There’s No Business Like Show Business

The computer multimedia industry isn't just games and interactive encyclopedias: It's television, it's film--it's Hollywood! Multimedia includes authoring, 3D animation, linear digital video editing, 2D-image manipulation, and more. If you can put it on a television or computer screen, it's multimedia. And now, the multimedia development industry is coming down from Mount Olympus and manifesting itself in common desktop systems. Animators have discovered that a $5000 Pentium box or a $10,000 Alpha workstation can do the same things they used to do with a $200,000 UNIX imaging system.

When I saw all the new multimedia tools available in the Windows NT market at Comdex in November 1995, I decided to take a closer look at them and at the overall direction of the multimedia industry. I investigated some of the pioneers in 3D animation and digital video editing to see why they made the move to NT and how it worked out for them. The results are pretty interesting.

If this report seems Alpha-centric, that's because, according to the folks I interviewed, Digital Equipment's Alpha CPUs--the 21064, in particular--offer the best price/performance numbers of any of the currently available processor chips. Pentiums, PowerPCs, and MIPS processors all have their places in the production process--even Apple Macs do!--but you can't beat the Alpha processor for compute-intensive tasks, such as 3D rendering and animation.

The Questions
I asked the owners and directors of some of the top Hollywood graphics production houses nine sets of questions:

  1. What (if anything) were you using as your multimedia system before, and why did you choose NT now?
  2. What platforms are you running NT on (Alpha, Intel, MIPS, PowerPC)? Why?
  3. Of the systems you have, which is the best overall, which is the fastest, and which is the most reliable?
  4. What products are you using for your 3D editing? How do they work for you, and how do they compare with other solutions?
  5. Do you do all your work on your NT system?
  6. Is your NT system adequate?
  7. How much did you spend on your NT system as compared to the other systems you could have used?
  8. Is your NT system better or worse than what you had before? Is it better or worse than other systems you could be using?
  9. Did this turn out to be the right decision for you? Why?

Joe Conti Design
Joe Conti, whose computer graphics work can be seen on hit television shows such as Hercules, started Joe Conti Design with several rooms full of Commodore Amigas (a total of about 40 machines) running LightWave 3D software from NewTek (see the sidebar "Move over, SGI; NT is here!" on page 56). He also had one of the few NewTek Screamer systems in existence. (A Screamer was a specialized quad-processor MIPS R4400 system running NT that required a graphical front-end, such as the Amiga.) Conti's systems were connected to an Ethernet LAN, and the Screamer was the high-speed rendering engine. Using distributive rendering, all the machines could be running at the same time, grinding at different portions of the same 3D scene.

Then came NT on the Alpha--an unbeatable combination once NewTek ported LightWave 3D to the platform. Conti was able to replace rooms full of Amigas with one 275-MHz computer from Aspen Systems equipped with 64MB of RAM and PCI video. Since then, he has expanded to three Alpha boxes.

Why make the switch, especially after he made such a huge investment in another platform? Conti based his decision on NT's ability to support LightWave and other industry programs on multiple-hardware platforms. This ability makes porting files from one platform to another easy. Besides, now that LightWave is something of a standard in the industry, Conti felt that a $12,000 Alpha-based system was an excellent alternative to a $100,000 Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstation.

Conti uses the Aspen computers for about 90% of his 3D rendering and animation work, but he has regular PCs and Macs on his network, too. "You have to choose the processors that best suit the needs of the applications you are running," he explained. For example, although Adobe AfterEffects is one of the leading 2D desktop compositing tools available, it currently runs only on Macintosh systems. Therefore, Conti has to do his 2D compositing work on a Mac instead of an NT system. Another example is texturing work: Adobe Photoshop is the standard tool, and at the moment it runs only on Macs and Intel PCs (see "Photoshop 3.0.5 for Windows NT" on page 81 for information on the new 32-bit version).

Conti uses NT for more than 3D rendering. He also uses his Windows NT Workstations to compile and preview animation in conjunction with a Perception Video Recorder (PVR) from Digital Processing Systems, or DPS (see "Non-Linear Digital Video Editing on NT" on page 31). Conti dumps the finished animation onto Exabyte tape for shipment to the production studio. For 2D morphing, Conti uses Elastic Reality, which runs on all NT platforms: Intel, Alpha, PowerPC, and MIPS (see "Elastic Reality" on page 72).

Two other reasons that Conti made the jump to NT were reliability and technical support, although these weren't assured until after he took the gamble. So far, Conti's systems have run 24 hours a day, seven days a week for more than a year, and he has experienced only one hard-drive failure. Aspen Systems shipped a replacement less than 12 hours after Conti reported the failure. You can imagine how important this kind of support is when you can lose $10,000 a day if your system goes down.

Conti also discovered that NT on an Alpha system--particularly the Alpha systems he got from Aspen--offered a performance gain over his old systems. Aspen designed its boards and high-speed bus from the ground up rather than from off-the-shelf components. This strategy gives Aspen's Alpha systems top-of-the-line performance. And, because most of Conti's work is 3D rendering, the Alpha/NT combination brought him a huge increase in productivity over his old Amigas.

Foundation Imaging
Paul Bryant's arsenal of graphics workstations at Foundation Imaging includes Dell Dimension Pentium systems (100 MHz and 133 MHz), Macintoshes, and Alpha boxes from both Aspen Systems and Flight Technologies. "We use a wide collection of systems, but the common denominator is NT," Bryant said.

Foundation Imaging provides the startling computer-rendered space scenes in Fox Television's Babylon 5, as well as special-effects sequences for the upcoming ABC show Hypernauts. I was amazed to find out that not a single SGI workstation is involved in producing those images. You know what a testament to NT technology this is if you've ever seen the show.

Like many others in his industry, Bryant used Amigas running LightWave 3D for more than five years. However, he foresaw the demise of Commodore and decided that his company was going to have to shift to a technology with a future. Bryant turned over his Amigas in favor of Windows NT on Alpha workstations and Intel Pentium systems about nine months ago.

Because Foundation Imaging is a beta-test site for NewTek, the company was able to pressure NewTek into porting LightWave 3D to NT and was intimately involved in porting LightWave 3D to the Alpha chip. When Foundation Imaging took the first step and moved to 100-MHz Pentium systems, the company saw an immediate increase in performance. Then, armed with the software it wanted, Foundation Imaging could move wholeheartedly into NT.

In Bryant's opinion, the 275-MHz Alpha 21064 is the best "bang per buck" available today and offers price/performance far beyond the reach of Pentium systems. He notes that although he could get better performance from a 300-MHz 21164, the chip and the systems based on it are too expensive to offer a cost-effective solution. MIPS and PowerPC systems also have no cost benefit over even Intel-based computers for his work.

"Our 3D graphics are done exclusively on LightWave running on Alpha/NT systems, but we also use Photoshop \[on the Pentium systems\] for 2D editing and matte painting," Bryant said. "Compositing and live-action work is done on a Macintosh running Adobe AfterEffects, but it is far from ideal because the machine is too slow. All the machines are on a Novell Ethernet network, which allows seamless transfers of images from system to system." Bryant also uses a Personal Animation Recorder from DPS for animation previews. However, this is not a robust solution because it frequently crashes NT, and Bryant looks forward to the new PVR board on NT.

Bryant calls NT extremely robust and impressive overall because it offers a level of reliability he's never had before. "It's very rare to see NT go down--and when it does, it's usually because of a bad driver," he said. "We can add a workstation and have it working \[on images\] in less than 20 minutes \[providing it already has NT installed\]. Reliability is the number one parameter. Our machines run all the time as animation and rendering engines." NT was the best possible way for Foundation Imaging to go.

There are alternatives to the Alpha/NT combination, but Bryant has found strikes against them. For instance, the Mac is not as stable, robust, or powerful as NT, and it suffers from what he calls the "Macintosh sucker surcharge," which is paying a premium for hardware because it says "Apple" on it. And although an SGI system is powerful, it is nowhere near as cost-effective as an Alpha workstation. A 275-MHz Alpha with an OpenGL graphics card and LightWave 3D is faster than an SGI Indigo Extreme for only a third of the cost.

For the time being, there are still things you can't do on NT. Adobe AfterEffects owns the compositing market and runs only on a Mac. One of the only alternatives to Adobe AfterEffects is Flint, which runs on an Indigo at $120,000 for the hardware and software. (See "Non-Linear Digital Video Editing on NT" on page 31 for information on in:sync's Speed Razor, which offers a new NT alternative to compositing, and "Avid's Real Impact" on page 66 for a first look at Avid Technology's Real Impact video-editing system for NT.)

Free Range DigitalImaging
Brad Carvey, who has designed graphics for such notable shows as Space: Above and Beyond and the Michael Jackson History video, is another refugee from the Amiga world. He was also one of the few people to have a couple of NewTek Screamers (a four-way MIPS R4400 configuration and a two-way MIPS R4600 configuration, both running NT and using networked Amigas as graphical front-ends). Unfortunately, these machines were unreliable, and he has since torn them apart and rebuilt them into several NT Workstations and a file server. He also used a couple of Macs--a PowerPC and a Quadra--for Photoshop and compositing work.

So, other than his bad experience with couple of quirky machines, why did he and Free Range Digital Imaging switch to NT? Just as Bryant did, Carvey anticipated the demise of Commodore, and he had a strong loyalty to his LightWave software. He needed a powerful 32-bit operating system that was capable of dealing with beta software and misbehaving programs. A beta version of LightWave 3D running on an Alpha/NT system gave him everything he needed.

Carvey said that the best 2D and 3D rendering workstations for the money, respectively, are Pentium boxes running NT and Windows 95, and Alpha systems running NT. "With one of each, you can work with Photoshop on the Pentium while something is rendering on the Alpha," he said. "NT reliability is not a problem. Alphas are by far the fastest, and even beta software (such as early releases of LightWave 3D) isn't a big problem."

With the help of a special 3D scene designed for testing hardware performance, Carvey has discovered that a 275-MHz Alpha offers four times the performance of a 100-MHz Pentium. But he warns that graphics applications need at least 64MB of memory. "Alpha is spreading by word of mouth in the small 3D marketplace," he said.

Cost vs. performance is important in a relatively small production house. To get his four-fold speed improvement, Carvey spent about $10,000 each on his Alpha 275s configured with 64MB of RAM. He spent about half that for each Pentium system equally configured. He can dump the final product onto the industry-standard Exabyte 8mm tape with some help from DPS's PVR cards for animation previews and an Amiga with a Video Toaster and Flyer for final editing.

Free Range Digital Imaging primarily uses LightWave 3D for its rendering/animation work and a plug-in for LightWave called Impact that provides realistic physics modeling, such as explosions and bouncing objects. "LightWave is the greatest, easiest-to-use product of the ones I've seen," Carvey explained. "It's the best for doing TV and movie work. A couple of game companies called wanting to know if I used SGI and were happy that I don't. They prefer working with 3D development done on a PC platform \[for file compatibility, among other things\]."

Carvey also offered some advice for would-be 3D artists: "Get yourself LightWave and a Pentium 100 and spend about two months learning your way around. That's enough for you to get into it. Then go show someone what you can do and make a career--and have fun at the same time."

All for One?
These interviews lead to the conclusion that everything has a place in the multimedia industry. Although 3D rendering has been shifting from Amigas and SGI to Alpha/NT, NT solutions have not yet fully penetrated the video-editing market because many animation houses continue to use Macs for their final compositing and post-production work.

Eric Myers of Nu*Topia said NT's reliability made entering the PC world palatable for him, and the Alpha made it even better. But he wishes that Adobe would port AfterEffects and Premier to the Alpha/NT platform so he could have a truly powerful, centralized tool. Until then, though, he said he trusts his Mac.

It's up to companies such as in:sync and Avid to change the minds of Eric Myers, Brad Carvey, Paul Bryant, and other artists and provide them with a video-editing solution for NT as powerful as--or perhaps even better than--what they have on the Mac.

Contact Info
Aspen * 303-431-4606
Dell * 800-289-3355
Digital Equipment * 800-344-4825
Digital Processing Systems * 606-371-5533
Exabyte * 303-442-4333
in:sync * 301-320-0220
NewTek * 913-228-8000

Corrections to this Article:

  • An error occurred in a reference to the producer of "Babylon 5". Warner Brothers produces "Babylon 5" under thePrime Time Entertainment Network.
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