Bang for the Buck

People often make a number of assumptions about the computer technology being used to create “Outside In”. I hear everything from “you must have a supercomputer, you must be using Macs, you must be using special software” etc. So I thought I would dispel some assumptions and give you a quick inside view of the process.

(1) No supercomputers! To date, “Outside In” has been worked on several low-cost home built systems. The biggest problem to-date has been the lack of dedicated machine to the animation and compositing work for the film. I have been doing primarily work on my main desktop system that I also use for freelance work. As “Outside In” moved to from high-def to the IMAX format, I had to create a special boot for the 64-bit version of my operating system to deal with the huge files which created huge problems for not being able to work on the film without typing up my bread and butter machine.

Even if I had a supercomputer budget like the $2 Million dollars of computer power for the proposed Stephen Hawking IMAX film, supercomputers won’t run the software I need to create the film as I’ve made a point of using off-the-shelf software (primarily Photoshop and After Effects). If you think “Outside In” is taking a long time, the Hawking film, “Beyond the Horizon” has been unable to raise enough money to start despite all-star involvement of top IMAX producers. Given the power of desktop systems and software, supercomputers not longer offer very much bang for the buck for high-end graphics.

(2) No Macs! (or Dells either). Well, people assume, if it’s not supercomputers, it must be a Mac. Or at least a Dell (or IBM or Boxx) workstation. Sure. the 8-core MacPro or Dell workstations are nice machines for high end graphics, film, animation and video. But it’s not the simple. Machines like this don’t deliver bang for buck and you have to look much more carefully as actual performance delivered per dollar spent.

In order to take full-advantage of a computer running 8 processors with the software I’m running, each core needs 2 GB of RAM.  So that’s 16 GB of RAM. Not cheap. And it gets worse. The RAM needed for these 8-core machines (FB-DIMM) is more expensive than your standard DDR2 memory…and it’s slower for many operations.

So, if you get a Mac (or Dell or other) 8-core machine, decked out with 16 GB of RAM, you can spend $10,000 or more by the time it’s fully loaded. My target budget for a dedicated machine is more like $2,500. Yep, 1/4 of that price.  So, how do I get there?

Well, the first step is to move down to 4-cores. That may sound like giving up twice the speed/power, but that’s not the way it works. Many programs, even high programs like Photoshop and After Effects, often cannot take full advantage of more than 4-cores. On rough average, I could expect to get about 35-40% more speed over a 4-core machines for the work I’m doing.

But even stepping down to a 4-core Mac Pro or Dell still puts me double or more over the $2500 budget. But, fortunately, I have been assembling computer systems for many years, so this opens up a whole new world. Sure, you don’t have a handy tech number to call (unless I call myself), but for a indie IMAX filmmaker, it’s a great skillset to have.

I did look at building a 8-core machine (or even a machine that could be upgraded to 8-cores later) but turns out, after carefuly analyses, 4-core is the real bang for the buck. First, it’s just one CPU (with 4-cores) vs. two CPUs in an 8-core machine (two by 4-cores). That means they are cooler running, less power (smaller power supply needed), less electricty etc neded. Plus, single socket 8-core machines are coming end of year and if you have well-planned home built machine, it’s easy & relatively cheap to drop in a new CPU (and motherboard if needed). If you have a Mac or Dell etc. it’s often simple not an option, you must get a whole new machine.

Also, a home-built 4-core machine means I have the option of easy overclocking (running the system faster than spec) with which can end up cutting the 8-core machines performance advantage in half or more as 8-core machines are difficult or impossible to overclock.

The bottom line? A fast home-built, 4-core machine, slightly over-clocked is about 85% as fast as an 8-core machine but is less than 1/4 the price. And, over a 2-3 year period, one major CPU upgrade that offers a 25 -50% speed boost), it can run almost 1/8th the price.

That’s bang for the buck.

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