expandability.

 

Puget Systems’ Solutions Research & Development, Matt Bach

Based in Auburn, Washington, Puget Systems specializes in high-performance, custom-built computers for media and entertainment.

Matt Bach

What is your definition of a workstation? We know there are a few definitions out there in the world.
While many people tend to focus on the hardware to define what a workstation is, to us it is really whether or not the computer is able to effectively allow you to get your work done. In order to do so, it has to be not only fast but reliable. In the past, you had to purchase very expensive “workstation-class” hardware to get the proper balance of performance and stability, but these days it is more about getting the right brands and models of parts to complement your workflow than just throwing money at the problem.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off-the-shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
The first thing I would clarify is that there are vastly different kinds of “off-the-shelf” computers. There are the systems you get from a big box store, where you have a handful of choices but no real customization options. Then there are systems from companies like us, where each system is tailor-made to match what applications you use and what you do in those applications. The sticker price on these kinds of systems might appear to be a bit higher, but in reality — because it is the right hardware for you — the actual performance you get per dollar tends to be quite a bit better.

Of course, you can build a system yourself, and in fact, many of our customers used to do exactly that. But when you are a professional trying to get your work done, most people don’t want to spend their time keeping up on the latest hardware, figuring out what exact components they should use and troubleshooting any issues that come up. Time spent fiddling with your computer is time that you could spend getting your job done. Working with a company like us that understands what it is you are doing — and how to quickly get you back up and running — can easily offset any cost of building your own system.

What questions would you suggest pros ask before deciding on the right computer for their work?
This could easily be an entire post all its own, and this is the reason why we highly encourage every customer to talk to one of our consultants — if not on the phone, then at least by email. The right configuration depends on a huge number of factors that are never quite the same from one person to the next. It includes what applications you use and what you do in those applications. For example, if you are a video editor, what resolution, fps and codec do you tend to work with? Do you do any multicam work? What about VFX or motion graphics?

Depending on what applications you use, it is often also the case that you will run into times when you have opposing “optimal” hardware. A program like After Effects prefers CPUs with high per-core performance, while Premiere Pro can benefit from a CPU with more cores. That means there is no single “best” option if you use both of those applications, so it comes down to determining which application is more likely to benefit from more performance in your own personal workflow.

This really only scratches the surface, however. There is also the need to make sure the system supports your existing peripherals (Thunderbolt, 10G networking, etc.), the physical size of the system and upgradability. Not to mention the quality of support from the system manufacturer.

How do you decide on what components to include in your systems … GPUs, for example?
We actually have an entire department (Puget Labs) that is dedicated to this exact question. Not only does hardware change very quickly, but software is constantly evolving as well. A few years back, developers were working on making their applications multi-threaded. Now, much of that dev time has switched over to GPU acceleration. And in the very near future, we expect work in AI and machine learning to be a major focus.

Keeping up with these trends — and how each individual application is keeping up with them — takes a lot of work. We do a huge amount of internal testing that we make available to the public to determine exactly how individual applications benefit from things like more CPU cores, more powerful GPUs or faster storage.

Can you talk about warranties and support? What do you offer?
As for support and warranty, our systems come with lifetime tech support and one to three years parts warranty. What makes us the most different from big box stores is that we understand your workflow. We do not want your tech support experience to be finger pointing between Adobe, Microsoft and Puget Systems. Our goal is to get you up and running, regardless of what the root cause is, and often that means we need to be creative and work with you individually on the best solution to the problem.

 

Goldcrest Post’s Technical Director, Barbary Ahmed

Barbary Ahmed

Goldcrest Post New York, located in the heart of the bustling Meatpacking District, is a full-service post facility offering offline and picture and sound finishing.  Recent credits include The Laundromat, Godfather of Harlem, Russian Doll, High Flying Bird, Her Smell; Sorry to Bother You, Billions and Unsane.   

Do you typically buy off the shelf or custom? Both?
We do both. But for most cases, we do custom builds because color grading workstations need more power, more GPUs and a lot of I/O options.

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
This is technically a long research process. We depend on our trusty vendors, and it also depends on pricing and availability of items and how quick we need them.

How important is the GPU to your work?
For color grading and visual effects, using applications such as Autodesk’s Maya and Flame, Blackmagic Resolve and Adobe Premiere, a high-end workstation will provide a smoother and faster workflow. 4K/UHD media and above can tax a computer, so having access to a top-of-the-line machine is a key for us.

The importance of GPUs is that the video software mentioned above is now able to dump much of the heavy lifting onto the GPU (or even several GPUs), leaving the CPU free to do its job of delegating tasks, applications, APIs, hardware process, I/O device requests and so on. The CPU just makes sure all the basic tasks run in harmony, while the GPU takes care of crunching the more complex and intensive computation needed by the application. It is important to know that for all but the most basic video — and certainly for any form of 4K.

What are the questions you ask yourself before buying a new system? And what do you do with your older systems?
There are many questions to ask here: Is this system scalable? Can we upgrade it in the future? What real change will it bring to our workflow? What are others in my industry using? Does my team like it? These are the kind of questions we start with for any job.

In terms of what to do with older systems, there are a couple things that we think about: Can we use it as a secondary system? Can we donate it? Can we turn it into an experimental box? Can we recycle it? These are the kind of questions we ask ourselves.

Do you feel mobile workstations are just as powerful for your work as desktops these days? Especially now, with the coronavirus shutdowns?
During these unprecedented times, it seems that mobile workstations are the only way to keep up with our clients’ needs. But we were innovative about it; we established the capability to conduct most picture and sound post production work remotely. Colorists, conform editors and other staff are now able to work from home or a remote site and connect to the facility’s central storage and main desktop workstations via remote collaboration software.

This allows Goldcrest to ensure theatrical and television projects remain on track while allowing clients to oversee work in as normal a manner as possible under current circumstances.

 

Dell’s M&E Strategist, Client Solutions, Matt Allard

Matt Allard

Dell Technologies helps users create, manage and deliver media through a complete and scalable IT infrastructure, including workstations, monitors, servers, shared storage, switches, virtualization solutions and more paired with the support and services.

What is Dell’s definition of a workstation? We know there are a few definitions.
One of the most important definitions is the International Data Corporation’s (IDC) definition that assesses the overall market for workstations. This definition includes several important elements:

1. Workstations should be highly configurable and include workstation-grade components, including:
a. Workstation-grade CPUs (like Intel Xeon processors)
b. Professional and discrete GPUs, like those in the Nvidia Quadro line and AMD Radeon Pro line
c. Support for ECC memory

2. Workstations must be certified with commonly used professional ISV software, like that from Adobe, Autodesk, Avid, Blackmagic and others.

3. IDC requires a brand that is dedicated and known for workstations.

Beyond the IDC’s requirements, we understand that workstation customers are seeking the utmost in performance and reliability to run the software they use every day. We feel that workstation-grade components and Dell Precision’s engineering deliver that environment. Reliability can also include the security and manageability that large enterprises expect, and our designs provide the hooks that allow IT to manage and maintain workstations across a large studio or media enterprise. Consumer PCs rarely include these commercial-grade IT capabilities.

Additionally, software and technology (such as the Dell Precision Optimizer, our Reliable Memory Technology, Dell Client Command Suite) can extend the performance, reliability and manageability on top of the hardware components in the system.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off the shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
It’s a common misconception that a computer is just a sum of its parts. It can be better to deal with a vendor that has the supply chain volume and market presence to have advantageous access during times like these, when supply constraints exist on popular CPUs and GPUs. Additionally, most professional ISV software is not qualified or certified on a set of off-the-shelf components, but on specific vendor PC models. If users want absolute confidence that their software will run optimally, using a certified/qualified platform is the best choice. Warranties are also important, but more on that in a bit.

What questions would you suggest pros ask before deciding on the right computer for their work?
The first question is to be clear about the nature of the work you do as a pro, using what software applications in the media and entertainment industry. Your working resolution has a large bearing on the ideal configuration for the workstation. We try to make deciding easier with Dell’s Precision Workstation Advisor, which provides pros an easy way to find configuration choices based on our certification testing and interaction with our ISV partners.

Do you think we are at a time when mobile workstations are as powerful as desktops?
The reality is that it is not challenging to build a desktop configuration that is more powerful than the most powerful mobile workstation. For instance, Dell Precision fixed workstations support configurations with multiple CPUs and GPUs, and those actually require beefier power supplies, more slots and thermal designs that need more physical space than in a reasonably sized mobile.

A more appropriate question might be, can a mobile workstation be an effective tool for M&E professionals who need to be on the road or on shoot? And the answer to that is a resounding yes.

How do you decide on what components to include in your systems … GPUs, for example?
As mentioned above, workstations tend to be highly configurable, often with multiple options for CPUs, GPUs and other components. We work to stay at the forefront of our suppliers’ roadmap offerings and to provide a variety of options so customers can choose the right price/performance configuration that suits their needs. This is where having a clear guidance on certified system for the ISV software a customer is using makes selecting the right configuration easier.

Can you talk about warranties and support?
An advantage of dealing with a Tier 1 workstation vendor like Dell is that pros can pick the right warranty and support level for their business, from basic hardware warranty to our ProSupport with aggressive availability and response times. All Dell Precision fixed workstations come with a three-year Dell Limited Hardware warranty, and users can opt for as many as five years. Precision mobile workstations come with a one-year warranty (except 7000 series mobile, which has three years standard), and users can opt for as many as five years’ warranty with ProSupport.

 

Performance Post’s Owner/President, Fausto Sanchez

Fausto Sanchez

Burbank’s Independently owned Performance Post focuses on broadcast television work. It works with Disney, Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal. Credits include TV versions of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and SD to UHD upconversion and framerate conversions for HBO’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal.

Do you typically buy off the shelf or custom? Both?
We look to the major suppliers like HP, Dell and Apple for off-the-shelf products. We also have
purchased custom workstations, and we build our own.

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
If we have done our homework well, our workstations can last for three to five years. This timeline is becoming shorter, though, with new technologies such as higher core count and clock speed.

In evaluating our needs, first we look at the community for best practices. We look to see what has been successful for others. I love that we can get that info and stories here on postPerspective! We look at what the main suppliers are providing. These are great if you have a lot of extra cash. For many of us, the market is always demanding and squeezing everything it can. We are no different. We have bought both preconfigured systems from the primary manufacturers as well as custom systems.

HBO’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal.

How important is the GPU to your work?
In our editorial workflows — Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere, Blackmagic Resolve (for editing) — GPU use is not a big deal because these applications are currently not relying on GPU so much for basic editing. Mostly, you select the one best for your applications. Nvidia has been the mainstay for a long time, but AMD has gotten great support, especially in the new Mac Pro workstation.

For color work or encoding, the GPU selection becomes critical. Currently, we are using the Nvidia Titan series GPUs for some of our heaviest processor-intensive workflows

What are the questions you ask yourself before buying new systems? And what do you do with your older systems?
When buying a new system, obviously the first questions are: What is it for? Can we expand it? How much? What kind of support is there? These questions become key, especially if you decide to build your custom workstation. Our old systems many times are repurposed for other work. Many can function in other duties for years.

Do you feel mobile workstations are just as powerful for your work as desktops these days?
We have had our eye on mobile workstations for some time. Many are extremely powerful and can find a good place for a specific purpose. There can be a few problems in this setup: additional monitor capabilities, external GPU, external mass storage connectivity. For a lot of work, mobile workstations make sense; if I do not have to connect a lot of peripherals and can work mostly self-contained or cloud-based, these can be great. In many cases you quickly learn that the keyboard, screen and battery life are not conducive to a long-term workflow. For the right workflow though, these can be great. They’re just not for us right now.

 

AMD’s Director of VFX/Media & Entertainment, James Knight

James Knight

AMD provides Threadripper and Epyc CPUs that accelerate workflows in M&E.

How does AMD describe a workstation?
Some companies have different definitions of what makes a workstation. 
Essentially AMD thinks of workstations as a combination of powerful CPUs and GPUs that enable professionals to create, produce, analyze, design, visualize, simulate and investigate without having to compromise on power or workload performance to achieve their desired results. In the specific case of media and entertainment, AMD designs and tests products aligned with the workstation ecosystem to enable professionals to do so much more within the same exact deadlines. We are giving them more time to create.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off the shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
Ultimately, professionals need to choose the best solution to meet their creative goals. We work closely with major OEMs to provide them with the best we have to offer for the market. For example, 64-core Threadripper has certainly been recognized by workstation manufacturers. System builders can offer these new CPUs to achieve great results.

What questions should pros ask before purchasing a workstation, in order to make sure they are getting the right workstation for their needs?
I typically ask professionals to focus on their pain points and how they want the new workstation to resolve those issues. More often than not, they tell me they want more time to create and time to try various renderings. With an optimized workstation matched with on optimal balance of powerful CPUs and reliable GPUs, pros can achieve the results they demand over and over.

What trends have you seen happening in this space over the last couple of years?
As memory technology improves and larger models of higher resolution are created, I’ve seen user expectations increase dramatically, as has their desire to work easily with these files. The demand for reliable tools for creating, editing and producing content has been constantly growing. For example, in the case of movie mastering and encoding, AMD’s 32-core and 64-core Threadripper CPUs have exceeded expectations when working with these large files.

PFX‘s Partner/VFX Supervisor, Jan Rybar 

Jan Rybar

PFX is a Czech-based company focused on animation, post and visual effects. They work on international projects ranging from short films to commercials, TV series and feature films. The 110-member team works in their studios in Prague

How often do you upgrade your workstations, and what process do you go through in finding the right one?
We upgrade the workstations themselves maybe every two or three years. We try to select good quality vendors and robust specs so we won’t be forced to replace workstations too often.

Do you also build your own workstations and renderfarms?
Not really — we have a vendor we like and buy all the hardware there. A long time ago, we found out that the reliability of HP and their Z line of workstations is what we need. So 99% of our workstations and blade renderfarms are HP.

How do your needs as a VFX house differ from a traditional post house?
It blends together a lot — it’s more about what the traditional post house specializes in. If it’s focused on animation or film, then the needs are quite similar, which means more based on CPU power. Lately, as we have been involved more and more in realtime engine-based workflows, state-of-the-art GPU technology is crucial. The Last Whale Singer teaser we did was created with the help of the latest GeForce RTX 2080ti hardware. This allowed us to work both efficiently and with the desired quality (raytracing).

Can you walk us through your typical workflow and how your workstations and their components play a part?
The workflow is quite similar to any other production: design/concept, sculpting, modeling, rigging, layout, animation, lighting/effects, rendering, compositing, color grading, etc.

The main question these days is whether the project runs in a classic animation pipeline, on a realtime engine pipeline or a hybrid. Based on this, we change our approach and adapt it to the technology. For example, when Telescope Animation works on a scene in Unreal, it requires different technology compared to a team that’s working in Maya/Houdini.

PNY’s Nvidia Quadro Product Marketing Manager, Carl Flygare

Carl Flygare

Nvidia’s Quadro RTX-powered workstations, featuring Nvidia Turing GPU architecture, allow for realtime raytracing, AI and advanced graphics capabilities for visualization pros. PNY is Nvidia’s Quadro channel partner throughout North America, Latin America, Europe and India.

How does PNY describe a workstation? Some folks have different definitions of what makes a workstation.
The traditional definition of the term comes from CAD – a system optimized for computer aided design — with a professional CPU (e.g., Xeon, Ryzen), generous DRAM capacity with ECC (Error Correction Code), a significant amount of mass storage, a graphics board capable of running a range of pro applications required by a given workflow and a power supply and system enclosure sufficient to handle all of the above. Markets and use cases also matter.

Contemporary M&E requires realtime cinematic quality rendering in application viewports, with an AI denoising assist. Retiming video (e.g., from 30 fps to 120 fps) for a slow-motion effect can be done by AI, with results essentially indistinguishable from a slow-motion session on the set. A data scientist would see things differently. GPU Tensor TFLOPS enable rapid model training to achieve inference accuracy requirements, GPU memory capacity to hold extremely large datasets, and a CPU/GPU combination that offers a balanced architectural approach to performance. With so many different markets and needs, practically speaking, a workstation is a system that allows a professional to do their best work in the least amount of time. Have the hardware address that need, and you’ve got a workstation.

For users looking to buy a computer but are torn between off the shelf and building their own, what would you tell them?
As Henry Ford famously said about the Model T: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” That is the off-the-shelf approach to acquiring a workstation. Large Tier 1 OEMs offer extensive product lines and daunting Configure to Order options, but ultimately, all offer similar classes of systems. Off-the-shelf is easy; once you successfully navigate the product line and specifications maze, you order a product, and a box arrives. But building your own system is not for the faint-hearted. Pick up CPU data sheets from Intel or AMD — you can read them for days.

The same applies to GPUs. System memory is easier, but mass storage offers a dizzying array of options. HDD (hard disk drive) or SSD (solid state drive)? RAID (and if so, what kind) or no RAID? How much power supply capacity is required for stable performance? A built-from-scratch workstation can result in a dream system, but with a system of one (or a few), how well will critical applications run on it? What if an essential workflow component doesn’t behave correctly? In many instances this will leave you on your own. Do you want to buy a system to perform the work you went into business to do, or do you want to spend time maintaining a system you need to do your work?

A middle path is available. A vibrant, lithe, agile and market-solutions knowledge-based system builder community exists. Vendors like Boxx Technologies, Exxact, Rave Computer, Silverdraft Supercomputing and @Xi Computer (among others) come to mind. These companies specialize in workstations (as defined by any of the definitions discussed earlier), have deep vertical knowledge, react quickly to technological advances that provide a performance and productivity edge, and vigorously support what they sell

What questions would you suggest pros ask before deciding on the right computer for their work?
Where is their current system lacking? How are these deficits affecting creativity and productivity? What use cases does a new system need to perform well? What other parts of my employment environment do I need to interact with, and what do they expect me to provide? These top-line questions transition to many others. What is the model or scene size I need to be able to fit into GPU memory to benefit from full GPU performance acceleration? Will marketing show up in my office or cubicle and ask for a photorealistic render even though a project is early in the design stage? Will a client want to interact with and request changes by using VR? Is a component of singular significance — the GPU — certified and supported by the ISVs that my workflow is built around? Answer these questions first, and you’ll find the remainder of the process goes much more easily. Use case first, last and always!

You guys have a relationship with Nvidia and your system-builder partners use their Nvidia GPUs in their workstations. Can you talk about that?
PNY is Nvidia’s sole authorized channel partner for Nvidia Quadro products throughout North America and Latin America and Europe, Middle East, Africa and India. Every Quadro board is designed, tested and built by Nvidia, whether it comes from PNY, Dell, HP or Lenovo. The difference is that PNY supports Quadro in any system brand. Tier 1 OEMs only support a Quadro board’s “slot win” in systems they build. This makes PNY a much better choice for GPU upgrades — a great way to extend the life of existing workstations — or when looking for suppliers that can deliver the technical support required for a wonderful out-of-box experience with a new system. It’s true whether the workstation is custom-built or purchased through a PNY Partner that specializes in delivering turnkey systems (workstations) built for professionals.

Can you talk about warranties and support? What do you offer?
PNY offers support for Nvidia in any system brand. We have dedicated Nvidia Quadro technical support reps available by phone or email. PNY never asks for a credit card number before offering product or technical support. We also have full access to Nvidia product and technical specialists should escalation be necessary – and direct access to the same Nvidia bug reporting system used by Nvidia employees around the world.

Finally, what trends do you see in the workstation market currently?
First the good: Nvidia Quadro RTX has enabled a workstation renaissance. It’s driving innovation for design, visualization and data science professionals across all major market segments. An entirely new class of product — the data science workstation — has been developed. Quadro RTX in the data centers and virtual GPU technology can bring the benefits of Quadro RTX to many users while protecting essential intellectual property. This trend toward workstation specialization by use case offers buyers more choices that better fit their specific criteria. Workstations — however defined — have never been more relevant or central to creative pros across the globe. Another good trend is the advent of true mobile workstations and notebooks, including thin and light systems, with up to Quadro RTX 5000 class GPUs.

The bad? With choice comes confusion. So many to choose from. Which best meets my needs? Companies with large IT staff can navigate this maze, but what about small and medium businesses? They can find the expertise necessary to make the right choice with PNY’s extensive portfolio of systems builders. For that matter, enterprises can find solutions built from the chassis up to support a given use case. Workstations are better than ever before and purchasing one can be easier than ever as well.


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

Workstations: Offline Editing Workflows

By Karen Moltenbrey

When selecting a workstation, post facilities differ in their opinions about what’s most important, depending on the function the workstations will serve. It goes without saying that everyone wants value. And for some, power is tantamount. For others, speed is a top priority. And for others still, reliability reigns supreme. Luckily for users, today’s workstations can check all those boxes.

As Eric Mittan, director of technology at New York’s Jigsaw Productions, is quick to point out, it’s hard to fathom the kinds of upgrades in power we’ve seen in workstations just in the time he has been working with them professionally. He recalls that in 2004, it took an overnight encoding session to author a standard-definition DVD with just one hour of video — and that task was performed on one of the first dual-processor desktops available to the regular consumer. “Nowadays, that kind of video transcode can take 15 minutes on a ‘light’ laptop, to say nothing of the fact that physical media like the DVD has gone the way of the dinosaur,” he says.

Eric Mittan

That is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the revolution that workstations have undergone in a very short period. Here, we examine the types of workstations that a pair of studios are using for their editing tasks. Jigsaw, a production company, does a large portion of its own post through Apple iMacs that run Avid Media Composer; it is also a client of post houses for work such as color and final deliverables. Meanwhile, another company, Final Cut, is also a Mac-based operation, running Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere Pro, although the company’s Flames run on HP workstations.

[Editor’s Note: These interviews were done prior to the coronavirus lockdown.]

Jigsaw Productions
Jigsaw Productions is a documentary television and film company that was founded in 1978 by documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. It has since transitioned from a company that made one movie at a time to one that is simultaneously producing multiple features and series for distribution by a number of networks and distribution partners.

Today, Jigsaw does production and offline editorial for all its own films and series. “Our commitment is to filmmakers bringing real stories to their audience,” Mittan says. Jigsaw’s film and episodic projects include the  political (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), the musical (History of the Eagles) and the athletic (The Armstrong Lie).

On the technical front, Jigsaw does all the creative editorial in house using Avid’s Media Composer. After Jigsaw’s producers and directors are satisfied with the storytelling, the lion’s share of the more technical work is left to the company’s partners at various post houses, such as Harbor, Technicolor, Light Iron and Final Frame, among others. Those facilities do the color timing and DCP generation in the case of the feature titles. Most of the conform and online work for Jigsaw’s TV series is now done in house and then sent out for color.

“I wouldn’t say for sure that we have mastered the Avid-to-Resolve online workflow, but we have become better at it with each project,” says Mittan. It’s Mittan’s job to support post and offline operations along with the needs of the others in the office. The backbone of the post fleet comprises 26 (2018) 27-inch i7 iMacs with 32GB of RAM. During 2018 and 2019, Jigsaw experienced a period of rapid growth, adding 19 new edit suites. (That was in addition to the original 13 built out before Mittan came aboard in 2017.) There are also some earlier iMac models that are used for lighter tasks, such as screening, occasional transcoding and data transfers, as well as eight Mac mini screening stations and five Mac Pro cylinders for heavy transcoding and conform/online tasks. Approximately 10 or more 2019 models round out the remainder of the hardware, though they were purchased with i5 processors, not i7s.

“Jigsaw’s rapid expansion pushed us to buy new machines in addition to replacing a significant portion of our 2012/2013 model Mac Pro and iMac units that had comprised most of our workstations prior to my arrival,” Mittan notes. Each project group at the company is responsible for its own data management and transcoding its own dailies.

Furthermore, Jigsaw has an Avid Nexis shared storage system. “Our editors need to be able to run the latest version of Avid and must maintain and play back multiple streams of DNxHR SQ via a 1Gb connection to our Nexis shared storage. While documentary work tends to be lower resolution and/or lower bandwidth than narrative scripted work, every one of our editors deserves to be able to craft a story with as few technical hiccups as possible,” says Mittan. “Those same workstations frequently need to handle heavy transcodes from interview shoots and research archive gathered each day by production teams.”

When buying new equipment, Mittan looks to strikes a balance between economy and sustainability. While the work at Jigsaw does not always require the latest and greatest of all possible end-user technology, he says, each purchase needs to be made with an eye toward how useful it will remain three to five years into the future.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

While expansion in the past few years resulted in the need for additional purchases, Mittan is hoping to get Jigsaw on a regular schedule of cycling through each of the units over a period of five to six years. Optimally, the edit suite units are used for between three or more years before being downgraded for lighter tasks and eventually used as screening stations for Jigsaw’s producers. Even beyond that, the post machines could see life in years six to eight as office workstations for some of the non-post staff and interns. Although Mittan has yet to access one of the new Mac Pro towers, he is impressed by what he has read and hopes for an acquisition in 2021 to replace the Mac Pro cylinders for online and conform work.

Post at Jigsaw runs Avid Media Composer on the Apple machines. They also use the Adobe Creative Cloud suite for motion graphics within Adobe After Effects and Photoshop. Mittan has also implemented a number of open-source software tools to supplement Jigsaw’s tool kit for assistant editors. That includes command-line tools (like FFmpeg) for video and audio transcodes and Rsync for managed file transfers and verification.

“I’ve even begun to write a handful of custom software scripts that have made short work of tasks common to documentary filmmaking — mostly the kind of common video transcoding jobs that would usually require a paid title but that can be taken care of just as well with free software,” he says.

Additionally, Jigsaw makes frequent use of servers, either functioning as a device for a specific task or for automation.

Jigsaw has done projects for HBO (Robin Williams Come Into My Mind), Showtime (Enemies: The President, Justice & the FBI), Discovery Channel (Why We Hate), A&E (The Clinton Affair) and more, as well as for Netflix (Salt Fat Acid Heat, The Family) — work Mittan describes as an exercise in managing more and more pixels.

The Family

Indeed, documentaries can present big challenges when it comes to dealing with a plethora of media formats. “Documentary work can frequently deal with subjects that have already had a significant media footprint in legacy resolutions. This means that if you’re trying to build a documentary in 4K, you’re going to be dealing with archival footage that is usually HD or SD. You may shoot a handful of new interviews in your new, so-called ‘native’ footage but be overwhelmed by hours upon hours of footage from a VHS collection, or stories that have been downloaded from the website of a TV station in the Midwest,” he adds.

“Working with mixed resolutions means you have to have the capability of running and gunning with your new 4K footage, but the lower resolutions can’t leave your creative editors feeling as though they’ve been left with remnants from another time in history. Blending all of those elements together in a way that tells a cohesive story requires technology that can bring together all of those pieces (and newly generated elements like graphics and reenactments) into a unified piece of media without letting your viewing audience feel the whiplash of frequent resolution changes.”

Miky Wolf

Final Cut
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Final Cut was founded in London by editor Rick Russell. It expanded to New York 20 years ago and to Los Angeles 15 years ago. Across all three offices and several subsidiaries – Significant Others VFX, Machine Sound and The Lofts — Final Cut has more than 100 staff and artists worldwide, offering offline editing, online editing, VFX, graphics, finishing, sound design, mixing and original composition, as well as “dry-hire” facilities for long-form content such as original Netflix series like Sex Education.

Primarily, Final Cut does offline creative editorial. Through Significant Others, it offers online editing and finishing. Although, as editor Miky Wolf notes, there are smaller jobs — such as music videos and digital work — for which the facility “does it all.”

Ryan Johnson

The same can be said of technical supervisor Ryan Johnson, whose job it is to design, implement and maintain the technical infrastructure for Final Cut’s New York and Los Angeles offices. This includes the workstations, software, data storage, backups, networking and security. “The best workstations should be like the best edited films. Something you don’t notice. If you are aware of the workstation while you’re working, it’s typically not a good thing,” Wolf says.

Johnson agrees. “Really, the workstation is just there to facilitate the work. It should be invisible. In fact, ours are mostly hidden under desks and are rarely seen. Mostly, it’s a purpose-built machine, designed less for aesthetics and portability than for reliability and practicality.”

Final Cut’s edit room runs off a Mac Pro with 32GB of RAM; there are two editing monitors, a preview monitor on the desk and a client monitor. The majority of the company’s edit workstations are six-core 2013 Mac Pro “trash cans” with AMD FirePro D500 GPUs and 32GB of RAM. There are approximately 16 of these workstations spread between the NY and LA offices. Moreover, the workstations use little to no local storage since the work resides on Avid’s Nexis servers. Each workstation is connected to a pair of 24-inch LCD displays, while video and audio from the edit software are delivered via Blackmagic Design hardware to an LCD preview monitor on the editor’s desk and to an OLED TV for clients.

The assistant editors all work on 27-inch iMacs of various vintages, mainly 2017 i7 models with 32GB of RAM.For on-set/off-site work, Final Cut keeps a fleet of MacBook Pros, mostly the 2015 Thunderbolt 2 pre-Touch Bar models. These travel with USB 3 SSDs for media storage. Final Cut’s Flames, however, all run on dual 12-core HP Z8s with 128GB of RAM. These machines use local SSD arrays for media storage.

According to Johnson, the workstations (running macOS 10.14.6) mostly are equipped with Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro, and the editors sometimes “dabble” in Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve (for transcoding or when someone wants to try their hand at editing on it). “We primarily work with compressed proxy footage — typically DNxHD 115 or ProRes LT — at 1080p, so bandwidth requirements aren’t too high. Even lower-spec machines handle a few streams well,” he says. “Sequences that involve many layers or complicated effects will often require rendering, but the machines are fast enough that wait times aren’t too long.”

The editors also use Soundminer’s products for their sound effects library. The assistants perform basic compositing in Adobe After Effects, which the machines handle well, Johnson adds. “However, occasionally they will need to transcode raw/camera original footage to our preferred codec for editing. This is probably the most computationally intensive task for any of the machines, and we’ll try to use newer, faster models for this purpose.”

Stray Dolls feature film

Wherever possible, Final Cut deploys the same types of workstations across all its locations, as maintenance becomes easier when parts are interchangeable, and software compatibility is easier to manage when dealing with a homogeneous collection of machines. Not to mention the political benefit: Everybody gets the same machine, so there’s no workstation envy, so to speak.

Reliability and expandability are the most important factors Johnson considers in a workstation. He acknowledges that the 2013 Mac Pros were a disappointment on both counts: “They had thermal issues from the start — Apple admitted as much — that resulted in unpredictable behavior, and you were stuck with whichever 2013-era GPU you chose when purchasing the machine,” he says. “We expect to get many trouble-free years out of the workstations we buy. They should be easy to fix, maintain and upgrade.”

When selecting workstations for Final Cut, a Macintosh shop, there is not a great deal of choice. “Our choices are quickly narrowed down to whatever Apple happens to be selling,” explains Johnson. “Given the performance tiers of the models available, it is a matter of analyzing our performance needs versus our budget. In an ideal world, the entire staff would be working on the fastest possible machine with the most RAM and so forth, but alas, that is not always in the budget. Therefore, compromise must be found in selecting machines that can capably handle the typical workload and are fast enough not to keep editors and assistants waiting too long for renders.”

The most recent purchase were the new iMacs for the assistants in LA. “For the money, they are great machines, and I’ve found them to be reliable even when pushing them through all night renders, transcodes, etc. They’re at least as fast as the Mac Pros and, in most applications, even faster,” Johnson points out. He expects to replace the 2013 Mac Pros this year.

Florence and the Machine “Big God” music video

Wolf notes that he must be able to work as efficiently at home as he does at the office, “and that’s one nice thing about the evolution of offline editing. A combination of robust laptops and portable SSDs has allowed us to take the work anywhere.”

Using the above-described setup, Final Cut recently finished a campaign for an advertising client in which the edit started on set in LA, continued in the hotel room and then finished back in NY. “We needed to be able to work remotely, even on the plane home, just to get the first cuts done in time,” Wolf explains. “Agencies expect you to be fast. They schedule presentations assuming we can work around the clock to get stuff together — we need systems that can support us.”

Johnson highlighted another recent project with a tight schedule that involved cutting a multi-camera sequence in UHD from portable SSD storage on a standard iMac. “This would have been impossible just a few years ago,” he adds.

Main Image: Netflix’s Sex Education


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.

Audionamix – 7.1.20

My Top Five Ergonomic Workstation Accessories

By Brady Betzel

Instead of writing up my normal “Top Five Workstation Accessories” column this year, I wanted to take a slightly different route and focus on products that might lessen pain and maybe even improve your creative workflow — whether you are working at a studio or, more likely these days, working from home.

As an editor, I sit in a chair for most of my day, and that is on top of my three- to four-hour round-trip commute to work. As aches and pains build up (I’m 36, and I’m sure it doesn’t just get better), I had to start looking for solutions to alleviate the pain I can see coming in the future. In the past I have mentioned products like the Wacom Intuos Pro Pen tablet, which is great and helped me lessen wrist pain. Or color correction panels such as theLoupedeck, which helps creative workflows but also prevents you from solely using the mouse, also lessening wrist pain.

This year I wanted to look at how the actual setup of a workstation environment that might prevent pain or alleviate it. So get out of your seat and move around a little, take a walk around the block, and when you get back, maybe rethink how your workstation environment could become more conducive to a creativity-inspiring flow.

Autonomous SmartDesk 2 
One of the most useful things in my search for flexibility in the edit bay is the standup desk. Originally, I went to Ikea and found a clearance tabletop in the “dents” section and then found a kitchen island stand that was standing height. It has worked great for over 10 years; the only issue is that it isn’t easily adjustable, and sometimes I need to sit to really get my editing “flow” going.

Many companies offer standing desk solutions, including manual options like the classic VariDesk desk riser. If you have been in the offline editing game over the past five to 10 years, then you have definitely seen these come and go. But at almost $400, you might as well look for a robotic standing desk. This is where the Autonomous SmartDesk 2 comes into play. Depending on whether you want the Home Office version, which stands between 29.5 inches and 48 inches, or the Business Office version, which stands between 26 inches and 52 inches, you are looking to spend $379 or $479, respectively (with free shipping included).

The SmartDesk 2 desktop itself is made of MDF (medium-density fibreboard) material, which helps to lower the overall cost but is still sturdy and will hold up to 300 pounds. From black to white oak, there are multiple color options that not only help alleviate pains but can also be a conversation piece in the edit bay. I have the Business version in black along with a matching black chair, and I love that it looks clean and modern. The SmartDesk 2 is operated using a front-facing switch plate complete with up, down and four height-level presets. It operates smoothly and, to be honest, impressively. It gives a touch of class to any environment. Setup took about half an hour, and it came with easy-to-follow instructions, screws/washers and tools.

Keep an eye out for my full review of the Autonomous SmartDesk 2 and ErgoChair 2, but for now think about how a standup desk will at least alleviate some of the sitting you do all day while adding some class and conversation to the edit bay.

Autonomous ErgoChair 2 
Along with a standup desk — and more important in, my opinion — is a good chair. Most offline editors and assistant editors work at a company that either values their posture and buys Herman Miller Aeron chairs, or cheaps out and buys the $49 special at Office Depot. I never quite understood the benefit of saving a few bucks on a chair, especially if a company pays for health insurance — because in the end, they will be paying for it. Not everyone likes or can afford the $1,395 Aeron chairs, but there are options that don’t involve ruining your posture.

Along with the Autonomous SmartDesk 2, you should consider buying the ErgoChair 2, which costs $349 — a similar price to other chairs, like the Secretlab Omega series gaming chair that retails for $359. But the ErgoChair 2 has the best of both worlds: an Aeron chair-feeling mesh back and neck support plus a super-comfortable seat cushion with all the adjustments you could want. Even though I have only had the Autonomous products for a few weeks now, I can already feel the difference when working at home. It seems like a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but being comfortable allows my creativity to flow. The chair took under 30 minutes to build and came with easy-to-follow instructions and good tools, just like the SmartDesk 2.

A Footrest
When I first started in the industry, as soon as I began a freelance job, I would look for an old Sony IMX tape packing box. (Yes, the green tapes. Yes, I worked with tape. And yes, I can operate an MSW-2000 tape deck.) Typically, the boxes would be full of tapes because companies bought hundreds and never used them, and they made great footrests! I would line up a couple boxes under my feet, and it made a huge difference for me. Having a footrest relieves lower back pressure that I find hard to relieve any other way.

As I continue my career into my senior years, I finally discovered that there are actual footstools! Not just old boxes. One of my favorites is on Amazon. It is technically an adjustable nursing footstool but works great for use under a desk. And if you have a baby on the way, it’s a two-for-one deal. Either way, check out the “My Brest Friend” on Amazon. It goes for about $25 with free one-day Amazon Prime shipping. Or if you are a woodworker, you might be able to make your own.

GoFit Muscle Hook 
After sitting in an edit bay for multiple hours, multiple days in a row, I really like to stretch and use a massager to un-stuff my back. One of the best massagers I have seen in multiple edit bays is called the GoFit Muscle Hook.

Luckily for us it’s available at almost any Target or on the Target website for about $25. It’s an alien-looking device that can dig deep into your shoulder blades, neck and back. You can use it a few different ways — large hook for middle-of-the-back issues, smaller hook that I like to use on the neck and upper back, and the neck massage on the bar (that one feels a little weird to me).

There are other massage devices similar to the Muscle Hook, but in my opinion the GoFit Muscle Hook is the best. The plastic-composite seems indestructible and almost feels like it could double as a self-defense tool. But it can work out almost any knots you have worked up after a long day. If you don’t buy anything else for self-care, buy the Muscle Hook. You will be glad you did. Anyone who gets one has that look of pain and relief when they use it for the first time.

Foam Roller
Another item that I just started using was a foam roller. You can find them anywhere for the most part, but I found one on Amazon for $13.95 plus free Amazon Prime one-day shipping. It’s also available on the manufacturer’s website for about $23. Simply, it’s a high-density foam cylinder that you roll on top of. It sounds a little silly, but once you get one, you will really wonder how you lived without one. I purchased an 18-inch version, but they range from 12 inches to 36 inches. And if you have three young sons at home, they can double as fat lightsabers (but they hurt, so keep an eye out).

Summing Up
In the end, there are so many ways to try keeping a flexible editing lifestyle, from kettlebells to stand-up desks. I’ve found that just getting over the mental hurdle of not wanting to move is the biggest catalyst. There are so many great tech accessories for workstations, but we hardly mention ones that can keep our bodies moving and our creativity flowing. Hopefully, some of these ergonomic accessories for your workstation will spark an idea to move around and get your blood flowing.

For some workout inspiration, Onnit has some great free workouts featuring weird stuff like maces, steel clubs and sandbags, but also kettlebells. The site also has nutritional advice. For foam roller stretches, I would check out the same Onnit Academy site.


Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on shows like Life Below Zero and The Shop. He is also a member of the Producers Guild of America. You can email Brady at bradybetzel@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.


Workstations and Visual Effects

By Karen Moltenbrey

A couple of decades or so ago, studios needed the exceptional power of a machine offered by the likes of SGI for complex visual effects. Non-specialized PCs simply were not cut out for this type of work. But then a sea change occurred, and suddenly those big blue and purple boxes were being replaced with options in the form of workstations from companies such as Sun, DEC, HP, IBM and others, which offered users tremendous value for something that could conveniently fit on a desktop.

Those hardware companies began to duke it out, leading to the demise of some and the rise of others. But the big winners in this early war for 3D content creators’ business were the users. With a price point that was affordable, these workstations were embraced by facilities big and small, leading to an explosion of 3D content.

Here, we look at two VFX facilities that have taken different approaches when it comes to selecting workstations for their digital artists. NYC’s Bonfire, a boutique studio, uses a range of Boxx and custom-built machines, along with iMacs. Meanwhile, Digital Domain, an Oscar-winning VFX powerhouse, recently set up a new site in Montreal outfitted with Dell workstations.

Dave Dimeola

Bonfire
Bonfire is a relative newcomer to the industry, founded three years ago by Flame artist Brendan O’Neil, who teamed up with Dave Dimeola to get the venture off the ground. Their goal was to create a boutique-style base for those working in post production. The front end would comprise a beautiful, comfortable space where Autodesk Flame and motion graphics artists could work and interact with clients in comfortable suites within a townhouse setting, while the back end would consist of a cloud-based pipeline.

“We figured that if we combined these two things — the traditional boutique shop with the client experience and the power of a cloud-based pipeline — we’d have something,” says Dimeola, whose prior experience in leveraging the cloud proved invaluable in this regard.

Soon after, Peter Corbett, who had sold his Click 3X creative digital studio in 2018, agreed to be part of Bonfire’s advisory board. Believing Dimeola and O’Neil were on to something, Corbett came aboard as a partner and brought “some essential talent” into the company as well. Currently, Bonfire has 11 people on staff, with great talent across the gamut of production and post — from CG and creative directing to producing and more. One of the first key people who Corbett brought in was managing director Jason Mayo.

And thanks to the company’s unconventional production pipeline, it is able to expand its services with remote teams as needed. (Currently, Bonfire has more than 3,000 vetted artists in its network, with a core group of around 150 who are constantly on rotation for work.)

“It’s a game-changer in the current climate,” Dimeola says of the company’s setup. The group is performing traditional post work for advertising agencies and direct to client. “We’re doing content, commercials, social content and brand films,” says Dimeola, “anything that requires storytelling and visual communication and is design-centric.” One of the studio’s key offerings is now color grading, handled by colorist Dario Bigi. In terms of visual effects, Dimeola notes that Bonfire can indeed make animals talk or blow things up, although the VFX work Bonfire does “is more seamless, artful, abstract and weird. We get into all those facets of creation.”

Bonfire has approximately 10 workstations at its location in New York and is expanding into the second floor. The company just ordered a new set of customized PCs with Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super graphic cards and some new ultra-powerful Apple iMacs, which will be used for motion graphics work and editing. The core software running on the machines includes the major industry packages: Autodesk’s Maya, Maxon’s Cinema 4D, Side Effects’ Houdini, Autodesk’s Flame, Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe’s Creative Suite, in addition to Thinkbox’s Krakatoa for particle rendering and Autodesk’s 3ds Max for architectural work. Cinema 4D motion graphics software and the Adobe software will run on the new iMac, while the more render-intensive projects within Maya, Houdini and Nuke will run on the PC network.

As Dimeola points out, workstations have taken some interesting turns in the past two to three years, and Bonfire has embraced the move from CPU-based systems to ones that are GPU-based. As such, the company’s PC workstations — a mix of Boxx and custom-built machines (with an AMD Threadripper 2950X CPU and a pair of Asus GeForce RTX 2080 Ti video cards, along with significant memory) — contain powerful Nvidia Quadro RTX 1080 cards. He attributes Bonfire’s move in processing to the changing needs of CGI rendering and lighting, which are increasingly relying on GPU power.

“We still use CPU power, however, because we feel some of the best lighting is still being done in the CPU with software like [Autodesk’s] Arnold,” Dimeola contends. “But we’re flexible enough to be using GPU-based lighting, like Otoy’s OctaneRender and Maxon’s Redshift for jobs that need to look great but also move very quickly through the pipeline. Some shops own one way of rendering, but we really keep a flexible pipeline so we can pivot and render just about any way we want based on the creative, the look, the schedule. It has to be very flexible in order for us to be efficient.”

The media will work off the SAN, a communal server that is partitioned into segments: one for the CGI, another for the editing (Flame) and a third for color (Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve). “We partitioned a cloud section for the server, which allows us to have complete control on how we sync media with an external team,” explains Dimeola. “That’s a big part of how we share, collaborate and move assets quickly with a team inside and outside and how we scale for projects. This is unique for Bonfire. It is the innovative part of the post production that I don’t think any other shops are really talking about at this time.”

In addition to the local machines and software, Bonfire also runs applications on virtual machines in the cloud. The key, says Dimeola, is knowing how to create harmony between the internal and external infrastructures. The backbone is built on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and functions much the same way as its internal pipeline does. A proprietary project tracker built by Bonfire enables the teams to manage shots and assets; it also has an array of services and tools that help the staff efficiently manage projects that vary in complexity and scale.

Brooklyn Nets

“It’s no single piece to our pipeline that’s so innovative; rather, it’s the way that we’ve configured it between our talent and infrastructure,” says Dimeola, noting that in addition to being able to take on big projects, the company is able to get its clients what they need in real time and make complete changes literally overnight. Dimeola recalls a recent project for Google requiring intensive CGI fluid simulations. The team sat with the client one day to work out the direction and was able to post fresh edits, which included rendered shots, for the client the very next morning. “[In a traditional setup], that never would have been possible,” he points out.

However, getting the best deal on the cloud services requires additional work. “We play that market like the stock market, where we’re finding the best deals and configurations based on our needs at the time,” Dimeola says, and the result is an exponential increase in workflow. “You can ramp up a team and be rendering and working 24/7 because you’re using people in different time zones, and you’re never down a machine for rendering and working.”

Best of all, the setup goes unnoticed by the customer. “The client doesn’t feel or see anything different,” says Dimeola. That is, with one exception: “a dramatic change in the cost of doing the work, particularly if they are requiring a lot of speed.”

Digital Domain Montreal
A longtime creative and technological force in the visual effects industry, Digital Domain has crafted a range of work spanning feature films, video games, commercials and virtual reality experiences. With global headquarters in LA, plus locations in Vancouver, Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere around the globe, the studio has been the driving force behind many memorable and cutting-edge projects, including the Oscar-winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and more. In fact, Digital Domain is known for its technological prowess within visual effects, particularly in the area of realistic digital humans, recently recreating a photoreal 3D version of Martin Luther King Jr. for a groundbreaking immersive project.

Michael Quan

A year ago, Digital Domain expanded its North American footprint by opening an office in Montreal, which celebrated its grand opening this past February. The office has approximately 100 employees, with plans to expand in the future. Most of the work produced by Digital Domain is shared by its five worldwide studios, and that trend will continue with Digital Domain Montreal, particularly with the LA and Vancouver offices; it also will tackle regional projects, focusing mostly on features and episodic content.

Setting up the Montreal site’s infrastructure fell to Digital Domain’s internal IT department, including senior systems engineer Michael Quan, who helped outfit the facility with the same classes of machines that the Los Angeles and Vancouver locations use: the Dell Precision R7920 and R7910 rack workstation PCs. “All the studios share common configuration specifications,” he notes. “Having a common specification makes it tremendously easy to move resources around when necessary.”

In fact, the majority of the machines were purchased approximately during the third quarter of 2019. Prior to that, the location was started up with resources from the facility’s other sites, and since they are using a common configuration, doing so did not present an issue.

Quan notes that the studio is able to cover all aspects of typical VFX production, such as modeling, rigging, animation, lighting, rotoscoping, texture painting, compositing and so forth, using the machines. And with some additional hardware, the office can also leverage those workstations for dailies review, he adds. As for the software, Digital Domain runs the typical programs: Autodesk’s Maya, Foundry’s Mari and Nuke, Chaos’ V-Ray, Maxon’s Redshift, Adobe’s Photoshop and so on, in addition to proprietary software.

Terminator: Dark Fate

As Quan points out, Digital Domain has specific requirements for its workstations, aside from the general CPU, RAM and hard drive specs. The machines must be able to handle the GPUs required by Digital Domain along with additional support devices. While that might seem obvious, when a requirement comes into play, it reduces the number of systems that are available for evaluation, he points out. Furthermore, the workstations must be rack-mountable and of a “reasonable” size (2U) to fit within the data center as opposed to deskside. Also, since the workstations are deployed in the data center, they must be manageable remotely.

“Preferably, it is commodity hardware, meaning using a vendor that is stable, has a relatively large market share and isn’t using some exotic technology,” Quan says, “so if necessary, we could source from secondary markets.” Unfortunately, the company learned this the hard way in the past by using a vendor that implemented custom power and management hardware; the vendor exited the market, leaving the studio without an option for repair and no secondary market to source defective parts.

Just how long Digital Domain retains its workstations depends on their performance effectiveness: If an artist can no longer work due to a resource inefficiency, Quan says, then a new round of hardware specification is initialized.

“The workstations we use are multi-processor-based, have a relatively high amount of memory and are capable of running the higher-performing professional GPUs that our work requires,” he says. “These days, ‘workstations’ could mean what would normally be called gaming rigs but with more memory, a top-end GPU and a high-clock-speed single processor. It just depends on what software will be used and the hardware configuration that is optimized for that.”

Lost in Space, Season 2

As Quan points out, graphics workstations have evolved to where they have the same capabilities as some low- to mid-class servers. “For example, the Dell R7910/R7920 that we are using definitely could be used as servers, since they share the same hardware capability as their server class,” he says. “It used to be that if you wanted performance, you might have to sacrifice manageability and footprint. Now there are systems deployed with one, eight and 10 GPU configurations in a relatively small footprint, which is a fully remotely manageable system in one of our data centers.” He predicts that workstations are evolving to a point where they will just be a specification. “In the near future, it will just be an abstract for us. Gone will be the days of one workstation equating to one physical system.”

According to Quan, the Montreal studio is still ramping up and has several major projects on the horizon, including feature films from Marvel, Sony, 20th Century Studios and more. Some of Digital Domain’s more recent work includes Avengers: Endgame, Lost in Space (Season 2), Terminator: Dark Fate and several others. Globally, its New Media and Digital Humans groups are doing incredible things, he notes, and the Ads/Games Group is producing some exceptional work as well.

“The workstations at Digital Domain have constantly evolved. We went from generic white boxes to Tier 1 systems, back to white boxes, and now to a more sophisticated Tier 1 data center-targeted ecosystem. With the evolutionary steps we are taking, we are iterating to a more efficient management of these resources,” Quan says. “One of the great advantages of having the workstations placed in a remote location is the security aspects. And on a more human level, the reduction of the fan noises and the beeps all those workstations would have created in the artist locations is notable.”


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.


Workstations and Color Grading

By Karen Moltenbrey

A workstation is a major investment for any studio. Today, selecting the right type of machine for the job can be a difficult process. There are many brands and flavors on the market, and some facilities even opt to build their own. Colorists have several tools available to them when it comes to color grading, ranging from software-based systems (which typically use a multiprocessor workstation with a high-end GPU) to those that are hardware-based.

Here, we examine the color workflow of two different facilities: Technicolor Vancouver and NBCUniversal StudioPost in Los Angeles.

[Editor’s note: These interviews were conducted before the coronavirus work limits were put in place.]

Anne Boyle

Technicolor Vancouver
Technicolor is a stalwart in the post industry, with its creative family — including VFX studios MPC, The Mill, Mr. X and Mikros — and wide breadth of post production services offered in many locations around the world. Although Technicolor Vancouver has been established for some time now, it was only within the past two years that the decision was made to offer finishing services again there, with an eye toward becoming more of a boutique operation, albeit one offering top-level effects.

With this in mind, Anne Boyle joined as a senior colorist, and immediately Technicolor Vancouver began a co-production with Technicolor Los Angeles. The plan was for the work to be done in Vancouver, with review and supervision handled in LA. “So we hit the ground running and built out new rooms and bought a lot of new equipment,” says Boyle. “This included investing in FilmLight Baselight, and we quickly built a little boutique post finishing house here.”

This shared-location work setup enabled Technicolor to take advantage of the lucrative tax credits offered in Vancouver. The supervising colorist in LA reviews sessions with the client, after which she and Boyle discuss them, and then Boyle picks up the scene and performs the work based on those conversations or notes in the timeline. A similar process occurs for the Dolby SDR deliverables. “There isn’t much guesswork. It is very seamless,” she says.

“I’ve always used Baselight,” says Boyle, “and was hoping to go that route when I got here, and then this shared project happened, and it was on a Baselight [in LA]. Happily for me, the supervising colorist, Maxine Gervais, insisted that we mirror the exact setup that they had.”

Gervais was using a Baselight X system, so that is what was installed in Vancouver. “It’s multi-GPU (six Nvidia Titan XPs) with a huge amount of storage,” she says. “So we put in the same thing and mimicked the infrastructure in LA. They also put in a Baselight Assist station and plan to upgrade it in the coming months to make it color-capable as well.”

The Baselight X turnkey system ships with bespoke storage and processing hardware, although Technicolor Vancouver loaded it with additional storage. For the grading panels, the company went with the top-of-the-line Blackboard. The Vancouver facility also purchased the same displays as LA — Sony BVM-X300s.

Messiah

The mirrored setup was necessary for the shared work on Netflix’s Messiah, an HDR project that dropped January 1. “We had to deliver 10 episodes all at once in 4K, [along with] both the HDR PQ masters and the Dolby SDR deliverable, which were done here as well,” explains Boyle. “So we needed the capability to store all of that and all of those renders. It was quite a VFX-heavy show, too.”

Using Pulse, Technicolor’s internal cloud-based system, the data set is shared between the LA and Vancouver sites. Technicolor staff can pull down the data, and VFX vendors can pull their own VFX shots too. “We had exact mirrors of the data. We were not sending project files back and forth, but rather, we shared them,” Boyle explains. “So anyone could jump on the project, whether in Vancouver or LA, and immediately open the project, and everything would appear instantaneously.”

When it comes to the hardware itself, speed and power are big factors. As Boyle points out, the group handles large files, and slowdowns, render issues and playback hiccups are unacceptable.

Messiah

The color system proved its mettle on Messiah, which required a lot of skin retouching and other beauty work. “The system is dedicated and designed only for colorists,” says Boyle. “And the tools are color-focused.”

Indeed, Boyle has witnessed drastic changes in color workstations over the past several years. File sizes have increased thanks to Red 8K and raw materials, which have driven the need for more powerful machines and more powerful GPUs, particularly with the increasingly complex HDR workflows, wherein floating points are necessary for good color. “More work nowadays needs to be performed on the GPU,” she adds. “You just can’t have enough power behind you.”

NBCUniversal StudioPost
NBCUniversal StudioPost knows a thing or two about post production. Not only does the facility provide a range of post, sound and finishing services, but it also offers cutting-edge equipment rentals and custom editorial rooms used by internal and third-party clients.

Danny Bernardino

Specifically, NBCUniversal offers end-to-end picture services that include dailies, editorial, VFX, color correction, duplication and encoding/decoding, data management, QC, sound, sound editorial, sound supervision, mixing and streaming.

Each area has a plethora of workstations and systems needed to perform its given tasks. For the colorists, the facility offers two choices, both on Linux OS: a Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 16.1.2 (fully loaded with a creative suite of plugins and add-ons) running on an HP Z840 machine, and Autodesk Lustre 2019 running on an HP Z820.

“We look for a top-of-the-line color corrector that has a robust creative tool set as well as one that is technically stable, which is why we prefer Linux-based systems,” says Danny Bernardino, digital colorist at NBCUniversal StudioPost. Furthermore, the facility prefers a color corrector that adapts to new file formats and workflows by frequently updating its versions. Another concern is that the system works in concert with all of the ever-changing display demands, such as UHD, 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision.

Color bay

According to Bernardino, the color systems at NBCUniversal are outfitted with the proper CPU/GPU and SAN storage connectivity to ensure efficient image processing, thereby allowing the color talent to work without interruption. The color suites also are outfitted with production-level video monitors that represent true color. Each has high-quality scopes (waveform, vector and audio) that handle all formats.

When it comes time to select machines for the colorists there, it is a collective process, says senior VP Thomas Thurau. First, the company ascertains the delivery requirements, and then the color talent, engineering and operations staff work together to configure the proper tool sets for the customers’ content. How often the equipment is replaced is contingent on whether new image and display technology has been introduced.

Thurau defines a solid colorist workstation as a robust platform that is Linux-based and has enough card slots or expansion chassis capabilities to handle four or more GPU cards, Fibre Channel cards and more. “All of our systems are in constant demand, from compute to storage, thus we look for systems and hardware that are robust through to delivery,” he notes.

Mr. Robot

NBCUniversal StudioPost is always humming with various work. Some of the more recent projects there includes Jaws, which was remastered in UHD/HDR, Casino (UHD/HDR), the How to Train Your Dragon series (UHD/HDR) and an array of Alfred Hitchcock’s more famous films. The company also services broadcast episodic (NBCU and others) and OTT/streaming customers, offering a full suite of services (Avid, picture and sound). This includes Law & Order SVU, Chicago Med, Will & Grace, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Mr. Robot, as well as others.

“We take incredible pride in all aspects of our color services here at NBCUniversal StudioPost, and we are especially pleased with our HDR grades,” says Thurau.

For those who prefer to do their own work, NBCUniversal has over 185 editorial rooms, ranging from small to large suites, set up with Avid Media Composer.


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.


What Makes a Workstation?

By Mike McCarthy

Computer manufacturers charge a premium for their highest-end “workstation” systems, but many people don’t fully understand what really distinguishes a workstation-class system from any other computer. Admittedly, there is no cut and dry line, but workstations usually have a few characteristics that make them more suitable for professional applications than regular home or office PCs. They are usually faster, have a greater level of expandability and are more reliable than other PCs. This, of course, makes them more expensive, but depending on what you need them for, they can be well worth the additional cost.

Workstation Graphics
Nearly all workstations offer professional-level, OpenGL-optimized graphics cards at a time when having any discrete GPU at all is becoming rare outside of gaming systems. Nvidia’s Quadro cards and AMD’s Radeon Pro line have more RAM than their gaming counterparts, and their drivers are optimized for professional applications. High-bit-depth color processing used to be the other defining characteristic of professional graphics cards, but HDR imaging has pushed 10-bit color support into consumer GPUs, removing that as a differentiating factor.

Scalability
Most workstations have a greater level of expandability in the form of more slots for RAM and PCIe cards and more storage and networking options. This allows more flexibility in configuring a system that accommodates a specific task or application. Editors need lots of storage, animators need lots of RAM, and VFX artists might need more CPU power. They might all use the same model of workstation but in totally different configurations. Most workstations usually also have more card slots available, allowing for hardware upgrades for dedicated tasks. Editors might install a video I/O card for SDI interfaces, a sound mixer might need to install Avid Pro Tools processing cards, and many users will need high-bandwidth network cards — running at 10 gigabits or more — to share data with others they are working with.

Different Classes of Workstation
There are also a variety of classes of workstations available, depending on your budget and needs. Top-end workstations have dual-CPU sockets (and in rare cases, four or more sockets), multiplying the potential processing power and aggregate bandwidth. These systems are adapted from server architectures, with a few changes to improve interactive performance and expansion options. They offer many channels and slots for maximum memory capacity and throughput. Intel has had its Xeon scalable processors in this market for many years, while AMD has recently introduced its EPYC processor line into this segment.

Below that top tier comes high-end desktop systems, which offer a single CPU (possibly with up to 32 cores), four to six channels of memory and many PCIe lanes. Intel has its Core X CPUs and Xeon W CPUs on the high end in this range, while AMD has its Threadripper line in this range.

At a lower performance level, some workstations are based on the same CPUs as gaming systems. These systems have much less powerful chipsets, with fewer PCIe lanes for expansion and only two channels of memory, but they still offer very good performance on smaller projects at lower prices. Intel’s Core CPUs and AMDs Ryzen CPUs fall into this category, with up to eight and 16 cores, respectively. These systems can handle single-threaded workloads as well as higher-end options, but for applications that are well threaded, or when running many tasks at once, the higher-end systems will have a definite benefit.

Mobile Workstations
Separately, there are also mobile workstations, which are top-end laptop units. These are usually defined by having professional GPUs and — more recently — in many cases by having mobile Xeon CPUs. They usually have lots of RAM and very good integrated display options, occasionally with integrated calibration systems. They use NVMe storage, but that is no longer unique to workstations. They usually have more ports available than consumer systems and a wider variety of configuration options. Many models also have Mil-Spec ruggedness to protect them from damage in the field.

There are also a number of other unique workstation offerings, from all-in-one systems similar to the iMac Pro to tablets and VR backpacks. The one thing these all have in common is that they are designed for professional users and applications that have high processing workloads on either the CPU or GPU.

On the upper end, it is easy to see what makes a workstation different, with dual-socket Xeon processors, high core counts, RAM measured in terabytes, ECC for stability and RAID-based storage controllers for increased bandwidth and security. But what about “low-end” workstations? If low-end workstation core counts and RAM capacity are similar to a high-end gaming system, then what other features do the lower-end workstations bring to the table?

Reliability
Most large-scale workstation manufacturers have invested more engineering and testing time into workstation products. This includes better thermal components to allow the systems to run cooler and quieter under larger loads. Companies like Dell, HP and Lenovo all include their own software for optimizing and tweaking the system for maximum performance with various supported applications. They also work with software companies to certify various configurations to guarantee support for specific applications. All this effort should make workstations more reliable and less likely to crash or error out during important tasks.

Thermal Engineering
Most computers aren’t designed to be run at maximum performance for long periods of time, as many applications aren’t that taxing. For ones that are, many users take breaks, allowing the system to cool down, but an editor might kick off a render queue before heading home, and the system is processing at maximum capacity for the rest of the night or weekend. Cheaply built systems will heat up quickly and then throttle back the performance to prevent overheating, slowing down the task at hand. Workstations are engineered to carry on those intense computing tasks for greater periods of time without exceeding their thermal envelope. And even when not operating at peak processing performance, many workstations are designed to run much quieter, allowing their users to think more clearly or better hear the audio associated with the tasks they are working on.

Windows for Workstations
Microsoft recently released a version of Windows 10 targeted at high-end power users. It supports more CPUs and RAM than Windows 10 Pro, broader storage options and faster networking protocols, among other features. This difference in software support might further differentiate workstation-class systems in the future.

Mac Workstations
Apple has offered a workstation to its high-end users in the form of the Mac Pro. The original “cheese grater” silver tower had Xeon CPUs, ECC memory and a limited number of PCIe slots for expansion. This was replaced by the “trash can” black cylinder Mac Pro, which was, arguably, not a proper workstation. It didn’t have PCIe slots for expansion, it didn’t have hard drive slots for storage, and, most importantly, it didn’t have the thermal engineering to sustain high-performance workloads for an extended period of time. But it was the best Apple had to offer for many years, putting the trash can into places it never otherwise would have been and was not designed for.

The new Mac Pro tower (or rack) has returned a true workstation to Apple’s product portfolio. With a single-socket Xeon CPU, it sits at the peak of the mid-level workstation tier. With more slots than any other Mac ever, it is fully expandable and upgradable. (Even the I/O header can be replaced in the future.) While it would be possible for Apple to release a more powerful dual-socket option in the future, I doubt it will do so because the current Mac Pro should meet the needs of 99% of potential users due to how much multi-core CPUs have improved in the last few years.

Workstations in the Future
I expect the trend of users moving from top-end dual-socket systems to maxed out mid-level systems to continue in both the PC and Mac world as increases in maximum processing performance (and price) exceed the increases in workloads in most workstation tasks. This should increase the market for mid-level workstations, eventually increasing the options available and decreasing their price. We also see the lines blurring between mobile workstations and gaming laptops as the GPUs and drivers become more standardized between them. It will also be interesting to see what impact Intel and Micron’s new Optane persistent memory architecture has on workstations and their applications. Someday soon we might see integrated network interfaces that are faster than 1Gb, which has been standard since 2004. Until then, we will still be using cards to upgrade our workstations to the capabilities we need them to have for the tasks we need to accomplish, which is what they were designed for.


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.


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.