The democratisation of computer graphics

There has always been a large divide between the larger studios and the enthusiast, with the working freelancer and even small studio falling somewhere in between, but much closer to the bottom end of the scale. I'm talking about the opportunities and abilities presented to artists to be able to create the work they want or need.

We are at a time of change though and the business model for creating and distributing digital content is continuing to evolve to meet the economic realities of the market. As more tools are becoming easily affordable, exciting new opportunities are being created for media companies across the scale, so in this time of change, everybody working in the visual effects industry, at any level, could do with examining their workflows to explore some of the new technologies that could transform the working day, as much as the end product of the labours.

Polygon count

Until very recently, a freelancer could own a well-equipped workstation but still be restrained by its specifications. The number of threads that could be enlisted to render a scene was limited, as was the total amount of texture information that could be loaded into RAM. Likewise the total polygon count was capped at what the system could handle.

Over the last few years a number of services have popped up that allow for a little expansion but this has been limited. You can animate your scene, work on a few test renders and then send your files off to a dedicated render farm. While this does free up a workstation or small network, so other projects can be worked on, it isn't a perfect solution.

The same applies to the larger studios, with multiple workstations, servers and their own render farms. Some resources can be managed to reduce bottlenecks but the artists and workstations still run as individual, slightly isolated nodes.

Monsters University is the first Pixar film to implement Global Illumination, a new lighting technology that allows for ultra-complex lighting set-ups where light bounces in a physically realistic way

Monsters University is the first Pixar film to implement Global Illumination, a new lighting technology that allows for ultra-complex lighting set-ups where light bounces in a physically realistic way

The Cloud changes this entirely, opening up huge resources to even casual artists. For an artist to have access to the latest version of Autodesk's Maya or Adobe After Effects using an older generation laptop used to be unthinkable. However, with technologies like ever increasing broadband speeds and NVIDIA's GRID technology, it is now a reality. GRID is a scaleable set of tools that provides high-end graphics virtualisation to any client device, from a single machine to large server based systems, resulting in more intuitive, responsive artist interaction, whether locally or remotely.

With all those things in mind we shouldn't lose track of the place a powerful single workstation has in the industry. There will always be times and situations where a workstation sitting next to an artist or editor is the best solution, such as when working with multiple 4K monitors or 30-bit colour accuracy, but we need to stay aware of the latest technologies that empower the artist to create in ways that suit them best.

Putting more visualisation capabilities in the hands of the creator is a key economic driver for the VFX industry. Using new tools like Maya's Viewport 2.0 gives the content creator the ability to visualise higher-fidelity scenes with the best possible live feedback and interactivity than ever before, but it's not going to be a viable option on modern projects without the hardware power to run it.

Processing power

As projects gain in advancement, with huge texture resolutions, multiple lighting and material effects, so does the requirement for hardware to match. NVIDIA's Quadro K6000 GPU, with its 12GB of graphics memory, is the perfect solution to handle the huge levels of processing power. Being able to see results close to the finished product in a live and interactive environment can reduce both the time and financial cost involved with organising files, sending them to a render farm, then awaiting for their return, before commencing with any fixes or alterations. Likewise it might be an artistic decision which requires re-working a scene or asset. NVIDIA's K6000 lets creative leads view the scene, with light and shadow, so less test renders are needed.

As these technologies become more pervasive with our industry, we can all reap the benefits, no matter where you are based, nor the size of your studio.

If you are a solitary freelance artist sitting at your desk, you now have the same opportunities for expanding your studios capabilities as the largest international VFX company. The implementation might be different but the results are what matters. Creative endeavour is being democratised and it is exactly tools like the Quadro K6000 and NVIDIA GRID that will pave the way for new, simpler and more efficient pipelines.

Delivered in conjunction with ZED!

This content was produced in collaboration with HP & Intel as part of ZED - a Pop-Up Studio for the Creative Community held in Soho, London. For more information about ZED and any future events see here.

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