Today, we’ll take a look at why sometimes adding a little horsepower to your workflow can supercharge your productivity.
When it comes to cameras, I have been known to make one or two frivolous purchases. Products that I didn’t really need, but wanted enough that my brain was able to convince itself of their necessity. For whatever reason, computers have never held such sway. Perhaps it’s because, despite my first job out of college being one that came with parent-impressing IBM business cards, I’ve always been able to separate head and heart when it comes to computer purchases. I like to spend only as much money as is absolutely necessary to reach my bottom line needs and don’t usually push much further. This is probably why I only recently upgraded the nearly ten-year-old laptop I used for tethering on location. And, even that wasn’t so much because it couldn’t do the job as it was that the computer itself had grown too old to accept the latest operating system and thus was beginning to affect my ability to keep up to date with the latest software.
Same with my desktop. My sturdy iMac served me well for several years. It wasn’t until the majority of my work had shifted to filmmaking versus photography that I started running into the practical problem of the computer having trouble with smooth playback on more data-rich video formats. I eventually upgraded that to a mid-range Mac Studio which has been a godsend for my editing workflow. It’s taken everything I’ve thrown at it and been a big upgrade over what I had before.
Of course, there is one more rung on the ladder. The Mac Pro has always sat at the pinnacle of the Apple workflow for a professional video workflow. The performance and design of the system is the best Apple has to offer. And, predictably, the cost of the system reflects that. But what is it about this particular product line that makes it the go-to for enterprise-level professional workflows? And why should you, or shouldn’t you, consider taking your workflow to the next level by investing in this system?
I've been fortunate enough to recently put that question to the test with a Mac Pro. The system I’m using is the 24 Core CPU/76 Core GPU/128GB/2TB Tower. It has the Apple M2 Ultra Chip and 7 PCI Card Slots. I’m using it with the Pro Display XDR with standard glass. And, as we’ll get to in a moment, I currently have the OWC Accelsior 8M2 PCIe card installed. The Mac Pro itself is capable of running up to 22 concurrent video streams of 8K playback and can support up to 8 displays. While even I have not yet had cause to run 22 concurrent video streams of 8K, knowing it is capable of handling such a load gives you a frame of reference on how far the machine can be pushed. This is a production-focused machine designed for artists and enterprises that must handle massive amounts of data efficiently and effectively without slowing down the creative workflow.
The first thing you’ll want to know about this system is that you will, in fact, be investing in a system. The Mac Pro isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all turnkey solution right off the shelf. Instead, what makes the Mac Pro a solid choice for professionals is the customization options and scalability. My Mac Studio, for instance, is great because it just works right out of the box. But I had to think long and hard about which model I wanted beforehand, because many of the physical alternatives are locked in from day one. A tower system like the Mac Pro, on the other hand, is made to be scalable. With a quick twist of a designer knob, you can access the computer’s internals and add additional components as needed. This is important because, as we all know, our career needs when we first buy a computer aren’t always the same as when that computer ends its life cycle. The ten-year-old Macbook I mentioned earlier spanned a period of great change in my career. Having a computer that you can make alterations to along the way may cost more upfront, but also may save you money in the long run by not having to upgrade your entire computer when simply adding a smaller component would do.
This is most dramatically illustrated by the seven included PCI expansion card slots that occupy the Mac Pro chassis. One PCIe x4 gen 3, Four PCIe x8 gen 4, and Two PCIe x16 gen 4. One thing to keep in mind is that, if we are just talking about the base models of each computer with no additions made, there isn’t a massive speed jump from the Mac Studio to the Mac Pro. Where you do start to get massive upgrades in speed is when you begin adding high-performance PCIe cards
My first addition was the OWC 32TB Accelsior 8M2 PCIe 4.0 Storage Card. This card has been amazing. It has a 32TB internal capacity (there are various sizes available). It has an internal cooling fan for demanding operations and is comprised of eight 4TB OWC Aura P12 Pro NVMe M.2 drives working together. The card is fast. Very fast. And installation was easy. Even for someone like me who is allergic to screwdrivers. Installation took less than five minutes and didn’t require any additional driver installation or other steps that might make my head hurt. I’m a filmmaker, not a computer person. So the easier they can make the process, the better. It provides data transfer speeds up to 26,000 MB/s and can handle a complex professional workflow with the company professing that the card is capable of running 16 streams of 8K ProRes444 in Final Cut Pro X, 8 streams of 12K ProRes444 in Final Cut Pro X, and 9 streams of 4K 16-bit EXR in DaVinci Resolve.
Also, not that one should make computer investments based on physical appearance, but it must be said that this is a very good-looking machine. Just taking it out of the box, it was painfully clear that this was the nicest computer system ever to enter my office. And the performance lives up to its beauty.
As luck would have it, this newly supercharged Mac Pro couldn’t have come at a better time. Through a strange confluence of events, I ended up in post-production on not one, not two, but three films concurrently. The films were shot in various high data rate formats such as ARRIRAW and various versions of 8K from different cameras. In addition to those film projects, I began post-production on a branded television pilot I shot for a client which would need to be pushing over 8 terabytes worth of data to create a thirty-minute special. I was even dealing with another film, shot of Super 35mm film then transferred to DPX files, which would also need to pass through the system smoothly during the edit. Could I have handled all these projects with less horsepower? Possibly. But, as the length of your timeline grows and the number of hiccups that come when you are playing back footage increase, being able to move to a system with a graphics card capable of handling the workload without stuttering is crucial in making the right cut. This need for speed only multiplies if your work includes a great number of visual effects or animation work which can traditionally be very processor-intensive.
Of course, it’s not only speed you get with a system like the Mac Pro. Because it offers so many different PCIe ports, you have the option of addressing multiple needs. For instance, perhaps you need a high-speed storage card like the OWC to take up one slot. Then, let's add that you may want to use your computer in the studio to directly capture footage. In that case, you may want to add a card with SDI connections or other video ports, audio connections, networking connections, or whatever else may correspond to your particular professional workflow. In a professional environment where you may need to interact with multiple departments, this level of versatility is essential. The advantage of being able to build out the computer isn’t just speed. It’s connectivity.
Because no two filmmakers have identical workflows, the main reason one would want to upgrade to a system like the Mac Pro is for its customization options. You can add the components you need as you need them. You can make changes along the way as your needs evolve. And you can ensure enterprise-wide compatibility because the system offers you ample room to grow.