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Blockbuster visual effects from Double Negative are turbo charged by NVIDIA Quadro K4200 GPUs

Hercules. Image Courtesy of Double Negative

Headquartered in London, Double Negative is the world’s largest provider of visual effects and boasts Europe’s biggest VFX research and development team. Current Double Negative projects include Terminator: Genesis, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Hunger Games: Mockingjay. The company’s past work, including Inception, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, has been recognized by BAFTA, the Visual Effects Society and the Academy Awards.

Following a merger with Prime Focus World in June 2014, Double Negative added world-leading animation and 3D conversion services to its portfolio and, based on its success, has expanded into other vertical growth businesses including Dneg TV and the Double Negative Feature Animation Division.

With 1000 employees located in London and another 250 in Singapore, computer hardware is one of Double Negative’s most significant investments. Head of Systems James Braid is part of the team tasked with striking a balance between ensuring the company’s artists have access to the most appropriate technology and managing costs.

Such a large studio means hundreds of specialists working with a variety of software packages across multiple projects, but they all face the same testing demand: deliver stunning, industry-leading visuals for high-profile clients on a tight deadline. Both 2D and 3D artists were experiencing hardware limitations that put their ability to meet this demand under pressure.
Zoe Lord, a Texture Artist in Double Negative’s London team, primarily uses software tool MARI 2.6 from The Foundry. Lord typically works with very complex assets, applying hundreds of tiles with 8k textures in up to 15 channels, each with an average of 30 layers, many of which are live procedural layers.

When rendering textures in a scene, also known as “baking,” her workflow involved breaking the scene down into multiple files and processing them separately. A single scene would take up to half a day to bake.

“I’ve been working on a large vehicle model and having to wait that long for scenes to bake was really frustrating,” Lord explained. “On top of that, basic actions like jumping between channels and tiles that I do a thousand times a day were lagging by a second or two. That adds up to a lot of wasted time. I was tearing my hair out!”

Working in Houdini and Maya, Double Negative FX Supervisor Viktor Rietveld is focused on tasks involving huge quantities of voxels, particles and polygons. The ability to display and manipulate volumetric data quickly and accurately is a priority for his current project, which involves creating visuals of large nuclear explosions. While he considered his old GPU adequate, Rietveld had noticed that volumetric data such as color and opacity was very slow to view.

His workflow also had a major limitation: it was impossible for him to preview his work without sending it to Double Negative’s CPU-based render farm. This had forced him into a routine of making a change, sending it to the render farm, waiting for his results, making further changes then repeating the process until he got the right result.

“Having to send scenes to the render farm just to preview them meant I was working blind,” said Rietveld. “The process of iterating to get the right results was painfully time-consuming. And when you’ve got hundreds of artists using the same process and making multiple calls on the render farm at the same time, the whole system slows down.”

Lord and Rietveld both equipped their Dell Precision T7610 workstations with NVIDIA Quadro K4200 cards. The results were striking.

“Where it used to take hours, now I can bake huge assets in 30 minutes,” explained Lord. “It’s baking a massive amount of data at the push of a button.” She also noted that moving between many large channels has become fully interactive. For tasks like working with live shaders, she can load thousands of 8k tiles at once and quickly edit a complete set of textures in near-final render shading.

The K4200 also makes sharing layers possible so that a change to a particular mask flows through the whole scene. In the past, sharing was too slow to be useful. Now it’s easy to use and has further accelerated up Lord’s workflow. Working with 8k textures is much faster overall and, rather than maxing out on memory, projects fit comfortably on the GPU with room to spare.

Rietveld admitted he hadn’t expected to experience such game-changing benefits from a new GPU. “I though my old hardware was fine, but the Quadro K4200 has just blown me away. The lightning speed at which I can now work with particles and voxels is a huge advantage. Volumetric data is becoming increasingly important for the entire VFX industry and the ability to display and work seamlessly with huge amounts of this kind of data is vital for 3D artists like me.” In Houdini tests with 300m voxels he’s been equally impressed by the ability to rotate around the model in real time, while Viewport 2.0 in Maya 2015 is now significantly faster and smoother thanks to the K4200.

In addition to improving the efficiency of both 2D and 3D workflows, the new Quadro graphics card has transformed Rietveld’s approach by enabling him to preview his work locally on the GPU. Rather than waiting for frames to come back from the render farm, he can iterate locally and only send final frames to be rendered, delivering a major saving on time and energy. It also allows him to work more intuitively, getting quicker feedback on his changes and allowing him to tumble around large simulations in a way that was simply impossible before. For the rest of the Double Negative team, reducing pressure on the render farm ensures that, when it’s required, the whole system runs faster and smoother for everyone.

“Compared to my previous experiences with changing to a new graphics card, this has been very straightforward,” said Rietveld. “It’s just fast. It just works.”

Like most systems engineers, Braid is used to dealing with end user problems, so it’s been a pleasant change to have two satisfied customers on his hands. “Faster performance means an artist can do more iterations of their work each day without having to wait around for their workstation – that means they can be more productive and more creative. It’s also reassuring to know that, because Quadro cards are designed for professional users, they provide the high standard of reliability and compatibility our artists need.

“We’re a large company with multiple, complex workflows. To remain at the cutting edge of VFX, our artists, producers and engineers need the right hardware at their fingertips,” explained Braid. “Movie audiences have become very sophisticated and their expectations are sky high – it takes more realism, more detail and more creativity for visual effects to deliver that elusive wow factor we all crave. When we’re working on the next big blockbuster, we can’t allow our hardware to stand in the way of achieving that. The Quadro K4200 delivers the kind of performance and workflow efficiency that we need to meet and exceed our clients’ exacting standards. It looks like graphics technology is finally catching up with our imaginations!”

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