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November 2014
Issue: October 1, 2010

Review: Studio GPU’s MachStudio Pro

By: Dariush Derakhshani
I like things done quick. In spots, that’s the mantra. You need results fast with minimal time spent chasing your own tail. With style frames or look development, this couldn’t be more true. When I was approached to try out ATI’s FirePro V8750 alongside Studio GPU’s MachStudio Pro, I was intrigued.

Here is a hardware-accelerated realtime rendering package bundled with an incredible graphics card, what’s not to love? Real-time rendering is to the world of CG what WYSIWYG was to word processing and publishing so many years ago. And MachStudio Pro is a serious contender.

First, I have to admit, I don’t like change. Having migrated to a solid VRay rendering workflow recently, and delighted to do so I might add, I was hesitant to throw another curve into the mix. I mean, how would MachStudio Pro be useful for me? If there is a shot I need to set a look for, I do it in VRay, pass off whatever info I need to, and ask my crew to go ahead and “make.” I don’t need anything new. But then I actually sat down and got to work with MachStudio.



UP AND RUNNING

What struck me first was the ease of the interface. It is very much in line with navigation and terminology you’d find in packages like Maya or 3DS Max, and that makes it much easier to proceed. The charm to a package like Maya for me is the object oriented presentation of your scene (via Outliner, Hypergraph, etc.). So what I flocked to in MachStudio’s UI was the Scene Manager, a clear Outliner-like window that presents all the objects in your scene and access to controlling/adjusting them. On the other side of the UI is a Properties section listing all the parameters and attributes you can change for any selected object. Again, very intuitive for users, since the MachStudio UI invokes what the Attribute Editor/Command Panel can do in Maya/Max, respectively.

The installation came with some very logical tutorials to help you pick up the program. As I tooled around inside the package, the pluses of the program became pretty apparent. The “preview” of the scene in the viewport was really a realtime running render as I built my scene. It took me a little time to dig into it to get better images out, but I was impressed with how fast I could turn around look development renders and specific passes. Using the massive power of the FirePro card, MachStudio Pro was able to put out impressive images at a minute fraction of the time it would take to render through software.

Now, to be fair, you are using the lighting and shading engines inherent to the program, so you won’t be able to export what you’ve created to be used in VRay or Mental Ray, or such other renderer, but that’s true of pretty much all renderers. The advantages here are the ability to power through a style frame or look development and hand that off to artists to recreate in a large pipeline — if you are in a collaborative studio environment with existing software, that is. The smaller boutique appeal here is much greater. Here, as a single artist, for example, you can develop a look and render out final frames in a flash.

Because, simply put, as you work your scene, adding or adjusting lights or HDR environments, changing depth of field or ambient occlusion, you can actually see the final result (or very close to it) right there in the viewport in realtime. This is very empowering for a visual artist whose every move needs to affect the final rendered look. For example, you can see how your HDRI will bloom in certain areas, or how the haze of a DOF effect will affect your lensing as you work, instead of having to run renders and check every single time you adjust a value or attribute.

Any look you need to achieve you should be able to through the healthy material pipeline in MachStudio Pro. Getting good at making your own shaders should not take very long once you get the hang of it, and here is where MachStudio’s relative ease of use comes in handy. The feedback you get makes it easier to adjust material properties and also understand what it is you are adjusting. I really wish this interactive feedback in the viewport was available in Maya and Max to this extent. Although I do prefer Maya’s truly nifty Hypershade workflow to any other shading system I’ve tried. Regardless, MachStudio’s material tutorials get you going pretty well, and any lighter already somewhat familiar with shader workflows will be pretty productive very quickly. As a matter of fact, this general ease of use in relation to its quality output I’d say is perhaps the most remarkable part of the program. To be honest, I really would have to spend a few months with the program as my primary CG platform on the job to get to a point where I can really push the limits of the package like I do with Maya. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface here, and that’s a good thing. There’s a lot more I’m sure I can do in MachStudio Pro than the several weeks of fiddling I’ve had with it, and I look forward to further tinkering on my own.

FINAL THOUGHTS
It’s important to note that you needn’t have a FirePro card from ATI for its realtime benefits. MachStudio Pro will work with many other video cards, Nvidia included. It’s safe to say though, that the more robust your video subsystem is, the more you could expect from your experience in MachStudio Pro. That’s why the ATI FirePro cards themselves are worth looking into with overall great price to performance ratios.
 
I do think however, that the pricing for the MachStudio Pro package is (at the time of this writing) a bit high at $3,999 list for the software package and $4,999 bundled with the FirePro V8800. If cost is no issue, you certainly can’t argue with the sheer power from this powerful package; getting good renders as you work is really something to behold. And with Pixar RenderMan integration and Meta SL and Mental Ray support announced recently in the upcoming MachStudio Pro 2.0 release, this package is something to really keep an eye on.