How a Render Farm Squeezed Into an Apartment Brought to Life a World Ruled by Robots

by Tony Kontzer

Filmmakers flock each year to the GPU Technology Conference to share tales of how GPUs are transforming their art.

The latest is from Kevin Margo, who talked at a breakout session about how the extensive renderings in his new short film, “Construct”—an ambitious tale of a future ruled by robots—was accelerated by the latest NVIDIA GPUs.

“I can’t keep up with feeding content into GPUs to render,” Margo said. “It’s usually the other way around, and you’re waiting for renders to get back to you.”

For “Construct,” the added compute power has meant a smaller render farm, one that can fit into his L.A. apartment. It’s also led to a smaller team. Despite that shrunken footprint, Margo, who works days as a visual effects supervisor at Blur Studios, hasn’t sacrificed speed. Quite the opposite.

Gone are the days when filmmakers wait for renders. Now, as Margo and his crew work on the film, they’re able to see CGI renderings of the live-action, motion-capture scenes they’re shooting, in real time.

And, as Margo put it, “Faster rendering means faster development.”

But it’s not just speed that Margo gains. It’s quality. Before, poor visuals and latency frustrated Margo and his crew when attempting to view real-time renderings during motion-capture shoots.

Margo craved being able to view photorealistic renderings that tracked with the actor’s motions. In other words, as actors perform stunts in front of him, he wanted to see something as close to a finished product as possible—with robots battling in a CGI environment with full lighting and shading.

Mission accomplished. And the payoff has been a breakthrough in creative freedom.

“There’s so much spontaneity that comes when all these elements are working at the same time,” Margo said.

Now Margo and his crew have added yet another wrinkle by uploading footage to a cloud-based GPU cluster. They then stream back the rendered version in real time.

In essence, Margo is moving closer to what he calls a “hybrid live action experience” in which he’s able to replicate the live action workflow in a real-time CGI setting.

And that, Margo says, has made him a better filmmaker by providing him with a different perspective.

“You can discover things in a way that you couldn’t before.”