Post Heading Back to the Big Iron Model?

SgiOctaneWe live in a golden age of post-production. Equipment that used to be specialized and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, now can be done on an off the shelf computer that costs a thousand. You don’t need $50,000 VTR’s to ingest anymore, you need a $20 card reader. The latest processors and SSD drives achieve unheard of speeds, driving software that’s 10 times more powerful, at one-tenth the price it used to be. What seemed like impossible wishful thinking in the 80’s and 90’s, we now live in a time where just about anyone can afford to have their own edit suite in their home.

And it may all be coming to an end…

The reason we, as post-production professionals, enjoy this bounty of affordable gear is due to general purpose computer users, and specifically gamers. All the amazing progress in the affordability and power of post-production equipment is merely an unintended side effect of selling the latest and greatest CPU or graphics-card to the general user. Each generation of electronics allowed the general user to do something new and interesting on their computer, each new GPU  launched a frenzy of game development to take advantage of that new power. Millions and millions of people feeding the upgrade cycle, and in their wake post-production professionals rode along with them, reaping the benefits of ever-expanding computer power.

However the general computer user’s needs have changed. And now they’re diverging from what post-professionals need. The general user no longer needs power and speed. They need portability, efficiency, and style. There’s more than enough computing power available for anyone’s general needs. Writing a few documents, managing email and facebook, watching some netflix or youtube, playing some games, editing and viewing your digital photos, and yes even editing your home movies. All this can be done on your home computer, hell all of it can be now done on a tablet or your phone. People are buying less and less desktop PC’s and laptops, and buying more tablets and smart-devices instead. Call it the post-pc era, call it the end of the desktop, call it whatever you like, but it doesn’t look good for us.

Casual gamers and kids have mostly moved on to consoles, or even beyond consoles to their phones and tablets. All we have left are our kindred spirits, the hard-core gamers, they build their own PC’s, overclock them, and have two or three of the latest graphics cards installed to blow things up in a suitably impressive manner. But are they enough? NVIDIA at CES announced the GRID Gaming system, which relies on the cloud model (or mainframe model if you’re old-school). All of the GPU’s are hosted in a server rack, and the game itself is run in the servers. The video of the game is streamed live (with low latency) to any device like a TV or a Tablet. So gamers will soon be able to get high-end gaming performance without even having a computer at all, just a smart TV.

Intel’s roadmaps are focused on low-power consumption, integrated graphics, and processors for mobile computing. NVIDIA is focusing on mobile graphics processors. Apple’s iProducts are reigning supreme, with the Mac line declining in sales, and the new Mac products are becoming more like consumer electronics than PC’s. The MacPro (the only mac that doesn’t use mobile class parts) continues to languish. The computer line up continues to get thinner and sleeker, not more powerful and expandable.

Where does that leave us post-production professionals? Imagine a crowd of a thousand people running together down a road named Speed and Power Boulevard, when suddenly 99% of those people take a hard left down a previously unseen road (let’s call it the iWay), leaving the last 10 people standing there, looking around wondering where the hell everyone went. That’s us.

The problem is, we still need speed and power. 3D, 4k, 8k, RAW, everything’s a multi-camera show these days. The trend for productions shows nothing but an exponential increase in data usage. As a DIT, I can move around more bits in a day than a home user may move in an entire year. So why are we using the same computer?

The answer is we soon won’t be. It’s getting to the point where those who are still using computers, need a COMPUTER, not some rinky-dink, tablet-OS-powered toy. The vast majority of normal users, it turns out, may not need a computer at all. This is where things will start to get pricey again for us. With our free ride from general users over, there will still be options out there, but they will be much more expensive than they are now.

Before general computers were fast enough to really handle video effectively, there were the “Big Iron” companies like Avid, Quantel, and Discreet Logic, that made special purpose video production computers that had their own technologies and eco-systems. They also had prices in the six figures. Is it possible that we’re headed that way again?

In 2000, SGI released its flagship workstation the Octane2. By any standard, it was one of the most powerful computers available at the time. It had the latest in graphics technology, multi-processing capability, high-end digital video capability; it could even handle the ridiculous new HD resolution of 1920×1080 that no one used or needed. Discreet Logic used these systems as the basis for their Smoke* and Flame* products, it also ran high-end 3D packages like Maya and Softimage. The price for just the computer alone (no software) was around $20,000.

In 2013 looking at a state of the art, no compromises workstation, I’ll take a look at ProMax’s One. It has the latest processors, and cutting edge graphics technology, has ample storage and can even handle the ridiculous new 4k resolution no one uses or needs. It runs all the high-end software, and it’s price for a fully kitted out model runs around $17,000.

From this you can see that purpose built high-end video workstations have always commanded a price premium, and the price hasn’t changed all that much over the years. If you want the absolute bestest and fastest, you pay for it.

The difference we’re facing today is that if you didn’t absolutely need the bestest and fastest, you could save a whole lot of money. For example, my 2012 MacBookPro ,which I’ll estimate can do 80% of what the ProMAX One can do (albeit somewhat slower), only costs about $2,500. Saving me about $14,500. That’s not inconsiderable.

However what happens when the percentages change? What about five years from now, when the new MacBook Ultra SlimLightPaperThin comes out? It has no GPU, or ports of any kind, is hermetically sealed away in a thin strip of epoxy resin, and is designed to only connect to iCloud. What if this new laptop can only do 10% of what a comparable high-end workstation does? Now the equation changes, and I’m suddenly in the market for a $20,000 workstation or I’m out of the post-production market altogether.

I’m certainly not arguing that post production hardware will disappear, or that progress on its development will halt, what I’m saying is that the free ride we all had may finally be coming to an end, and if you want to do high-end post, you’re going to have to put up high-end dollars again.


  1. KC Lim said:

    what about the Cloud?

    July 8, 2013
  2. SeanCC said:

    You’re not going to be editing in “the Cloud”.

    July 8, 2013
    • BigDipper said:

      Have you checked out Avid Interplay Sphere? Remote editing via a VPN connection to the post facility. High res video on the servers streamed out to the edit client on demand. Even multicam is possible. It may be the private cloud, but cloud editing is already here.

      July 15, 2013
      • SeanCC said:

        That isn’t editing in “the cloud”. That isn’t cloud computing at all, or even a distributed model in anyway. That’s just VPN. That’s not an apples and oranges thing, that’s an apples and guacamole thing.

        July 15, 2013
  3. Editing in the cloud can be done using exactly the same tech as the videogame in the cloud. It’s technically already possible and PoCs are running here and there. I’ve worked on some of that stuff, the tech is here, now it’s about the business model.

    July 8, 2013
  4. Peter Flynn said:

    I must admit I enjoyed the read, brought back a few memories, that Octane 2 was about 20K but that was the box alone, you then needed to fill it up with drives, memory and cards, bringing the cost up to about 50k, then 50k for your software, that only ran on Unix.I still have a version of Adobe Photoshop for Unix.
    Big Iron, with apple bringing out its new Mac Pro, there answer to our on going faster bigger issue.
    Open source, I believe is the one true answer, this small studious group are doing things now.have a look
    This is directly what I am talking about.
    This stuff is working now in data centres, this is not a coders wet dream.
    We are being forced, down the cloud path, Adobe is only going to be available on the cloud.So we need to embrace it, use it, make it work.
    Or we just fold up shop and sell coffee ( not a bad idea )
    We wanted “cheaper, faster, better and we got it, the problem is it kept going, we are the ones that stopped.
    our industry will always look for a point of difference, 2k, 4k, 6k, 8k, stereo, 3d, motion graphics, photo real the list keeps going and going.
    Advertisers need to sell ads, theatre owners need to sell seats, content providers need to sell any bloody thing.And the web receives and shares out more content than any one person could ever imagine. And it does it every minute.

    July 9, 2013
  5. Brendan said:

    Simple answer don’t buy apple, buy/build your own workstation! apple no longer cares about the pro market, and would rather sell overpriced dumbed down computers and ipads to consumers as a main revenue stream. Final cut X tanked and is no longer considered a professional NLE by most editors, apple also designed it for the masses, hence the imovie look.

    That $17,000 pro-max system is pretty ridiculous and a lot of power goes to waste. Most high end workstations that will do 99% of what you need shouldn’t cost more than about $6000. If you actually build it yourself or get a computer shop to do it, you can easily swap out components and have 100% control of how much performance you want in your computer. You need to look at other options and get your head out of the apple eco-system. Premiere Pro/Adobe CC on a $4000 workstation does 100% of what I need and can easily handle 4k and whatever else I throw at it.

    Im also pretty sure you will be able to purchase a PC workstation/components in the next 5 years, even though the market is shrinking. A lot of businesses, tech enthusiasts, CAD engineers, science/medical research departments, need powerful but affordable workstations to run demanding software, so a market should still exist!

    July 15, 2013

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