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30 seconds or less: How The Mill showcased HP’s new high-powered workstation’s rendering capabilities

Tim Kafka, head of creative operations at The Mill Los Angeles, reveals how the company worked with HP to drop a Z8 Fury workstation out of a plane for its launch video

As someone who’s been working in advertising VFX since the 2000s, I’ve watched rendering advancements with great interest. That’s because, when you specialise in photoreal extremely detailed VFX and have short timelines, you’re continually doing the dance of how heavy you can make a simulation, or how detailed you can make a shot and still have it render overnight or faster. It can’t take five days like it might for a film, because you need that time to iterate and improve to match the director’s vision.

Let’s say you have a six-week post schedule after an edit, for example. You don’t have time to remake a complex CG human at the last minute because the camera is too close. You don’t have time to go back to modeling on a commercial production timeline. So, we build things as detailed as we possibly can from the get-go, and anything in the VFX artist’s arsenal to help accelerate the workflow is always an exciting development.

That’s why I was particularly interested when The Mill was asked to participate in the launch of Z by HP’s new Z8 Fury workstation designed specifically to tap multi-GPU workflows (along with a powerful CPU in the same workstation) to speed up compute-heavy tasks like simulation and rendering for VFX and animation. They wanted us to help them communicate the impact of rendering speed that can go from minutes to seconds. And they wanted to do that with an extreme stunt which turned out to be dropping a Z8 Fury workstation out of a plane for their launch video.

Our job was to create an impressively complicated sequence that would render in a specific amount of time. Our team here in Los Angeles had the idea of creating a high-elevation view of a stylised landscape inspired by Anza-Borrego State Park in Southern California where the stunt shoot was taking place. It has a cool-looking weathered terrain that I thought would be interesting to try and recreate with SideFX Houdini Heightfields, a terrain generation and simulation system. Using Houdini’s new Karma XPU renderer also let us take advantage of both the CPU and all four GPUs in the Z8 Fury. Personally, I was really looking forward to the opportunity to try working like I normally would and see how this new machine handled it.

The project in the advert was a real test. I started work before the HP Z8 Fury was fully ready, so I was on my older workstation. When I got my hands on the Z8 Fury, I was blown away by how much faster it was rendering. I just kept adding more and more things to this complex scene, because the workstation was able to handle it. Clouds! Haze! Let’s add some plants! The GPUs never filled up or slowed down.

A scene like what we created for the spot would normally take much longer to render, but with the Z8 Fury it took just 30 seconds. And that’s the impact they wanted to show in the advert.

Somewhere along the line, I ended up being on camera, and The Mill was gracious enough to give me the time to do it. In the advert, I monitor the in-process render from the ground as a stunt operator sits at the Z8 Fury, bolted to a desk, and kicks off the render of the scene just as it is launched out of a cargo plane, over the actual Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. To ‘save itself,’ the Z8 Fury has to render the scene in the time it takes before the workstation hits the ground. Success triggers just-in-time deployments of parachutes that float the Z8 Fury workstation safely to the ground.

That stunt is an extreme example of what a drastic rendering speed improvement means, but it is a revelation in our day-to-day work. When an artist is lighting a scene or running FX simulations, their workstation’s speed is going to determine how many iterations they can do in a day. And that means they can refine their work faster and move on to the next task sooner. When you look at all the time you could save on the hundreds or thousands of renders you need to complete a project, that’s an incredible impact.