Image Source: Lunar Animation
When the Mac Pro was announced at WWDC, we all salivated. I’m not even a Mac users and it still made me salivate a little. The specs and features read like gadget porn. Then they got to the pricing and the derision started. “Why didn’t Apple make this machine for me?” was a common refrain in the days after the event. The talk eventually died down, as negative Apple stories only have so long of a shelf life. However, many have wondered what the value of this beastly machine will be.
Along those lines, a digital animation firm called Lunar Animation published a blog post a few days ago outlining their real-world experience with the Mac Pro. If you are in the market for a one, or are just interested in learning more about what it’s truly built for, then this article is definitely worth a read.
At the beginning of the article, the author details a story that was common among pros using the Mac as their primary computing platform a few years ago:
Since we started the animation studio back in 2014, our entire pipeline has been based around the Mac. However, in recent years it’s been more challenging than we would have liked. With fewer and fewer hardware updates and the release of the trash can Mac Pro that seemed limited, things were certainly looking grim. We had many conversations about how we might eventually have to move over to use PCs.
Fortunately in 2017, Apple announced the iMac Pro, which has been our main studio production machine for all artists. Now the new Mac Pro is here and we’ve been really excited to see how it’s going to evolve our studio.
Remember when Apple released the beefy iMac Pro to make up for the lack of a competitive Mac Pro and fill the gap until the new one could be released? This machine was a fine substitute for many, but as this blog post outlines, it was eventually pushed to its limits in this heavy-duty role. And what was that role? A pretty cool one, actually: making the “Main on Ends” sequence (the initial animated portion of a movie’s end credits) for Jumanji- The Next Level.
The timing of receiving the machine couldn’t have been better as the studio was just about to begin work on the new Jumanji movie, JUMANJI THE NEXT LEVEL. We were tasked to create the “Main on Ends” (MOE), which is essentially the end animated credits for the movie.
This was a fantastic project and opportunity for us as a studio and involved a number of challenging aspects you can expect from working on a feature.
The project had to be photorealistic, and there were 28 unique panels for the credits, with each panel featuring at least one prop related to the movie. This was spread across a two-minute sequence.
The project would be done with a single camera move, and there were also weather effects to create. All of this had to be done within a timeframe of four weeks. For anyone that’s wondering, four weeks is not a long time…
Evidently, a project of this type requires a lot of horsepower, especially when you start talking about rendering at high resolutions. The last quote also makes it clear that time was of the essence. I’m not a video guy, but the next quote explains things pretty thoroughly:
One of the immediate things we noticed as soon as we began the animation stage on an iMac Pro, is that we were struggling to get all of the assets into a scene with all of their high-resolution texture maps without running out of Graphics RAM…
Sure enough, we can clamp the resolution of the textures in the scene and the problem goes away. However this is fine for working with the scene, but because clamping the textures is across the entire scene it meant that our 8K Jumanji map became a much lower resolution. This became more of an issue for us when sending the client updates to approve. The only other option would be to render the whole thing out, but we were sending updates daily, so this wasn’t an option.
And with the Mac Pro?
With the texture issues we were encountering on the iMac Pro, we opened the same scene on the Mac Pro and all of the textures loaded up completely fine. This makes sense, as there is double the graphics memory for textures (32 GB instead of 16 GB). We were then surprised to see that it was playing back in real time without pre-caching, because even with clamped textures on the iMac Pro, we weren’t getting a consistent 24 frames-per-second during playback.
We then unlocked the 24 frames-per-second cap on the playback and got speeds of up to 134 frames-per-second. This allowed us to review, change, and preview everything at lightning speed avoiding the need to create proxy textures and models, and we were able to work with the content directly…
Again, we were keen to run this on the Mac Pro, as simulations need multiple iterations that involve running and adjusting them time and time again. The faster this can be done, the more quickly you can get the right settings and the final result.
The interesting thing here is that in a recent version of Houdini, you can now use the additional GPU as an accelerator for the simulation. We’ve run a test on an iMac Pro to demonstrate how much faster it was to use the Mac Pro for this part of the production.
Mac Pro (16-core)
iMac Pro (10-CORE)
21 MINUTES – CPU
With the tight timelines Lunar Animation was dealing with, 16 minutes saved per simulation is like gold. However, this isn’t the only strength of the Mac Pro.
HOW MUCH CAN IT DO ALL AT THE SAME TIME?
As we were working on the Mac Pro, setting off simulations, editing and animating, one thing became clear. It is noticeably better at coping with running multiple applications at one time.
So we took some of these applications and had them do the following:
The ability to multi-task with all of these powerhouse apps is as important as the rendering speed.
And there’s one more detail as the cherry on top of this package:
THE REAL GAME CHANGER IS THE PRO DISPLAY XDR
When using the new Apple hardware to create the Jumanji project, the Mac Pro helped us to avoid a few technical difficulties and do all aspects faster. But the new Pro Display XDR gave us an ability that we previously didn’t have in the studio.
It provided us with a phenomenally accurate visual representation of the content we were making. It enabled us to deliver something we were truly confident in. It essentially meant that we now had a reference monitor in the studio.
As a smaller studio without £30k to drop on a monitor, it’s allowed us to see exactly what the final deliverable looked like as it was intended to go to the client. As our final deliverables were EXR files, we had the range to see past the maximum brightness of a standard iMac display.
Knowing that our final files were accurate saved us the cost of spending money to rent out a facility to check the files, which in all honesty we didn’t have time to do because of the tight turnaround.
This is now an invaluable tool that we’re going to be using on all projects moving forward.
There are more details in the full blog post. I recommend taking a look, as it’s as good of a real-world assessment of the new Mac Pro as you will see.
As I said previously, I am not a video expert. I’m not even an enthusiast. However, what I do know is the value of saved time when dealing with power-hungry applications. I had to upgrade my work laptop to a more expensive class of machine this year for the exact same reason. That purchase has has been worth every single penny, as it has allowed me to get more work done faster and run more of the applications I need at the same time without issues.
What this blog post tells me is that, for the types of industries and users the Mac Pro was actually designed for, it is worth the cost. Forget all of the negativity about the $50k plus fully-loaded version of the machine. Forget the expensive monitor and the fancy stand. Forget the price of the wheels. You know why? For a company like Lunar Animation, this machine delivers the kind of high performance that makes it worth the price- stand, wheels and all. Time is money and a machine that reclaims chunks of it in power computing fields will pay for itself quickly.