Welcome to Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards. Yes, I started awarding Pixies almost 20 years ago at Animation Magazine. They are unique because I am beholden to no one. I tell it like it is, and and I pick hardware, software and people based on my personal experience. I've been doing this for decades, so my opinions are based on experience, and some of the winners are suggested by friends in the industry. My realm of interest is fairly broad, incorporating all of digital entertainment—my association with Mundos Digitales in Spain and FMX in Germany has sparked my interest in gaming and digital architecture.
Sometimes I have a hard time picking between two similar products. For example, I'm having a very hard time selecting one 3D material system. Quixel and Allegorithmic are both very powerful and highly effective, but they are quite different. Since I can be biased, I might just award each with a Pixie. I'm still pondering it.
Of course, this all goes to my head and I pretend to be a god giving out golden halos. I figure after more than three decades in the industry, I should have a little fun.
Note: Some years after I started awarding Golden Pixies, another outfit started awarding “Pixies,” which are gold in color. To avoid confusion, my awards are officially called “Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards.” Awkward, but distinct.
How I Go About Selecting Awardees
First, I spend a lot of time reviewing software and hardware at my secret studio high in the Rocky Mountains. I maintain a really nice test-bed computer for testing software. For example, I sculpted the Golden Pixie by moving back and forth between ZBrush and DAZ Studio. I experimented with texturing her in Marmoset Toolbag 2, Vue and 3ds Max. I played with lighting as well. I'm still not quite happy with her, but I'm getting there. To achieve the look I'm going for, I need to spend time learning and experimenting in DAZ, Photoshop, Vue, 3ds Max and ZBrush. These projects give me insight into the software and their interfaces and how they work for me. That is a biggie. If the user interface makes a lot of intuitive sense, it gets high marks from me.
People and Companies
I decided to change things up. In addition to software and hardware, I have discovered that certain companies and individuals are worthy of special recognition. I particularly like small companies, but when a big company does exceptional work, I have to recognize it. In fact, the very first Golden Pixie is being awarded to a whole company for outstanding work.
Okay, sometimes I run across serious contenders but for some reason, usually having to do with cost/utility ratio, I don't feel comfortable giving them a Golden Pixie. Since they usually do one thing and do it very well, I may give them an honorable mention.
Interface design has many aspects, not the least of which is that one's cognitive style semi-dictates one's preferences. Engineers tend to design interfaces that artists don't like. Interface designers tend to design interfaces that make sense and are easy to learn. Engineers tend to create interfaces by their own esoteric methods, often making things overly complex. Blender, a great 3D application, has an interface that requires unnecessarily complex operations to do simple things. It is also inconsistent because for some procedures, that isn't true. That doesn't mean Blender won't get a Pixie. It is under consideration for other reasons.
Designing interfaces for software like Autodesk or Adobe applications is an enormously complex task. Getting it right takes luck, brilliance and insight. Some of the most amazing software out there has poor interface design.
I really appreciate cleverness. I am happy to say I'm seeing a lot of it lately. Such things as spray-on particle-driven texturing, textures that are UV-savvy and analyze surfaces and deposit layers accordingly, tickle the heck out of me. So cleverness counts.
Functionality in software is key. It's one reason I'm considering Blender. The function per dollar invested is through the roof. But expensive apps have to have a lot of functionality to be considered.
In hardware, it just has to do it better than anyone else. This would bias me toward Intel over AMD because Intel's CPUs simply have more performance per cubic nanometer. On the other hand, AMD represents one hell of a value, generally providing more performance per dollar than Intel. So you can see my quandary.
This one is hard to define, but if I find an application very exciting, it gets extra points. For example, when you go to SIGGRAPH and a software or hardware demonstration blows your mind? That is sex appeal. I remember the first time I saw the very first beta of Bryce demonstrated at SIGGRAPH it captivated me completely. It was slow and limited—not for animation at that time—but the images were stunning. The first time I saw Eyeon's Digital Fusion demonstrated, with its modular interface design, it got instant sex-appeal points and eventually won a Golden Pixie. It won because It worked well and was intuitive to use. Today, almost all applications offer a modular interface option. Connecting processes up with wires makes sense to just about everyone. After Effects is flat-out sexy to me.
I Only Have a Limited Ability to Look at Things
Yes, there are other great applications out there that I wish I had the time to learn and evaluate. Houdini? Amazing application. Cinema 4D? Absolutely a contender, but I haven't spent time with it lately. Corel has some very cost-effective products that are high quality. I hope I get time to spend with them. The Foundry has great apps like Mari and Nuke, an industry standard, along with Katana and Modo. My problem is that I don't have the time or energy to learn them all. Modo, for example, has a non-standard interface with a steep learning curve, and I don't have the time I need. Friends who have worked on Modo and others who use it have let me know it is a great application. But I can't give it a Pixie because I don't know it well enough. I could go on all day mentioning great hardware and software that I haven't learned in depth, but it would be futile.
Behold: Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards!
And the first Entirely Biased Golden Pixie goes to …
Nvidia's K5000 is serious hardware. It scores high on a host of performance indices that game cards score poorly on.
I am biased because I reviewed the very first chip that Nvidia ever successfully released. We go back. But more than that, over and over I have found that the people who work at Nvidia are helpful and often brilliant. Their GPU architectures are exceptional, and their products have become industry standards. In fact, their fast gaming products perform so well they are often used by VFX houses on individual workstations where performance is key.
Let me talk about the chunk of hardware that I have been testing. It's the Nvidia Quadro K5000 Professional Graphics engine. Based on the Kepler graphics architecture, this unit is designed specifically for heavy-duty professional power users, especially in graphics, animation, VFX and CAD/CAM. Nvidia dominates this sector of the graphics engine industry. AMD's professional FirePro series is quite good, but they just do not have the market share and I haven't reviewed them in several years.
Based on the well-tested GK104 chip, the K5000 has 3.5 billion transistors in it! I remember when my first transistor was released by Raytheon, the CK722. It cost almost $4. At that rate. the K5000 would cost the GNP of a small country! They can fit so many junctions on the chip because they are using the 28nm scale production process. This is actually nano-engineering in play. The actual number of parallel streaming processors is a mere 1536 CUDA cores. Talk about supercomputers—the K5000 is a true supercomputer in itself. Its internal memory bus has a bandwidth of just over 170GB/s!
It actually uses the same GPU as the gaming version, Nvidia's GeForce 680. Nvidia has unlocked the K5000 but it runs standard quite a bit slower than their high-end gaming cards. That means it is quieter and you get better energy efficiency, and pro cards have to be totally reliable. Nevertheless, overclocking fans can turbo this card unti their head spins, given extra cooling power and the proper settings.
As I understand it, the Quadro cards do not cost that much more to manufacture than the GeForce 680, but what you get is more direct customer service and reliability. More importantly, the pro cards from Nvidia are optimized for professional work in our industries. They massively outperform the game cards because the K5000 is much better at handling dense OpenGL-based models, anti-aliasing, and texture solutions. In fact, on some benchmarks the Quadro K5000 performs dozens of times better than the GTX 680. It's all about optimization.
I choose to give the Golden Pixie to Nvidia because they never rest on past performance and are always pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Their GPU cores are used in the fastest supercomputers, they provide the best optimized drivers for your particular use, and their customer service on professional graphics cards is exemplary.
I awarded a Golden Pixie to the K5000 graphics card because its performance in all my professional and personal applications driving a dual monitor display blows my mind. The way its GPU accelerates video transcoding and other tasks in 3D design and animation is just flat-out sexy.
I stay on up to date on a number of applications by taking video courses at www.digital-tutors.com. Keeping up on what I write about is no easy task these days. Back in 2004, about when Digital-Tutors started, there were just a few key applications that were fairly universally accepted. Back then I would get DVDs to keep on top of various 3D software applications.
At that time I got DVDs wherever I could, and many were reasonably unprofessional, often with dogs barking or babies crying in the background. One famous set I still have has belches all through it. It was about then I discovered Digital-Tutors. They were very helpful and have continued to be as they grow more sophisticated in how they teach each subject.
Now there are hundreds of useful applications used in various processes needed to create VFX, games and animation. I noticed Digital-Tutors has at least 80 different subjects with close to 1700 courses available. Within these courses you will find more than 32,000 individual video lessons!
At Digital-Tutors, I simply go to the specific product training and watch the series of videos as needed. For anyone who wants to learn a new tool, this is most likely your best place to find what you need. Programs like Maya and ZBrush and Photoshop all have a range of subjects to be learned, allowing you to focus on various aspects. They also provide individual introduction series, where the teachers go through the tedious step-by-steps of learning the basics of each program. Also useful is the release of a New Features video for each new release of key software products. In all, Digital-Tutors offers training in 80 different subjects. The training is virtually all well thought out and presented in a professional way. Not all are perfect, but the bulk of training is well presented. I now depend on Digital-Tutors to keep me on top of my selected applications.
I particularly like their asset library, which they fill with models and rigs and other things that will let you jump into a set of training sessions without having to build your own assets. This saves me a lot of time when learning new things.
Recently merged with PluralSight, Digital-Tutors is staying reasonably independent and, so far, up to date. Lastly, I find many of the courses offer fun projects. Some of them are even kind of sexy.
I also like www.lynda.com, where I also take some training videos, but from my perspective Digital-Tutors has more content that is more current in the areas where I need it. Lynda.com is an honorable mention because they have a very wide range of mostly excellent courses, though in my experience they can take longer to get a course up on a brand new release. Check them out anyway. Their range is pretty amazing.
No, it's not a person. Arnold has been a Hollywood best-kept-secret render monster until the creators, Solid Angle, recently came out with commercial versions adapted for Maya, Softimage and Houdini. For some time, the studios have had access to Arnold and have been using it on many feature films. It was reported to be very fast and efficient.
I had heard buzz about it, and I met the creator of Arnold, Marcos Fajarodo, at Mundos Digitales in Spain. He's an interesting, brilliant guy that I have to admit I like. For a very long time I had no access to the renderer, but I've long been curious because a number of my friends in VFX were singing its praises. Finally I got my hands on a demo and tried it out in Maya. I was impressed. The learning curve is less steep for me than other renderers I've had to learn.
In a word, you don't have to be a PhD and spend many hours setting up excellent shots, because Arnold works with the artist to simplify the process.
Looking at my resource consumption during renders, my conclusion is that Arnold is exceptionally frugal with resources. The controls seem to make sense and I believe artists will be comfortable with them. It is more intuitive than most, especially in the realm of lighting.
I think one of the reasons I like Arnold so much is its cleverness. My interpretation of how Arnold works would be that it is an adaptable tracing engine that attempts to solve optimized ray trajectories on the fly. Lots of little things add up to a very efficient render solution. For example, there seems to be a psycho-perceptual element going on. Ray-tracing really is a virtually endless process that is arbitrarily halted at some level of acceptability. That level is determined by eye when it looks “right.” I suspect that Arnold “knows” how to efficiently determine the number of rays to trace along cleverly optimized pathways to get the kind of image that we humans find acceptable. It does so in a way that reduces both time and render resource consumption, helping to keep production costs down.
Golden Pixie is a work in progress. I'm not yet happy with her. The wings are far from finished, and her pose is not where I want it to be. I'm slow at sculpting and design, so bear with me. I've created anime-style clothing for her in ZBrush. So accept her as the prototype and I'll try to have her finished by next time. Also, anyone who wins a Golden Pixie may use that Pixie in advertising or on product packaging. Contact me for a Pixie logo package.
This is just the beginning. I get exposed to a lot of good and marginal software, hardware and people. Instead of pointing out the bad, I point out the good. I hope this is helpful. I know most of you know your stuff, but often I will find something you could use and didn't know about. I'll post my next installment shortly, and it will have quite a few more awards in it.
So stay tuned for more of Peter Plantec's Entirely Biased Golden Pixie Awards. There will be a few surprises.