Unlock extra horsepower

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Date Added: 1st October 2013
The race to create better graphics faster is always a hot topic. We look at how CG artists can speed up image and video creation with an optimised workstation experience using OpenCL technology
By Henry Winchester

What is OpenCL technology?

If you haven't heard of OpenCL, you should have. It's a programming language – but don't let that put you off. It basically makes things faster, and better. It does so by sharing vital processing tasks from the central processing unit (CPU) of your computer with the graphics processing unit (GPU). It may not sound like much, but in computing terms it's nothing short of revolutionary.

Previously, a graphics card was just that: a piece of hardware dedicated to pumping out polygons and vertexes and shaders. The CPU did all the nitty-gritty stuff, like solving equations and running your operating system. It's a system that worked because the CPU takes care of sequential computing, whereas the GPU does all the parallel stuff.

Think about it like muscles: the GPU is a fast-twitch muscle like a bicep, which can move quickly, whereas the CPU is a slow muscle like the ones found in your back. To lift a heavy weight above your head you'll need a bit of both. The problem is that, as it stands, your back muscle is doing all the work while your arm muscles could be working harder...

OpenCL transfers some of the power from your arm muscle onto your back muscle, which is where our bodybuilder metaphor falls down a little (he would have essentially had a bit of his arm grafted onto his back!). Anyway, OpenCL neatly splits computations and algorithms between the GPU and the CPU, which results in faster, better computing.

Why should I care about OpenCL?

So what does this unlikely tale of working out and processing chips mean for you, the casual creative type? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. We're entering an age where ultra high-quality stereoscopic visuals will become the norm in most walks of life, from an iPad to a PlayStation 4. Every single frame of a blockbuster or second of a videogame has been worked on by hundreds, if not thousands of people.

The pressure this puts on both artists and their computers is quite unlike anything we've ever experienced before – but thankfully, OpenCL takes care of the latter. It's already something which is in fruition, too, and Adobe's Creative Cloud software (Premiere Pro, After Effects or Photoshop) is custom-tuned to work with AMD FirePro graphics chips to take advantage of OpenCL's incredible power.

Optimize! Here's how you can do it, too...

Fire up Premiere Pro and the advantages of OpenCL in this high-pressure environment are immediately apparent. The mere act of opening a huge video file is boosted considerably, and it's ready to play with almost immediately after you double-click it. No more waiting for that interminable Processing dialogue - and it's ready to preview within seconds. You can add more of your favourite clips, and there's no lag or slowdown at all.

Right here, right now

With OpenCL technology, it's like you've got a whole new piece of software! Video clips are played back at full resolution on the timeline, so you can study each and every frame in minute detail and easily snip out little errors. You can add dynamic trims – such as a ripple cut between two scenes – without stuttering, and without having to half the resolution. Essentially, you're always working in real-time.


This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Premiere Pro's OpenCL improvements, and, as you'd expect, it really comes into its own when you add 3D effects to your videos. What's more is that you can do all this without your GPU fans whirring up like your computer's about to take off.


Advanced effects

It's not just Premiere Pro which takes on a whole new life with a FirePro graphics card. Essential motion graphics software After Effects is similarly improved, and it can add entire new layers of creative fun to video productions. It's become an important part of the TV and film industries, and it allows you to add pseudo 3D effects without the complexities of learning modelling software.

With an AMD Firepro graphics card installed you can import footage from your digital camcorder and it's available to manipulate almost immediately. Hardware-accelerated composition, layer and footage panels work much faster, and with Fast Draft preview mode you can see any changes in full quality, which is a massive boon if you're working with 4K files. You can also add a cel-shaded cartoon effect in a matter of seconds before chucking it into Premiere Pro.

One additional benefit comes with Adobe's SpeedGrade, which is used to alter colours and saturation within video files. It's the software that separates amateurs from professionals, and with an AMD FirePro card the pipeline between it and Premiere Pro is silky smooth. The Lumetri deep colour engine, with its endless grading options, is completely optimised for OpenCL too.


Image manipulation

Whether you're a designer or an artist, touching up and creating images in Photoshop has become second-nature. But it can still drag on the fastest of machines – unless you've got an AMD FirePro chip installed. The Mercury Graphics Engine renders images fluidly and quickly – even if they're absolutely huge.

The Oil Painting filter – previously a notorious system-hog – adds a tactile touch of class to your images in next to no time. Puppet Warp, which allows for mesh-like image manipulation is responsive, and the all-important Blur and Liquify tools work faster than ever. It's never been easier or faster to create astonishing works of art, and any busy artist will tell you how important it is to have those few precious extra seconds to complete their masterpiece.



Once all your work is done you'll want to exhibit it in the highest possible definition, which is where AMD's Eyefinity comes in handy. This hardware interface allows you to connect up to six monitors to a single card (depending on the model), and then configure them to stitch the displays together correctly.

Using this technology you can emulate a 4K display with four 1,080p monitors, or create a three-monitor wraparound for showing off panoramas. It's actually quite amazing to see, and it adds IMAX-like size and definition to your images and videos – even if you have just borrowed a monitor from a colleague to try it out!


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