High-performance computing boosts art and design students’ creative power
February 14, 2019
Virginia Tech students can use high-performance computing for their creative work to build robust project portfolios to blaze their trails in the world.
The School of Visual Arts in Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies offers an advanced rendering class for students in design-based programs, including architecture, industrial design, and interior design. Students in the school’s graduate and undergraduate creative technologies programs also take the course. Rendering involves converting 3D wireframe models into still or animated 2D images that can be displayed on a screen. It is in this class where students hone their skills learning advanced techniques to create complex animations.
Virginia Tech students use RenderMan, rendering technology developed by Pixar to help create 3D animation and visual effects, and process their work in on-campus computer labs, which have the computational power required to complete the work. Rendering huge batch files on these computers has proved to be problematic, however. The actual rendering process takes a significant amount of time, especially when relying on the limited resources of the lab computers.
“A typical project could have 350 frames to render, with each frame taking around an hour to render in the lab,” said Phat Nguyen, a visiting instructor in the School of Visual Arts who teaches the advanced rendering class. “Even if a student is lucky enough to find an available computer in the lab, there’s no way he or she can stay with the computer while it renders for hundreds of hours. If an error occurs while you’re not there and the rendering process fails, you lose valuable time. Many students would drive to campus in the middle of the night just to check rendering progress.”
A possible solution? High-performance computing.
The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) had already forged a partnership with the university’s Division of Information Technology, which created a high-speed connection to its high-performance computing networks for the institute’s data-intensive projects in the Cube.
Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Computing (ARC) group in the Division of Information Technology offers shared high-performance computing resources to support the Virginia Tech research community, as well as non-research users who need more high-end computing power than departmental systems can provide. Offering high-performance computing services on ARC’s clusters means the computational processing, management, and data storage needs are all serviced remotely. Historically, such resources have only been available to support large research projects, but Ben Knapp, the director of ICAT, saw a potential collaboration between ARC and the School of Visual Arts.
“As we continue to advance to the forefront of the arts and technology field, we’re really pushing the envelope for high-performance computing needs at the university,” said Knapp. “We’re a new and different kind of user group. We have students and faculty doing Pixar-level animation here and it doesn’t make sense for us to buy more local computers that will become obsolete in two years to do this work. Virginia Tech’s ARC group has scaled their services to meet our needs and students can now access the university’s ARC cluster resources wherever they are.”
The Division of Information Technology’s ARC unit is working closely with the School of Visual Arts to streamline workflows, allocating a portion of its powerful resources to process students’ 3D animations. The group also hosted training workshops for creative technologies students to help guide them through the new rendering process.
Following the workshop, the ARC team asked the creative technologies students about their experience using the new high-performance computing/RenderMan pilot and found that most of them liked or would recommend the technology. One student commented that it would allow her to have more complete animations in her portfolio, rather than a collection of unfinished projects.
Tianyu Ge is a current graduate student in the School of Visual Arts’ creative technologies program. He completed his undergraduate work at Virginia Tech, majoring in computer science with a focus on human-computer interaction.
“Working with this technology might be intimidating for students at first, especially for those who have not worked with command line before, but having experience working with high-performance computing systems can sometimes be a make-or-break skill for positions like technical artists,” Ge said. “Rendering is, undoubtedly, the most time-consuming part of our 3D class and many students tend to underestimate how long their rendering can take. Being able to see our work faster motivates us to create more sophisticated scenes while still being able to submit our work before project deadlines.”
“When the rendering process is complete, students really see their work come to life. They have a complete product that shows the results of their efforts. When students can’t go from the rendering process to a final file, it’s like starting a sketch but never having a painting," Nguyen said. "What was taking the students a week to render before can now be done in a day with ARC. And now students can create more projects for their portfolios.”