Sunday, 17 September 2017

Singaporean Landscapes: Cut-and-paste greenery

With the opening of After The Fall at National Museum of Singapore in a few days time, I thought I should post up a series of entries about the design process of the holograms that I've been working on.

When I began thinking of my desired aesthetics for an imagined "Singaporean landscape", I can't think of anything more apt than clean textures and hard cut lines in the 3D models; that impression of some master designer's wildly clicking Ctrl-V all over the landscape. Bizarrely hard contrasts between forms - such as this example of the generic industrial property constructed within a hair's width of the highly decorative chinese temple:


View from the Bedok Park Connector: Taoist Federation Building meets Industrial Carpark on Bedok North Ave 4
(Photo: Debbie Ding)

Or another example is this pristine specimen of a concrete and metal crash barrier that I encountered the other day whilst out walking around Bedok - so blindingly white and perfectly new that it may as well have been a 3D render:

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ITS REAL



For efficiency, the top tip would be to cut away any faces/vertices that do not ever appear within the camera view so no processing power will be wasted on that information that you will never get to see within the final render. So for a very tall tree, you can simply cut off the tree's crown as long as you won't see it and you won't need the shadow of the leaves to impact on the overall scene.



If you did it right, you'll be able to dramatically reduce overall file size and render time. But the visual outcome is in the file you'll also see a lot of hard cuts in the virtual greenery... And whilst I was working in the isolation of my flat in London a few months ago when this project first began I was actually worried that I might have overdid things with my.. er... overzealous cutting-and-pasting. But I need not have worried! For upon returning to Singapore, I was gratified to see countless examples of this highly efficient cut-and-paste greenery at work:

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Recently the trees around Bedok Reservoir seem to have been subjected to a round of very fastidious tree pruning which look like a model picture of the cut-and-paste public greenery that was in my head. A cutting exercise facilitated no doubt by what they describe as more cutting-edge tree monitoring tech...

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Sunday, 3 September 2017

Goodbye Mac, Hello Windows: Windows alternatives to Spotlight, Quick-look and other Mac interface staples.



This year my 5 year old Macbook Pro had finally reached the point where its old processor seemed completely unable to handle the 3D work I needed to do for a project, so it was time to make the big migration to a new desktop replacement... and a new OS!... Because after an entire adult life of using Mac - I've switched to Windows!!!

I've been really disappointed by the blandly uninspiring offerings for the 2016/2017 Macbook Pro. In my opinion, Apple has failed to produce a reasonable 15" that can serve as a decent desktop replacement. What they've made instead is really just a bigger Macbook Air. There have only been minor improvements to the processor, RAM is still capped at 16GB, the touch bar seems to have inflated the overall machine cost, and in order to reduce the thickness and weight of the machine, the USB ports and SD Card reader have been taken out, despite the fact that a majority of digital camera users still currently use SD cards and that whole argument about moving towards a future in which we'll all be transferring huge (RAW or otherwise) files wirelessly is simply not yet feasible for most situations that I find myself in!

After adding in the cost of other usual screen/RAM upgrades and extended international warranty that one would need to get for a long-term desktop replacement, the average Macbook Pro buyer in 2017 would have to pay close to or in excess of 4000SGD for a 15" desktop replacement that lacks some of the most basic features you would expect of any decent portable desktop replacement. I mean, you're telling me that after spending so much on a new machine, I'll still have to buy a whole bunch of frustratingly expensive peripherals and dongles to replace the complete lack of ports and card readers that come with every single other PC laptop on the market????

BYE MAC... (Image via GIPHY)


With so many compelling reasons to jump ship to PC, I spent some weeks formulating a new Windows PC criteria list. (Much of this was compiled with the help of George aka PC FAN BOY). In case it might be useful to other Mac users thinking of switching, this is what my list looked like:

DBBD's Specs list for a 15" Windows PC Desktop Replacement (written in May 2017):

Processor: 7th gen Kabylake [The newest at that point of time]
RAM Upgradability: 32GB
Graphics Card: At least GTX 1060/1070/1080 ["VR Ready"]
Screen resolution: 4K
Screen bezel: As small as possible [aesthetic preference]
SD Card Reader: Required
Fan: Adjustable speeds / Should have option for silent mode
Weight: Below 2.5kg (my Mid-2012 Macbook Pro 15" was 2.56kg not counting the charger and this was back-breaking)
Thickness: Below 3cm
Design: Shouldn't look overly aggro or like a monstrous tank [Ruling out Alienware and MSI...]
USB: The more USB 3.0 the merrier
Thunderbolt port: Required
HDMI Port: Required
Warranty: Two Years International [A Basic requirement!]

[There's the term VR Ready which means the machine is capable of a decent performance with VR headsets such as Oculus and Hive. For this, I've used the benchmark of recommended system requirements, not minimum specifications, although these specifications are always changing]

[One might also sagely ask: since I am already switching, WHY NOT LINUX? and the answer is simply that I DONT HAVE THE TIME to spend weeks setting up Linux, deciphering my way around Linux and posting endless help messages on Linux forums which is probably what will happen if I try to switch to Linux.]

What I ended up getting based on my spec list:



Gigabyte Aero P65W
Processor: 7th gen Kabylake Intel® Core™ i7-7700HQ
RAM: UPGRADED TO 32GB
Graphics Card: GTX 1060
Screen resolution: 4K
Screen bezel: 5mm
SD Card Reader: YES
Fan: Adjustable / Silent Mode
Weight: 2.1KG + 0.5KG Charger
Thickness: 1.9CM
Design: SLEEK
USB: USB 3.0 x 3
Thunderbolt port: YES
HDMI Port: YES
Warranty: Two Years International

A compact, light 15" desktop replacement gaming laptop with one of the smallest bezel I've ever seen on a Windows laptop. The screen and colour looks excellent to me, and I'm so pleased to have a laptop with variable fan settings for once, and the keyboard can be set to conduct a light show performance in a dizzying array of LED colours (it can also be easily turned off when you get annoyed with the all-blinking keyboard feature). But because the screen bezel is so tiny the webcam for this is located below so by default you'll always be pictured chin-first (FATFACE) when the unusually low webcam turns on. But this doesn't bother me too much though because in every other way this laptop basically meets all the specifications that I need for my work.



CONS: GET READY FOR UNUSUAL WEBCAM ANGLES....
PROS: GET READY FOR UNUSUAL WEBCAM ANGLES!!!!

Price in Mid 2017: 2899 SGD (3049 SGD with RAM upgrade)



Transitioning from Mac to Windows: Alternatives to Spotlight, Quick-look and other Mac interface staples on Windows


Besides the usual issues of getting used to a new keyboard for speed touch-typing, the transition from Mac to Windows has been pretty smooth. There are a couple of features which Windows doesn't seem to have a default solution to, however for every single problem that presents itself, there are probably a half-dozen free ways to accomplish the same task...

1. Local Search / Quick File Launcher Replacement




Mac users will probably find that Windows 10's default File Explorer is unacceptably slow and unable to find any files as efficiently as Mac's Finder/Spotlight can. Could this be an indexing problem? Is the File Explorer slow because it is pointlessly looking for network folders which it can't find? I honestly don't know what causes Windows 10's File Explorer to be so slow. Fortunately, the solution is simply to use a free indexing tool called Everything which indexes contents and works as a much faster local file search tool. From within Everything, you can indeed find everything on your computer instantly. Used together with Wox, which is a launcher very similar to Mac's Spotlight, this basically does the job.

Wox's default hot-key is Alt-space and you can theme Wox with different colours/fonts and its easy to add or write additional plugins to extend the function of the quick launcher. With different prefixes you can quickly search different things, for example "g anything" will google search for "anything", "wiki anything" will search wikipedia for "anything", and #000 will show the hex colour #000 (Black).

2. Quick-Look Replacement - Seer


I googled to find out when the Quick-Look was first introduced and it says that it was first rolled out in 2007. That means I may have had 10 years of impulsively hitting the space-bar when I want to see a larger preview of an image, and let me tell you its hard to stop a habit like that. The same way you might launch yourself into a browser today and find yourself inexplicably typing in the first few letters Y O U T U B E for absolutely no reason at all. Ah, muscle memory.

It was a major disappointment to find that hitting the space-bar did absolutely nothing on Windows at first - I tried to ask George to tell me how to enable any kind of Quick-look feature on windows only to find out that the concept of Quick-look basically does not exist in Windows. For a moment there, this almost made me doubt whether switching to Windows 10 was a worthwhile investment of my time to get familiar with Windows. There you have Windows 10's slow and completely unintuitive and cluttered File explorer interface and I could gripe about it all day. But one has to be objective about things and the good thing is that so very often there will be a free tool that does exactly what I want the Windows PC to do - a different file launcher, a different previewer - you just need to find it or make it yourself.

A quick fix to this entire Quick-Look problem is simply to install Seer, which provides the much needed Quick-Look feature that allows you to preview images in File Explorer quickly by hitting the space-bar.

3. Skitch Replacement - Monosnap




For years, I've probably used Skitch on a daily basis to annotate images for work purposes before sending them in email, but sadly Skitch was ruined by Evernote (Evernote bought up Skitch in 2011, almost seemingly just so they could force the discontinuation of the development of this excellent project. Because of this terrible behaviour on Evernote's part, I refuse to use Evernote. Evernote, suffer the wrath of the 10 million disgruntled Skitch users!).

Fortunately there is no lack of alternatives that have come into the market since, especially for the Windows platform. There are many Skitch-alternatives and after trying a few options I settled on using Monosnapfor all my quick screenshot and annotation needs. Monosnapis very similar to Skitch - you can draw arrows, lines and then quickly drag and drop the file into an email or file folder. Another super important feature is that you can also blur out parts of images quickly!

I set all *.png files to open in Monosnap by default, so that by default all screenshot PNG files would open in Monosnap, ready to be instantly annotated. Super handy. Other similar alternatives include Greenshot and Lightshot. I just happen to like Monosnap's interface the most out of them all.

4. Web Browser - Microsoft Edge


Recently, after having created a monster of a webpage involving about 53 animated gifs each about 1-6MB huge, I realised that Chrome was suffering and lagging. Although I wasn't intending to upload that page in that form, I decided to check how the same page performed in every single browser on my computer and came across Microsoft Edge which I had never used or even seen before. Not at all to be confused with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge is the new Windows 10 browser and e-book reader. I was really surprised to find that my horrifying web creation did not lag at all in Edge!

Microsoft Edge was first released in 2015 and obviously for a new browser it lacks the same kind of extensiblity that Chrome and Firefox have with the multitude of plugins available. Nevertheless, when I look online and see the general complaints of Edge's earlier incarnations not having a browsing history (it now does) and not having a fullscreen mode (it now does), it seems like it has only been improving since it was introduced.

Apparently for things like Google's Octane and a lot of other javascript engine benchmark tests, Edge actually outperforms Chrome. And clearly it performs much better on my computer for graphics and page loading times as compared to Chrome, Firefox and IE. Just so you know...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Warehouse Sale in Singapore: the mass production of freedom tshirts

Recently the parents took me to see one of the huge Robinsons warehouse sales in Singapore out at Expo, where I encountered vast mountains of GIORDANO shirts like never before. For the uninitiated, in Singapore Giordano has long-established itself as the main purveyors of generic low-cost casual wear - with an outlet in practically every other HDB centre. Even I probably have had a few Giordano basics in my childhood wardrobe, because Giordano is so ubiquitous that people sometimes even think they must be a Singaporean company (they're actually from HK). I don't know who designs these shirts, but if you just want the cheapest possible basic cotton shirt and have no care for fashion or aesthetics or things with meaningful messages on them, then this is the place for you. You know, a $5 tshirt that basically says "I absolutely do not care whether the words on my shirt makes any sense at all in any context whatsoever because I do not care about the useless practice of wearing shirts to express my individuality and personality".

[This is also not to be mistaken for Things which are so bad until they're good again. No, this is not exciting, trendy, or radical clothing. No, these are just generic words printed onto a generic shirt and then sold in staggeringly vast quantities in Singapore]

Now the strange thing about all these Giordano shirts was that... THEY WERE ALL FREEDOM THEMED! Yes, a mountain of FREEDOM shirts in Singapore.

Here are a few of them:

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OKAY... WE ARE FREE TO CHOOSE...
BUT WHY ARE ALL THOSE PEOPLE RUNNING?
WHAT ARE THEY RUNNING FROM???

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OK... I'LL TRY TO KEEP CALM...
BUT..... IS THERE REASON NOT TO BE CALM?
IS IT RELATED TO THE "STAYING FREE" PART???

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I DON't KNOW GIORDANO, WHY DON'T YOU TELL ME?
OR AM I SUPPOSED TO ASK THESE FISHIES?
DO THE FISHIES KNOW FREEDOM?
WHAT IS FREEDOM???

Maybe they had a meeting and then they thought about how Singapore and Singaporeans are always concerned about freedom. Maybe they were chortling to themselves as they designed it, "Oh these Singaporeans! They are so going to love our insightful and subtle commentary on the state of freedom and free speech in Singapore in our new line of freedom shirts!". Or who knows, maybe the designing of the shirts was done by a hapless designer being forced by the dollar to churn out more and more nonsensical mass produced tshirt designs which the designer knows will never be thought of or valued as a credible creative product and as the poor designer sheds a tear for the demise of his or her creative integrity he or she types into Illustrator: WHAT DOES FREEDOM MEAN?

I wish I had taken more pictures of all of the designs but the Dingfather pulled me away and told me to stop mocking the freedom shirts by laughing so loudly.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Blender Cycles: 12 Ways to Reduce Render Time

Recently my challenge was to produce 2000 x 3 frames for the production of three holograms. At 50 minutes per frame, 6000 frames would have taken a frightful 208.333333 days to render out on one already relatively speedy laptop. On the slowest mechanised computating potato in the household (5+ year old Macbook Pro), it would have taken several hours. But the real issue was not the complexity of the scene, but the way in which I had initially constructed the scene, and the necessary render settings.

After several weeks of editing (and frantically googling "HOW TO REDUCE RENDER TIME"), here is a compilation of ways that I used to reduce my render time (CPU) for a single frame from a horrible 50 minutes to 1-2 minutes. Its not an exhaustive list, but I thought it would be useful to WRITE IT ALL DOWN NOW in case the Future Debbie completely forgets everything after the hard slog of trial and error of the last few weeks..

1. Duplicate Linked Object Instances the right way




This may seem pretty obvious but I think it needs to be on the top of every list. The right shortcut to duplicate an instance of an object is ALT-D not SHIFT-D. SHIFT-D produces a completely new object with no reference back to the data of the original object. A linked object shares the same object data, so any edits you make to the first object will make all the other linked objects change as well. When you're in a hurry it is easy to accidentally type Shift-D instead of Alt-D, but this has the potential to make a serious impact on render time.

2. Link Object Data




Let's say you completely can't recall if you used Shift-D or Alt-D to duplicate your objects. If you go to Mesh you'll be able to see how many linked objects are currently using the same data. If your mesh is unique and unlinked, first select what is going to be the master, then all the other objects you want to have using its data, and press Ctrl-L whilst the mouse is over the 3D view. You'll get the "Make Links" dropdown menu and you should select Object Data to link the objects. Other links for materials, groups, etc can also be made using this shortcut.



Note that if for some reason you do accidentally select different objects which aren't at all similar, note that all the latter objects will be changed to have the object data of the master object anyway...



In general, I personally found it useful to assign my materials really crazy colours in the viewport so that I could see at a glance which objects were the same and which were not.

3. Clamp Direct and Indirect




Usually you end up turning up the samples for a scene because there are too many 'fireflies' and noise, but clamping values can quickly remove these stray white dots which appear on the render. Clamping sets the very lightest (brightest) samples to a maximum value so it removes those stray white fireflies, but in the process, it will reduce the bright "pop" or light sheen that you might have wanted to achieve with certain glossy materials.

If you set Clamp too low, it will also cause the ENTIRE scene to be too dark/dimly lit, especially if you are using HDR for Environmental Lighting, so don't set the Clamp too low. The general advice is to start from a high number like about 10 and then work your way down to see what works for your scene. I was able to set Clamp Direct to about 4 and Clamp Indirect to about 6 and still achieve acceptable results. As for the overall "dimming" effect the Clamp will have on the scene, you can simply increase scene brightness through the compositor with a Color Balance node, or you can simply do it in post.

4. Subdivision surface




Subdivision surface is a modifier commonly used to create a smooth surface mesh from a blocky linear polygon mesh. It is done by splitting up the faces of the mesh into even smaller faces in a way that gives it a smooth appearance.

It is worth checking if you have stupidly set a subdivision surface of VERY MANY iterations for something incredibly trivial, tiny but also incidentally heavily duplicated in the scene...

5. Decimate






Did you subdivide your terrain into unwisely tiny bits and then handsculpt it with a 5px clay brush?? If there is complex modelling or you've applied Subdivision Surface to a mesh and are now regretting it, you can undo your CPU-killing subdiv-happy ways by decimating the meshes that you don't need smoothing on! Add the Decimate modifier to reduce number of faces.

6. Simplify




Let's say you're just rendering a preview for yourself and its not the final render. You can quickly set the global max Subdivision Surface and Child Particle number here under Scene > Simplify. Just remember to uncheck the Simplify box when you're producing the final render.

7. Delete unnecessary terrain




Set up Blender so that you can see several angles of your scene at the same time, along with the timeline if you need to scrub through it quickly. Go into Edit mode (Wireframe) and highlight the excess terrain that never appears in Camera view for the entire timeline using either B (to draw a box) or C (to paint it with a circular brush). Make sure you're viewing in the Wireframe mode though, because if you're viewing in Solid you'll only be able to select the vertices that you can see, rather than all the vertices in that area regardless of whether you can see them or not.

The most handy shortcuts in 3D view are the 0 and 7 button:
0 is Camera View
7 is Top view
5 to toggle between Perspective view and Orthographic view



The resultant landscape will look a bit weird like this but you'll save time not rendering all the bits. But do keep the bits which you'll need for the light bouncing off to produce a realistic scene.

8. CPU/GPU Compute and Tile Size




If you have a Nvidia graphics card, you'll still need to enable it in Blender's User Preferences in order to use GPU, which can drastically cut down your render time. When GPU works, its like magic. GPU can be dramatically faster than CPU but is also limited by the total amount of VRAM on the card - so once it hits that limit the rendering process will simply fail (memory error). Also I had to dramatically rein in my expectations - I have always insisted on using desktop replacement laptops rather than a desktop for portability (especially for my kind of work) - but one has to consider that laptop GPUs generally aren't as powerful as the ones in desktop GPUs in terms of VRAM, No. of CUDA cores, and overall speed.



It is generally said that the tile size should either be a perfect squares or factors (ie: divisible fraction) of the final resolution (having smaller bits of tiles left over is wasteful) but I think a lot more testing would be required to determine for the type of scene and type of CPU/GPU. Generally, if you reduce tile size too small, it incurs more overheads of switching between tiles. You should experiment with the numbers and see what works for you...

What worked for my scenes (Intel Core i7-7700HQ @ 2.80GHz / Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 6 GB GDDR5):
For CPU an ideal Tile size seems to be around 16x16 or 32x32
For GPU an ideal Tile size seems to be 312x312

9. Number of AA Samples / Progressive Refine


The number of AA (Anti Aliasing) samples will increase render time exponentially, and this was largely why my first renders were taking 50 MINUTES PER FRAME even on the best laptop in the entire household! How many samples are enough samples? How do you find out how many samples are good enough for you, visually?

Under Performance, there's an option for Progressive Refine which will progressively show you the overall image at each sampling level. It can be slower to have to complete the entire image together but you can also stop it when you think the image is good enough. Its useful to eyeball it until you find out what number of samples you are happy with, then just use that number and uncheck progressive refine so it will be faster.

10. Resolution, Output File Location, and Output Quality




When you "double" the size of the image, you're actually making it four times as large and your image will take 4 times the CPU/GPU to compute! When making a preview and not the final render, you can set resolution to 50%. But don't forget to uncheck it when you are doing the final render!!! (ARGH!!!)



Make sure that you have set the correct Output file location. If you are opening the blend file for the first time on a new computer, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE RESET THIS. Blender does this thing where it doesn't tell you the output folder/drive doesn't exist - it will happily render but only tell you at the end of the process that it had no place to save the file.

Below that there's also the compression/quality setting for it. For a preview you can set it lower but remember to set it back to 100% for the final render.

11. Selective Render / Animated Render Border




Whilst in Camera view (Shortcut Num-0) within 3D view, if you use the shortcut CTRL-B, you can demarcate the "Selective Render" border (which appears as a red dotted line) in camera view. To release this Selective Render Border, its CTRL-ALT-B.

Ray Mairlot's extremely useful Animated Render Border allows you to selective render an object moving through a scene, or to even create an animated border that can be keyframed.

When using this add-on, the final output is a frame that will still be the size of the entire render resolution, but only the selective render area will have an image and the rest will be alpha transparent.

12. Use a Render Farm


Ok so after I shaved scores of minutes off the render time to 2 minutes per full resolution frame, I realised that 2 minutes x 6000 = 8.33333333 days - and that was 8.33333333 days that I certainly did not have! There are limits to what a great laptop with a good graphics card can do. When the computer is rendering - you can't really use anything else that taxes the graphic card or processor when its rendering, so it basically disables the computer for the duration of the render.

So.. there was no other way around this - I had to use and pay for a render farm. I tried out Render Street, TurboRender and Foxrenderfarm as they were the farms which came up when you search for Blender Render Farms.

The basic process for all of them is:



- Pack external data into blend file (tick the option to automatically pack)
- Upload a zipped copy of the blend file
- Choose your render settings
- Pay the render farm some money (for slower render) or LOTS OF MONEY (for faster render)
- Monitor render progress and render quality through web interface
- Magically download completed rendered files in record time

[Do however note that the Animated Render Border add-on mentioned above in this list will not work with the render farms, but you can write to most of these render farms regarding desired plugins and they will let you know if the add-ons and plugins can or cannot be installed]

A more comprehensive review of render farms coming up in the next post...

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Render Farms: Which Blender render farm is the fastest and most intuitive?

There comes a time when you can no longer delude yourself over the notion that your trusty personal computer will be able to render your frames for you within this lifetime. You can't wait half a year to finish rendering your Blender Showreel. You can't wait 8 days to finish a render that you need tomorrow. And you've also got no time, money or space to build your own render farm. So you'll just have to pack up your work, hand over the files to a render farm, and fork out all that cash...

...AND THEN GET READY TO BE AMAZED AT HOW IT WILL CHANGE YOUR VIEW OF 3D WORK WHEN YOU KNOW NOW THAT YOU CAN RENDER ANYTHING INSTANTLY!!!

MORE TIME BLENDING, LESS LAGGING!! Yes, there's a likelihood that your wallet might be crying after this, but your time and CPU-time savings will probably be worth every penny that you pay the render farm. It means less of "rendering for 8 hours overnight and only then discovering you have some BIG FAT PINK MISSING TEXTURE in the middle of your render and realising you'll have to wait for ANOTHER 8 HOURS as your computer turns into an overheated whirring pumpkin again"! It means you can be more experimental in your 3D modelling work since you know you can just generate a test preview cheaply and quickly. It means that you can have all of the frames for your animation rendered out without you feeling tempted to be stingy on the number of frames, quality, or resolution.

Here are some notes of my attempts to find a decent render farm - and to get up and running with that render farm in the shortest amount of time possible. I think that the factor of "BEING ABLE TO RENDER IN SHORTEST AMOUNT OF TIME WITHOUT GETTING LOST IN A WEBSITE" is pretty important. And having NEVER used a render farm before until this point, I signed up to RenderStreet, TurboRender, and Foxrenderfarm simultaneously and sought to find out which would reveal itself to be (1) the most intuitive to use and (2) the quickest to deliver the renders.



RenderStreet




RenderStreet is a Bucharest-based render farm with a deceptively simple interface that doesn't look slick but... IT WORKS. They focus on just Blender and Modo unike the other render farms which also cater to 3DSMax and a whole range of other archivis as well as video rendering. RenderStreet's services come in two modes: On Demand which is charged at $3/CPU Hr, and One which is a flat $50/mth for CPU only rendering (which is actually extremely reasonable). The Render.st One plan is clearly very good for everyday jobs which are not rushed but they have a limit on the total render time for a frame - which is 1 hour (take note that they won't reject your job until the actual render time runs to 1 hr, so once you see that your render exceeds an hour it is best to cancel it and save yourself the weight). I was flabbergasted at the speeds provided with the On Demand version but the costs can quickly stack up. I also liked how they render frames from an animation sequentially so if you stop, you can easily just pick things up again from that specific frame. I also really LOVE their video preview feature which allows you to preview and download your rendered frames in MP4 video format which I find very useful in checking animation output.

Debbie's review: Would definitely use again for professional work if I had the budget.
Impressively fast renders, generates automatic video previews, also has an affordable "everyday plan" option.


TurboRender




TurboRender is a Russian render farm with a clean and logical interface, with very prominently located live chat which is useful for when you have to ask them stupid questions like "is Frame Pitch the same as Frame Step" (answer: yes it is). I really liked that there were humans replying to me (as first time user) over every question I had on the process. Their price point seems lower than Render.st's On Demand, and their speed is decent but not blindingly fast (obviously in this cpu/gpu game the speed is money). They're probably a good intermediate render farm to go to for everyday jobs that aren't rushed, as their rates are very affordable. They divide your frames into blocks and task different servers with different 100 frame blocks. The issue with this is that unlike Render.st you won't be able to preview your rendered frames sequentially along the way, as the different servers take different amounts of time to finish their individual blocks of 100 frames. But when the job is done they will email you and you can download it all. However in terms of feedback their website has the best. You can see a panel with the progress of your files on every server, and I think it was a good part of their design to include the live chat agent with a real human on every single page. It can be a little hard to stop or edit a process once it has been started though - and you might have to use the chat agent to ask someone to help you, but their staff are very responsive (instant response).

Debbie's review: Would definitely use again for personal work as it seems incredibly affordable.
Great and reassuring live feedback on progress of job, and very responsive staff on live chat.


FoxRenderFarm




FoxRenderFarm is a Chinese Shenzhen-based render farm with a plain interface that is a little more tricky than the previous two render farms (Confusingly, some error messages may be in Chinese). I did a small test render with them but didn't continue after a while because I was won over by Render.st. However its clear that in a pinch they would also do the job, but their interface is significantly less intuitive than Render.st and TurboRender. You'll also need to chat with the service agents to understand if you're doing it right or wrong. Someone from FoxRenderFarm also did drop me an email a day later to ask me if I needed help in resuming the job.

Debbie's review: Requires more than just intuition to figure out how to use the site unlike the prior two.
Would need to speak to helpdesk to get started.




See also:
Blender Cycles: 12 Ways to Reduce Render Time

Friday, 21 July 2017

Foods of the Baltic: Kvass/Gira, Pelmeni, Cepelinai (Zeppelin), Pelēkie zirņi ar speķi (Grey Peas with Speck), and Beaver Stew

A quick compendium of notable foods consumed on a brief working trip to Lithuania and Latvia. Alright, let's be practical, chances are that the 5 people who still read this blog will probably never ever go to Lithuania or Latvia but yet I will say - IF YOU EVER DO, then these following foods are very much recommended.

1. KVASS / GIRA

Fermented Black Ryebread Cocktail

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Gira/Kvass from Forto Dvaras (Kaunas Old Town, Lithuania)

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Gira/Kvass from Zalias Ratas (Kaunas, Lithuania)

You may be wondering why would you drink this fermented non-alcoholic drink when you could drink a fermented alcoholic drink (BEER?) but the simple answer is that: it is super delicious. Like liquid bread candy. Like summery caramel raisin juice. As strangely and inexplicably addictive as Club Mate.

I had become really excited to try the Kvass after watching Life of Boris aka KVASSMAN demonstrate how to make it and all I can say is that... its indeed probably the best drink you can get in Lithuania and Latvia.



In the case of Latvia, if you are travelling in Riga... IT IS EVEN WORTH GOING TO RIGA AIRPORT 2 HOURS EARLY TO LEISURELY DRINK MORE KVASS AT THE LIDO. (There are Lidos all over Riga but having reached the airport means you can actually sit back in the Lido (the "Wetherspoons" of Latvia) and relax with your Kvass.

2. PELMENI

Tiny Slavic Ravioli

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XL Pelmeni in the morning

"What food is still available at this hour?" I asked a waitress at 11pm in Riga. She said, "well at this house there is only the McDonalds, Kebabs, or.... Pelmeni?" - with the Pelmeni being the only true 'local' option. So at almost midnight in Riga, I found myself at XL PELMENI, a curious buffet style fast food dumpling house with tacky plastic cave wall features, easy wipe-clean tables bolted to the floor, and an interesting mix of clientele. From families with young children, to young men wolfing down huge mountains of cheese dumplings, middle aged couples eating dumplings along with a bottle of wine, and old men nursing their beers alone in the corner with a tiny dill covered salad. Its young staff loitered around bored and uneasy, wearing generic hats and aprons.

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I was very confused as nothing was in English, but it appears that you simply pick up a series of tiny bowls on plastic trays and fill up your bowls with what looks like tiny white geometric tchotchkes, filled with rather delicious mystery meats (there were labels, but I couldn't read them).

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The Pelmeni is basically a very tiny ravoli made with a thin skin of white unleavened dough, very similar to the wonton or jiaozi or gyoza or mandu or pierogi or varenyky depending on where you're from. Garnish with white creamy substance (sour cream? kefir? yoghurt? mayonez??? help what is going on?) and let the dill rain from heaven. Unfortunately I did not take a picture of the pelmeni but you can see some of them in the top of this menu... that's what it looks like inside the pot!

3. ZEPPELIN / CEPELINAI

Lithuanian Potato Meat Blimp Sailing straight into your Mouth

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Named after the zeppelin airships, this is actually nothing like its floating namesake, and more like a dense bullet of pure plastinated potato. Sometimes served with a side of magic fat gravy. They mash the potato, then boil it into this ultra dense format with a thick layer of potato covering a delicious meat filling.

On a side note, in some strange ways it is reminiscent of the format of the traditional Hokchew (Foochow Chinese) ball if you replaced fish and flour with POTATO.

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If they give you an option to have a half portion, restrain yourself and order the half portion because they are basically SOLID POTATO BLIMPS and the average human adult can only realstically consume one of these zeppelins at a time. (For your reference a "debbieportion" is actually 1/2 OF AVERAGE LITHUANIAN ZEPPELIN)

4. GREY PEAS WITH SPECK / PELĒKIE ZIRŅI AR SPEĶI

Most Latvian Food according to random young Latvian boy at Lido

"What is your most Latvian food???" I asked the young server at the Lido.
He pointed to a mountain of peas. "Peas are very Latvian."
So here is an unfeasibly huge plate of Grey Peas that I ate at a Lido in Riga Old Town.

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They're not very grey actually.



BONUS: "Food from the Nobleman's Table"


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Menu at Zalias Ratas (Kaunas, Lithuania)

Often in the menus you will see the mention of "food from the peasant's table" vs "food from the nobleman's table"
All the potato-based foods I have listed above are typically classed as 'peasant food', although today there's hardly any real distinction between the two. For the most part, eating out (and eating well) in Lithuania seems exceedingly affordable.

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Menu at Restaurant Lokys (Vilnius, Lithuania)

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In Vilnius, I decided to go to one of these "Nobleman's Restaurant" to try Beaver Stew. Apparently beaver was historically quite commonly eaten by noblemen who went hunting; more than a hundred thousand beavers live in the Lithuanian forest and Lithuania and Latvia are probably the two countries in the world with the biggest numbers of Eurasian Beavers. (FYI: Beavers are actually completely vegetarian and their big teeth are only used to eat twigs and bark)

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Lokys means "bear" so there are huge wooden bears everywhere in Restaurant Lokys. In case one cannot travel all the way to Lithuania to eat Lithuanian Beaver Stew but still wishes to cook a Beaver (assuming one has already caught a beaver???) here is a recipe for Beaver that I found in the Kaunas Town Hall:

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Gero apetito / Labu apetīti!