What Computer Hardware do I need for my VFX Workstation?

Building the best computer for VFX Work

In my day-to-day, I interact with many different types of artists, who have vastly different technological needs. They constantly ask “How can I best configure my personal computer for VFX like the one I have at work?”

Here’s a quick guide to figuring out what kind of computer you really need to edit and render visual effects, so your personal system is as powerful as your work setup.

Q: I love Apple, I think it’s great for creative work. Which Mac do you recommend?

A: Yes, Macs are powerful. Do you have $18k for a brand new, fully loaded iMac Pro? The last time the Apple Mac Pro line was updated was seven years ago in 2012.  That lack of refresh support does not bode well for cutting edge approaches.

I love Apple, but it’s hard to recommend putting so much money down when you can get equivalent or better processing power elsewhere. For maximum power, scalability and most reasonable price you’ll want to look into a stable and upgradable Windows 10 machine. (I see you Linux folks, but that’s another article.)

Q: Okay, Windows 10. What about a beefy Windows laptop? Would that work?

A: Those Microsoft Surface Pro commercials are misleading. Unless you are exclusively doing still image, environment or 2D Character design work, you might find your laptop struggling to do more complex operations. If touchscreen with pen capability is essential, look at a tablet/screen combo from Wacom, or if you’re more adventurous try the Chinese made XP-PEN. If a laptop is a must, look into an Alienware, but beware the limitations of render power on laptops.

Q: I just want to buy a computer. What should I look for?

If you want tried and true with good support, go with a Dell or HP configuration. You can buy them with parts replacement and warranty, which will definitely come in handy.

When shopping, look for the following specifications:

  • Window 10 Professional
  • An Intel i9 processor (3.5Ghz or higher) with 8, 16 or 32 cores
  • A decent GPU accelerated video card (more on this later)
  • Minimum of 32 GB of ram
  • A primary SSD, and secondary SSD for render scratch something like an M.2 NVMe. I recommend the Samsung 970 EVO. Having an NVMe is especially useful if you’re doing high-resolution texture work and are baking textures in Substance Painter or a similar program.

What Computer Hardware do I need for my VFX Workstation?

Q: When do I need a specialized video card? How do I best render?

The Million Dollar question! Off the shelf video cards will not do the heavy lifting you need them to do. Even a beefed up desktop with lots of CPU still can struggle with rendering. A specialized video card that uses an onboard GPU (graphics processing unit) is required to best take advantage of the ability to render large files quickly.

Answer two key questions:

  • What is your primary artist application and use? Are you creating and manipulating 3D objects In Maya (or other similar program) that will be animated? Are you creating simulations in Houdini? Are you comping in Nuke?
  • What render engine do you want to use with that program? You’ll want to consider what rendering engine (v-ray, redshift, etc.) Each render engine has pros and cons so read-up and find out what makes sense for what you are trying to do.

Q: Great, now I know which programs I’m working in, and I know what render engine I’d like to use. So, which GPU accelerated video card should I get?

After you decide which render engine you are using, now is time to select an appropriate video card.

The first place to start is always the manufacturer website. They almost always have lists of tested and supported video hardware. For example, Maya’s “Certified Graphics Hardware” lists will give a break down for every version of Maya. Remember, if the video card is not listed, then it is not supported.  

An open secret in VFX is that sometimes you can use a powerful consumer video card marketed towards gamers. The Nvidia Geforce RTX 2080 Ti, is billed as a card for 4k gaming, but it’s actually a reasonable choice for GPU acceleration without the premium price tag.

Now that you have a better idea of what you need, go out there and put together something awesome!