Macs in 3D – the myths debunked
3D World talks to a range of studios that have made the leap from Windows about the benefits and practicalities of building and running a Mac-based production pipeline
by Mark Ramshaw
Apple has rarely, if ever, had it so good. Since co-founder Steve Jobs returned in 1997, the company has made waves in the music and mobile phone markets, while releasing a series of elegant workstations and laptops that many believe are the best available blend of style, user-friendliness and power.
But it’s been a different story in the 3D industry, where Apple has traditionally been given short thrift by artists who deem its hardware too pricey, too slow and too rigidly specced.
That perception has been slowly changing, however, not least since the launch in 2006 of a range of Intel-based Macs and Boot Camp, the system that enables the Windows operating system to be installed alongside the native Mac OS X.
One of the biggest factors governing the Mac’s acceptance in the 3D industry is inertia.
With the strong historical ties to Windows in some areas of the industry, it takes compelling arguments to trigger a sea change. Nowhere is this more applicable than in the architectural and visualisation sectors, where Windows-only programs like 3ds Max and AutoCAD have been the tools of choice.
Now, though, some are starting to take advantage of the ability to run Windows software on Mac hardware, while others are embracing dual-platform software such as form.Z and Cinema 4D. “We chose Cinema 4D rather than 3ds Max because we came from the point of view of architects bolting our 3D output to an existing service, rather than from a visualisation standpoint,” says Pete Coombes, director at Polished Designs, part of Assael Architecture.
“I think there’s a lot of inertia and ignorance, with people believing that they need a PC and 3ds Max to do good 3D work.”
Darling of the print design industry
Less surprising than the strides being made in visualisation is the support for the Mac by graphics and branding companies: the Mac has been the darling of the print design industry since its launch in 1984. “Desktop publishing essentially came about with the invention of the Mac and PostScript,” says Chris Morris, CGI director at Giannini Creative Imaging.
“It wasn’t until later that Windows introduced a graphical user interface. By that time, the Mac was well established.”
With infrastructure and knowledge based around the Mac, design houses have understandably proven far more likely to stick with the platform as the work has evolved to embrace 3D rendering for print, motion graphics and the web.
Now early adopters of Mac-based 3D solutions, such as Giannini Creative, are reaping the benefits. “We did take a performance hit by staying with the Mac when we first started doing 3D,” says Morris. “But since Apple switched over to Intel, everything has worked like a dream.”
“We were already using the Mac for 2D, and then the Intel Mac made any regrets about using it for 3D disappear,” agrees Jeffrey Kovel, founder of Skylab Design Group, another studio that has embraced the dual-OS opportunities afforded by Boot Camp.
“We now run form.Z, Rhino and SketchUp on the Mac OS, and run 3ds Max and V-Ray on Windows.”
The situation is more complex in the animation and visual effects fields, where studios tend to rely on 3D apps and plugins that aren’t available for Mac OS X (such as Houdini and 3ds Max). Yet even here, the Mac is finding customers.
Taking the plunge
Pixar famously began changing over to Mac workstations in 2003, launching its lauded RenderMan for the Mac shortly after.
Tippett Studio also took the plunge, primarily for performance and reliability. “Though we still use custom Linux-based hardware for the majority of our render farm needs.” says Brennan Doyle, Tippett’s head of creative operations.
There are now 175 Mac Pros on the floor at Tippett, with most running Maya and RenderMan through Linux.
“We have proprietary plugins and tools that keep us tied to a Linux platform, but given time, it’s quite feasible we will have artists using primarily Mac OS X,” says Doyle.
“Many of us have been die-hard Mac evangelists for years, so it’s exciting to see Apple come full circle. The tool that used to be the best available for individual artists to get their work done is now also the tool that large groups of people can look to as a scalable solution.”
It’s easier, of course, for small studios to change midstream. That was certainly the case for Luma Pictures, which has since grown to become one of the VFX industry’s most vocal supporters of the Mac. “Luma made the switch from a primarily Windows-based facility to a Mac OS X facility just after the first Underworld in 2003,” says Chris Sage, vice president of operations at the studio.
“We were still a young company, with a minimal pipeline and a relatively small render farm.”
Sage says the switch was actually partly driven by the decision to adopt Shake as Luma’s primary compositing tool. “PC and Linux nodes were quite pricey; and since Maya, our primary choice for 3D, was already available on the Mac, it seemed like the most practical choice.”
The changeover had a huge impact on the studio, says Sage, proving crucial to developing the pipeline for much larger-scale productions. “To build Luma into a top-notch company, we needed to focus on developing tools and methods that would allow the artist to focus on their creative responsibilities.
“We quickly discovered that the Unix-based Mac OS X was perfect for this. We had all of the ability to script and write tools at the OS level, as was available in the more difficult flavours of Linux, along with easy-to-use tools such as AppleScript.”
For studios weighing up the relative merits of Windows and Mac-based solutions, the two key considerations are inevitably performance and cost.
One person who believes the Mac wins hands-down is Andrew Bishop, director of London studio Darkside Animation. “We’d been PC-based for almost 15 years before changing over to Intel Macs,” he says.
“It felt like a huge gamble, but we’ve never looked back. They’re the best computers we’ve ever bought. Thanks to Boot Camp, you’re effectively getting two machines for the price of one.”
While the Mac Pro clearly represents great value, Apple’s Xserve rackmount systems have at times been deemed less than cost-effective. The solution for many smaller studios has been to use workstations instead. “We did a lot of price shopping, and found that the best bang for buck when it came to rendering was simply to use stripped-down eight-core Mac Pros,” says Chris Morris.
“The Intel Mac Pro is first and foremost a workstation, but if these computers double-duty as render nodes, it becomes cost-effective,” says Tolga Yildiz, senior designer at New York design studio Trollbäck + Company.
“If you use a render farm solution that charges licences per computer instead of per CPU, you can even call the eight-core Mac cheap.”
Beyond initial hardware investment, maintenance costs and stability issues must also be factored in.
The fact that Apple controls every aspect of hardware production clearly contrasts with the multi-manufacturer, multi-configuration world of the PC. “The most expensive thing in this business is time, so for us the most important thing is stability,” says Rene Mastrup, founder of Denmark’s Sunday Animation Studio.
“Wasting hours dealing with hardware and software problems is what costs money, but we’ve had no problems at all with these machines.”
“The problem child in terms of stability used to be Maya,” adds Yildiz. “But since the switch to Intel processors, our 3D artists cannot cite a difference in Maya’s performance and stability between the two platforms.”
“Macs can be set up and in use in less than 15 minutes, and then require little maintenance throughout their service,” adds Sage.
“There are support issues that arise from time to time, but notably less so than their Windows/Linux counterparts, which allows us to spend more of our resources on the work.”
A hardware and potential OS changeover might be expected to incur training costs or cause problems when recruiting, but none of the studios interviewed for this article believed it to be an issue.
“There was a good deal of initial resistance to the choice by some of the artists, due largely to their comfort with the Windows environment, but once people realised that the applications they were using were using were pretty much the same, they acclimatised quickly,” says Sage.
The Mac OS shouldn’t even be a stumbling block for technical directors and other coders, he explains. “The perception that the Mac is a strange OS that nobody understands is a bit of a mystery: at its core, Mac OS X is Unix-based. And almost every 3D/2D program has its own internal scripting language, such as Maya’s MEL.”
Room for improvement
Apple’s complete control over its hardware does pose some problems, not least due to its stance on graphics cards. Because Apple has always enjoyed greatest success with 2D design and compositing professionals, there’s been a tendency for Macs to lag behind when it comes to 3D work.
“The one Achilles heel with the Mac lies with the graphics cards,” says Bishop.
“The 3D drivers simply aren’t as good as for Windows, and then there’s the fact that Mac Pro users have had to choose from just three cards.”
The newly launched Mac Pros do at least provide support for more up-to-date technology from ATI and Nvidia, although there are still limited configurations to choose from. Frustratingly, there’s no backwards compatibility, so owners of the first generation of Mac Pros need to buy new workstations to gain access to the newer cards.
While PC owners are able to continually upgrade their machines as more powerful graphics technology become available, Apple users will doubtless find their GPU choices locked down with these new machines, too.
There’s also a price to be paid for the fact Mac OS X still has less than 10 per cent market share. Alongside the absence of 3ds Max, Houdini and several specialist tools, plug-in developers also tend to initially focus on the larger user base. “In terms of plug-ins and applications, Windows does get the new ones first,” says Yildiz.
“But if there’s a plug-in that we cannot live without, there’s always the option to have Mac OS X and Windows on the same machine.”
Not everybody agrees that the Boot Camp option is the most efficient solution for accessing Windows-only applications and plug-ins, but it does at least offer a safety net for future-proofing. And as the Mac continues to make inroads, so developer support is improving. “The initial stages of our switch were somewhat hindered by lack of plug-ins, but as our range of needs expanded, so has the availability of the tools for the Mac platform,” says Sage.
“Developers such as Autodesk, Pixologic, The Pixel Farm, Next Limit, mental images and The Foundry increasingly seem to be releasing Mac software alongside or close to other OS versions.”
For 3D companies at the larger end of the scale, the time and money required to switch over the Mac is likely to be prohibitive, although again the Boot Camp option can ease the passage by removing the need for an immediate OS change.
“Most of the larger studios have a great deal of time and effort invested in proprietary tools that are sometimes intimately tied to operating systems. Switching hardware is therefore frequently an easier thing to do than switching operating systems,” says Brennan Doyle.
“When more of the primary off-the-shelf tools switch from Linux or Windows over to Mac OS X, you’ll find more studios switching over too.”
Things could change more rapidly at smaller companies, though, where hardware and pipeline configurations tend to be more fluid, and changes are more cost-effective. “For a company of up to 20 people, I’d say switching would give a huge advantage,” says Mastrup.
And for those starting from scratch, the reasons for opting to build a studio around Mac rather than PC hardware are clearly more compelling than ever. “For studios making an initial investment, I’d recommend a Mac and Boot Camp setup every time,” says Bishop.
“It would be a huge mistake if people didn’t start taking the Mac very seriously. What I think people don’t realise is that they’re now the best-value PCs you can buy, too.”
on Monday, June 29th, 2009 at 3:00 pm under Analysis, Features.
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Tags: Apple, boot camp, Hardware, mac 3d, OS X, workstation