Real-time Rendering Ushers in Paradigm Shift
April 21, 2010

Real-time Rendering Ushers in Paradigm Shift

By Alex Herrera
Novel software technology harnesses powerful hardware advancements to transform the traditional 3D computer graphics production paradigm, revolutionizing and streamlining workflow with real-time graphics processing. Creators of computer graphics content are quick to adopt the latest advancements in high-performance computing and graphics hardware. Today's CG professionals-whether architects, product designers, or animators-do so for multiple reasons, not the least of which is to meet strict deadlines without compromising the quality of the end result. The true and full potential of such high-end hardware cannot truly be tapped, however, without the advent of novel software designed specifically to harness this power.


The Challenge:

Despite all the money spent on the latest hardware platforms, digital content creators continue to be plagued by a tradeoff: time versus quality.

Rendering high-quality 3D computer graphics (CG) is traditionally a very time-consuming process, and one that requires the use of multiple computer systems and resources. Rendering, though taxing on production workflow, is a necessary and integral part of digital content creation (DCC); and, it is a process that DCC professionals must undertake at various intervals, pre-production and post-production. A CG project will undergo a wealth of changes, both minute and monumental, from start to finish.

Visual results are virtually never perfect the first time. Digital artists must, therefore, render often to check their work and determine precisely how it will look in the final render. The production process invariably leads to many iterations, in which artists adjust cameras, lighting, materials, and myriad other elements to realize the director's creative vision. Each modify-render-review cycle consumes valuable time; the more complex the project or change, the more time is lost to the process, bogging down the workflow in a time-wasting bottleneck.

To save time in rendering, artists very often opt to scale back the amount or quality of elements in a project, compromising the look of the final piece due to restrictions levied by the limitations of their hardware, software, and workflow.

The lack of a rendering solution capable of real-time results has forced artists to make compromises, affecting both their final work and their craft, in order to keep pace with a project's tight schedules and cost constraints.


To date, creators have been faced with two basic choices for rendering, neither of which is ideal to tackle the iterative demands of studio-quality production. Traditional, fixed-pipeline, hardware-accelerated renderers can deliver in real-time, but cannot provide the level of quality that content developers require. Alternatively, final-frame renderers produce high-end results in post-production, but do so at a painfully slow pace. With speed a distant priority to end-quality, these solutions are neither built nor intended to deliver the timely results artists need to meet the demanding pace of iterative content development.

The disparity between those two diametrically opposed options has created a Render Gap: take the time to render as accurately as possible and risk slipping schedule, or sacrifice fidelity and risk ending up with imagery that does not fit the original vision. The 3D creation process and those professionals integral to it are crying out for a streamlined tool and workflow to fill that Render Gap-one that can render fast enough to match the speed of the artist, yet still deliver image results that stay true to the director's vision. 

The Solution:

Artists and engineers, conscious of the challenges and demands of production, have developed a real-time rendering solution poised to bring an end to these restrictions imposed on digital content creators, enabling artists to realize the full potential of their creativity and tool set. MachStudio Pro, real-time 3D software from StudioGPU in Hollywood, Calif., is designed by artists for artists to leverage the power of cutting-edge graphics processing units (GPUs) and massively parallel, programmable hardware architectures to resolve nagging problems in today's CG content production pipeline.

In the era of multi-core central processing units (CPUs) and massively parallel GPUs, leaps forward now come in the form of evolved software that can harness the true potential of this new generation of hardware to eliminate old bottlenecks and accelerate processes for today's high-demand computing applications. In the domain of 3D CG content creation, MachStudio Pro is designed for that purpose, leveraging the power of modern hardware to remedy challenges that impede bleeding-edge 3D production.

Designed specifically from the ground up for modern GPU architectures, MachStudio Pro renders complex scenes in real-time, delivering quality on par with the best final-frame rendering packages. The software delivers increased speed and productivity by not only exploiting powerful GPUs, but also streamlining complex elements that are notorious for slowing rendering times and overall production speeds.

Accelerated Workflow:

Graphics accelerators of the past, designed to support standards such as OpenGL and early DirectX implementations, could offer performance but could not achieve studio-quality 3D content creation. At the same time, software solutions could deliver rich, high-impact graphics, but would fall short of the CG artist's real-time demands.

With the advent of high-performance and fully programmable hardware GPUs, artists and developers at StudioGPU built from the ground up code-driven, rather than transistor-driven, rendering paths. The sheer number of programmable processing elements integrated on chip, now and for the first time, provides sufficient horsepower for this new solution to achieve on the desktop in real-time what previously required expensive render farms, submit-and-wait job queues, and a span of days or weeks.

MachStudio Pro structures advanced rendering effects as separate independent processing passes. This trait provides fine-grain control of compute-intensive rendering effects that can significantly impact frame throughput. Artists achieve the high quality they need and desire, without sacrificing time to the rendering process.

With MachStudio Pro, visual results can be output at any pass in the progression. Artists can opt for higher speed in the early pre-visualization phases, and turn on more passes as the content is refined. After the last round of enhancements is complete, artists render the finished product with all passes enabled, still attaining dramatically quicker results.

With code optimized for today's hardware, and streamlined for those functions critical to 3D creation,  MachStudio Pro realizes large speed gains over traditional approaches, for both conventional rendering tasks and cutting-edge features that today's studios desire and demand.

MachStudio Pro processes and renders complex 3D CG elements-such as ambient occlusion, subsurface scattering, complex reflections and refractions, high-dynamic-range (HDR) lighting, advanced depth-of-field manipulation, and global illumination-in a fraction of the time previously possible. Artists, therefore, no longer need to predict what an effect or modification will look like in the end product; by rendering in real-time on their desktop, DCC professionals gain an accurate view of the end quality far earlier in the development cycle.

Advanced Elements:

Complex shading, materials, lighting, caustics, ambient occlusion, color grading, and multiple cameras all lend to a more realistic and lifelike CG experience, but they also lengthen rendering times and impede workflow. For this reason, StudioGPU built from scratch MachStudio Pro's configurable, specialized shaders running on Microsoft DirectX. Shaders optimized for content creation provide high-speed paths for those functions most often responsible for throttling rendering performance in today's ever-more-sophisticated CG production.

MachStudio Pro's optimized GPU shaders are designed to deliver faster performance across the board, particularly in the face of the specialized functions high-end CG content developers perform. Executing MachStudio Pro shaders across GPU stream processor arrays has resulted in rendering speeds up to 900 times faster than solutions offering comparable visual quality. For example, a high-definition image having 1.98 million polygons is rendered in 2 hours and 19 minutes using mental ray software from mental images in Berlin, Germany, whereas MachStudio Pro completes the same job at maximum quality in 12 seconds. Moreover, MachStudio Pro processes an intermediate render far quicker than a final render. In this way, render times throughout a production pipeline fall from minutes and hours to seconds and sub-seconds, while achieving an image quality superior to traditional hardware-accelerated engines.

StudioGPU developers structured MachStudio Pro's shaders with key rendering parameters that are programmable, rather than hard-coded, and not static, but modifiable over time. Users are free to adjust the visual experience frame by frame and dynamically shape the experience as the scene unfolds. Artists can select a Blinn shader, for example, and set the hardness to tighten and accentuate the specular reflection, or adjust the refraction index to represent precisely how the material's appearance responds to the lighting in the scene. Content creators can also dynamically adjust those parameters across the scene's timeline by key frame, or employ animated shaders in real-time.

Further Differentiation:

A large number of 3D engines exist, each one considerably different from the next, especially in this new age of hardware-accelerated technology. StudioGPU developers constructed MachStudio Pro to attend to the specific needs of artists and designers, starting with rendering performance optimized for advanced visual effects.

MachStudio Pro's timesaving features are not limited to rendering. The software extends beyond rendering to the command of visual attributes, fully controlled within an intuitive 3D development environment.

Traditional workflows isolate each character in a vacuum, whereas MachStudio Pro users gain the ability to manipulate all elements of a design in a non-linear workspace with independent layers. The software solution decouples rendering attributes from the underlying geometry and animation, isolating key attributes in independently manipulated layers.

As a result, a developer no longer has to take the time and effort to decompose complex scenes to accentuate the sheen on a character's skin, for example. The MacStudio Pro user would instead update the attribute's layer with static or animated values.

Artists import their visual database-encompassing models, animations, materials, and more-into the MachStudio Pro workspace, and immediately begin working with lights, cameras, and other elements and attributes independently. Artists can now refine the visuals, render, and repeat as often as necessary without sacrificing time in isolating elements and re-rending scenes.

Pairing MachStudio Pro's rendering speed with a streamlined process that minimizes the number of steps per iteration, productivity increases. Consider the number of discrete process steps required to create the architectural scene below. In a conventional turn-based workflow, this scene required more than 40 individual steps, including invoking applications, placing lights, correcting shadows, adjusting shaders, rendering, and re-rendering. In MachStudio Pro's streamlined environment, the scene required roughly half the number of steps. Combining fewer steps and real-time rendering, MachStudio Pro took the job from start to finish in roughly one quarter (25 percent) of the elapsed time required in the conventional approach.

At the same time, a new tool is of little value if it does not integrate easily into a pre-existing workflow; it must coexist seamlessly with industry-standard tools and formats. MachStudio Pro is built on a foundation of Microsoft DirectX and requires no special drivers or API extensions. StudioGPU developers designed MachStudio Pro to be application-agnostic, importing models, animations, and associated attributes via the standard .FBX format and plug-ins running in popular 3D packages, including Autodesk's Maya and 3ds Max®, McNeel's Rhino®, Graphisoft's ArchiCAD®, and Google's SketchUp Pro. Rendered imagery can be output in various aspect ratios, resolutions, and file formats, such as: .MOV, .DDS, .AVI, .PPM, .BMP, .DIB, .JPG, .HDR, .TGA, .PFM, .PNG, and .EXR.


All else being equal, creative professionals would always prefer to introduce more elaborate rendering attributes earlier in the process: more lights with more complex parameters, richer materials with intricate reflection and refraction properties and multiple cameras each outfitted with customized virtual lenses.

The problem has been, however, that without a renderer capable of delivering high-quality results quickly, developers had little choice but to cut back on the details, particularly in the early phases of visualization. Those making a living developing rich content too often have experienced that frustration of 20/20 hindsight, discovering late in production that they would have composed or staged much differently had they only known what the lighting would look like during pre-visualization.

Now rendering more complex scenes in seconds, not hours, MachStudio Pro can provide that valuable glimpse as to how the scene's really going to look when all is said and done. As creators can readily attest, being forced to compromise and leave out relevant content eventually leads to unintended effects, requiring more costly re-work down the line. Making better decisions early invariably leads to fewer reworks later on.

Including more of the scene earlier keeps inadvertent visual artifacts, resulting from the unexpected interaction of lights and objects, down to an absolute minimum. MachStudio Pro processes advanced shading and lighting effects quickly, providing valuable feedback to artists early in the process. If an object casts an unexpected shadow or a character interaction is not convincing, the artists will find out sooner rather than later.

The software's real-time feedback also helps accommodate changes resulting from off-the-cuff brainstorming, the product of spontaneous synergy among collaborating artists, writers, and directors. The more effectively the work environment can support new ideas and new approaches as they come to light, the better the end result.

Sitting and waiting through a traditional turn-based cycle with a slow rendering speeds can quickly stall the momentum of a team's collaborative efforts. Seeing the results of a proposed change in seconds versus minutes can mean the difference between capturing inspiration or having a novel idea fall through the cracks. MachStudio Pro, with true fidelity and real-time responsiveness, provides enables effective on-the-fly collaboration.

Relief from Render Farms:

The render farm is a ubiquitous fixture in today's high-end visualization installations. Applications such as mental ray and Pixar's Renderman are the de facto standards for final production renders, running asynchronously on servers to produce final-frame content.

For some, the extra expense and overhead of populating and maintaining a render farm simply is not feasible. Rendering final frames with MachStudio Pro can translate to a smaller investment in servers, and more effectively leveraging existing high-performance desk-side workstations.


Artists and developers at StudioGPU took stock of an ever-changing landscape of platform technologies, rethinking the problem from within the trenches of real-world processes and architecting a new solution from the ground up.

MachStudio Pro exploits a confluence of enablers emerging on the 3D graphics scene to address a glaring and unfilled need. Real-time rendering coupled with a comprehensive 3D workspace streamlines workflow, ending the compromise between time and quality. 

In the process, it's opening up new opportunities to improve on traditional workflows, reduce production costs, and provide CGI creators more freedom to do what they do best: create. Creative forces of inspiration, imagination, and artistic vision should drive the process of CG content development; yet, for too long, limitations inherent in the process have dictated the bounds of what can be achieved. MachStudio Pro restores the rightful order and puts the team's creative energies back in the driver's seat.

MachStudio Pro's combination of rendering quality and performance, leveraged with an evolved workflow and intuitive workspace, is cause to rethink the old way of doing things. MachStudio Pro users are exploiting that combination, reaping benefits in productivity and cost throughout the production pipeline.

Alex Herrera is a senior analyst with Jon Peddie Research and author of the JPR Workstation Reportseries.