Entries in Adobe After Effects (76)
After two years, the Mac Pro was “updated” today, sort of: now we can choose slightly faster two-year-old CPUs at the top end, and the other two-year-old CPU options are cheaper now.
That’s about it.
Folks who make moving pictures for a living have been eagerly awaiting—and debating the likelihood of—a Mac Pro update. This non-update update does little to squash the debate. Is this a placeholder bump while Apple readies the “real” new Mac Pro? Or is this the death knell for the Apple’s tower line?
When I described the ray-tracing 3D renderer in Adobe After Effects CS6 usable only by those with high-end graphics cards, many commenters took the opportunity to turn it into a Mac vs. Windows debate. That’s not how I saw the problem, but it did raise an interesting question:
Is it Apple’s job to build computers for our (Possibly Adobe) software, or is it Adobe’s job to build software for our (Possibly Apple) computers?
The easy answer is “both.” But there’s more to it than that. Apple clearly showed today a continued commitment to making computers lighter, prettier, and where possible, faster. The emphasis is not solely on performance—performance is one aspect to consider when buying a computer, but Apple has had great success getting customers to consider other factors, such as, you know, what it’s like to actually use the thing.
If Apple continues to focus on thin laptops with long battery life rather than dozen-core towers with $2,000 video cards, should Adobe reconsider its focus on features that require high-end hardware?
Or should Adobe concentrate on making kick-ass software that blazes on modern workstations, and leave their customers to select the best machine for their needs?
“Just get a PC. They’re cheap.” This has been a common refrain in the face of Apple’s seeming disinterest in the workstation market. And it is very true that a pimped-out, top-of-the-line Windows tower can be had for a steal compared to what Apple charges for these barely-reved Mac Pros.
But it’s Not That Simple
If you use a Mac, and you decide that you’d rather run Adobe’s Production Premium CS6 on a “cheap” Windows machine, you’ve got some decision making ahead of you. Most of Adobe’s software (a notable exception being Lightroom) is licensed for one platform only. You can crossgrade your license, but there are some gotchas. If you’re not on the very latest version, you’ll have to upgrade as you crossgrade. But more significantly, your Mac license becomes invalid. If you do the very common (And Adobe-sanctioned) thing of running your CS6 license on both a laptop and a desktop, you can’t split that happy arrangement across OS borders. Switching to a Windows CS6 setup means either giving up CS6 on your laptop, switching to a Windows laptop (ugh), or buying two seats of CS6.
The other issue could be your display. I currently use a MacBook Pro and an iMac. If I bought a Windows tower, I’d need to buy a new display. This is not something I’d cheap out on—you know, because I look at it.
So let’s review. “Get a PC, they’re cheap,” for me, really means buying:
- A tricked-out PC
- A high-end display
- Either a Creative Cloud membership, a 2nd license of CS6, or a Windows laptop (kill me now)
This cheap PC is not turning out to be so cheap after all. And we haven’t even discussed the other software I might need to buy. Not all developers are as enlightened as Red Giant when it comes to cross-platform licensing.
Tower? I Don’t Even Know Her.
I haven’t kept a Mac tower in my home since they were blue. At The Orphanage, I had various Mac and Windows workstations at my desk over the years, but I did most of my work on Mac laptops. Now I split my work between my laptop—often connected to a 30” Cinema Display, and my wife’s iMac.
Of course, I’d re-think that if I was working for paying clients in the room. And even when my only client is me, I’m still not 100% satisfied with my laptop lifestyle. Do I want a pimped-out tower in my office and a lightweight MacBook Air for mobile work and writing? Or do I want a top-of-the-line mobile workstation and a serviceable desktop solution? Could I really run After Effects on an Air? How crazy-making would it really be to use Windows at my office and Mac at home? And sweet mother of internet, which PC would I even get? And which display?
And if I buy a tall computer, am I becoming even more of a niche user than we image-making professionals have ever been—focused on expensive, rarified performance that costs a ton no matter where you find it, rather than on the type of highly usable computers that Apple champions and the world copies? And encouraging Adobe’s rapid skating toward where the puck was a few years ago, rather than pushing them toward creating a great experience on todays lighter, more elgant machines?
Just get a PC, they’re cheap!
If only it was that simple.
Tim Cook confirmed in an email to a customer that Apple is not done with the Mac Pro.
Thanks for your email. Our Pro customers like you are really important to us. Although we didn’t have a chance to talk about a new Mac Pro at today’s event, don’t worry as we’re working on something really great for later next year. We also updated the current model today.
Shortly after writing this, I put my money where my mouth is and bought a maxed-out 13” MacBook Air.
Thanks to @quarterlight for the link to this demo of Clarisse, an interactive ray-traced shading and rendering environment that uses the progressive refinement method I mention in my previous post. From the FAQ:
Clarisse is CPU-based. A basic graphics card supporting OpenGL 2.0 is more than enough.
Clarisse runs perfectly fine on lower end hardware such as laptops and remains perfectly smooth and interactive. The What is Clarisse video? was recorded on a dual-core laptop dating from 2009.
This is what I’m talking about when I say that the ray-traced 3D performance in After Effects CS6 could be better optimized for the CPU.
Still not convinced? Then I guess you didn’t click the progressive refinement link in that last post. It goes to an interactive demo of a ray-traced scene that you can interact with, live, at very high frame rates. The real time rendering, which includes secondary light bounces (AKA radiosity), is done in your browser.
The Best New Feature that You May or May Not be Able to Use
While I was busy making Canadian Lysol commercial history, Adobe released Creative Suite 6, including a major update for my favorite creative software of all time, After Effects. The new version includes some exciting new features:
- Variable mask feathering
- 3D camera tracker
- Global Performance Cache (sexier than it sounds)
- Rolling Shutter Repair tool
- Ray-traced 3D extruded layers
Each of these features is worth its own post, so I’ll just pick one to start. The ray-traced 3D renderer is the first major update to AE’s 3D capabilities since they were first introduced in 2001–2002. AE was way ahead of most of its competition (except flame, of course) in bringing 3D capabilities to a compositing environment. At the time, adding 3D layers to a dedicated compositor was a somewhat controversial move. But now it’s hard to imagine compositing without a 3D environment, and After Effects has been lapped several times by its competition in 3D features. So I’m happy to see true 3D geometry finally spinning in my AE viewport.
I could be happier though. The After Effects 3D renderer is a powerful and feature-rich ray tracer. It supports motion blur, depth-of-field, diffused reflections, and soft shadows, all in 32-bit floating point color. The results can look amazing.
But ray-tracing can be computationally expensive. Adobe decided to accelerate their new renderer using the NVIDIA CUDA technology, where the massive parallel processing capability of a GPU is turned to general computing tasks. And indeed, on a supported system, After Effects CS6 can ray-trace pretty darn fast. The above iPhone animation rendered in 2 hours, 15 minutes on a machine with a $2,000 NVIDIA Tesla C2075 GPU. On a Quadro FX4800, it took 15 hours.
The problem is, I don’t don’t happen to own one of these supported systems. My MacBook Pro has an NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M, but that’s not beefy enough for AE6, so I’m stuck with CPU rendering. And my top-of-the-line, pimped-out iMac has an AMD GPU. So again, no dice. And by no dice, I mean you would not want to try to render something as simple as a pair of dice. On my $3,000 iMac, one frame of the iPhone animation takes 48 minutes.
I don’t begrudge Adobe the decision to accelerate the ray-tracer for CUDA, but I do regret the seeming prioritization of that optimization over any kind of CPU usability. If you have a CUDA card, you can use and enjoy the ray tracer. If you don’t, you pretty much can’t. I mean, sure, you can try, but the render times will very likely dissuade you. This binary hardware differentiation between the ray-tracing haves and have-nots is, to me, unbefitting of After Effects, which has always struck me as the “people’s choice” compositor—such a paragon of accessibility that I consider it a must-have tool for the DV Rebel. I expect Autodesk to ship something that requires esoteric hardware, but not Adobe. And yet, at the same time as the CS6 announcement, Autodesk announced a greatly updated Smoke for Mac, one of the primary features being that it works on just about any Apple hardware, including my iMac.
But surely it’s impossible that a ray-tracer could ever be as fast on a CPU as on a GPU, right? Maybe—but there are numerous well-established optimizations available to ray-tracers, including sub-sampling (where areas of sparse sampling are interpolated rather then allowed to be noisy), adaptive sampling (where the number of ray samples required for each pixel is adjusted based on scene content), and progressive refinement (where low-quality results are shown to the user rapidly, and then iteratively built-upon for higher quality). The After Effects ray-tracer has none of these. It’s a brute-force multi-sample renderer—the kind you’d write if performance in a massively-parallel computing environment (i.e. a specific GPU) was your sole concern. I wish Adobe had put their efforts toward making their renderer as fast as possible for all users.
I know it’s fashionable to hate on Adobe, but I have never felt a part of that crowd—probably because the Adobe tools I use, After Effects and Lightroom, are shining beacons of awesomeness within the company. I’m quite the opposite of an Adobe hater. So seeing After Effects sprout a feature we’ve been anticipating for a decade, only to have it tie users to specific, high-end hardware, feels a bit like seeing a good friend make a bad life decision.
As more and more of us use laptops as our primary machines, and as those laptops are getting smaller and lighter rather than necessarily more powerful, Autodesk is heading in the right direction, and Adobe is not. This, to me, was the big surprise of the post-production announcements at NAB 2012.
Want to know how I rendered these sample movies? I tried doing it on my mini-render farm of CPU-only machines, but it took days (of my laptop being too hot to touch) to produce unacceptable results. Smooth motion blur, fuzzy shadows, diffracted reflections and depth of field require a lot of samples (controlled by the anti-aliasing setting), and if I turned up the quality enough to stop seeing noise (for the iPhone, that was 14), those renders would still be going today. So I sent the project files to a friend with a CUDA GPU. A friend who happens to work at Adobe.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could do that too?
Along with CS6, Adobe unveiled Creative Cloud, which includes subscription pricing for the Creative Suite applications. But is that really what After Effects power-users need from “the cloud?” What if that subscription also gave me access to a cloud-based render farm that is constantly Backblaze-syncing with my work directories and is ready to instantaneously render my 1,000-frame animation on 1,000 virtual machines at the push of a button?
Then what if Adobe removed the button?
It used to be my dream that After Effects would speculatively render my work in the background, using every ounce of my computer’s processing power. Now I want the same thing, but with Adobe supplying the processors. That would be worth a subscription fee.
The “big iron” days are over. Simplicity is the new powerful. Fast is the new good. The computer is the new hardest working guy in the room. Except it’s no longer in the room.
I can’t wait for my favorite creative software of all time to realize that.
Don’t miss the follow up post.