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Behind the scenes with NVIDIA

By Henry Winchester

Web: www.NVIDIA.com (will open in new window)

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Date Added: 21st March 2014

We chat to Greg Estes about the graphics chip company's involvement with Gravity and Pixar, and plans for its upcoming event...

As job titles go, 'vice president of marketing for the Professional Visualization and Design Business and leader of the Media & Entertainment industry focus for the company' has got to be the most unwieldy we've come across. The business card-busting moniker has been assigned to NVIDIA's Greg Estes, who is basically the guy responsible for promoting cool stuff you can do with graphics cards, if you couldn't work it out from his title.

"Sometimes I joke that we're a software company
masquerading as a hardware company”

Greg was in London to talk about what NVIDIA's up to at the moment, and to discuss how differently-sized companies are using its products for different applications and functions. Top of the list is Quadro, NVIDIA's professional graphics chip, and its various iterations and functions.

"A lot of the work we put into Quadro, it's not about the board or the chip – it's about the drivers,” says Greg. "We have more software engineers than we do hardware engineers. Sometimes I joke that we're a software company masquerading as a hardware company.

"The eco system that we put around Quadro is really robust in terms of the professional drivers that we have to go with Quadro. We're working with our ISV (independent software vendor) partners, there's more than 175 GPU-accelerated applications for Quadro, so it's very, very high.”

Quadro is central to NVIDIA's dominance of the professional graphics market, with the chip largely responsible for its 82% market share. A big part of its popularity is its versatility and robustness – as well as being used for entertainment such as computer generated imagery and videogames, it's found its way into architecture design, medical imaging, and even oil and gas exploration.

The images are from Pixomondo – an international visual effects company that provided stunning visual effects work for J.J. Abram's epic Star Trek Into Darkness
Image credit (as supplied by PR): ©2013 Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Pixomondo

"Framestore are using us across their pipeline”

The Gravity of the situation

Among NVIDIA's biggest clients are effects house Framestore, which has been in the news rather a lot thanks to a little film called Gravity. "They're using us across their pipeline,” says Greg, "from the first time that they're bringing in high-resolution camera imagery to the editing and compositing using their own software that they've written using our CUDA technology, as well as off the shelf commercial stuff in their pipeline. They're doing amazing work.”

Joining Framestore is Toy Story and Wall-E studio Pixar, which is finding that NVIDIA's cards are making its life a lot easier, especially when it comes to ray-tracing. "They're able to use the OptiX product in a lighting model to do real-time lighting of scenes,” says Greg.

"The artists understand where all the soft shadows are falling and if there's a reflection off this or that – it's just amazing”

"They've shown us in the past with scenes from Monsters University, for example, that before they'd have to use 100 plus lights to get a scene lit the way that they wanted it to, and now they can just interactively place lights within a scene and get it lit. The artists understand where all the soft shadows are falling and if there's a reflection off this or that – it's just amazing.”

With Quadro K4000-accelerated workstations, Pixomondo artists were able to accomplish more each day with reduced waiting times and overall frustration
Image credit (as supplied by PR): ©2013 Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Pixomondo

Clouding the issue

The future for NVIDIA, however, lies in cloud computing. Until now it's been something of an empty promise, a buzzword used to shift units. But NVIDIA has managed to get it to work exactly as it should, with a server-specific graphics card installed on the same network as a 'thin' client – a low-powered computer.

Known as ‘Grid', it's an amazingly complex piece of engineering, requiring a graphics card which can read and understand inputs from the client computer – such as mouse movements and keyboard inputs – apply them to a 3D model, and translate them back to the client's display at a rate of 70 frames per second.

"Once you can do that it sets up all kinds of things – including playing parlor tricks,” says Greg. "We can take software that only runs on Windows, and run it on a Mac, because it's just a window, and all the processing's done over there.” But the scalability of the cloud-based system goes far beyond confusing your IT helpdesk.

"Let's say you've got a design team and they're doing PLM [product lifecycle management] data,” says Greg. "They're not trying to visualize an entire airplane at one time, but they need to look at the lugnuts on a Boeing 777's wheels. People need to do that, and the amount of GPU horsepower that you need is not what you need if you're Framestore and you're doing the visual effects for Gravity. You're just in a completely different place – but it's not on zero.”

Pixomondo created about 300 shots for Star Trek Into Darkness, approximately one third of the film's visual effects, mostly focusing on lighting and scene assembly
Image credit (as supplied by PR): ©2013 Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Pixomondo

Advertising feature

Light users aren't limited to less complex visualizations. Ad agencies, such as London's Hogarth Worldwide, tend to work primarily in 2D using programs such as After Effects, with a little 3D work and Photoshopping on the side. In a scenario like this Greg reckons NVIDIA's technology could get up to 8 designers and animators working from the same server-side graphics processing unit.

Greg is also aware of the changing nature of the industry, where studios can consist of a couple of super talented individuals creating polished, high-definition visuals. "This is a shot from Ghost Town Media, the work that they did on a Linkin Park video, A Light That Never Comes,” Greg says.

The video for Linkin Park and Steve Aoki's A Light That Never Comes was made by Ghost Town Media,
and it's entirely CG from start to finish

"They used tools like After Effects and just a couple of Quadro systems, they're doing work that's competing and winning with the big guys for major music video projects. They brought the band members and did digital scans of them, and took that 3D data and brought it in and created a fully 3D world and did all the processing on that and composited it all together.”

"Pixar will be at GTC giving 5 different talks on how they're using NVIDIA GPU technology in their pipeline”

Conference call

The primary reason for Greg's visit is to promote the GPU Technology Conference (GTC), an NVIDIA-sponsored event which takes place on March 24-27 in San Jose, California. "Pixar will be at GTC giving 5 different talks on how they're using NVIDIA GPU technology in their pipeline,” says Greg.

"This whole area of GPU rendering is something you're going to see more of at GTC. Traditionally most of the rendering that you'd see in Hollywood has been done on a CPU, you'd see it in RenderMan, but more and more applications are coming up that are being done on the GPU.”

Related links

GPU Technology Conference
Ghost Town Media official site

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