Mac Setups: A High-End Animation Studio
Have you ever wondered exactly what hardware was used to create the stunning visual effects, animation, and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) you see in in movies, video games, and commercials? Well, this weeks Mac setup will show you. Much more than a single workstation, it’s an entire Mac-based animation studio in Sheffield, UK! From a group of maxed out Retina iMacs to an amazing Mac Mini render-farm, this office is a Mac fans dream.
Let’s get to it and learn about the production hardware and software used in a high-end animation studio.
What do you use your Apple gear for?
We are an animation studio and create pretty much every different type of animation you can imagine. This involves everything from the scripting side, to character animation to the creation of 3D models and final rendering. We also create concept art and do editing for the films we make. Here is a link to our website where we have a showreel that showcases some of our recent work:
(Showreel embedded further below for easy viewing)
What hardware is used in the animation studio? Why choose that particular kit?
As our main production machines we use maxed out 5K Retina iMac’s with 32GB of RAM. They’re the fastest single core machine on the market and their beautiful display is perfect for creating digital content, a lot of which now needs to be 4K. We chose the Retina over the mac pro’s as we wouldn’t have been able to have 5K displays for the same kind of money. The 5K third party monitors look terrible on your desk and their colour reproduction is always questionable and when we purchased the iMac’s on release last year, you would have had to pay a similar amount of money just for a 5K third party display. In fact on just checking the prices now the Dell monitor is still £2000 (~$3100). We also kitted the iMac’s out with 500GB SSD’s as we’ve used the fusion drives in the past and they can be slow if you’re working with large files and more annoyingly they make more noise. With our use being for studio content creation all of our content lives on an external 20TB thunderbolt drive, so we don’t need to keep that much content installed locally. Also for the rare use of installing windows (Mainly for after work gaming) having the SSD meant that we would have the speed of the SSD on the windows side as well, which once you’re used to is hard to go back.
Main Production Machines:
- 4 x 5K Retina iMac 27″ – 32GB RAM – 512GB SSD – 4Ghz Quad Core i7 CPU
We also have some standard iMac’s that are the previous generation, also maxed out that are hooked up to the retina iMac’s for use as a second display when they’re not in use as a machine for freelancers working within the studio. When these iMac’s are being used as second displays or not actively being used by someone, they’re also able to join the render farm and contribute to rendering out the animation.
Secondary Production Machines:
- 2 x iMac (late 2012) – 32GB RAM – 3TB Fusion Drives – 3.4Ghz Quad core i7
We also have a Mac Mini render farm, which we use to render out animation from the productions we work on. Each Mac Mini had to be sourced from resellers and second hand sources as Apple downgraded the recent refreshed models to dual core machines that are significantly less powerful than the previous generation. For our use these need to have fast multithreading to essentially crunch through rendering the animation. We decided to use mac minis as they’re very small, taking up little space in the studio and have a good cost to processing power ratio. They’re also easy enough to replace and upgrade and it wouldn’t be hard when it comes time to upgrade, for us to sell the models we have and still retain most of their value. These Quad Core i7 machines are becoming very hard to find and can cost more than Apple originally charged when looking on eBay.
Mac Mini Renderfarm:
- 14 x Mac Mini – 16GB RAM – 128GB SSD’s – 2.6 Ghz Quad Core i7
All of our content is stored and managed by our server. For that we use a Mac mini server. It’s connected to all the content which is stored on a Lacie Big 20TB drive via Thunderbolt. We utilise all of the USB outputs on the server using link bonded ethernet so we can get the maximum amount of throughput via gigabit ethernet to aid in multiple computers being able to access the the server without the limitation of one ethernet cable. The server is also connected to the internet and organises all of our online backup and local backup. For local backup we also have a 20TB Drobo which backs up our main server drive incase of any issues it can be hot swapped so we don’t lose production time.
Mac Mini Server:
- Mac Mini – 16GB RAM – 128GB SSD – 2.6 Ghz Quad core i7
- 1 x 20TB Lacie Big – Thunderbolt Drive – Raid 5
- 1 x 20TB Drobo Raid – Thunderbolt Drive – Drobo Raid
WIFI / PRODUCTION BACKUP:
We use a time capsule for our main production machines backup. This is the great thing about limiting the size of the Retina iMac’s to 500GB, as it allows us to back up all of our content to a single 3TB Time Capsule. This also doubles up as our office wifi.
- 1 x 3TB Time Capsule
We have plenty of other tech related gadgets that aid us in the creation of animation here at the studio. We have one final piece of apple tech that we would struggle without which is an iPad Air 2, we use this for controlling our premiere edit when reviewing content in stereoscopic 3D. When reviewing one of our films on our TV wearing 3D glasses it’s hard to move between clips and analyse the shots that we’re working on, we use an app called CTRL+Console. So we can review without the need to switch out of full screen mode. The TV we have is mainly used for reviewing content we create and with one of our services being stereoscopic it was important to ensure we have a 3D TV but one that also produces 4K, so we are able to review the full resolution in stereoscopic 3D. We decided to go with the Sony Bravia as they have excellent colour reproduction compared to a lot of other TV’s. Finally all of our films have surround sound and it was important that we would be able to review this content and future content effectively. We decided to purchase an ONKYO Dolby Atmos setup so we can move into mixing for even more immersive content.
- iPad Air 2 – 16GB – Wifi
- Sony Bravia 55” – 4K – 3D TV
- ONKYO Dolby Atmos 5.1.2
What are the essential apps for an animation studio like this?
We use a variety of software for all of the different aspects of what we do. There are however 5 key pieces of software that we use and could not do what we do without, these are:
- Maya (Character Animation)
- Modo (Modeling and Rendering)
- Nuke (Compositing)
- Photoshop (Concept Art / Texture Work)
- Premiere (Editing)
We also use other other software which are also extremely useful and are used on a daily basis:
- Final Cut Pro
- Final Draft
- SquidNet for the renderfarm, allows different pieces of software to render across multiple computers
The showreel below offers a look into some recent work achieved with this setup and apps:
Do you have any Apple tips, productivity tricks, life hacks, or otherwise helpful information you want to share with others?
Use Mac OS X, as it will allow you to create content faster, it’s more stable than a Windows machine and you can manage so much content all at the same time… But you knew that already right?
Have an interesting Mac setup you want to share? Maybe it’s your own personal setup or an entire office like this, anything goes as long it’s an Apple-focused workstation! Answer a few questions about hardware and usage, take a few good photos, and send it on in!
Or browse through previously featured Mac setups, we have a lot of other great workstations to check out!
You perform a GREAT job, but this comment comes from a fanboy snob: “Use Mac OS X, as it will allow you to create content faster, it’s more stable than a Windows”… nice try, BUT
“Apple downgraded the recently refreshed models to dual-core machines that are significantly less powerful than the previous generation. ” AHHH that’s the real Apple spirit, wipe your tears and render on PC, It’s cheaper you know… or keep looking on the wasteland for your old mac minis.
I would also love to to know what the extra long black mouse pads are?
Have to ask.. what kind of mouse pad is that?
Curious… are you using OS X server on the server and what are the advantages of your decision to do so or not.
mac mini’s are a bad choice for a render farm. you get twice the power for half the cost with a supermicro setup. only disadvantage would be noise.
Good article, thank you for sharing. Just a quick question, please:
Are your iMacs Nvidia or AMD? What year manufacture?
At school I use Maya, C4d, & Adobe suite for CG animation & editing 4K and am considering a maxed out iMac 27″ i7 512 SSD, 32 ram (late 2015), but am concerned about running Maya on an AMD gpu vs. an NVIDIA gpu. I would be grateful for any feedback.
I guess the last tip was ironic, given that they’re pros. Windows workstations from reputable vendors are just as stable in production, and they’re the norm in most CG shops. Unfortunately they also have the better software selection, especially when it comes to plugins and little helper programs, but that’s finally about to change.
Wow, Nice! Where do I send my CV? ;-)
Mac for CGI?
ROOKIE STUDIO !!!
Your comment studio is very pro, however. Obviously. No rookie comment there.
Pixar uses Macs…
SICK!!! And I thought my setup was off the hook.
Nice work – that Mustang looked great!
It actually took me a while to realize the car and scenery was CGI, I thought it was film. Great stuff,
Wow! I’m not sure what else to say!
@RichardJellicoe it looks like a Logitech MX performance, l use it as well with my 5k imac
What mouse are you using in the second picture?
Wow this is great. How do you tell the Mac mini to work together on a render farm? Is there an app for that? can I put a bunch of Mac minis on my desk and make them crunch SETI or something? Cool. This is great.
Per the comments:
“SquidNet for the renderfarm, allows different pieces of software to render across multiple computers”
This is the greatest Mac setup post ever.
I want that Mac Mini server farm!!
About the Mac Mini: you’re absolutely right, that generation was the best! I don’t know why Apple ‘revamped’ the model and made it weaker than the prior generation, which now sells for $1500+ on third party sites! It was a great Mac, hopefully they put some real effort into the Mac Mini hardware again. Would love to get a quad-core Mini again, maybe with the new Intel Skylake CPU? We can hope!
I’m so glad I bought my 2012 Mini when I did. It is a beast, 256 GB SSD, 16 GB of RAM, and it drives two Thunderbolt displays like a boss!
My only regret, I should have gotten the quad-core.