GPU Revolution Part 2 | MachStudio Pro

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At RenderStream we have been keeping a close eye on the advances in GPU accelerated rendering. In this second edition of our GPU Revolution series we wanted to find out more about studio|gpu’s MachStudio Pro.

I’m sure many of you have heard about MSP since it came out. I’ll be the first to admit that when I first looked at MSP several months ago, I thought the image quality it produced wasn’t spectacular. All the examples I saw had an overall flat look to them that reminded me of the pre-global illumination days. My opinion has certainly changed. MSP shines as a previsualization tool but many artists are using the software as their production renderer – with results that are very comparable to the quality produced by V-Ray and Mental Ray. You can render out animation sequences in most of the popular file formats and the best part is you can do this hundreds of times faster than on the CPU.

I know there are plenty of readers out there who think that GPU accelerated rendering is still in its infancy, not ready for prime time. Although some of you may not be ready to incorporate something like MSP into your pipeline, the fact that there are artists out there who are using it in production should be a sign to take notice. MSP is a big player in the relatively new GPU rendering game, but you can count on the fact that the mianstream renderers will release their own GPU accelerated flavors in due time. (Check back soon for our interview with Mental Images on realityserver)

As a hardware supplier, we are constantly examining what hardware configurations will work best with these new technologies. For more information on our GPU based workstations please see this page http://www.renderstream.com/HPC.html. In addition to our HPC line, we also offer customizable 3D production workstations that can be outfitted with the GPU of your choice to take full advantage of GPU accelerated applications like MachStudio Pro. See this page for more information: http://www.renderstream.com/workstations.html

Now that MSP has been out for awhile, we thought it would be a good idea to talk to the folks at studio|gpu to get and idea of where the software is headed and also examine MSP from a hardware standpoint. Andrew Baum of Studio GPU took some time to answer our questions.

RS: We have been following a thread in the General section of your forum titled “photo realistic render?” In that thread, a user challenged the overall look of MSP images stating that they have a “cartoon look”. It was nice to watch that thread evolve and see some very nice examples of what MSP can do. Some examples are very comparable to V-Ray and Mental Ray renders. (See Below) Can you comment on what new advances we can expect with the software that will improve the overall image quality – like global illumination for example?

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SGPU: Improving the features and performance of MachStudio Pro is ongoing commitment that continues to deliver results—MachStudio Pro was recently adopted by some very notable studios such as Weta Workshop, Zoic Studios and The Third Floor. A few weeks ago we announced the availability of MachStudio Pro 1.4, which has many new features such as ambient occlusion (AO) depth peeling, which increases the quality and accuracy of AO passes. We also added physical-based cameras that mimic real-world cameras, transparency depth peeling to boost the accuracy of transparency sorting and the quality of opacity attributes, support for 32-bit floating point TIFFs for superior-quality displacement maps as well as direct export with layers to Photoshop and more. MachStudio Pro currently provides ray tracing-style quality at a fraction of the performance cost. We will continue to develop ray tracing technologies for MachStudio Pro, including reflection, refraction, caustics and possible photon mapping features.

RS: As image quality increases, do you see a point where the VFX industry will utilize MachStudio Pro not only as a previsualization tool, but also as a production renderer? What barriers would prevent that from happening sooner rather than later?

SGPU: For many studios, MachStudio Pro is already both a previsualization tool and production renderer. Many shots can already be achieved seamlessly using MachStudio Pro and we continue to focus on adding state-of-the-art features such as an Art Voxel-based particle system, interoperability with other shader types and development of ray tracing components.  Through the continual delivery of state-of-the-art real-time workflow and rendering tools with seamless interoperability with modeling and animation packages, composting and renders tools, we believe we provide a compelling reason to place MachStudio Pro in most any 3D pipeline. We are always working closely with our customers to identify ways to make MachStudio Pro more powerful and useful within real world applications and environments.

RS: Given the fact that stereoscopic 3D animation (as seen in Avatar) doubles the rendered frame requirement for any given shot, do you see MachStudio Pro becoming a viable solution for smaller studios who want to offer their clients this effect? Particularly those sectors not involved in film production, such as architectural visualization or even forensic animation.

SGPU: Our technology is in use in the pipelines of the mega studios such as Weta Workshop on down to the one-man boutique studios. Smaller 3D studios continue to be vital to the creation of all types of 3D—from the Hollywood mega-hits such as “Avatar” to the creation of architectural visualization and production design. We continue to partner with 3D software companies to support industry-wide and product-specific file formats across multiple industries to give our users greater flexibility.  More specifically, we have customers who have used and who are using MachStudio Pro to complete stereoscopic 3D projects that would have been unattainable as far as cost and time without MachStudio Pro. Some of our customers are even using MachStudio Pro to spot test stereoscopic camera parameters, because of its’ practically immediate feedback, for Dailies long before final shots are done.

RS: Can you discuss some customer use cases of MachStudio Pro from previsualization, architecture, product design etc.?  What are some highlights in these cases and what has driven you to improve?

SGPU: MachStudio Pro is used by many studios—from high-end studios such as Zoic Studios, which is using MachStudio Pro for the previsualization of ABC “V” television series and Weta Workshop, which recently integrated and is further developing StudioGPU MachStudio Pro for its television production pipeline, to architect Chad Wanstreet who uses MachStudio Pro for architectural visualization.  Wanstreet takes advantage of MachStudio Pro’s real-time feedback by experimenting during production of his architectural design projects. His basic workflow includes modeling and texturing in 3ds Max, lighting and rendering in MachStudio Pro and then compositing in Nuke. 3D is not limited to Hollywood, which is why we continue to work closely with our customers to strengthen the features and performance of our software to meet their unique visualization needs.


Animation example “Happy and you know it” – Melody Street. Rendered at HD Resolution, Average render time: 12 seconds/frame

RS: When setting up a system what would be the ideal set-up. For instance, a single graphics card for visualization and another card for running MachStudio Pro or do users really only need one, or a set of cards running as one using SLI or Cross-Fire?

SGPU: Currently a single card configuration is extremely powerful. MachStudio Pro supports most major workstation hardware accelerators from AMD and NVIDIA, but has been optimized for AMD ATI line of FirePro workstation 3D graphics accelerators, which offers users real-time hardware tessellation and displacement mapping features. We plan on having future releases that will support true multi-threading in GPGPU configurations, where significant speed and quality increases can be realized.

RS: How does the processor (MPU) speed and the communications pipe support the overall processing? For instance in some scientific applications we’ve seen that a faster processor positively impacts the overall processing with the GPU. Also in game rendering we’ve definitely seen fast processors helping the overall performance.

SGPU: Currently MachStudio Pro is pushing the limits of the GPU for most operations; some heavy vertex animations and point cache systems are supported by the CPU. In the near future, we expect to see serious performance increases related to a more seamless integration between CPU and GPU processing.

RS: Often in scientific computing we have observed that we should have a 4 GB main memory minimum for every GPU; is there any recommendation for MSP?

SGPU: It really depends on the 3D content you are delivering. MachStudio Pro will run well on accelerator cards with 1 GB to 6 GB of memory. If users are planning to render heavy scenes at 2K-4K resolution, we recommend a minimum of 4 GB.

RS: How about I/O storage speed? Will it improve the performance overall of MachStudio Pro? For instance, in compositing we have seen huge impact on frame rates using solid-state-drives especially with the new PCI-e solid-state-storage.

SGPU: Faster I/O is always ideal.

RS: Why would a user choose to select a professional card over a game card? Is it purely because of memory or are there other factors?

SGPU: It is a combination of memory and driver stability. Workstation accelerator cards from companies such as AMD and NVIDIA have development teams that work with software companies to focus solely on the stability of drivers with 3D design and animation applications. Gaming cards focus on running games properly. A professional workstation accelerator card is definitely worth the investment in terms of on board memory, bandwidth, performance and qualified reliability.

RS: It appears now that MachStudio Pro will run on ATI or NVIDIA. Are there any limitations that we should be aware of in terms of using one or the other?

SGPU: Currently, hardware tessellation and displacement mapping are only supported on the ATI cards due to specific algorithms that are represented in the silicon itself, and while the ATI cards only offer 2 GB of video RAM, we anticipate that will change in the future. The NVIDIA cards currently offer more memory. Support for the most recent version of DirectX is always a major plus as well.

RS: Overall, and ignoring brands, what would an absolute monster workstation for MachStudio Pro look like to you? And what would the mid-range system look like.

SGPU: As far workstations, MachStudio Pro really leverages the power of the GPU. Therefore, the GPU should drive the overall system purchase and configuration decisions. With this in mind, right now we highly recommend the newly released AMD ATI FirePro V8800 with its 1600 stream processors and 147.2GB/s memory bandwidth and native support for DirectX 11.  The workstation must accommodate the space and power requirements of this or the chosen professional graphics accelerator.  The workstation should also have at least 6 GB of system memory and be running Windows 7. Other component decisions should be based on the other applications being used and the type of work being done.

We’d like to thank Andrew and Studio GPU for answering our questions about MachStudio Pro. I really hope those of you in production are starting to take notice on what is going on with GPU accelerated rendering. Not only does the technology promise a faster more efficient workflow, it also opens the door to new business opportunities and clients that you may not have thought of before. We’ll get more into that in the next addition of our GPU revolution series when we talk with the guys at Mental Images about RealityServer. Stay tuned.

For more information on RenderStream’s GPU powered high performance products, please visit http://www.renderstream.com/HPC.html

For more information on RenderStream’s GPU based 3D workstations, please visit http://www.renderstream.com/workstations.html