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There’s been a lot of commentary on just how expensive Apple’s new Mac Pro can get — a fully loaded configuration will set you back over $50,000, and that’s without adding any of Apple’s $4,999 Pro Display XDRs. It’s a system that’s clearly designed for serious pros with the kind of power that the typical Mac user couldn’t even hope to take advantage of.
Apple already teased the Mac Pro’s horsepower last spring, with an update to Logic Pro X that shows how it delivers the kind of performance that sound teams for major productions like Game of Thrones would need, with the ability to lay down hundreds of tracks simultaneously.
In other words, this is not a Mac for anybody who doesn’t have specialized needs, and even if you had money to burn on a fully loaded Mac Pro, chances are you couldn’t even begin to use the power that’s available under the hood — unless of course you’re actually producing a feature film or doing high-end animation or video and sound production.
In fact, the raw computing power that the Mac Pro offers, especially as you up the specs to the maximum levels — like a 28-core Intel Xeon CPU and 1.5 TB of RAM — is hard to truly comprehend. A Reddit user recently shared benchmarks for a maxed-out Mac Pro which easily demonstrates that the very highest-end games or iMovie and GarageBand projects wouldn’t even use a fraction of the power that’s available in this thing, but as new benchmarks and case studies from actual professionals come to light, we’re getting a glimpse of just what this beast is capable of, and it’s clear that Apple is playing in a market here that almost no PC manufacturer even comes close to.
The Next Level
Earlier this week, Lunar Animation, the British studio behind the movie, Jumanji: The Next Level, shared their story about how early access to a new Mac Pro made a huge difference in their work on the movie.
Lunar Animation opened its doors back in 2014, and based their entire production system around the Mac, but unfortunately the lack of updates to the cylindrical 2013 Mac Pro had them beginning to lose hope that they’d be able to continue on this road. They had several conversations about possibly switching to PCs before Apple released the iMac Pro in 2017. The company picked up several of these to use as studio workstations that allowed them to at least keep going,
The iMac Pro studio workstations used a standard configuration of a 3.0 GHz 10-core Intel Xeon W processor with the 16 GB Radeon Pro Vega 64, 64 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB SSD. They also used a set of industry-standard software applications, such as Maya for 3D modelling and animation, Nuke for compositing, DaVinci Resolve for video editing, and Photoshop for image editing.
The iMac Pros were enough to get the job done, but it turns out that they didn’t hold a candle to what the Mac Pro was able to accomplish. Apple provided Lunar with a “mid-range” early release Mac Pro with a 3.2 GHz 16-core Intel Xeon W, 192 GB of RAM, two Radeon Pro Vega II GPUs with 32 GB of HDM2 memory each, a 4 TB SSD, and an Apple Afterburner card. They also got a Pro Display XDR thrown in.
Lunar said this couldn’t have come at a better time, as they were working on the end animated credits for the movie, and were under a tight time constraint with only four weeks to get it done — which is a very short time in the world of animation, due to the length of time it takes to render even pre-production sequences, much less final versions.
The project had to be photorealistic and there were 28 unique panels for the credits, with each panel featuring at least one prop related to the movie. This was spread across a two minute sequence. The project would be done with a single camera move and there were also weather effects to create.
As hard as it may be to believe, the complexity of this sequence began pushing the powerful iMac Pro workstations beyond their limits, with all of the high-resolution assets hitting the upper edge of the available graphics memory. The only realistic options on the iMac Pro were to either clamp the resolution of the textures, resulting in a much lower resolution for what was supposed to be an 8K sequence, or to do a time-consuming full render, which wasn’t an option due to the need to send out updates daily.
The Mac Pro, however, was able to chew through this sequence without even breaking a sweat. Lunar’s team opened the same scene on the Mac Pro and everything loaded up completely fine. This wasn’t a surprise considering that the Mac Pro had twice the graphics memory as the iMac Pro, but what did surprise the team was that the Mac Pro was able to play the sequence back in real-time without having to pre-cache anything. Even when Lunar’s animators clamped the textures into a lower resolution on the iMac Pro, they still couldn’t get consistent 24 fps playback.
In fact, the Mac Pro clearly had power to spare, since after unlocking the 24 fps cap, the Mac Pro was able to offer playback at speeds of up to 134 fps. This was game-changing as it allowed the animators to work with the content directly, and review, preview, and change everything “at lightning speed.” The Mac Pro’s 10 GB Ethernet connection also allowed them to seamlessly work with all of the assets live from a network server, rather than having to make local copies.
When it came time to render the resulting footage, the Mac Pro also naturally ran circles around the iMac. The Jumanji animators already considered their iMac Pros to be “incredibly fast” machines with 10-core CPUs, but of course the Mac Pro did much better, rendering images in 70% of the time of the iMac Pro — an image that took 37 minutes to render on the iMac Pro took only 26 minutes on the Mac Pro.
These numbers became even more impressive when rendering animation sequences, where the Mac Pro took only 5 minutes to render a realistic steam simulation on top of a coffee cup, thanks to the ability of Houdini to use the Mac Pro’s GPU as an accelerator. By comparison, the same sequence took 21 minutes on the iMac Pro. These numbers are especially important when you consider that animators have to re-render these sequences many times in order to make adjustments, and this is only a single short animation sequence. If you have to render a sequence like this even just a dozen times, you’re already saving over three hours of work. When time is money, and deadlines must be met, it’s easy to see how a Mac Pro can easily pay for itself in a professional setting.
The Mac Pro also excelled in running multiple applications all at the same time. As a test, the Lunar animators fired up five different applications, having them playback sequences in full 8K resolution, render images, save out massive Photoshop files, and run simulations, and found that it was able to handle all of this without missing a beat or even dropping a frame.
The Real Game Changer
As powerful as the Mac Pro was compared to the iMac Pro, the team noted that the “real game changer” was the Pro Display XDR, which gave them an ability that they previously didn’t have — “a phenomenally accurate visual representation” of the content that they were making.
Knowing that our final files were accurate saved us the cost of spending money to rent out a facility to check the files, which in all honesty we didn’t have time to do because of the tight turnaround.
The Pro Display XDR was able to do the job of a “reference monitor” that normally costs £30,000 (~$39,000 USD) — an amount of money that a smaller studio like Lunar couldn’t afford to drop on a monitor.
So we can safely say that the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR levelled up (excuse the pun) what we could do within the timeframe we had on the Jumanji project. As a complicated single animation scene, we were able to watch the sequence in real-time with the full resolution assets and their textures. We could quickly make fixes and changes, and save out a play blast to showcase to the client (saving out at 139 frames-per-second). We could run our simulations and render out frames faster. To make this even better, we were able to do all these things at the same time and with the Pro Display XDR, we were able to ensure that our final deliverables were an accurate representation of what we wanted to send to the client.
What’s especially worth keeping in mind here is that this was the difference the Mac Pro made just for creating and rendering a two-minute animation sequence. Of course, this shows how much work goes into creating the animations that we often take for granted when we watch the movies — four weeks to create two minutes of animation — but if the Mac Pro can save studios this kind of time and money when working on short animation sequences, it’s easy to imagine the value of the Mac Pro for producing full-length animated feature films.