Fresh from the Render Farm: What It Takes to Move Great Concepts to Hi-Res 3D Animation with Pixel Precision

Saying Gravity presented a render challenge, would be an understatement. Its ridiculously long, geometry-heavy shots were “supermassive.”

Framestore, the visual effects company that worked on the 2013 space drama, puts the process in perspective by explaining just how long the render process would have taken using one computer:

“Had it been done on a single core machine with one processor, rendering would have needed to have started at the dawn of Egyptian civilization.”

For left brainers, that’s about 45-plus million clock-hours of rendering time.

And Framestore is not the only company having to up their render game for today’s demands; Pixar’s “render farm” (a term University of Houston mathematics professor, John H. Lienhard, describes as a room full of specialized computers working to solve the “render equation” — the needed 2D and 3D transformation — through sophisticated algorithms) grows with every project. For Cars 2, the studio tripled the size of its render farm to 12,500 CPU cores. And even with processing strength of a thousand young Schwarzeneggers or, for the younger audience, a hundred Hemsworth Thors, each frame took approximately 11.5 hours to render out. 11.5 hours … for ONE STILL. Now, for the not-so-young audience, that’s one “cel.” That seems excessive. But does it? Think about how many pixels are in a 4K (think IMAX movie). Answer: 3840 x 2160. The sophistication in Pixar animation is such that it goes beyond a simple 2D drawing. They take on 3D perspectives and, on top of that, they’re rendering out light reflections and refractions for each frame, something that affects every pixel.

Keeping all this in mind, it’s no wonder that even with thousands of the most ‘roided out computers on the planet, a Pixar movie can take anywhere from four to seven years (and $50M) to make. Of course, that’s idea conception all the way to release; the majority of the actual production time generally takes “only” two years. So there’s that.

These are the standard timelines — a cost of doing business — for the few big studios backed by billions and focused solely (or something similar if that’s too specific) on film. But what if you’re a large, newly formed Hewlett Packard Enterprise systems company announcing its first major products to your customers? You turn to a midsized, Houston-based marketing and advertising agency with a dozen highly talented animators; and task them with creating a groundbreaking 9K 3D animation to span across 11 different screens for a dramatic new product launch … in less than three months!  Through our highly-involved role in Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s first ever Discover event, we have proven without a doubt that, with the right team, it’s not only possible, but, oftentimes, preferable. Even with the years of investment in building up our own render farm, we needed more cycles to meet deadlines. Cloud technologies allow us to outsource render, and production-wise, we have access to one of the few things in the universe more powerful than the professional render farm: the human spirit. The desire to create. The desire to be the first. For Armstrong it was the first to walk on the moon. For us it was developing a cinematic stage experience for the first ever Hewlett Packard Enterprise Discover event. And yes, there may have been a supernova or two involved.

Click here to see how we helped Hewlett Packard Enterprise show off their big ideas on London’s big screens.

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Adcetera is a Houston-based strategic, creative company founded and powered by thinkers, innovators and overachievers. We are integrated designers, writers, programmers, animators, strategists and account experts sharing a passion for solving the impossible for our clients.

We work with some of the biggest brands on some of their biggest projects (AIG, DOW, HP, HPE, and Sysco) as well as some of the best brands headquartered in our own backyard (Texas Children’s Hospital, High Fashion Home, and Memorial Hermann). Many of our relationships — with our employees and our clients — span decades. We are blessed and we are proud — proud of the work we do and the brands for whom we speak. If what is important to us is important to you, let’s start a conversation. Call or drop in. Our doors are open and our phones are on.