I love being an independent FX artist. There is something about that image of a loft artist working on his/her next project in the wee hours of the morning that appeals to my lifestyle. Working in a studio is great because of the technology and chance to work on large projects. However, studios can over work you, under-pay you, and under appreciate you sometimes and that satisfaction of the work is never as good as when I finish an independent project. But, by being an independent, I am at a significant disadvantage when competing with larger studios who have superior rendering resources. Consequently, the opportunities as an independent that I can pursue and therefore the income, exposure and portfolio experiences that I can generate are limited. But, I may have found a way to have my cake (having the freedom of being an independent) and to eat it too (having affordable and convenient access big studio class rendering resources)!
Typically, I have two options for dealing with the rendering challenge: 1) building my own render farm, or 2) using a rendering service. Unfortunately, I have found both options to be unacceptable - and here is why.
BUILDING MY OWN RENDER FARM: Render farm technology is complex and typically unaffordable for the majority of freelance digital artists. Render farms require a large investment to own and to maintain for even just a few machines. Then there is the upkeep which is a full-time job including managing servers to hold and move data between the machines. There also is the effort of establishing a database and render manager application to help track progress and maintain the software side of things.
Owning a render farm also requires a practical understanding of how to optimize rendering processes and settings. Highly complex scenes with volumes, complex shaders, passes, and high polygon counts inevitably take more render time if not correctly configured. And, if you have limited machines that double as creative and rendering nodes, then while you are rendering you can't work and while you are working you can't render. Less time is therefore available to tweak and to iterate on the final product. (I have yet to see an effect or shot done right on the first iteration!) These challenges increase with increasing iterations, frame complexity and frame counts.
USING A RENDER SERVICE: Commercial render farms are the unsung heroes for major productions. In the early years these computational monoliths were worthy of worshipping. Using a render farm for a project meant you were able to compete at the level of quality that features and primetime commercials typically expect!
But, in order to combat render times and the troubles that come with not owning one, the independent artists are forced to sacrifice something — usually quality and/or time. Quality and time are priceless resources that are always in short supply no matter what the project. Commercial render farms attempt to give us more of both but at a major cost. Large studios may be able to afford to leverage expensive commercial farms, but independent artists typically can not afford such luxuries.
WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENT ARTIST TO DO?
Both of the above options require undesirable compromises for the independent artist. Thankfully, a few good people are better addressing our needs by making render solutions affordable and accessible. This represents a boon for the independent artist and may even upend current industry dynamics that limit our opportunities. The phrase that describes these God sent solutions is "Cloud Computing". Cloud computing is one of the greatest things to come out of the Internet revolution. I had the opportunity to test a number of these systems for our upcoming product and I have to say one stood above the rest for Houdini.
GRIDMARKETS - MORE ITERATIONS FOR LESS:
GridMarkets is new to the scene but they are making a big splash! Our dear friends at Side Effects decided GridMarkets was worth partnering with to create a cloud rendering solution for Houdini. And — they nailed it! Balancing speed and simplicity is easier said than done in software development. GridMarkets makes it look easy and, more importantly, they do a few key things that stand out from the rest that make them my main go to render tool for the future to come.
1. Almost as easy as one click! — The entire process of sending a render to the farm is done in a few clicks from within Houdini - it is as easy as rendering locally. This is thanks to Houdini's PreFlight process and the fact the GridMarkets have made their tools super easy to use!
2. Affordable — Remember when I said render farms are not cheap? Well, for me, GridMarkets also proved themselves in the affordability category. When compared to other options like Amazon computing, Gridmarkets pricing was around 20% cheaper. Conveniently, GridMarkets pricing includes all costs: machine, licensing, bandwidth and storage costs. More importantly, unlike other cloud solutions, Gridmarkets doesn’t charge for upload and download costs.
3. GridMarkets cares — Having met the team and interacted with their development team online I can tell you they really care about what they do. They care not only the business of what they do, but also in the way they want to help artists and help push the community forward to make things available to the independent artist! It's rare for that type of passion to exist but, for me, from day one, GridMarkets showed me how much they care about my wallet and also my art.
Though GridMarkets was my favorite of all the cloud computing tools, render farms all shared a common issue of file sizes and transferring those large files quickly. This is not really even a problem with the systems themselves but more of a problem with the Internet in general.This is a major problem for FX Artists where 1/2 TB of cache files is not uncommon in a shot. Transferring these files up and down may prove to be the biggest challenge for Cloud Rendering and whoever tackles this will own the market to come.
Even if you don't mind using your own machine(s) to render, I will say this: just use a farm. It is now cheaper and easier to do so and using a farm like GridMarkets’ will have an amazing effect of improving your quality. Granted this revolution has a learning curve and it should not be used as an excuse to skimp on learning to tweak your render settings to peak performance - but for me sending a 120 frame render that takes 20 minutes a frame to render and getting that back in a couple hours rather than a couple of days is value for money. It means I have more time to do what I do best — art. At the end of the day, any solution that gives me more creative time is worth considering. GridMarkets is that solution. As a result, I have never felt more optimistic about being an independent artist as I now do. GridMarkets has leveled the playing field to help independents have their freedom AND to better compete with large studios