Render Farms: The Ultimate Time-Saver

By Danny Rollings

Introduction

In this series we will be diving deeper into some of the individual benefits of render farms, as previously showcased within our post on The Benefits of Using a Render Farm. As we know, the true ultimate time-saver would be hopping in a time-travelling DeLorean armed with an external hard drive, ready to nab the finished renders off your new improved Goople-brand holo-computer. Since we can’t do that (yet!), render farms are the way to go if you’re tight on time. Either way, you can bet that futuristic holo-computer isn’t going to have a USB port.

A phrase that has been hashed and rehashed many, many times (over 181 million, according to a quick Google search) since it was first coined near 270 years ago by Benjamin Franklin, is “time is money”, and this could not be more true when it comes to rendering. For this reason, we will also be covering how paying to use a render farm is actually a cost-effective solution, since in business time and money is often so closely intertwined.

Beautiful imagery = extended render times

As creators, we naturally want to make our work look as good as it can be within the time that we have, and as with anything in life, you need light to see a darn thing. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having Interstellar flashbacks while you stare into the blackhole of an unlit scene. The problem with light is those photons & digi-photons –one and the same if the Matrix-inspired belief that we’re all living inside an elaborate simulation is your jam– is that they sure love to bounce around in all directions, so thereby require a whole lot of behind the scenes calculations to figure out where each individual ray of light is coming from and where it is going. A common method of calculating these light bounces is known as ray tracing.

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Lighting quality & surface attributes

Hyundai by Solid VFX Lab

Light bounces are one thing but when you consider what exactly the light is bouncing off, it becomes frustratingly clear your computer’s not only having to deal with the object’s surface texture but also its reflectivity, translucency, and transparency, among various other attributes.

By the time you’ve put in those strategically placed lights, cranked up their settings to get rid of those nasty bright splotches that would make Mr. Blobby proud, smoothened those harshly aliased shadow edges reminiscent of a 90’s 3D videogame, and incorporated a carefully set-up ambient occlusion to brighten those darn horror movie-esque deep dark shadows, before you know it your render time has risen from what was perhaps just a few seconds per frame, to several minutes or worse, hours.

Render Wars: Episode I – The Polygon Menace

Polygonal earth (image source)

We’ve yet to touch upon the other unavoidable kicker that whacks up the render time, high polycounts. These are especially unavoidable when you’re trying to create photorealistic imagery, which is exactly why game developers fake highly detailed geometry using specially created transfer maps pulled from high-poly versions of the significantly lower poly geometry you see in-game. Thankfully as technology advances, this necessary gap in complexity between high poly geometry and its simpler counterpart is shrinking fast.

Human Head Geometry
Source: Quora Image Only: head.png

An individual computer’s hardware means it only has a limited amount of resources to dedicate to rendering, so if you want that render to complete as quickly as possible, it’s best to avoid using the computer during the rendering process. Long-winded render times are a problem for all 3D designers, whether it be hobbyists and students or multi-billion dollar companies such as Lucasfilm, Disney and Pixar, which have their own render farms.

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Without all these render farms under their ownership Disney wouldn’t be able to pump out the same number of visually high quality movies on a yearly basis. In 2017 alone there’s at least 5 Disney-owned movies coming out, and you can bet each of their lengths will hover around the 2 hour mark.

Disney-Pixar Coco 2017 (image source)

The sheer amount of rendering that must be required for these films is quite breathtaking, especially in the case of live-action CGI where photorealism is key. Although according to Forbes, Disney is worth a whopping $169.3 billion —or £137.3 billion, but expect this conversion to fluctuate a whole bunch! ‘Yay’ thanks Brexit, first you take our Toblerones, and now you take my pointless Disney calculations— so it’s no wonder they can afford it! That’s enough to buy nearly 324,500 12.5kg gold bars at around £419K ($516K) each. Here’s a QI-worthy fact for you, a stack of these would be over 38 times heavier than a blue whale; now there’s a worthless (geddit?—I’ll grab my coat…) bit of knowledge I bet you didn’t expect to learn from a post about rendering.

Cost-effective rendering

Other than simply saving time, using a high quality render farm such as GarageFarm.NET saves you a whole lot of bother when it comes to paying out for expensive hardware, before having to look after that very same hardware for years to come, like a robot child you just know is going to break eventually.

This is all well and good if you’re a company with money to spare, but with render farms appealing to creatives of all income levels, paying out for better hardware isn’t always feasible. Moore’s Law isn’t on your side either; with the rate of technological development, your newfangled hardware will be pretty much out of date within 2 years, which is going to sting more than a little if you’ve just paid out for the best graphics card on the market.

The current front runner in this continuous High-End level battle for graphics card prowess is NVIDIA’s $666 (£545) GeForce GTX 1080, released 27th May 2016; already soon to be outmatched by its younger sister, the $699 (£572) GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, released in early March 2017. That’s a gap of only a few days over 9 months! Blooming heck, NVIDIA are clearly some very eager tech parents.

GeForce GTX 1080 Ti (image source)

A freelancer’s perspective: The problem of self-rendering

When you consider using a render farm, the first thing you naturally may think is “How much is it going to cost?”, and may be hesitant to part ways with your hard-earned money, however, what could be easily missed is the less immediately clear costs associated with rendering yourself, and not all of them are monetary.

An electricity bill large enough to send the DeLorean back to 1985

Okay maybe 1.21 gigawatts of electricity is a bit of an exaggeration, although if you did somehow consume 1.3 million horses worth of power in a single hour and you’re a UK citizen, it would cost you over £147K, or over £3.5M per day. Joking aside however, overwhelming energy consumption is a real problem, especially in the case of gaming PCs. The more powerful your computer, the more power it’s going to devour when you render. With any level of energy consumption inevitably comes an increase in heat, so your computer’s fan is going to have to work even harder to keep the system from overheating, leading to that loud whirring sound that’s bound to drive you slowly insane.

Sorry I can’t come out tonight, I’ve just got to check my render again

There can even be a social cost to dedicating your own computer’s power to the production of long-winded renders, since you have to keep checking in to make sure everything’s running smoothly, just in case there’s a rendering error that isn’t immediately visible; a possibility that grows exponentially the more complex your scene(s). Having to constantly check on your render means time lost that you could have spent with family or friends, working on other projects, or simply chilling out watching whatever else takes your fancy.

I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t render that.

Reaching the render stage should feel like a massive weight off your shoulders after spending months or even years designing, modelling, texturing and lighting your project, only to spend days or weeks rushing to your computer to make sure the render’s running smoothly. This completely defeats that temporary pre-post-production feeling of freedom and exhausts that elation of accomplishment until the darn thing actually finishes rendering. As if to hammer that final nail into the exhaustion coffin, if you don’t check up on your render(s) at regular intervals, there’s always that niggling possibility you may end up having to re-render large chunks all over again if even a small thing goes wrong, devouring even more of you and your computer’s time and energy.

The cause of the issue could be something as simple as a broken link between texture data and the original files as a result of file transfer or a change of computer, such as in the case of working both from home and college/university. The more complex your scene, the more chance something might go wrong with the render, leaving you scratching your head, or worse missing vital deadlines; especially when you’re working alone, without anyone to advise you. When rendering with GarageFarm.NET they’ll keep an eye on your renders for you, and if you need help, their 24/7 live chat and tech support is just a click away. The company goes to great lengths to have experienced sysadmin experts, software developers, wranglers, and TD’s available 24 hours, 7 days a week, even during the biggest public holidays.

How using GarageFarm.NET saved my University FMP

I rendered my entire 3rd year major project with GarageFarm.NET, so in order to provide precise data on how much time using the render farm will save you, I’ve gone fishing through my emails for render receipts and done a bunch of calculations to give you a real life example of how time-saving using GarageFarm.NET will be, in comparison to how long it would have taken me to render alone. Below I’ll be using an example from 10 months ago, so keep in mind the software and hardware at your disposal has definitely grown even better since then, thereby saving you even more time.

Back in May 2016, I rendered a short scene featuring only my Iron character and a single tablet computer; this took place entirely within the void, while the background was rendered separately, and the floor wasn’t within frame at any point during this sequence. This was the only part of the primarily 3D rendered Elements Academy animation that took place outside of the story’s science classroom, so was by far the least hardware intensive scene in the animation, excluding a 20-second 2D infographic.

Rendering on my home computer

When rendered with the usual 1920 x 1080 aspect ratio on my home computer, a late-2013 iMac, the per-frame render time of this small scene averages out at 1 minute; a pretty good render time. This small portion of the footage is 9 seconds long, running at 25fps. On my home computer all 225 frames would’ve taken 3h 45 mins to render, so again pretty good. Well, on paper that is.

Turns out the 1 min, 18 secs of classroom footage takes around 4 mins 40 secs per frame to render at 25 fps, add the Iron tablet scene render time and that’s over 155 hours of non-stop rendering, barely under a week of rendering for just 78 seconds of animation, on my only computer. As a freelancer that is a heart-wrenching amount of render time for something so short and visually pretty simple, with the most complex aspect probably being that each character was textured like a merchandisable vinyl toy.

A number of things that could be done on that computer in 6 ½ days are ridiculous, especially with something as time-consuming and mentally intensive as working alone to create a 3D animated short from scratch. It’s no wonder that since graduating I much prefer sticking to doing 3D modelling and graphic design; although I would love to get back into creating infographics at some point.

Rendering with GarageFarm.NET

I rendered Iron’s tablet scene with GarageFarm.NET at High Priority on the 9th May 2016, gone midnight, and a day before my last ever University deadline. It took just 29 minutes and cost less than $6. As of March 2017, according to the Cost Calculator, in just 10 months this time has been reduced to an estimated maximum of 5 ½ minutes, costing just $2 at High Priority. Even for a short render like this, that’s already at least 41x faster than it would be to render the scene myself.

As to the total GarageFarm.NET render time for all 1950 frames of Elements Academy’s classroom scenes, we’ve got ourselves a minimum of 55 minutes (80 nodes), and a maximum of 3h 39mins (20 nodes). If I re-rendered all of this at High Priority right now it’d cost $113 (£90), however if I’m in no rush I could have it all rendered for only $28 (£22.27). For more specific details on the cost of rendering with GarageFarm.NET, check out the Pricing page here.

Considering it cost a discounted price of nearly £200 just to get a minute or so’s worth of voice acting for my characters, $113 is a blooming brilliant price. Even better, there is also the fact I would have the renders between 42–165x faster than if I’d rendered them myself, depending on my Priority level. Six days saved, just like that. It’s easy to see why GarageFarm.NET proudly displays cloud rendering has never been easier and cheaper on their snazzy new homepage!

 
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Danny Rollings
@drollingscaa

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