Star Trek Into Darkness: Pixomondo Chooses to Boldly Go with NVIDIA Quadro

by Greg Estes

Faster workstations make for happier artists. Just ask Pixomondo. They labored over nearly 300 shots for the film Star Trek Into Darkness, which opened last month, grabbing strong reviews and more than $200 million in U.S. box office sales.

Prior to installing NVIDIA Quadro K4000 GPUs, the visual effects company’s systems were pushed to the brink of collapse by the immense amount of data used to make the film’s vivid sci-fi scenes. With Quadro on the job, Pixomondo artists were able to accomplish more each day without enduring long waits.

Pixomondo runs a 24-hour production cycle for feature film, television and commercial projects using its global network of facilities. Their artistic chops have been recognized with an Academy Award for HUGO and an Emmy Award for the second season of Game of Thrones.

The team there faced a whole new challenge with Star Trek Into Darkness, given its scenes of unprecedented scale. In one action-packed sequence — composed of about 80 different visual effects shots — an alien planet slowly comes into view as seen from an aircraft. The vehicle then descends through clouds and lands in an alien city.

Star Trek Into Darkness
Visual effects scene from Star Trek Into Darkness

Director J.J. Abrams wanted to be able to move the camera through scenes with maximum flexibility. So Pixomondo had to build incredible depth into the entirely computer-generated city. Each scene burst with detail — 3D images with 130 million active polygons and up to 32GB of textures.

Pixomondo’s systems did the best they could, but frustrated artists encountered response times of more than an hour. Systems frequently froze. And a 3D digital paint tool ran so slowly that artists spent nearly twice as long waiting as they did working.

Enrico Damm, who managed 25 Pixomondo CG artists on the project, described how it became impossible to navigate the massive 3D scenes: “All this data required way more power to process than was available on our workstations. And other programs started running slowly, too.”

Darkness Turned To Light

After Pixomondo tapped NVIDIA Quadro K4000 GPUs to accelerate their Autodesk 3ds Max workflow for modeling, animation and rendering, the artists could process assets much faster and work in full detail.

They could turn on shadows and move light sources around within a scene with real-time feedback. And, they no longer had to split data-heavy scenes into separate files, which would double the amount of effort and time needed to make edits.

In the end, Pixomondo had the K4000-accelerated workstations running practically 24/7. When one artist would leave for the day, another could take over on the same system.

Most importantly, they could create more accurate previews of how a scene was taking shape — and quickly fulfill the director’s vision for the shot. “Before we got these cards, I would run to the producer and scream for better machines,” said Damm. “It turns out our machines just needed a K4000 boost.”

©2013 Paramount Pictures. Images courtesy of Pixomondo.