Richard Lewis Takes On the Pipeline
Nothing brings studio tech mavens more enjoyment than showing off their render farms. They beam ear-to-ear grins as they walk you through entire floors filled with domino-like racks of servers, all humming in harmony within exalted, almost mystical refrigerated airspace. Nothing brings studio tech mavens more moments of absolute terror than when those glistening, gazillion dollar render farms are brought to their knees by a production short on time and long on visuals dictated by the latest jump-cut loving music video director castoff with a taste for mirrored surfaces and pouting on set. If you listen closely, you can hear Scotty and Kirk in the distance…”I’m givin’ her all she’s got, Captain...Well, all she’s got isn’t good enough! We need more power!”
Enter Richard Lewis. Richard is CEO of PipelineFX, makers of Qube! render farm management software and providers of a robust set of consulting, design and educational services being used all over the world. Steeped in the technology from his years working with Square USA on the production of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Richard understands first-hand how technology, in the hands of artists, can lead to breathtaking work plagued by tragic business practices.
I recently had a chance to sit with Richard and talk about the rise of the global production pipeline, effective methods of render farm management and this newfangled thing (which is actually a new skin on a really old thing) called the “cloud.”
Dan Sarto: Talk to any visual effects supervisor or CTO and invariably the discussion turns to pipeline and production efficiency. Pipeline, Pipeline, Pipeline! Why the recent emphasis?
Richard Lewis: Pipeline efficiency is a key thing. There’s a lot to consider with pipelines. Brute force means buy more rendering machines. Just keep buying rendering machines and keep doing everything the way you’re doing it. When the market collapsed a few years ago, everyone cut their R&D departments. The expensive programmers that wrote all the custom software, many [of those jobs] were eliminated. Now, even though the economy has recovered, no one has rehired all of their R&D department [staff]. In fact there are some incredibly small R&D departments from what we used to see. Square had 40 people, DreamWorks when I visited them in 2003, I think they had 100 R&D people.
But I always say, don’t get tricked into writing something you can buy. If you can buy it there is not a chance you can write it for less, no way. This is a problem across the industry. I have an architectural degree; I grew up in art school. Artists just want to “do it.” It’s a creative thing. It doesn’t make any business sense. Unfortunately we’ve lost The Asylum, we’ve lost Cafe FX, these were artist-driven companies. They did great work.
In this business, you need to know what things cost, you need to do things efficiently especially relative to the competition. They can do things intelligently from a business standpoint and they can do things at a low cost.
DS: So where does render farm management play into this equation?
RL: Render farm management is automation software and it’s completely an efficiency play. We’ll ask companies, “What’s your CPU utilization average per month right now?” No idea, not a clue. They’ll respond, “I don’t know but, our rendering is just slow, it’s taking too long. We need more machines.”
DS: We need more something.