Minimalism versus Complexity in Post

The prevailing wisdom is that Apple might preview the next Mac Pro at its annual WWDC event coming in a couple of weeks. Then the real product would likely be available by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see what that brings, given that the current Mac Pro was released in 2013 with no refreshes in between. And older Mac Pro towers (mid-2009-2012) are still competitive (with upgrades) against the current run of Apple’s Mac product line.

Many professional users are hoping for a user-upgradeable/expandable machine, like the older towers. But that hasn’t been Apple’s design and engineering trend. MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, and iMac Pros are more sealed and non-upgradeable than their predecessors. The eGPU and eGPU Pro units manufactured by Blackmagic Design are, in fact, largely an Apple design with Apple engineering specifications intended to meet power, noise and heat parameters. As such, you can’t simply pop in a newer, faster GPU chip, as you can with GPU cards and the Sonnet eGPU devices.

What do we really need?

Setting emotions aside, the real question is whether such expandability is needed any longer. Over the years, I’ve designed, built, and worked in a number of linear edit suites, mixing rooms, and other environments that required a ton of outboard gear. The earliest nonlinear suites (even up until recently) were hardware-intensive. But is any of this needed any longer? My own home rig had been based on a mid-2009 Mac Pro tower. Over the years, I’ve increased RAM, swapped out three GPU cards, changed the stock hard drives for two SSDs and two 7200 RPM media drives (RAID-0), as well as added PCIe cards for eSATA/USB3 and Blackmagic Design monitor display. While at the time, each of those moves was justified, I do have to wonder whether that investment in money would have been better spent for computer model upgrades.

Today that same Mac Pro sits turned off next to my desk. While still current with most of the apps and the OS (not Mojave, though), it can’t accept Thunderbolt peripherals and a few apps, like Pixelmator Pro, won’t install, because they require Metal 2 (only available with newer hardware). So my home suite has shifted to a mid-2014 Mac Book Pro. In doing so, I have adopted the outboard modular solution over the cards-in-the-tower approach. This is largely possible today because small, compact computers – such as laptops – have become sufficiently powerful to deal with today’s video needs.

I like this solution because I can easily shift from location to home by simply plugging in one Thunderbolt cable linked to my OWC dock. The dock connects my audio interface, a few drives, and my primary 27″ Dell display. An additional plus is that I no longer have to sync my personal files and applications between my two machines (I prefer to avoid cloud services for personal documents). I bought a Rain Design laptop stand and a TwelveSouth BookArc, so that under normal use (with one display), the MBP tucks behind the Dell in clamshell mode sitting in the BookArc cradle. When I need a dual-display configuration, I simply bring out the Rain stand and open up the MBP next to the Dell.

Admittedly, this solution isn’t for everyone. If I never needed a mobile machine, I certainly wouldn’t buy a laptop. And if I needed heavy horsepower at home, such as for intensive After Effects work or grading 4K and 8K feature films, then I would probably go for a tower – maybe even one of the Puget Systems PCs that I reviewed. But most of what I do at home is standard editing with some grading, which nearly any machine can handle these days.

Frankly, if I were to start from scratch today, instead of the laptop, tower, and an iPad, I would be tempted to go with a fully-loaded 13″ MacBook Pro. For home, add the eGPU Pro, an LG 5K display, dock, audio i/o and speakers, and drives as needed. This makes for a lighter, yet capable editor in the field. When you get home, one Thunderbolt 3 cable from the eGPU Pro into the laptop would connect the whole system, including power to the MBP.

Of course, I like simple and sleek designs – Frank Lloyd Wright, Bauhaus, Dieter Rams, Scandinavian furniture, and so on. So the Jobs/Ive approach to industrial design does appeal to me. Fortunately, for the most part, my experience with Apple products has been a positive one. However, it’s often hard to make that work in a commercial post facility. After all, that’s where horsepower is needed. But does that necessarily mean lots of gear attached to our computers?

How does this apply to a post facility?

At the day job, I usually work in a suite with a 2013 Mac Pro. Since I do a lot of the Resolve work, along with editing, that Mac Pro cables up to two computer displays plus two grading displays (calibrated and client), a CalDigit dock, a Sonnet 10GigE adapter, a Promise RAID, a TimeMachine drive, the 1GigE house internet, and an audio interface. Needless to say, the intended simplicity of the Mac Pro design has resulted in a lot of spaghetti hanging off of the back. Clearly the wrong design for this type of installation.

Conversely, the same Mac Pro, in a mixing room might be a better fit – audio interface, video display, Thunderbolt RAID. Much less spaghetti. Our other edit stations are based around iMacs/iMac Pros with few additional peripherals. Since our clients do nearly all of their review-and-approval online, the need for a large, client-friendly suite has been eliminated. One room is all we need for that, along with giving the rest of the editors a good working environment.

Even the Mac Pro room could be simplified, if it weren’t for the need to run Resolve and Media Composer on occasion. For example, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X both send real video to an externally connected desktop display. If you have a reasonably accurate display, like a high-end consumer LED or OLED flat panel, then all editing and even some grading and graphic design can be handled without an additional, professional video display and hardware interface. Any room configured this way can easily be augmented with a roving 17″-34″ calibrated display and a mini-monitor device (AJA or BMD) for those ad hoc needs, like more intense grading sessions.

An interesting approach has been discussed by British editor Thomas Grove Carter, who cuts at London’s Trim, a commercial editorial shop. Since they are primarily doing the creative edit and not the finishing work, the suites can be simplified. For the most part, they only need to work with proxy or lighter-weight ProRes files. Thus, there are no heavy media requirements, as might be required with camera RAW or DPX image sequences. As he has discussed in interviews and podcasts (generally related to his use of Final Cut Pro X), Trim has been able to design edit rooms with a light hardware footprint. Often Trim’s editors are called upon to start editing on-site and then move back to Trim to continue the edit. So mobility is essential, which means the editors are often cutting with laptops. Moving from location or home to an edit suite at Trim is as simple as hooking up the laptop to a few cables. A large display for interface or video, plus fast, portable SSDs with all of the project’s media.

An installation built with this philosophy in mind can be further simplified through the use of a shared storage solution. Unlike in the past, when shared storage systems were complex, hard to install, and confusing to manage – today’s systems are designed with average users in mind. If you are moderately tech savvy, you can get a 10GigE system up and running without the need for an IT staff.

At the day-job shop, we are running two systems – QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish Rack. We use both for different reasons, but either system by itself is good for nearly any installation – especially Premiere Pro shops. If you are principally an FCPX shop, then Jellyfish will be the better option for you. A single ethernet cable to each workstation from a central server ‘closet’ is all that’s required for a massive amount of media storage available to every editor. No more shuffling hard drives, except to load location footage. Remember that shared storage allows for a distributed workflow. You can set up a simple Mac mini bay for assistant editors and general media management without the need to commandeer an edit suite for basic tasks.

You don’t have to look far to see that the assumptions of the past few decades in computer development and post-production facility design aren’t entirely valid any longer. Client interactions have changed and computer capabilities have improved. The need for all the extra add-ons and do-dads we thought we had to have is no longer essential. It’s no longer the driver for the way in which computers have to be built today.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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