Thinkbox: An interview with Chris Bond

Thinking outside the box, we talk to Thinkbox's founder, CEO and president Chris Bond, about the tantalizing possibilities available in render management software

Thinking outside the box, we talk to Thinkbox's founder, CEO and president Chris Bond, about the tantalizing possibilities available in render management software

Thinkbox's Deadline Monitor software lets you see exactly what's going on with your farm renders © Thinkbox

Originally the research and development division of Canadian visual effects company Frantic Films, Thinkbox has since been spun off into its own company, with Chris Bond at the helm as CEO.

The company recently rolled out Deadline 7, the latest version of its render management solution, with the 7.1 beta also available. In addition the company is embracing all things cloud with the beta for the Deadline Cloud Wizard for Google Cloud Platform.

We spoke to Chris about the advantages of render farms, how to use them effectively, and what they mean for the future of the VFX industry.

Deadline's graphs give a nice overview of current processes and resource usage © Thinkbox

3dtotal: Who uses render farms, and why?

Chris Bond: Everybody who needs to process or simulate or render data needs a render farm. But the question now is do you still need a separate render farm with dedicated compute resources for processing of images and simulation and other things? Or can you utilize the idle time on your personal laptop or workstation to achieve the same thing? That's what Deadline helps with. Designers, architects, engineers, scientists, animators, VFX artists, commercial broadcasters, all use Deadline to leverage the compute power they already have on their machines to do their processing.

"It's hard to bill for tools and resources that you already own in-house, but cloud rendering lets you track exactly what you're using and budget and bill accordingly"

3dt: What are the inherent problems when it comes to render farm management?

CB: I look at it not as render farm management but as process management – it's not just about rendering, it's about a bunch of different tasks and how they connect. We try to solve a lot of problems inherent with that; for example, in terms of processing data there's often a gap between each task. What we try to do in Deadline is reduce that gap so you have dependencies and can process things without necessarily requiring human intervention.

The lower panels allow control of Deadline's slaves © Thinkbox

You can run a simulation and that can generate a render and that can generate a composite and that can generate a QuickTime. If you didn't have a tool like Deadline, each one of those steps would have to be done deliberately and done one by one – so if you start one of those steps but it doesn't finish until 3:00 in the morning after you've left the office, and you're not there to start the next step until you come back in at 9:00 the next morning, that's a 6-hour gap of wasted down time. We try to fix that by automating tasks across whatever idle compute resources you have. So it's all about process management.

The big challenge I like to focus on is how to streamline a workflow so that the processes are connected and efficient. A related challenge is of course is the size of data sets, which is how we approach problems like rendering images with Jigsaw (Deadline's multi-region renderer) so that we can take something that might take 24 hours for one frame, and instead distribute portions of frames over multiple computers so it can render in a fraction of the time.

3dt: What options are available to help with render farm management and what are the benefits?

CB: There are a lot of options – platforms, operating systems, local-based render farms, cloud-based render farms, private cloud, public cloud, physical machines, virtual machines. What we try to do is give people the option to support any combination of those. You can choose to render on different cloud service providers, like Amazon or Google, and you could use different operating systems, and we want to support your workflow no matter what choices you make.

Our goal is to support anything and everything well. We support over 60 applications and a number of different workflows and pipelines across different industries. Some other solutions focus on professional and lite options, but we just have one option for Deadline; it's one-click out of the box installation whether you're one guy with a laptop or a big studio.

Thinkbox has made using Deadline as straightforward as possible © Thinkbox

3dt: What are some of the coolest projects that have used Deadline?

CB: That's a tough one – we have thousands of clients and it's hard to single out just one or two cool companies or projects they've done. But it's really exciting to know that Deadline is involved in designing the tallest buildings in the world, the most cutting-edge vehicles and consumer technologies, and the biggest blockbuster movies and TV shows.

"Don't look at it as a render farm. Look at Deadline as a tool for processing, previewing, iterating and testing on any idle compute resource"

3dt: Can anyone do it, or do you need to train to use render farm management software?

CB: With Deadline we did a lot of work to try to hit both ends of the spectrum. We try to make it incredibly sophisticated and extensible and customizable for higher-end users but we also try to make it work out of the box so anyone can use it. We call that the ‘one-click install' approach. We provide 2 free nodes that anybody can download and try on their own on their machines. It's easy to get started but also once you get started you can get really rich and deep workflows going, and that's where the power comes in.

3dt: Do you have any insider tips on how to use render farms?

CB: Don't look at it as a render farm. Look at Deadline as a tool for processing, previewing, iterating and testing on any idle compute resource. If you have a spare Mac laptop or Windows desktop around your house, then you should download Deadline as it supports 2 machines for free – you can distribute your simulations, renders, encodes and any other generic process across those machines and get a feel for distributed workflows.

I think that experience does two things: First, it allows you to start to look around and see what machines you might have that might be an untapped resource. We have huge clients that do all of their rendering on idle laptops in the building! Secondly, it allows you to look at your compute resource not as something limited to processing your final renders, but as your iteration tool as well. Look at advanced integration with our built-in tools such as Jigsaw and
Draft (to speed up and automate your repetitive workflows. Then ask yourself this: what are you doing right now that could be done by the computer? Why isn't something getting processed that makes my life easier? We believe that if there is an idle computer available, that there lies an opportunity to use it for something!

A dependency graph lets you see what's relying on what © Thinkbox

3dt: How do you see render farms changing in the future?

CB: The cloud will continue to become a bigger part of it, allowing more elastic scaling so that smaller facilities can add resources when they're limited by space or cooling or capital expenditure costs. Part of that is the opportunity for the best art to win out – it's not about who has the best machines or most computing power; soon anyone can have the resources to render and make their art on any scale. It's kind of analogous to Amazon's self-publishing mechanism – it allows people who wouldn't have had access otherwise to share their talent.

Another thing I see is the potential to allow a true cost of materials billing, so rather than this unspecified idea of what you're delivering, you're now able to charge for iterations and render time and client changes because you have a clearer picture of all those things and you can set a specific cost associated with each thing. Time and materials could become a boon for the VFX industry. It's hard to bill for tools and resources that you already own in-house, but cloud rendering lets you track exactly what you're using and budget and bill accordingly.

Chris' final thoughts on the nature of render farms are nothing short of revolutionary. He explains that one of the frustrations of working in the visual effects industry was that there were high-end computers scattered throughout the office doing very little, and yet artists were continually calling for more iterations of the same plate.

"Because of these experiences, we are investigating predictive and automated workflows,” explains Chris. "I believe the future will bring us tools to ensure that after your work is completed, that the idle time is filled doing something that might be beneficial to you. I think that's a huge win.”

Related links

Thinkbox official site
Learn more about Deadline 7
Discover Draft for Deadline
Workstations reviewed by our experts

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