As a designer, I believe that a good idea and solid execution are the most important parts of the creative process, and I usually try to avoid the hype and allure of shiny new products as much as I possibly can (but oh, I want that new iPhone). Many times the latest refresh of a particular piece of software or hardware makes little impact on the total workflow. However, there are other times when an emerging technology radically advances your process. The transition between 32- and 64-bit computing currently underway is one such example.
Without getting too technical, the primary reason to use 64-bit processing is because it allows your computer to utilize more than the 4-gigabyte limit on RAM and Virtual Memory imposed by the previous generation, 32-bit. Because the operating system takes up some of that space in memory, all of us who have 4GB of RAM in our MacBooks (or equivalent PCs) couldn’t really even use all of it until Snow Leopard came out (or your 64-bit version of Windows). For those of you with a beefier machine with more than 4GB of RAM, such as the Mac Pro, this means an even more dramatic increase in performance.
Now that Adobe has released Creative Suite 5, and the primary content-creation apps, Photoshop and After Effects, have been rewritten in 64-bit code, a lot of us should start seeing huge performance gains over the previous iteration of the Creative Suite. I have a basic set of tools I always use. Photoshop and After Effects are my bread and butter, and I complement them with the Trapcode Suite and the Magic Bullet Suite, both made by Red Giant Software. Red Giant is doing an excellent job of keeping up with 64-bit versions of their plugins, with both of those suites available now, and updates for the rest of their software due out soon.
Render times on my two machines have been cut nearly in half. I make a lot of stuff with Trapcode Particular, also from Red Giant, which generates hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny particles useful for effects like smoke, fire, bubbles, rain, sparkles, etc. These kind of effects find their way into nearly every show, and as you can guess, they are extremely taxing on the computer because of the large amount of math needed to generate them and the large amount of memory used to track the thousands of particles. Allowing the software to access the entirety of the RAM in my machine cuts down the time I spend waiting for the machine and frees it up for useful things like actually designing, or showing clients my animatics and pre-visualizations.
Another plugin that I find myself using constantly is Trapcode Lux, which allows your 3D light objects in After Effects to appear voluminous, so you can see the beam. Often, when collaborating with the lighting and set designers, I’ll load the set rendering into After Effects and pop on a few 3D lights with Lux to get an idea of what we might be looking at once we are in the theatre. Before the 64-bit version, I could really only use five to six lights before things started to really slow down. It’s fine if it is acting slowly when I’m alone, and I’m going to let the computer render for a while, but when I’m working with two other designers, I really need the computer to be snappy so we can all work efficiently. Currently, I can use more like 19 to 20 lights in a scene and still scrub through the timeline quick enough to be an effective live visualization tool. Of course, the real theatre has many more lights, and lighting designers have their own tools for visualizations, but using this technique has always been a great help to me for expressing the collaborative ideas we need to make it look good when we get to the theatre.
It’s no secret that computers are getting faster and more efficient, but if you’ve been putting off upgrading your gear, you may do well to consider a 64-bit operating system and a compliment of 64-bit software to speed up your workflow.
Daniel Brodie is a freelance New York-based projection designer and multimedia artist. Recently, he was the assistant projection designer on Rock of Ages and Sondheim on Sondheim. Check out brodiegraphics.com, inc.