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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!

 

Crate’s Free Text Animator script for After Effects! (Download)

Download the Crate’s Text Animator script for After Effects here

All ProductionCrate members can now download the exciting Text Animation script for free!

This exciting addition to the range of tools gives you the power to create fun animations for your text – with a single click.

With 25 hand-made presets to choose from, you’ll never run out of a fresh way to liven up your videos, commercials or presentations! The presets include glitches, fly-ins, slides, spins and more.

Without the script, to create a text animation graphic in After Effects, you may spend hours manually adjusting countless keyframes and meticulously modifying their speed, opacity, motion blur and many other parameters. This script puts an end to the suffering, doing all of the work for you within seconds!

To give you even more control, our script creates a Null object that contains adjustable parameters, so you can tweak your design to perfection even after generation.

Let’s take a look at the After Effects script:

Free Crate's Text Animator script for After Effects! (Download)

 

 

Choose Animation – This opens up the range of presets that you can choose from.

Eye Icon – Generate a preview that helps you see what the animation looks like.

Text – Enter what you want to be displayed!

Preset Parameters – Once you’ve selected a template, a number of sliders will appear that lets you customize each preset to meet your expectations. These are also accessible through the Null object that is generated with the preset.

Create New Comp – Enabling this creates the new text in a new composition. Disabling will generate the text in your selected composition.

Preview All – A handy tool that creates a grid previewing all the available presets

Create – Once you’re happy with your settings, hit this and let the script make your text come to life!

 

 

The script has been built to balance simplicity with function, so whether you’re a Vlogger wanting to spice up your editing skills, or are building a title card for a blockbuster movie, this script is for you!

Crate's Text Animator script for After Effects! (Download)

To install the script, extract the files from the download, and drop both the “Crate’s Text Animator.jsx” and “images” folder into your After Effects > Scripts folder. You then can run the script by heading through File -> Scripts -> Crate’s Callout Script.jsx.

We’re excited to see what you create with this script! If you’re interested in our other After Effects scripts, extensions and plugins, check out this page here. 

 

Create Callouts for Free in After Effects (Script Download)

Creating callouts for your video can often be a complicated and time-consuming process, though all that is about to change…

We’ve created a free powerful script for Adobe After Effects that can do all the work for you in seconds: Crate’s Callouts!

Download the Free Callout Script here.

 

Callouts are the small infographic labels that overlay a video, highlighting an important feature to inform the viewer of a name, statistic or the anatomy of a seal:

Create Callouts for Free in After Effects (Script Download)

The script is packed with a huge bundle of presets, all fully customizable and ready for you to composite onto your video. This means that if you work for an organization or run a YouTube channel, you will be able to match the branding by adjusting the colours of the templates with one click!

To get started, you’ll need to first use a Null object to mark the position of what you want to be featured by the callout. The best part about this script is that it can be completely animated, so if you need the callout to follow a moving subject then this is the script for you.

Create Callouts for Free in After Effects (Script Download)

For the next step, we’ll need to install our script. Extract the files from the download, and drop both the “Crate’s Callout Script.jsx” and “images” folder into your After Effects > Scripts folder You then can run the script by heading through File -> Scripts -> Crate’s Callout Script.jsx.

Now let’s take a look at what features we have at our disposal:

Create Callouts for Free in After Effects (Script Download)

 

 

 

 

 

Arrows: Navigate through the presets to find the one you want.

 

Track Layer: Select the Null object you want the callout pointer to follow.

Title + Subtitle: Here’s where you input the text you want to be displayed.

Animation direction: Which way would you like the callout to come in from?

Color tools: Adjust the look of the preset to match your brand.

Smart Color Change: This nifty feature will automatically adjust any other colours that can be controlled to match your theme.

In/Out: What period (in seconds) do you want the callout to be on screen?

Base Point/Outline: Control the shape of the feature mark.

 

F: Click this to open up the text composition after creation, so you can adjust the font manually.

 

Once you’re happy with all the settings, hit “Create”, and you’ll save hours of time while the script creates your dream callout card within seconds!

Each preset has been carefully designed animated to give it the most professional appearance possible, helping you increase your production value at no extra cost!

If you want to control and customise the callout card after it has been generated, that is no problem! There will be a control null generated in your main composition window, clicking on this will reveal all of the various colour settings that you can adjust instantly in the effects window.

We’re excited to see how you make use of these free After Effects callout presets. If you’re interested in how else you can boost your workflow, take a look at our Lower Thirds script.

Create Callouts for Free in After Effects (Script Download)

 

 

Mise En Place the most simple, repetitive tasks in television production

Every profession has a special way of preparing for the task at hand, and we’re no different in the world of media and content creation.

Ever see a professional chef organizing ingredients or sharpening knives in the preparation of dinner service? That’s called mise en place, which translates to “everything in its place.” Mis en place is every chef’s guiding principle to order and productivity. In the kitchen, all parts are laid out at the beginning so chefs don’t have to stop what they’re doing to chop garlic for each dish as it’s ordered. Each ingredient is ready for them at the outset making their dinner service swift and hassle-free.

So, what’s the best way to chop our proverbial garlic in media production? Mise en place your production!

Let’s look at two real-world examples of planning that leverage production experience, client requirements, and automation.

1. FILE IT UNDER “SIMPLE”

Department Coordinator Amy has just wrapped field production. DIT (digital imaging technician) calls from the other room, six hard drives in hand, “Hey what folder on the server do you want this on?”

It’s a tense moment, but Amy breathes a sigh of relief, she says, “I’ve got this.” Amy recalls, with a little bit of pre-planning she was able to create and implement a simple folder structure on her storage for this and every project in her studio, no matter the requirement.

Let’s look at the structure Amy made, and talk about why.

  • NAME / CLIENT IDENTIFIER
    This is top-level folder. For every client, you’ll have this folder.

    • SEASON / EPISODE / PROJECT NUMBER
      You may have more than one project for any given client. This is a sub-folder that contains a place for all the working elements of the production for each department.

      • BACKOFFICE  
        A place for admin tasks for the production. Accounting, bids, invoices, vendor and asset tracking, seating charts, call sheets, etc.
      • ASSETS  
        A home for raw assets like branding and logos, likely provided by the client.
      • EDITORIAL
        Editorial handles Video QC, delivering AVID Bins, Premiere files, LUTS. All these tasks have subfolders.
      • ELEMENTS
        In visual effects, stock elements are used for everything from atmosphere, smoke, gunshots to texture, blood splatter and fire, etc. Because of their tie to graphic work, these elements have a separate home than the other assets. (Note: there are a ton of subfolders you can create for VFX specific tasks, renders, sims, outputs and such. For now let’s keep it simple.)
      • FOOTAGE
        Source footage from the client or your production. Could be a RED camera codec, or a series of .EXR files. Subfolders _ORIGINAL and _TRANSCODED are included.
      • REFERENCE
        Reference is all the material and canon of the project that exists before you begin. This could be noted from set, source materials, reference from clients like previous episodes or style guides, show bibles on tone and presentation.

How did Amy know to create all these folders? She queried teams at the studio and came up with a universal basic folder structure. Good Work Amy!

Amy supports 10 shows, she doesn’t want to go through this manual process of creation every time a production comes through the door. With the help of her IT department, she deploys a simple script file that automatically generates the folders!

Not everyone has the infrastructure or support Amy does. But that’s okay you’re more than halfway there by coming up with and creating a folder structure, naming schema, project numbering, and a consistent way to version your work. You have actually created meaningful terms (meta-data) to search against.

Also, you don’t have to be on the IT team to script a folder structure. Anyone can recursively create a nested directory structure to include all the subfolders, with a “make directory” command in terminal. Amy’s studio only uses Apple computers. Here’s a simplified way she created those folders.

mkdir -p /nameclientidentifier/seasonepisodeproject/subfolder/

 

If you want to learn more, read this incredibly helpful and detailed post about using all the commands to create folders.

Merrel Davis Mise En Place the most simple, repetitive tasks in television production

2. LOCK REQUIREMENTS  – WHERE THERE IS A WILL THERE IS A WAY

Ambiguity kills productivity. Live action reality Producer Carlos knows it. He’s having lunch with a potential client when they say “the DP wants to do the whole project natively in 6k.” If Carlos was unprepared, he would worry his studio may not be able to take on this work.

Part of production planning is to know there’s always more than one way to skin a cat. In meetings with uncertainty, it’s best to be open steps outside of your comfort zone, and understand how flexible you can be in helping the vision.

Put yourself in Carlos’ shoes. He could be indecisive and go back to the client and say “we can’t do this!” or “you change this requirement.” Instead, producer Carlos meets with his team to vet the opportunity further. Carlos’ goal is to land the business, ensure profitability without upending the entire operation.

Carlos planned. And so can you. Before every meeting ask yourself the following questions:

How can I best prepare for the requirements of this client?  Tone, style, expectation. Do your homework. Be ready to understand what they are laying down. Be familiar with their work and the way they want it.

What resources can you leverage? This is what you know you have and can use. Locations, assets, equipment, infrastructure, talent, crew, etc.

What don’t you know? All the unknowns should be quantified. Timing, Budget, Codecs, workflow, etc.

Using these questions Carlos and his team put some R&D time into enabling a 6k workflow last year and have a comprehensive plan to offline and online certain elements of the workflow to accommodate the existing resource they have. It was part of a “ready-to-go” plan should a client ask for a bleeding edge approach.

At the follow-up meeting, Producer Carlos, accurately tells the client his studio can take on the work. He doesn’t even raise it as an issue, he knows he is leveraging the skill and infrastructure of his company. The client is onboard! It was only through Carlos’ understanding of requirements, his experience and pre-planning that he was able to use his skills of Mise en place to win the business, without incurring downtime or infrastructure investment.

By exercising basic tenants of Mise en Place, anyone can break down and understand all the repetitive but necessary tasks of a production. And isn’t that a relief?