Prepping Your PC for VFX Projects: Why Processing, RAM, and Storage Matter

Posted June 13th, 2014 by Gnomon School — Category: Technology — 0 Comments

Student work by Todd Marshall

Student work by Todd Marshall

A workstation PC is key in working on visual effects projects.

If you're hoping to work in the VFX industry, you're going to need a computer. While it's true that professional studios usually provide you with a powerful workstation once you're hired and in the office, the work you do during your education or on your own will require that you at least have access to a decent PC. A strong desktop computer is a key element of your ability to work on VFX projects at home; working on a slow machine will hamper your ability to meet class due dates or project deadlines.

When you start your visual effects path, you need to take stock of your current computer setup to determine whether it's up to the task. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Finding Purpose
VFX processes aren't all the same, and different end goals have different requirements in terms of PC power. Animation and simulations require real-time rendering power that allows you to preview your work, while architectural visualization or still shots don't need as much horsepower before the final rendering stage. Think carefully about how you intend to use your workstation to get an idea of which performance areas will be of the highest priority; generally speaking, you'll want graphics processing power for animations/simulations and CPU processing power for final renders.

GPU Processing
As technology improves, so does visual effects software. Maya and 3DS Max now feature integrated GPU processing that allows them to harness the power of your video card to make modeling, previewing, and rendering easier. If you work primarily with a software that supports GPU processing, upgrading your graphics card can net you a big boost in performance even when your other components aren't up to speed.

RAM has an incredible impact on your actual ability to work on your computer. RAM is what allows your VFX application to keep track of all the things you currently have open and in use. More RAM gives you stable, reliable, and smooth performance that makes it easier to work on big projects and multitask between applications. You can never have too much RAM, but 8 gigs should be plenty for a starter work PC.

It's easy to get caught up in performance when assessing your PC's readiness for visual effects, but storage should never be overlooked. Big animation projects and their assets can fill a hard drive fast, so ensuring you have deep storage reserves (and an external backup solution) is critical if you don't want to delete a project every time you finish it. Solid state drives are faster than traditional hard drives, but come with an immense premium in terms of cost.

Most PC users know that upgrading a video card or RAM is one of the easier improvements one can make to a PC. However, your processor is the ultimate dictator of your PC's potential. If you're starting from scratch, it's best to go all-in on the processor and buy the fastest one you can afford. The other components are easy to upgrade later, while the processor often requires a new motherboard and a mess of other changes.

Almost Cutting-Edge
When you're building a computer (or upgrading one), a strong strategy for saving money without sacrificing performance is purchasing components that are one step below the cutting edge. Performance between the most advanced and second-most advanced components is usually comparable, but the price is markedly different. For example, NVIDIA's GTX 780 graphics card performs almost on par with its Titan graphics card, but costs about $400 less.

Build it Yourself
Building a PC can seem intimidating from an outside perspective, but it's actually easier than you think. Sites like PC Part Picker will allow you to build a digital version of the PC, check for compatibility issues, and find you the lowest cost on components, and the modern “plug and play" design of hardware makes set up relatively straightforward. Plus, there's a bevy of YouTube tutorials and online guides that will help you find your way through. Building a computer yourself will teach you more about your most important work tool, but it will also save you hundreds of dollars.

Visual effects work wouldn't be possible without high-end computers. And though you likely won't be building a professional workstation for use at home (due to the high cost of cutting-edge tech), a strong computer built on even a shoestring budget can give you the edge you need for improving efficiency and getting tasks done. If you want to be an artist, you need to have the best tools you can afford.

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Founded in 1997, Gnomon has trained thousands of students and professionals for careers in the entertainment industry. Find out more