The ArchVIZ BIZ – Starting a Studio : The Technology

Once you’ve established a baseline for your ArchVIZ Art, you will need to effectively leverage technology to scale your operation and stay up to date. Most extra software and hardware solutions may seem pricey at first, but they pay for themselves very quickly. In my experience, the saying “time is money” has proven itself time and time again.

Hardware

After your workstation, your next purchase should be a render farm.

There is a ton of additional hardware you can buy, but render farms are the only thing I would consider essential. The more popular solutions come from outfits like BOXX, Dell, and HP, but if you look around you can probably find a local builder with very competitive pricing.

At our studio, we have a 144 node farm. It has become the backbone for all we do. It has allowed us to deploy lower powered (and less expensive) workstations for our artists without sacrificing rendering speed.

What is also nice is that the power can be deployed where needed when emergencies arise.

If we have a team on a deadline in an hour, they can request the full farm to process their renderings. This can cut typical 3 hour long render times down to mere minutes.

I purchased my first render farm when I was just a freelancer, and it paid for itself within a month. It enabled me to go from producing 2-3 images a week to being able to turn out a 5 image project in a week. The additional revenue from 2 extra images weekly was more than the cost of the farm. Now, this math may vary pending on your local, but the principal is the same… more render power = more images rendered per day / week / month / year.

Typically, farms don’t require paid licenses for much of the software used in architectural illustration (V-Ray being the major exception), so apart from Windows licenses, there isn’t too much additional overhead associated with owning a farm initially.

The only other piece of hardware that might be considered essential would probably be a monitor calibration tool, like a Spyder. All your work is worthless if your monitor is not displaying the correct color information.

Monitors should be calibrated on a monthly basis.

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Cloud Services

For those of you who are squeamish about laying out a large chunk of cash for hardware to beef up your rendering capacity, there are cloud-based options. However, some people have found their use problematic and complicated, especially if you use plugins. One way around this is using the .vrscene format (Rendercore, RebusFarm, ProRender, RenderFlow and others offer the processing of this format).

Prices have dropped considerably since the early days and interfaces have gotten a lot better. Again, time is money. Cloud services are a great solution if you don’t have access to immediate cash to set up a farm. In the long run, it costs about the same or higher (especially if you are a heavy user), but the payout is per use and can help you manage overhead.

To determine whether it’s better to buy a render farm or sign up for cloud services, simply determine your usage. Our team uses their render farms constantly at all stages of a project. It has helped us become one of the fastest teams around. Each artist has full-time access to an 8 node farm. That farm costs on average $15,000 CAD. For us to reserve a similar farm at a cloud provider with unlimited usage would cost about $3,000 CAD a month. Our farms have an average lifespan of 5 years. So for us, owning is far more cost effective.

The other cost of note if you choose cloud services would be to figure out the cost of an upgraded internet service to facilitate all the uploads you will be doing. You will probably want unlimited bandwidth as well which can get pricey. This will vary from country to country but it will be universally more expensive that what you are paying now.

Software

We LOVE software at our office.

Our pipeline is 3ds Max + V-Ray. And we employ lots of great plug-ins and scripts for both packages. Anima 2, Forest Pack, RailClone, Rich Dirt, Floor Generator, Project Manager and Soulburn Scripts are some of our favorites.

We have also begun to invest heavily in custom scripts for repetitive actions and tasks. 3dsMax 2016 has implemented a node based editor for MaxScript which should be familiar to anyone who has switched over to the Slate Material Editor.

Most plugins come with 30-day demos. I suggest you try them out to see which ones work well for you. Most of them have time and memory saving functions that will completely change your workflow. The money you invest in them will more than pay itself off. You will be able to create more complex images faster on less expensive workstations and render farms.

Make the most of it!

Speaking of render farms, once you have multiple workstations or a large farm like ours, I highly recommend looking for an alternative to the built-in network deployment that comes bundled with most programs (like Backburner for 3dsMax).

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We’re currently using Deadline at our studio. It’s pricey, but it completely changes the game when it comes to managing and deploying your network resources. It has also made processing animations a breeze. Complex systems require sophisticated management. If you’re going to invest heavily into your hardware, you should make sure you are getting the most out of it by investigating your network management options.

There are several options out there : Deadline, SquidNet, RenderPal, etc. I suggest, if you have a medium to a large sized render farm, you consider looking into one of these options.

R&D

The technology of Architectural Illustration is evolving constantly. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember when V-Ray, Brazil, and Mental Ray were battling for render engine supremacy.

More importantly, though, you would also remember how quickly scanline fell out of favor and how those who failed to adapt got wiped out. And even in the current market where V-Ray has a stronghold due to its memory management capabilities and widespread adoption, there are new contenders on the scene that are worth a good look : Corona Renderer, Octane and Unreal Engine.

Corona Renderer is pretty fast and has a great UI, but it’s only now catching up with V-Ray on the memory management side. Several major plugins (RailClone and Forest Pack) support Corona and this should help with the memory management side of things.

Octane is working on some pretty cool real-time GI solutions that may come in handy for VR applications. And speaking of VR, we have been able to get some nice results out of the native engine in Unreal. Given the drive towards virtualized interactive platforms – you definitely need to be dabbling a bit in one of the major interactive platforms.

Autodesk will be unveiling theirs – StingRay – very soon and it may be a game changer for the architectural illustration studios looking into VR.

Although VR is the talk of the moment, you need to always be on your toes when it comes to the technology of the day. One big watch out for our studio is the implementation of V-Ray for Revit. It will enable our clients to produce better renderings straight out of their main BIM platform. What will it mean for the future of our industry? It’s too early to tell at the moment but definitely something that needs to be on your radar. Just like any other industry, it is really important to be on the look out for new, disruptive technologies.

Either adapt or die. Your choice.

End of Starting a Studio : The Technology

Remember that when it comes to technology, it’s necessary to spend money to make money.

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When you’re considering your next major purchase, think about the revenue it will generate, not just about the upfront cost. If this still scares you, the next article will arm you with some tools to help you make all this happen.

See you next week on the Job Board with the articles about Culture, Finance and Client Managment

Norm Li.

The ArchVIZ BIZ by Norm Li - Introdution
Part 1 - Starting a Studio : Art
Part 2 - Starting a Studio : Technology
Part 3 - Growing a Studio : Culture
Part 4 - Growing a Studio : Finance
Part 5 - Growing a Studio : Client Management
  • Oleg Budeanu

    Thanks for sharing , interesting reading ! Being technical supervisor in the past by myself i know from first hands about ups and downs of cloud services and render farm management. It is quite hard to develop steady workflow, because there is a lot of different plugins , scripts and etc. which you need to consider when developing a pipeline with farm management, had to do some pythong scripting as well for Deadline.
    I think your artice lacs a major part – is structure , templates and constant workflow for typical projects. This allows artists to work on the materials , textures, modelling, rather than setting up scenes and checking where is that error and why lightcache is taking 100 hours to render 🙂 I believe there should be solid backbone for this. Also i think that with recent updates of VRay the development of templates for different kind of projects should not be the last thing to think about.
    Regards !

  • part 3 is live. Grow a Studio : The Culture http://jobs.ronenbekerman.com/the-archviz-biz-by-norm-li-culture/

  • NormLi

    Interesting viewpoint Oleg! I didn’t think to write about that … But you are spot on. We do have several custom scripts and templates for this. In deadline we have written a one click script for rendering animations and stills as well at various levels of quality. To take it one step further, we also have standardized material and entourage libraries (cars, trees, interior accessories) for our team to use as a starting point. Thanks for pointing that out! Definitely a huge time saver in the workflow.

  • Oleg Budeanu

    NormLi Yeah , that’s exactly what i am talking about. Automatization is the key to constant level of quality, and deadline works in that key just perfect, as well as various plugins like RailClone, ForestPack, and couple of more, wich have option to create library and re-use it.
    Being freelancer once again i know that stuff you describe works even on Freelance battlefield, so once again thanks for sharing !

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  • prashanth2511

    Thank you for the great article, can you please throw some light on creating an in-house render farm?

  • NormLi

    prashanth2511 you should google “Blade Server” … most majors make them … Dell, HP, Lenovo … you should also be able to find a local provider to build you one much cheaper …  Once you have that, you will need render node licenses (if you use Vray especially … Max doesn’t require them … you will need to check the individual pieces of software and their individual requirements) … you can manage the farm with built in tools in Max and Vray – Use Backburner to manage the farm in max and turn on distributed rendering in Vray to get the most out of your farm for rendering locally … 
    Another thing most ppl dont think about is power and cooling … these farms draw a lot of power and generate a fair bit of heat … each farm will need it’s own dedicated circuit … after about 3 farms of 8 nodes, you will need supplemental cooling … especially during hot weather … in northern climates during the winter, three renderfarms will be enough to warm an office! … 

    Obviously, you will also need all the infrastructure to make all this work – i suggest a gigabit switch and a separate room to store the servers … the fans blow pretty hard and generate a lot of noise … 

    if you have any other questions just ask here!  Hope my answer helps!

  • Aldrik

    Hi there,

    This article was something I was looking for a looong time. Thank you for sharing !
    I have one simple question :
    Are you using your servers just for rendering ? Is there a possible way to use them for modeling too ? Let me explain it in a simple example : at work, we are using mostly rhino for modeling and max+vray for rendering. It would be nice to be able to “log in” to a server and start 3dsmax (or even rhino), and do the modeling part there. Like a windows server. It would speed up the whole set up too…
    Thank you for your answer 🙂