When a Hollywood animation studio gears up for a deadline, it does so with a render farm already consisting of hundreds or thousands of active machines. But when New York's School of Visual Arts (SVA) gears up to render its students' graduation shorts, its farm goes from almost complete inactivity to processing 800,000 frames in a period of six weeks.
That transition used to be a major headache for the SVA's Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects department. Now, thanks to Qube!, PipelineFX's scalable render farm management system, staff can face deadlines with the confidence that all of their students' needs are covered.
And best of all, thanks to PipelineFX's innovative Education Burst License program, developed in response to the SVA's feedback, colleges around the world can share that confidence, doubling their Qube! license capacity for a month (twice a year) to meet deadlines, at no extra cost.
Founded in 1947, the SVA is the largest arts school in the US. Over 5,000 students pass through its Midtown Manhattan campus each year, 280 of them as undergraduates in the computer art program. The school has a strong relationship with local visual effects facilities – notably Framestore, which it supplies with many of its junior staff – but alumni also include artists at Pixar and Blue Sky Studios, and Industrial Light & Magic's Johnny Han, CG Supervisor on Pacific Rim.
Students are taught on a range of industry-standard software packages, including Maya and Nuke, and have access to a dedicated render farm consisting of 300 dual-processor machines.
To manage render traffic, the SVA relies exclusively on Qube!, with students submitting jobs directly within Maya, and using the Qube! ArtistView to monitor them. The school praises the software's dynamic allocation system and shallow learning curve, as well as its ability to handle all of the render engines it requires – including mental ray, V-Ray and Arnold – straight out of the box.
Equally importantly, Qube! is a production-proven solution. "Everything we do is focused on giving our students familiarity with the commercial environment," says SVA Chair John McIntosh. "We're big advocates of guerilla film-making, but our students are ultimately going to work in production, so we felt obliged to go with a commercial solution – and one that was as widely used as possible."
While a commercial production house can rely on the fact that jobs submitted to its farm will be optimized and time-managed professionally, the need to cater to student work places a much greater strain on SVA's resources.
"They're all new users, so all the jobs are unique, and they're very rarely optimum," says McIntosh. "The students are going for broke trying to achieve Hollywood quality, so they're often doing overly lit, overly complex scenes. They can hit render times of four hours per frame."
And with 70 senior projects, averaging between two and three minutes of finished animation – not to mention countless freshman, sophomore and junior assignments – that's an awful lot of traffic to put through the render farm. Worse still, its users generate much of that traffic on the same day.
"They're students: we assume that everything is going to be rendered the night before," says McIntosh. "When you're involved in it, it's frightening. There are periods where we actually shut down our facility just for rendering, and throw everybody out for days at a time."
As well as these logistical problems, the sudden spike in render traffic creates problems with software licensing. "We go from an environment where we make little use of the render farm to one where we have maximum use," says McIntosh. "When that happens, all of a sudden we don't have licences to fit the production, because we're only going to be scaled up for six weeks."
Enter PipelineFX's Education Burst License program. Born of a chance conversation between the SVA and PipelineFX staff, the program lets any education user on subscription contract double their existing license capacity twice a year, either for a calendar month, or for 30 consecutive days.
"We were stunned when we heard the news," says McIntosh. "It was just an off-the-cuff remark, and within a month, it was done. The new policy on extending licences is brilliant.”
Thanks to burst licensing, SVA has the confidence that its farm will cope with everything that its students can throw at it, without having to place creative or technical restrictions on their work.
"It lets us get through deadlines without trying to impose any aesthetic restrictions," says McIntosh. "Any student can do a project of any length, and we put very little limitation on them when it comes rendering."
The SVA currently has 100 seats of Qube! and hopes to purchase 50 more this year, aiming to use the extra capacity to meet new technical standards within the industry. The school is currently switching from mental ray to V-Ray and Arnold for rendering, and is in the process of adding other computationally intensive tools to its syllabus.
"We're committed to having high-end solutions here, and PipelineFX's new licensing policy gives us the freedom to embed them into our curriculum at a much earlier stage," says McIntosh. "We've just brought Houdini and Nuke into our freshman and sophomore years, and that's unheard of in the US. Most people in education have to restrict those tools because they don't have the infrastructure."
Empowered by Qube!'s powerful, scalable render-management tools, and PipelineFX's flexible new licensing policy, the SVA feels confident that it can meet the needs of the next generation of Hollywood effects professionals.
"We couldn't do half of what we can do now if it wasn't for PipelineFX," says McIntosh. "One of the most positive things is that they understood the need for scalable productions so fast. We were overwhelmingly impressed that they were able to respond so quickly, for so many schools."
Source: School of Visual Arts