Render Rocket 07/01/12
This week’s Tools Spotlight interview is with Render Rocket owner Ruben Perez and VP of Business Development Tracey Farrar. Render Rocket delivers professional level rendering power on-demand to any 3D production team, regardless of its size or location on the planet. I wrote a brief post about them a couple of weeks ago but was glad to be able to talk to them in more depth about the nature of what they do.
And be sure to enter our giveaway at the bottom of the page for your chance to win months of rendering, merchandise and a chance to have your work showcased on Render Rocket Social Media sites along with your company/artist Bio!
I remember a while back, one of my animator friends explained to me how render intensive 3D work is. Before then I only thought of NLEs and compositing apps as being render hogs. Talk about how the render process is different from say NLEs like FCP and Media Composer to compositing programs like AE and Nuke, and 3D programs like Cinema4D, 3ds Max and Maya.
RUBEN: Essentially the general concept is the same. An artist uses a computer to create the barebones or framework of something whether it’s using a 2D or 3D tool.
In the 3D world, you’re creating this “scene” environment in a more or less wireframe or quick shaded mode, and then you’re using the power of the processors and the computers to render or to finalize.
The process is the same – you create it and then you have to wait for the computer to finish it for you. 3D adds another dimension and some specific types of processing that are required to create that illusion.
It involves additional types of calculations, which can sometimes be more intensive, but not necessarily more intensive that some of the the two dimensional compositing effects. It’s just a different or extended version of the same thing.
Many editors in networked environments get the concept of distributed computing. You know, so that multiple computers can work together toward a common goal. For years, we’ve been able use Qmaster to speed up compression jobs and use the After Effects Render Engine to do network renders for After Effects. But using the Web to help with the render process is a different thing altogether. How does Software as a Service or, in this case, Rendering as a Service work?
RUBEN: It takes the heavy-lifting part of it out of the artist’s immediate location. Most artists who use computers have to go through the rendering process.
So you can either build it yourself or try to do it on your own workstation. Or if you’re working with a couple of people you can share your desktops and create a quick rendering network.
But if you’re going to go anything above that, you have to set up a fairly complex environment to be able to get this stuff to process. The first thing that does is it immediately takes the creative person away from their primary goal – which is to make this really great, awesome piece of work – and into more of an IT type of mode.
So what we’ve been able to do is take this complex process of rendering and removed that all from the realm of the artist. We’ve put it on-site, on our location.
All you have to do is log into our Mission Control tools, set up your scenes, and you can launch your jobs and monitor them. Within an hour you can be up and rendering – often times a lot sooner.
And you didn’t need to install a bunch of software or configure your processors or operating systems or worry about anything like that.
Some adventurous animators use Amazon EC2 to create their own personal render farm. What are the pros and cons of this DIY approach?
RUBEN: The pros of doing it on your own are that you have complete control of the environment that you want to create. You can build anything you want. If you wanted to operate a very specific way and it doesn’t exist anywhere else you have the total freedom to do it.
The cons are that you have to really put in some time to make this work. Amazon makes a lot of things simple in provisioning raw computing power, but to be able to get it to produce rendering is akin to setting it up on your local environment.
It’s just that you don’t have to wheel the machines anywhere. What we do is take that one step further and put a layer of usability on it. There are a lot of providers you can get computing power from, but you can get rendering out of us immediately.
We’ve provided the network and cue managing, with an interface that lets you upload and download files, and monitor it on your iPhone, iPad, etc. Our goal is to make our feature set as complete as possible, so that artists or studios can really focus on the creative challenges while we solve all the technical challenges ourselves.
So, while you are able build your own solution, we have one that’s as cost effective as Amazon – in many cases, cheaper – and you don’t have to do any of the setup for it.
We can also utilize Amazon resources through our tools. So, for example, we have studios that, instead of setting up their Amazon, they just interface with our API and our tools – and then they can render on Amazon.
They just use our toolset so that they don’t need to build anything up from scratch. One of the cons, and one of the things I deal with exclusively, is the actual cost factor of maintaining a farm.
Not only to maintain the machines and get the cost of buying the machines, and the software, and updates, power, cooling, and the space and the staff – that is something that doesn’t go away if you don’t have a job on the farm – it’s still there.
With Render Rocket, the cost is very flexible; you can pay for it as you need it. It really is easy for budgeting for productions and you can work with a much leaner staff. A lot of the studios I’ve worked with in the past are now scaling down and running more lean.
They have smaller budgets to deal with. TRACEY: I also wanted to jump in on what Ruben said; we make this complex process as user-friendly as possible through our interface.
Our customer base does include people who are very unsophisticated or new to distributed rendering – like students, who are now able to self-service their whole process and manage it from their desktops and who are coming out with really great renders without requiring a lot of training or know-how in handling distributed rendering. We make it very user-friendly for a broader base of potential users.
Ruben, talk more about Mission Control. I saw the 10 min walkthrough. How long did it take you to come up with that and what version is it? It seems like it’s very robust and intuitive.
RUBEN: Yes, this is the third major release of it. It was designed in conjunction with an artist who does this work for a living – rendering, broadcasting, animation.
It was designed to be his ultimate rendering solution online. That helped us initially to create a really good interface that artists wanted to use. Over the years we’ve received a lot of feedback and refined it and modified it and I think it’s something pretty useful as far as web-based systems go.
What programs do you support and which versions?
RUBEN: Any versions that are in use today of Maya, 3ds Max, Cinema 4D, Maxwell Render… this includes V-Ray for all of those. We also have some versions of applications in beta-testing like LightWave and Blender.
TRACEY: Pretty much the major applications used in production, and many backward-compatible versions, about three from the current version back, and then most of the major renderers like V-Ray and Mental Ray.
Also a multitude of plugins, so many that we can’t name them all. There are free drag and drop install plugins that are super simple, ranging all the way into the very complex.
On a case-by-case basis, if there’s something very unique that we need to support and the customer wants to work together, we can accommodate them. As Ruben said, LightWave is not quite in beta yet but is in development.
Some of your competitors support After Effects rendering. Do you? And if you don’t, why not?
RUBEN: Well After Effects is obviously a very popular app. We have supported After Effects probable twice in our history, we have it configured as far as the software in our farm.
We don’t officially sell it because our target market – the time it take to get your source data over to us, and the time it takes for us to set up in the custom environment, is often longer than it would take for you to just render it, even if you only have a couple machines.
There are some cases where it make sense… So, this is in the past, you know – by the time you’d ship us a drive, or drive it over to our facilities, load the data, get it set up – and After Effects users tend to have a lot of plugins – so really the setup took a long longer than made sense for customers to use it in the past.
As bandwidth gets bigger in people’s homes and offices, it’s much more practical now. It’s at the point now where we could probably have a version of it that would make sense.
How do you deal with any specific 3rd-party plugins used in their projects? For example, Sapphire plugins.
RUBEN: If it’s something that can be drag and drop like Tracey said, we have a custom plugin environment for your account. So for Maya, for example, we have a plugins directory in your Render Rocket account.
You drop your plugins in there, it’s automatically referenced in your environment and it just works. If it’s something more involved, like we support RealFlow as a plugin to render fluid simulations.
That’s a licensed plugin, and in those cases it’s based on demand, sometimes we have to make deals with the plugin vendors to be able to support it, and we go through a business process around that.
One of the biggest challenges for animators is the time it takes getting their files to and from Render Rocket – particularly if they are working from home. Do you have any recommendations to clients for internet services or providers to get the most efficient and speediest transfers of their uploaded projects and final renders?
RUBEN: Well there are a lot of standard cable providers and FiOS has been really successful for the people that are in the area of a FiOS provider – they’re able to get a lot of bandwidth.
Beyond that, just try to get as fast as possible, the highest upload speeds as possible on your connection. We have some tools coming out that will allow customers to pre-synchronize their files while they’re still working on them.
So let’s say you’ve got an animation you’re working on, you Render Rocket-enable that scene and then while you’re working on it, it’s sending us the data, so that by the time you go to lunch, you click a button and you’re launch-ready.
On the download side, we package everything up at the end of the render so you can download your animation. So some of these upcoming tools will stream that data back to you too, so while it’s rendering there’s a lot of time in between the time you launched it and the time it completes, and during that process we’re downloading the completed frames.
In terms of motion entertainment (film, TV, games, etc.), how many minutes/hours are these customers typically spending on rendering? I know this totally depends on length of the title, budget, etc., but what kinds of packages and use cases are common? This also may also be a good place for you to talk about your pricing since there are so many flexible ways for people to pay.
TRACEY: So the types of productions that have been done with Render Rocket are everything from a small little shot that might be 300 frames, all the way up to running services on our farm from two to three months to do full feature length productions.
So we have people that utilize Render Rocket as their farm, or to augment their existing farm for overflow production, or they’ve got a short deadline and they just don’t have enough resources, down to the student of freelancer who are just working off a laptop.
The average short end of that is someone who’s going to render a few 100 frames on up to someone who’s rendering several tens of 1,000s of frames. Now, the size and complexity of those could vary.
So as that relates to pricing, there are a couple of different ways to buy time on the farm and it really comes down to: How big is your project? How soon do you need it done?
For people in immediate crisis (and we kind of do a triage here because everybody’s in a crisis) we have our on-demand system, where you can put in your credit card and just start rendering, or you can pre-purchase and amount of time, which we call Render Credits, aligned with what you think your project’s going to need.
By pre-purchasing, you get a discount per core hour that you’re going to be using. So our pricing on the on-demand is one credit equals one core hour of render processing.
So if you had one frame that took an hour on an 8-core machine, that would be 8 core hours, or 8 credits. The other way that people can buy time is, for those that have a little bit more time in their workflow before they have to deliver can utilize our server rentals.
So instead of, like some studios in LA will use gear that they rent and bring into their studio and often have to drop in temporary power and cooling and find space for it and get licenses on it – they can actually rent those same machines from Render Rocket and have them dedicated as if they were in the back room where they’d have their gear.
They can rent these machines for a period of 7 days on up to months at a time. We have a couple levels of dedicated servers – I guess you’d call them a floating and a fixed server – based on what their needs are and how much they need to render.
Fixed server rentals, these rental programs called “Space Station” and “Lunar Based,” are about 60% off on on-demand pricing – so if you have a little time in your workflow, for those who can plan for it, they can effectively get some very cheap render time and they don’t have to go through the rigmarole of bringing additional gear into their own facility.
We do have educational pricing, which is discounted pricing for students and schools. We also have some new creative pricing models coming out that will offer some effective ways to buy time on the farm that are very budget friendly.
I see that you have a video tutorial library that talks about how this whole process works. But it also sounds like you do a lot of custom integration with existing render farms and render setups that the client has. Have you gotten that process down as far as usual scenarios or…?
TRACEY: Well most of the customers who come to us need to render something quickly, and the system is very intuitive, and we do provide support 7 days a week, and an account management team – folks like myself – to really get in and work with the customer.
But because the system is so intuitive and there are resources there, it’s a pretty quick onloading process for a new customer. To make sure that Render Rocket is a good fit, we offer free unlimited testing so they can test out their project first and then when they’re ready to go live, they are in the driver’s seat and can control the whole process.
It’s not going to be a one size fits all, so we do offer an API, and we do have a number of other studios that have more complex workflows that want to tie Render Rocket more deeply into their current existing pipeline so they can have a little more seamless integration.
There are a lot of things that people want to encompass in their workflow and we’ve provided an API – and if they have the resources on their end to write coding and scripting to do things, we support that with them.
Ruben is there anything you wanted to add to that?
RUBEN: Sure. Most customers who need rendering immediately just log on to the website, create an account, and render. And for customers who want to have an experience like their render farm is an extension of ours, or vice versa, we can do that.
We’ve done those deep kinds of integrations where you can, from your Maya desktop, launch to your local render farms, and overflow onto Render Rocket, and then you can say, ‘Just give me another 50 servers for a week,’ or 50 servers for a month, or just a couple 100 servers for just a couple days – we do those kinds of scalabilities.
Again you could go out and build your own infrastructure to be able to do that, but when you look at our pricing, it’s comparable.
TRACEY: We had an actual customer who was looking at Render Rocket and looking at adding to their existing farm. They had, I think is it was 7 weeks of animation…yes, a 57 minute animation at 25 frames per second, with a deadline of 7 weeks, and they were estimating 40 servers to go out and get and add to an existing farm.
When it was all said and done, including labor and licensing and everything, it was going to cost them about $170,000 just to do this 7 weeks of animation. On the worst-case scenario on Render Rocket, it was $24,000. So they saved $146,000.
Wow. That is a big savings. And I don’t even have a question about security because I’m assuming that you guys have the highest level encryption and you’re doing all of the industry standard best practices. But is there anything that you want to add to that?
RUBEN: We do use the best level encryption and standard industry practices for securing internet-based traffic. There is a level of security certification called MPAA certification that’s required for a lot of higher end projects.
We have custom solutions to be able to support that kind of security for customers if needed. We do get that question a lot when we deal with larger studios.
What are the challenges moving forward for remote clustered-computing and what innovations are around the corner that you think will have the biggest impact on Render Rocket?
RUBEN: People are starting to embrace the whole Cloud concept very openly. I think you’ll see a lot more studios going this direction just because it works.
There are some really cool features that we’re going to be releasing that, well, I think they’re phenomenal. There are a lot of innovations around getting your jobs out to the Cloud and back, and ways to monitor it, and really give the artists and producers the ability to do their jobs really effectively.
There are some breakthroughs in other things – like GPUs – that are in the works. In the short term, I think you’ll see a lot more sophisticated platforms from us and from other providers to manage and get results from Cloud computing.
You’ll probably also see some bigger players getting into the space and really extending their existing non-Cloud products into more Cloud-related solutions, and that’s a lot of the word Cloud in one sentence [laughs].
Yeah, I believe Autodesk has a Cloud-based rendering service. But they may be specific to their products so…
TRACEY: You know, I’d kind of like to leave you with this one little thing. I’ve known Ruben for a long time before I came to work for him. You know, when you talked about distributed computing and remote rendering, people didn’t believe it could work.
Render Rocket is among those who have proved that it CAN work and has been out there quite a while doing that. The bulk of our business and customer base is on referrals.
We don’t do any advertising, so it’s happy artists and happy companies that refer their friends at other companies. We’ve got a really good client base. Render Rocket was the one that pioneered the whole process of render specific distributed computing across the Cloud.
Yeah, I was surprised to see Render Rocket on Yelp. In fact I didn’t see any other Cloud-rendering services there. I guess they have all kinds of businesses on Yelp now. But you all had great reviews there and I guess it kind of reiterates what you were just saying.
TRACEY: I think another thing too, like Ruben was saying, is that you can buy compute power but a lot of times you don’t get a sophisticated support team that understands the 3D digital compute and render farm pipeline process that goes into the whole kit and caboodle that we have to support.
So a lot of people are left to their own devices to figure it out and we’ve tried to make it as simple as possible with our interface, and also by adding, like you saw, the video tutorials, but having a support team that answers the phone and you can talk to – for those situation when people just don’t know how to do something – it gives us a much tighter relationship with our client base.
So we do have a lot of happy people.
RUBEN: On top of our commercial business, we also sponsor one or two projects per quarter for independent artists. We had one guy, a former Pixar animator, we sponsored his film project and he ended up getting picked up to do it as a feature for DreamWorks.
It’s something that we offer as a contribution back to the community, giving render time to support projects for independent artists.
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