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Build Your Own Animation Workstation

Want to get started creating animation on your own computer? John Edgar Park tells you how to start from scratch. Let's find out how to select and assemble the correct components and then get them working!

So you've decided to take the plunge and build an animation workstation. Here's my advice: Don't do it! Run for your life!! Save yourself while you still can!!! Go on without me . . .

Are they gone now? Good. Okay, now that the sensible people have left, it's just us lunatics. While they're off buying boring, old pre-built computers what with all their warranties and tech support you and I are gonna throw caution into the wind and make ours from scratch. We'll buy a bunch of shiny computer parts, throw 'em into a box, shake it around a little and blam!, we'll have home-brewed a monster animation rig.

Let's clarify some things first. There aren't too many folks building their own Macs and SGIs. So what I'm talking about here is a Windows or Linux box. Now, Linux is fun to say, but I honestly know next to nothing about it, what I'm really talking about is an Intel or AMD based Windows box.

Second clarification. What's an animation workstation? Well, garden-variety PCs are general purpose computers. When you put high-end parts in them that are geared toward a specific task, those PCs get the much cooler-sounding moniker: "workstation." In our case, that specific task set is animation 3D, 2D, compositing and a little video editing.

Building the animation workstation is a multi-phase process: 1. Select components 2. Assemble them 3. Install an operating system 4. Install software.

Selecting Components

Animation workstations generally have state-of-the-art components compared to the basic family PC. (Although a PC built for 3D gaming will share many traits of a good workstation.) Few tasks tax a machine quite like hardcore 3D graphics and video editing do. All of the subsystems, such as storage, data transfer, CPU, RAM and graphics, work very, very hard to keep the beautiful pictures looking good and moving fast on-screen.

Here is a roundup of the parts you'll need to select. I'll even throw in some highly subjective opinions on specific parts. This is sure to spawn many angry emails, and be out-dated within minutes of press time, but what the heck.

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Both the InWin Q500 (l) and the Coolermaster's ATC-210 cases will house your wares efficiently and with style.

Case

The enclosure is what you'll put all this other stuff into, so you might as well make it a good one. If you're like me, you'll end up upgrading your workstation, instead of buying a whole new computer every few years. The case is the one part you may never need to replace, because it's just the guts that will change.

Get a mid- to full-sized ATX tower. You want lots of room to root around in, and you may need the extra drive bays someday. Spend the extra money for a quality case, too. The cheap ones don't have rolled edges on their internal, stamped metal parts. This can make for some awful lacerations. I learned that the hard way. Bleeding all over a $250 CPU is a bad thing.

Most cases come with a power supply, but you want to make sure that it's rated high enough to provide power to all of your internal components. A 350 -to- 450 watt, P4 ready or Athlon rated power supply is a necessary investment. Underpowering your system can be harmful. I use the Silencer 400 ATX from PC Power & Cooling. Other good brands are Enermax and Antec.

While we're on the subject of fans, know this: All your workstation components are adversely affected by heat. Too much of it and things will start to become unstable or even sustain damage. At a minimum, you should put a good 80mm fan in the fan cage at the bottom front of your case to draw in cool air, and another 80mm fan in the upper rear of the case to blow hot air out. This can get noisy, so I again recommend a high-quality, quiet fan like the Silencer 80mm from PC Power & Cooling.

Case recommendations: InWin Q500, Antec SX1240, Lian Li PC70, Cooler Master ATC-210.

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Monitor

There are a few issues to consider when choosing your monitor: CRT vs. LCD, size and quality. Oh, and of course, price.

CRT technology is the TV-style, picture tube monitor we are most familiar with. LCD technology is the active-matrix, laptop screen broken out onto the desktop. In general, CRTs are still the best bet for animation. They are capable of higher contrast and have more resolution choices than LCD panels. LCDs are not yet up to the visual standards of CRTs, although their low power consumption, small footprint and overall sex appeal make them quite tempting.

You can never have too much screen real estate. A 19" CRT is pretty good, 20"-21" is better. Sony makes a wide aspect-ratio, 24" CRT that is beautiful. Remember, the larger the screen, the bigger and heavier the monitor. Most large CRTs need a pretty deep desk to sit on. One note about LCDs: A 17" LCD is the equivalent of a 19" CRT.

The quality of the monitor is a very important consideration. Most manufacturers have a "graphics professional" or "CAD" line of monitors that is worth checking out. Look for a perfectly flat screen, a dot pitch of .22mm to .25mm (this is how densely packed the pixels are), and a good overall picture. It is important either to see monitors in person or read lots of reviews from trusted sources.

Monitor recommendations: IBM P260, ViewSonic PF815, Sony GDM FW900, iiyama Vision Master Pro 512.

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AMD Athlon XP 1800+ (Socket A) vs. The Intel Pentium 4A: Both are fast.

CPU

Since the CPU is the "brain" of your workstation, it is one of the key selections you will have to make before choosing other components. Your motherboard and RAM choices will depend largely on which CPU you get.

The choice here is between Intel's Pentium 4 and AMD's Athlon lineups. They are pretty comparable; people have great success with both of them. Some days the Athlons are quoted as being the speed kings, on others it's the P4.

Most cases come with a power supply, but you want to make sure that it's rated high enough to provide power to all of your internal components. A 350 -to- 450 watt, P4 ready or Athlon rated power supply is a necessary investment. Underpowering your system can be harmful. I use the Silencer 400 ATX from PC Power & Cooling. Other good brands are Enermax and Antec.

Any P4 or Athlon in the 1.7 - 2.2Ghz range will do for your workstation the faster the better. Fast CPUs generate lots of heat, so you'll need to keep them cool with a large heatsink/fan combo. Most P4s are bundled with the proper heatsink, for Athlon XP's you should get an AMD recommended model, like the Thermaltake Volcano 6.

CPU recommendations: Intel P4A 2.2Ghz (Socket 423), AMD Athlon XP 1800+ (Socket A), Intel P4 2.0Ghz (Socket 478).

Motherboard

Based on your choice of CPU, you will now need to pick a compatible motherboard (also called the mainboard). This is determined by the motherboard's chipset and socket configuration. You can't put a P4 CPU into a motherboard built for an Athlon XP, and vice versa.

Other features to pay attention to: You'll want a fast front-side bus speed (this is the speed at which data shuttles around) like 100Mhz, many open RAM slots, a bunch of PCI slots (5-6 is good) for different upgrade cards, and a heavy-duty AGP Pro slot for your graphics card.

Motherboard recommendations: Asus P4T-E, AOpen AK 73 Pro, Soyo SY-K7V Dragon.

RAM

System memory (RAM) is yet another part of the CPU/motherboard choice equation. Once you've made those decisions, the RAM will pretty much pick itself for you. For an animation workstation you will want a minimum of 512MB of RAM. 1-2GB is even better. The motherboard will specify whether it takes DDR SDRAM, Rambus RDRAM or normal SDRAM. (RDRAM must be inserted in matched pairs, so buy accordingly.)

Memory recommendations: Crucial, Rambus, Corsair, Kingston.

Storage

The amount and speed of your hard drives will play a large role in the overall animation pipeline. When texture maps are pulled into RAM, rendered frames are stored, or video streams during playback, it is your hard drive that is working overtime. The bandwidth available for such data transfer is dependent on the interface between drive and motherboard, while the speed of the drive platters themselves is measured in revolutions per minute (RPMs).

The Ultra160 SCSI interface is just right for the job. It is capable of very fast, sustained data transfer, and is fun to say! IDE drives that use the ATA/100 or ATA/133 interface are plenty fast as well. Make sure that your motherboard can support the interface standard you want to use, or buy an adapter card like the Adaptec Ultra160 29160.

Drives that spin at 7200, 10,000 or 15,000RPMs are your best choice. Anything slower will create a data bottleneck. The size of the drives can have an impact on speed as well. A couple of 18GB drives is a better choice than one 36GB drive. In order to work most efficiently, it is a good idea to have one hard drive for your operating system (9GB), one for your applications (18GB-36GB) and a larger, cheaper one for storage (40GB-80GB).

Hard drive recommendations: SCSI: Seagate Cheetah 36XL, IBM Ultrastar 36LZX. IDE: Maxtor DM60, Western Digital WD1200.

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Graphics Card

If you are planning to run any 3D animation software effectively on your workstation, you'll want to invest in a professional-level OpenGL graphics card. These are the AGP Pro slot sittin', giant heat sink wearin', 128MB of onboard RAM bearin' monsters. The faster the graphics card, the easier it is to do your work. The cards to look for are the Wildcats, FireGLs, Quadros and Oxygens. While you can spend less on a gaming card like the GeForce3 and GeForce4, you will need to jump through some hoops and workarounds to get the most out of your 3D package.

If you plan on using dual monitors, be sure to check that your graphics card can support that. It is much easier to get one card that'll drive twin displays than it is to install two graphics cards in one system.

Graphics card recommendations: 3Dlabs Wildcat II 5110, ATI FireGL 4, Elsa QuadroDCC, 3Dlabs Oxygen GVX1. (Note: AWN plans to review the new Wildcat III line in a future article.)

Video Capture

I said we'd throw a little bit of video editing into the mix. In order to capture digital and analog video, edit it, and output back to digital or analog videotape, you'll need a video capture card. This card will accelerate your video editing software, as well as allow you to work with an NTSC monitor or television. With the proliferation of Firewire cards and miniDV camcorders, you may be able to skip this component. It depends on how much editing you plan to do.

Video capture recommendations: Pinnacle DV500plus, Matrox RT2500.

Other

There are some other, less exciting components that you still need to consider when building the workstation from the ground up. Some of these you may be able to cannibalize from an old PC. You'll need a three button mouse (get an optical one that uses the USB port), keyboard (USB), CD-RW burner (Plextor is everyone's favorite brand), CD-ROM, floppy drive, sound card (Creative Labs Audigy is great), ethernet card (if you plan on networking or connecting to the Internet with a broadband connection), and a UPS/surge strip to protect everything from electrical spikes and blackouts.

One other piece of advice: Make sure all of your components are compatible with each other. It can take a good bit of research, but finding out about conflicts before you buy is worth it. Try the Usenet newsgroups or the support page of a specific manufacturer for more information.

Putting It All Together

Well, now that you have all these expensive parts laying around, it's time to plug them all together! I'll cover the basic process in broad strokes here, but if this is your first time poking around inside a PC, you should seek a more detailed guide. Something like Upgrading and Repairing PCs from Que Publishing, or the videotape How To Build Your Own PC from www.informit.com will help.

Be sure to read all of the manuals that come with your components. Really. No one wants to, but it pays off in the end. Plan your attack before you start opening up the anti-static bags.

Here are your major steps:

1. Install the fans and power supply into your case. Be sure to check that the lower fan is going to pull air in, while the upper fan will blow out. There are usually arrows on the fan housing that indicate airflow direction.

2. Using brass standoffs and screws, attach the motherboard to the case. This is easier if the case has a slide-out motherboard tray.

3. Install the CPU and heatsink/fan combo onto the motherboard. This is a delicate operation, so check for proper pin alignment. Socket-based CPUs require "zero insertion force," which means it will drop right into place. If you are pushing on it at all, then you've got a misalignment. Whatever you do, please don't forget to attach the CPU fan lead to its connector on the motherboard.

4. Add RAM. Read the motherboard manual to be sure that you've inserted RAM pairs into the correct channels. Rambus-based boards will require you to leave dummy CRIMM modules in any unoccupied slots.

5. Set motherboard jumpers. Again, the manual will have a chart that tells you which (if any) jumper settings you must set for your particular CPU clock rate.

6. Set SCSI ID numbers and IDE jumpers, then mount all of the hard drives, optical drives and floppy drive into their respective bays.

7. Connect the case switch/LED/speaker leads to their place on the motherboard.

8. Attach the case fan leads to the motherboard.

9. Plug the power supply leads into the motherboard.

10. Connect the power and data cables for all of your drives. This is a good time to use some trial and error in order to find the optimal path for cables. The idea is to keep things neat and out of the way, in order to encourage airflow.

11. Insert the graphics card in the AGP slot. If you have an AGP Pro card, it will be necessary to first remove the AGP Pro sticker and plastic spacer from the slot.

12. Insert and connect the other peripheral cards, like sound, ethernet, video capture and SCSI.

13. Close the case and then plug in the monitor, power cord, keyboard and mouse.

14. Fire it up. If everything has been properly installed you should hear a single, happy beep and be on your way to setting the BIOS. Follow the second half of your motherboard manual for this one.

15. Install the operating system. I recommend Windows 2000 for the animation workstation.

16. Install your software.

I know, I know, that's a lot of work! While it's easier to buy a pre-made system, off-the-shelf workstations don't have the same degree of customization you've just achieved. And the best part about building your own rig is that you know it inside and out, literally. When it comes time for upgrades or other system modifications, you can do all the work yourself. You may never need to buy a full-on computer again.

So good luck, and have fun with your new animation workstation!

John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.

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