PIXAR Talks Render Farms with Ryan Salazar

Rendering Sucks….But It Doesn’t Have To….

When you hear the word “farm,” you either think of “Old MacDonald” or a bunch of cows or fields of wheat, etc. “Render farms” evoke the same type of vision — albeit one of many computers linked together with yards and yards of cabling, rather than animals grouped together in a barnyard. But the concept is similar. Many servers joined together for one purpose: to render — or to take an artist’s product and transform it into a complex animation for viewing.

It isn’t because you can’t render on single machines — it is definitely possible. However, when you consider that rendering bits or parts of an animation can take into the millions of hours to render, the “one machine” possibility is no longer an option.

Teaming clusters of systems together to generate frames of videos is an amazing time-saver, especially when there are heavy scenes that need lots of processing power. A great example of what a render farm can do compared to one desktop machine: our company creates a decent amount of animation via Autodesk Maya and Maxon Cinema4D. I created a render farm with 20 nodes (BOXX Technologies server blades) along with a render controller (another server).

Contemplate this: a 192 frame national TV commercial job that we rendered (about 6 seconds of animation) took 4.5 hours (or about 1.5 minutes per frame) on the animator’s computer (a MAC Dual-Hexa core or 12-cores, with 24G RAM). That same project rendered on our farm in 8 minutes (or about 2.5 seconds per frame)! Yes… the time saved is clear — considering 30fps with a standard 22min TV show is 39,600 frames, at 1.5 min/frame = 990 hours (or over a month running 24 hrs/day) versus 2.5 sec/frame = 27.5 hours.

“Blinn’s law which states that no matter how much computing resource is available, the overall rendering time of a frame will always remain constant, has proved remarkably resilient to date, says Chris Ford, RenderMan Business Director, Pixar Animation Studios, in a discussion I had with him. “Though CPU capacity continues to grow rapidly, and new infrastructure such as the cloud and GPU’s may increase throughput and economy, it is equally true that ongoing developments in cinematic image rendering such as ray-traced global illumination combined with the always increasing artistic demands of the Director will continue to demand whatever resources are available.”

We have a FlipFactory-Array running renders for over 10,000 files that are processed monthly. This cluster of systems is a render farm which processes .MOV files and creates .M4V, .FLV and .mpg media.As we all know, a render doesn’t mean your job is complete. It just means you’re ready to pop it into the timeline, make some more magic and send to your producer or client for approval. If they have a revision… then you have ANOTHER render to do. One of our artists has a poster on his wall, exclaiming: “Rendering Sucks!” Anyway, the farm speeds everything up thus allowing faster approvals and in the end, getting the final job quicker, too.

“The importance of the artist’s time and what that is worth in regard to one’s creative business; dedicated rendering allows you to off-load your designs saving valuable time,” explains John Vondrak, Copy Writer/Video Producer at BOXX Technologies. “For many artists (especially indie operators), the limitations of space, sufficient electrical power, and finances makes a product like renderPRO an ideal choice; an artist can build a very formidable render farm using renderPRO modules.”

“BOXX responds to popular demand for a personal render option (the Render PRO) for freelancers and entrepreneurs that don’t have server closets,” says Gerrie Schwartz, Performance Specialist at BOXX Technologies.

Motion Picture and Post Production Facilities (even broadcast!) use render farms on a daily basis. In my current situation, our post facility has several render farms:

Our animation render farm uses hardware from BOXX Technologies called, “renderBOXX Pro.” That hardware has PipelineFX’s Qube running. Qube is a great render manager which runs all of our 80 nodes (960 cores!). The animation work we create is generated from Maxon‘s Cinema4D and Autodesk‘s Maya.

Although Cinema4D doesn’t seem as high-end as Maya, professionals routinely use it because it feels easier and less intimidating. Maxon produces a product called “NetRender” which is their own rendering engine — one computer running the NetRender server suite can then access other computers running the NetRender Client application — cross platform — over the network, making the other computers render nodes within minutes! Naturally, Autodesk has a similar set-up for its Maya software called “Mental Ray.” Utilizing parallel network rendering, mental ray for Maya is placed on all the master machines and mental ray standalone is placed on the subservient or “slave” machines, creating a fully-networked rendering environment capable of some powerful workloads.

Render managers distribute workload amongst many machines. The render controller (usually referred to as the “root controller,” manages projects that are submitted to it via, for example, PiplineFX’s Qube product. Qube is an industry-leading render manager utilized by the motion picture & broadcast industries and also government organizations.

Qube (and many other render management systems) handle split-frame rendering — it can divide a single frame into multiple pieces, giving each piece to different computers, rendering them, then stitching the pieces back together into a final rendered frame for “distributed rendering” in order to speed things up.

There is also another world of rendering — In the cloud… Huh? I have always had my reservations about rendering online. However, there are services like CloudFuzion and RebusFarm. Mike Duffy of CloudFuzion, also the manufacturer of EnFuzion, explains that an insatiable appetite for the “need for speed” and everyone wanting results quicker means that the “render cloud” is becoming a solution. Render farms with hundreds of render nodes can be built and on-line to the Studio within minutes. Add the auto expansion capability, bridging internal resources with external clouds delivering on-demand pay as you go 100% scalable computing all driven and managed by CloudFuzion® makes this an ideal solution for all areas of 3D community.

“Today, artists in 3D Studios in Hollywood CA can cost studios $1500 to $2500 a day, depending upon skill level and experience,” says Duffy. “Creative Directors must assure these expensive resources are kept creating art forms for 3D animation movies, commercials and special effects and are not waiting around for their images to finish rendering on their local machines. This is where render farms come really into play.”

“The Creative Director can be assured artists are creating and not waiting around for image processing,” Duffy furthers.

Animation Studios ALL use rendering, including: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Digital Domain, Disney and Pixar.

Pixar’s RenderMan Studio is an advanced rendering solution that used to be proprietary but was so powerful that everyone wanted the shading & lighting and deep textures shown in such films as “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “Monsters, Inc.” Similar superior visual effects are available in Pixar’s RenderMan Studio, allowing any Maya artist to create VFX with Pixar’s technology. As explained on the website: “The toolset of Pixar’s RenderMan is broad and deep. It’s one system that can deliver many types of effects which can be integrated in a variety of ways, but it is also customizable and flexible to accommodate any production pipeline.”

“Contemporary feature film visual effects and animation render farms often now exceed 10,000 cores to meet the visual quality expectations of today’s audiences,” says Chris Ford. “For Pixar’s RenderMan, we have developed highly scalable network render distribution tools such as Tractor to complement our latest rendering algorithms such as easy to setup physically plausible shading techniques that deliver images of the highest complexity and realism, and the results are evident in the majority of visual effect movies you see today.”

Optimizing hardware and accelerating the rendering time of scenes & images for the artist allows a faster turnaround of changes required during production. And this is not limited to post-production houses, broadcasters or the motion picture community.

“There are 3D creative pros (in architecture firms, for example) who struggle to explain their needs to enterprise IT professionals who just don’t get it, says Schwartz at BOXX. “IT often controls the budget, but they have no concept of what ‘render nodes’ are, yet insist on their ‘server solutions’ that don’t cut or are overwhelmed with redundancy, security, firewalls, etc.”

Keeping track of and auditing render farms is no easy task. Saving time and saving money equals an increase in productivity and, therefore, an increase of profits. “And queue management software is not as easy to use as designers might like it to be,” continues Schwartz.

“Managing render farms is a significant challenge,” says Dr. Tim Moreton, Founder & Chief Product Officer at Acunu — The ‘Big Data’ specialists. “The operations teams require a deep understanding of the creative process as well as the technology that powers the rendering. Accurately predicting demand for the render farm and keeping a high throughput of render jobs is essential for meeting production deadlines as well as IT budgets. Alongside everything else they do, studios increasingly need to be sophisticated technology organizations to succeed.”

“Acunu works with studios to help provide real time insights that join the dots between what work the render farm is doing and how the actual infrastructure is running,” Dr. Moreton furthers.

Andrew Price, a 3D animation artist at Blender Guru (, sums-up the rendering process and describes why a render project sucks:

1. There’s no point It doesn’t tell a story, it’s not advertising anything and it’s certainly not pretty. What exactly is the viewer getting from this? Nothing makes me close the window faster than a piece of art with no clear objective.

2. You use pre-made content Stock models are great for studios who want to save time and money by purchasing a pre-made model. But it has absolutely no place in your portfolio. Personally I find no pride in showing someone a render that I haven’t created entirely by myself, but that’s just me. If you don’t know how to model it, why not learn?

3. You’re copying something far more successful I love Wall-E as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean I try to mimic what a professional studio has slaved over for years on end. Why? Because unless it’s an uncanny comparison (which it won’t be) viewers will only spot its flaws.

4. You didn’t plan it on paper first It’s easy to tell when an artist failed to put their idea on paper first: it’s a confusing mess. They started with an idea, skipped the planning stage and jumped straight to their 3d program. Most artists cannot model/texture/render in 3d at the same speed as their imagination. The best thing you can do is put it on paper as soon as the idea strikes you, that way you have a reference in 2 weeks time when you’re sitting at your computer and asking, “what was I making again?”

5. It’s cliché If I see another cave troll or big breasted warrior, I’m going to puke. Be original and create something that everyone hasn’t already seen a thousand times.

6. It’s a test render Hey cool, you just got your head around the new array modifier! Don’t post it on the net. Test renders are exactly that. Tests. They are a learning experience that should remain on your hard drive.

7. It’s poorly lit Let me say this once and for all: Dark is not moody. If you want to create a moody atmosphere there are plenty of ways of doing it, but making your scene dimly lit is not one of them. Pick up a copy of Jeremy Birn’s Digital Lighting and Rendering to learn how to light your scene like a pro.

8. You don’t realise it sucks No one likes receiving bad feedback on their artwork, especially after you’ve spent weeks creating it, but to tell the hundreds of posters that they “just don’t understand it” is like throwing salt on the wound. If you want to progress as an artist you need to be able to take critiques on-board and learn from your mistakes.

9. It’s boring architecture Archiviz is great skill to have under your belt. There’s a lot of work available and it pays quite well, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring and emotionless. Read my post on 20 Architectural renders that break the mold or watch Alex Roman’s amazing short The Third and the Seventh and you’ll pick up dozens of ways to make still architecture interesting.

10. It’s overly post-processed There’s nothing wrong with fixing the colour levels or altering the contrast in Photoshop, but when you start adding filters and chromatic aberration to hide your own incompetence, there’s a problem.

Look at #10 (my personal favorite)… many artists make their projects too “heavy” — which unnecessarily makes their renders too large and take way too long. When they realize what they did, they scale back and BAM! …much faster and a very similar end result!

So there you have it. Rendering doesn’t really have to suck! When it comes right down to it, as my friend Gerri Schwartz says, “The images are what your clients see — it’s your “signature” and best advertisements for your talents.” So you want to put your best foot forward and present your finest. Whether it’s through an in-house system or online using the latest in Cloud Technology, the faster it can be created with the optimum results are what truly matters. And knowing the best solution for your needs and requirements is what it’s all about.

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Editor-In-Chief, Publisher at Broadcast Beat Magazine, LLC.
Ryan started working in the broadcast and post production industry at the young age of twelve! He has produced television programs, built large post production facilities, written for some of the industry's leading publications and was an audio engineer for about ten years. Ryan previously wrote for Broadcast Engineering Magazine, Creative COW and his projects have been featured in dozens of publications.
Ryan Salazar
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