By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)
Starting a new feature here on doddleNEWS, called 20 questions. We want to get up close and personal with some of the movers and shakers in our business, finding out where they’re going and gauging their impact on our industry. Kicking things off, we have Christopher Johnson, of MediaWorkStations.net, a company that provide high performance video editing work stations for your post production workflow. How did Chris shift from a music education to post production support? Turns out that video games had an influence.
1: What is Mediaworkstations.net and what do you do?
Mediaworkstations.net is a team of computer hardware experts, artists and media professionals based in Los Angeles. We formed in 2010 to provide studio teams, VFX artists, designers and content creators fully custom, high performance hardware solutions for the work they do. Inside this commitment is GPU specialization, specifically designing servers and fastest workstations for GPU rendering.
2: Give us some backstory. What did you do before you started MediaWorkstations?
I studied music at school, and have always been interested in the intersection of art, technology and business. I have also held business development roles for over 15 years with arts organizations, media companies and startups, and produced a couple award-winning short films. Mediaworkstations.net is an organic result of my passions, interests and experience.
3: How did you get started in this business?
In about 2009 I was introduced to the video gameHeroes of Might and Magic. I hadn’t played a video game in 20 years, and I got totally hooked. And online these players were always talking about their hardware. One day I said “Why don’t I build my own PC?” Seven PCs later I was like, OK what am I going to with these PCs? I hawked them on Craigslist, and, one of the interested parties was a CG artist who wanted significant upgrades. So began our epic tale. LA is one of the best places in the world to be to support media professionals and artists, I got a couple VFX celebrity clients in short order, they referred us and at that point we were off and running.
4: Are you a custom build shop?
Yes. Each Mediaworkstation, portable or server we sell is custom-built to order, part by part for each client’s exact needs. Once built we stress-test, stability test, double box, palletize and freight ship each unit for every customer.
5: What kind of solutions do you offer?
Mediaworkstations.net provides custom workstations, portable workstations, servers and storage.
6: Who are some of your customers and why did they choose you?
HBO, NY Times, Google, Salesforce, Ralph Lauren, 3M … amongst others. They chose us because of our specialization on content creation, often by referral, and because of our specialization and the optimization available. Another reason is price. Mediaworkstations cost usually several thousand, up to over $10,000 less than comparable configurations by HP, Dell, Apple and Boxx.
But it’s also relationship. Are we available? Are we helping you in the way you need help? These points are key – it’s not just about building the fastest workstation or server.
7: How do you compete with some of the bigger established brands?
Our sole purpose and mission is to serve the content creation market – studio teams, editors, VFX and CG artists, filmmakers and game makers – with exceptional hardware solutions custom designed and optimized the work they do. No one is approaching the content creation market the way we do. If you call up HP, Dell, or Apple and say “My core applications are Adobe After Effects, Cinema 4D and Octane – what’s the best configuration for me?” you are going to get … crickets. Silence. They just won’t know what you are talking about. We are fluent in that language. This is us.
Also with those bigger brands, you must buy what they are selling – not necessarily what’s best for you. VERY few people need a Quadro GPU for content creation – they are slower and 3-5x the price of cards which outperform them in 95% of scenarios. But those are your choices with Dell and HP (or Lenovo). We also offer up to four GPUs on all Mediaworkstations – Dell, HP and Lenovo top out at three. With Apple your configuration options are even worse, and you have to deal with something still particular to Apple – overpriced, underpowered, old hardware. The Mac Pro trash can had hardware that was already a generation old when it first came to market. Unbelievable, but true.
Boxx you can get configurations with 4 GPUs, but they are even more expensive than the majors. In additional to full customization, our mediaworkstations are more cost-effective than all of the above.
When it comes down to it, though, there’s a finer point. We understand the extraordinary commitment required for creative excellence. The pressure and competition is intense. And a primary threat in this endeavor is time. With poorly sourced and underpowered hardware, time becomes something of a monster which undermines project scope, your team’s capabilities and ultimately the last thing you want it to touch: the creative process itself.
We liberate and boldly empower the capabilities of content creators. We do this by sharing our understanding of software, and by providing what’s next in hardware componentry optimized for content creation. We help teams and artists discern and design the most reliable, production-proven systems to liberate their productivity and inspire new realms of creative possibility. This is what we do. This is what distinguishes us.
8: You talk about delivering “what’s next” in computer componentry, what does that mean?
Because we are small, and have strong relationships with leading OEMs, we often get the latest hardware before the majors do – sometimes more than a year before they integrate such hardware. As an example, we’re about to introduce a PCIe drive which can provide 8K RAW editing in Premiere Pro without dropped frames, cost-effectively.
9: Your workstations are pretty high end. Isn’t a computer just a computer?
Yes, it is, but configuration is everything. Imagine: You, 4-wheeling in the remote High Sierras, in a Prius C. That’s not a good scene – you will be going VERY slow, and you will likely need to re-route and rethink, OFTEN. And, unfortunately this is what many, especially Mac users, are doing everyday in 3D content creation environments. Old, poorly sourced or underpowered hardware is a recipe for pain. It’s one reason many longtime Mac users are integrating a Mediaworkstation into their workflow, or simply switching from Mac to PC.
10: What can your work stations accomplish that a $1,000 Dell with an Intel i7 can’t?
Customization, component by component, for exactly what you need, from card readers to GPU and CPU to multi-display to networking. As mentioned, in many ways the GPU is the future of content (and AI and VR) compute. We have the fastest GPU rendering server in the GPUx, and cost-effective fast GPU rendering workstations in the i-X2, i-X, a-X and i-XL. We can also provide:
True processing speed and efficiency, from dailies, to initial edit, VFX, titles, to conform, to color-correction, and final delivery. Same for Resolve.
Real time, photorealistic rendering.
Fluid compositing in Nuke at great scale and complexity.
Huge, multi-million poly modeling that doesn’t choke the system.
In team environs, networking solutions for workgroups and which provide high bandwidth i/o at scale
Mobile workstations which are not underpowered laptops, but workstations on which you can do final delivery, and everything you can do in studio.
11: Is there a future for CPU-driven workflows, or is it all moving toward GPU-centric workflows?
What I have been saying lately is the future is slime green (NVIDIA). It isn’t really, but the GPU has capabilities that are an order of magnitude greater than CPUs. A single GPU has thousands of cores, compared to at most tens of cores on a CPU. The only limitation is VRAM – because of this you are limited in the amount of assets you can load onto a GPU for processing. But if you can load those assets, and you have the PCIe bandwidth, things like real-time rendering on a single workstation are possible – something unthinkable 4 or 5 years ago. But companies like Otoy (OctaneRender) and Redshift are coming up with creative solutions for the VRAM issue. The upshot is, GPU architecture and having thousands of cores in parallel make extraordinarily demanding compute scenarios like AI possible.
12: How do your workstations perform with 8K and 360° video workflows?
Very well. It’s a matter of going through the customers workflow specifically to go over their needs, CPU, RAM, GPU, storage (NAS, DAS or SAN) and networking. As mentioned we’re about to introduce a drive which allows editing 8K RAW in Premiere Pro without dropped frames. This was unthinkable without a large RAID just a few years back.
13: Can you talk about why video cards are so expensive these days?
Last summer bitcoin miners began stripping the market of GPUs – and 1300 watt and higher power supplies, for that matter. When both items came back in stock, the GPUs were priced up to 100% higher than before, and the GPUs 20-30% higher.
14: Your workstations are portable, but not exactly lightweight. Can they be made smaller for out in the field?
We have two different portable workstation models, and, we can provide part-by-part customized solutions as well. For example, if a customer wants an extra small dual GPU configuration of a specific size, and even wants a custom waterproof workstation case made for it with space for keyboard mouse and display for easy transport, we can do this. Fully custom, that is what we provide. Our model lineup are simply solutions which maximize performance, expandability and reliability cost-effectively.
15: Your three screen workstation is pretty sweet. How did you get the screens to work?
Lots of testing, and the right GPU with sufficient VRAM per client needs.
16: How do you help a client match the right workstation with their applications and workflows?
Understanding how the software (and media) talk to the hardware – that’s the understanding we provide. It’s different with different applications, and different even within the functional toolset of the same app. In Cinema 4D for example, modeling will be single threaded, so frequency is the decisive factor, but physical render is multi-threaded, so many cores is what will accelerate that function most. Adobe Creative Cloud apps rarely, if ever, use more than 8 cores and usually 6 max – for any function – so if that’s all you’re doing you don’t need more. How the app uses RAM – hungry or no? And GPUs? Can the application use one, two, three or more for GPU rendering? Then there is footage. How is it with .r3d vs. .dpx? What about the limitations of the core applications? The top three are most important.
All these things we assess when we do a consult for a customer, which is designed to provide the customer with complete information so they can make an informed decision about their investment. For most, it’s a decision which impacts their productivity as much as almost any other factor for the next 3-5 years. It’s important. It’s worth investing in.
17: What does the future hold?
More than VR, or AR, or XR and the GPU rendering or compute capability for them, I would say the future is AI. I may be wrong, but I believe it’s not far away when AI will likely be the source for most digital entertainment, immersive experience and most other realms of interactivity. We are a GPU company, and I sense the near future of compute will be more and more GPU-driven.
18: What do you think of Virtual Reality? Where is it going?
Well, 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) – being able to move around a fully captured volume as you would in reality – this is a step forward. The goggles have been, still, to me anyway mostly weird still. And the goggles or other apparatus you need are I think barriers to adoption. Augmented Reality may be the access point for more rapid adoption. Whereas Virtual Reality is an experience in a complete “synthesized” world, AR is generated virtual elements in an otherwise real environment. I saw a virtual pet demo recently, where a guy in an actual park takes a virtual dog for a walk. He threw a little virtual stick and the dog chased it and brought it back. That was pretty compelling.
19: Are you planning to go into video gaming?
We are dedicated to providing the fastest workstations for CG artists, editors, colorists, compositors, designers and content creation teams. That is our passion…and it will evolve.
20: What’s in your camera bag?
GoPro Hero Black. I like to travel light.
You can listen to Chris’ interview on the Digital Production Buzz here.