- 1536 CUDA cores
- 4GB GDDR5
- 256-bit memory interface
- four digital outputs
My company Swordfish was established in October 2012, focusing on motion design for marketing and software development. As a startup, I tried to make smart, economical decisions, and having owned a few previous companies in this industry, I’d learned a few key lessons that I was determined to take to heart. One of those lessons is that equipment quickly becomes obsolete, and I would rather invest in brains than boxes.
I found that the best bang for our buck was to hunt down a few used 8-Core Mac Pros on Craigslist to get off the ground, and continue to accumulate more of these workstations as our jobs required more artists. These Macs averaged $1,200 each, with some requiring a few hundred dollars extra for additional RAM to bump them all over 32GBs. Over the past 18 months, we accumulated 12 of these workstations. Uberware Smedge software allows us to render across these workstations in the background while artists continue to work, and turns the studio into a full renderfarm at night. We wrote custom submit scripts for After Effects, Maya, Cinema4D, Houdini, Nuke, and Handbrake to help automate queueing, allowing freelancers to quickly get up to speed. If renders are too intensive for our internal farm, we send the renders to the Amazon cloud using Zync Render (Maya/Nuke), or Houdini’s native support. We also use the cloud for nightly backups to Amazon S3 and project archiving to Amazon Glacier.
While the cost effective CPU solution we found helps crunch through the heavy lifting, it doesn’t help improve the user experience while setting up our projects. That’s where a GPU comes into play. Traditionally associated with 3D acceleration, in recent years many 2D applications started to take advantage of the GPU, accelerating everything from color correction to motion tracking. The GPUs contained in most of our used Macs were the stock cards, adequate for most of our design tasks. For heavier 3D tasks, we added Nvidia Quadro K5000s shortly after they became available.
As our business expanded, we found ourselves needing more editorial and color correction. Using an older 2008 Mac Pro, we converted our only private office into an edit suite. We added a Blackmagic card to drive a color calibrated 50-inch Panasonic plasma display, along with another Nvidia Quadro K5000 GPU to power Adobe Premiere and Da Vinci Resolve. Just like that, we had an editing/grading suite, and thanks to the awesome local freelance talent pool in San Francisco, we had amazing editors and colorists to jump in and help out.
I’m amazed at how affordable and accessible tools like Resolve have become, and the Nvidia GPU acceleration in both Resolve and our other core applications really helps us cut through our projects. One recent project involved a series of camera map effects, where we projected 2D imagery onto rough 3D geometry to create a sense of parallax. Hovering 3D type locked in place as if it was shot in the environment. Though we had multiple artists camera mapping in different applications (After Effects, Nuke, and Cinema4D), we were able to export the cameras to AE and do all of the 3D type using the Advanced 3D Raytracing engine powered by the K5000. This gave us consistent extrusions, bevels, and shaders on every shot, and allowed for extremely fast re-renders of the After Effects comp.
Our most recent project was a series of vision pieces for a large client. They provided us with nine conceptual hardware products and we helped them develop scenarios in which to show them off. After collaborating closely through a brainstorming session, we went on to write scripts, create storyboards, build props, and schedule a live-action production. We spent three days directing the shoot with a Sony F55 digital film camera, including taking over Market Street in downtown San Francisco. Every night we would run the data back to our studio for backup to our server, and start to convert the 4K RAW MXF files to HD ProRes QuickTimes using Resolve.
The Nvidia GPU acceleration in Resolve is amazing. Everything in Resolve is super snappy, even with us pulling frames from our Mac Mini server with a Thunderbolt RAID over Gigabit. Playback is in realtime, color correction is smooth, tracking “power windows” is fast, and exporting QTs to 1080HD spits out at an impressive 50fps. Editing was then performed in Premiere.
The K5000 GPU accelerates Premiere’s realtime capabilities, allowing for more effects and layers to co-exist in realtime. Split-screens, alpha channels from AE renders, and realtime LUTs allowed us to efficiently edit our offline. Once the edit was complete we exported XML files back to Resolve and re-linked the selects to the original 4K RAW MXF files. We then exported 2K effects shots as 32-bit EXR files which once again used the GPU to spit out at 8fps. Comps were completed in AE combining the EXR plates with 3D renders from C4D, Maya and Houdini, along with UIs designed by Swordfish and the client. EXR renders are quickly checked with Tweak Software’s RV playback engine, which also uses the K5000 to handle realtime playback with LUTs. Comps were rendered from After Effects and over-cut in Premiere. After final approval, we brought in a freelance colorist to do final color grading in Resolve and finished with a final conform in Premiere.
The workflow on this project was flawless. Our used Mac Pros, combined with the K5000s and skilled artists, give us the power to compete with anyone in town. At the end of the day, all of our workstations, including extra RAM and GPUs, cost about the same as two new, fully-loaded Mac Pros. Getting 96 cores with 12 older Mac Pros serves our needs more effectively than an equivalent spend for 24 cores with two new Mac Pros. More importantly, it allowed us to save money, build up cash, and move into a new studio, complete with three edit suites and a space full of workstations for artists to work on and generate more income.
Matt Silverman is the Founder/Executive Creative Director of Swordfish (www.swordfish-sf.com) in