Technology plays an exciting role in our line of work. On one hand, we couldn’t capture, edit, or deliver any of our 8K 60p HDR content without it, yet, on the other hand… ask any member of our post team how many headaches, late nights, and downright torturous issues they have faced through it all. But the truth is cameras, computers, displays, and software are simply tools used to share our stories. The more we have to fight the technology, the more difficult it is for our vision of the story to shine through. With the release of the 2019 Mac Pro, we wanted to take a stroll down memory lane to see just how far technology has come and discuss the impact we hope the new Mac Pro will make in our storytelling process. We have collected some initial test data, but in the coming months we will push the new system as hard as we can and let you know if it lives up to our expectations.
It’s been six years since Apple released a “Pro” workstation with the 2013 “Trash Can”, and even longer since Mac users have had a genuinely modular tower. As a testament to the value of a modular machine, we still see industry professionals using “frankensteined” 2011 Mac Pro towers. That’s 9-year-old hardware! (Albeit upgraded along the way, but that’s exactly our point.)
So let’s step back to 2012. Our timeline might sound familiar to many professional content creators.
2012 Unsure of when the next Mac Pro would be release and needing a more powerful machine to handle 4K 60p footage, we ventured into the world of Hackintosh.
We also abandoned FCP for Premiere this year, which could handle h.264 footage natively without transcoding.
2013 arrives with the announcement of a new MacPro. Enticed by Thunderbolt 2 and promising specs, we bought two systems. Initially, they worked well, but after sending one back twice for GPU issues and regular throttling from heat issues, it was not keeping up with our needs.
By 2016 we had been shooting RED in 6K for a full year already, and desperately needed a more powerful machine to keep up with our turn around times. Enter, the custom PC. With a 24
CPU, dual K6000 GPUs, and plenty of RAM it could handle everything with ease… that is until RED released the Helium and Monstro sensors, and our footage was suddenly 8K R3Ds. Add to that the demand for 60p content at that resolution, and we were definitely taxing the system.
The fall of 2017 saw the shipment of the iMac Pro, at the time the “fastest Mac ever made,” and then just shy of a year later, the 4th generation Mac mini was released. Both machines were and are great, and both could handle 8K 24p content just fine in Final Cut Pro timelines and we could easily deliver 8K content—in fact, the release of these two machines are part of what made it possible for Mystery Box to completely transition back to Final Cut Pro X for our offline/proxy editing, which you can read more about here. But even with the “fastest Mac ever made” and the huge leap in performance of the Mac mini over the previous generation, neither machine was as fast as our 4 year old 24-core Windows system. That gap widened further when we upgraded the windows system with faster NVME internal raids and the Nvidia RTX 2080ti graphics card, which added a few frames per second to our typical 3-5fps exports out of DaVinci Resolve (at 8K 60fps, a few extra rendered frames per second can make a BIG difference). There still wasn’t an all-Apple solution that could easily handle our workflow from beginning to end, and there wouldn’t be until 2019...
In 2019, Apple reached out and invited us to attend the WWDC event with the promise that we would not be disappointed, and they were right! Finally, after six years, Apple announced a new Mac Pro, and along with it, the new Pro Display XDR. This is finally an ecosystem that would take content creators into the future and beyond. And that, honestly, is what we are most excited about: the ecosystem.
Sure, between 2015 and 2018 we could have built another PC machine that could have marginally improved our workflow, however, what Mystery Box needed and wanted was an ecosystem designed to create 8K 60p HDR content faster and easier.
Let us lay out how the Mac Pro + Pro Display XDR + Mac OS Catalina +Final Cut Pro X + Metal API have made the best ecosystem to make HDR and high-resolution 8K(+) content more accessible to a much wider group of content creators:
If you’ve bought a TV in the last 4 years, you likely own an HDR display but haven’t watched a lot of HDR content on it. That’s because the only way for content creators to master and deliver quality HDR content required them to invest in a $40,000 reference monitor. That price tag for a monitor has created a large barrier to entry. And then we have to consider that it’s a new art form to integrate from start to finish. To create high-quality HDR content the creators have to put in sweat equity to learn the ins and outs of HDR content production, from capturing to grading to final compression and delivery. Unless Netflix or some other streaming service is forcing (and paying) you to embrace HDR, most content creators haven’t put any effort into investing in HDR. So now there are a plethora of HDR-ready TVs in homes, and platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have HDR delivery pipelines in place, but content creators aren’t able to supply quality HDR content.
Now, Apple has fixed that, and it starts with macOS Catalina.
HDR Video Ecosystem
Mac OS Catalina has a new version of QuickTime Player that can recognize and accurately interpret HDR metatarsi in files and display them in true HDR if you are using an HDR display! It allows for accurate interpretation of HDR content into an SDR color space if you are trying to view HDR meta-tagged content on a non-HDR display, so you see what the content creators intended instead of just seeing a flat, log-looking image. It will also automatically adjust the image as you adjust brightness levels on the new Pro Display XDR, and all Mac models introduced in 2018 or later with 4K-resolution screens. This adjustment is to help maintain the dynamic range that HDR offers without just dimming the overall image. This might seem small, but this is HUGE for content consumers—they can just now see the benefits of HDR without having to take an online course in color science.
After Catalina, the next and possibly most disruptive piece of the ecosystem is the Pro Display XDR. At $5K the price may seem high, but when you compare it to the two $40K HDR reference displays we have at Mystery Box, that price doesn’t seem bad at all. The Pro Display XDR is a 32 inch 6K 16:9 aspect ratio display featuring P3 wide color gamut and 1000 nits of sustained fullscreen brightness. That matches and in some ways exceeds the specifications of reference monitors that are many times the price of the Pro Display XDR—even when you include the stand. And thanks to the color accuracy and calibration of this monitor along with the color science and color interpretation built into Mac OS Catalina, a video editor or photographer can sit down at any XDR display and be confident that their content is going to be displayed exactly the way they intended it to. The Pro Display XDR, in our opinion, will be the new gold standard for both photographers and videographers, by allowing them to view their content on a display that is, again in our opinion, and again saying this as owners of $80k in HDR monitors, pretty damn comparable.
We aren’t proposing the XDR will completely replace reference monitors. We won’t be selling our SONY BVMX any time soon, but the XDR coupled with the rest of the HDR ecosystem Apple has created, can be the 6K reference grade monitor every independent film maker was looking for.
Next up is the Metal API, basically Apple’s answer to CUDA but for AMD cards. This acceleration is particularly important when it comes to 8K. If you are a filmmaker, you know what post-people think of 8K content, especially 8K content shot on a Red Camera in RAW R3d format—“It’s too much data! We don’t need that much resolution, and the files are too processor intensive to work with, we won’t make our deadline! Shoot ProRes instead on an Arri.” So what does Metal have to do with all this? (This is not a camera preference debate!) Well, I know a lot of people that are annoyed that you can’t jam an Nvidia card into the new Mac Pro at the moment, however, the only reason for using an Nvidia card is getting access to CUDA. A lot of software and plugins are designed with the CUDA API to accelerate their processes, and we have enjoyed the benefits of CUDA acceleration in our windows machine. As we said before, Metal is Apple’s answer to CUDA, and the technology is fantastic, providing near-direct access to the GPU with low overhead—basically, it means it wastes less time and resources sending instructions to the GPU. BUT few developers utilized Metal in the beginning because Apple didn’t have a machine that they felt would be worth investing all that development into. That has changed dramatically in the last two years, with Adobe, Autodesk, Blackmagic Design, Unity, RED, and more pledging support and already releasing Metal optimized versions of their software. So now, thanks to Metal, we have options. If you use Apple, you have the Metal API which will better utilize system resources between the GPU and CPU in order to accelerate your content production. And in the future, with Metal being deployed across Mac OS, iPad OS, and iOS, there’s the possibility of developers opening up new functionality across all apple products — could you imagine being able to use RED’s Metal optimized software to playback R3Ds on an iPad? It’d be nuts! That’s why we’re excited about this new ecosystem and excited about the new era of computing that the Mac Pro has introduced.
Literature for the above features can be hard to find on the consumer end. Most of this information was pulled from the Apple Developer Connection library, where much more detail is given on the “under the hood” operations. We suggest setting up an Apple Developer ID to get access to articles explaining HDR in the Mac ecosystem. Here’s a sample article from that library.
Initial Rendering Tests
Yesterday, the team over at FreeHill Production, who have provided digital asset management and digital cinema camera support for big Hollywood productions like Avengers and Marvel Series, Jurassic World, just to name a few came by and stress-tested our new Mac Pro. They threw all the common camera codecs at it from Arri65, Panavision, Red, Pansonic. Here are the results.
Pretty impressive, right? Yes, and no. When you are ahead of the curve with hardware sometimes the it takes awhile for the software and codec API to catch up. Now don’t get me wrong, these speeds are leaps and bounds better and for most people, they are game changing. But the software is still lagging behind not optimizing the computer power avialanle. We expect this machine will do even better when software like Resolve and Final Cut get the optimization from codecs like .R3D that will make everything become that more impressive.
We recently wrapped a 20min short film shot on the RED Monstro in 8K titled The Anxious Taxidermist. We tried exporting the final delivery of the film from DaVinci Resolve as a quick assessment of the power increase and compared the fully spec’d 18 core iMac Pro to our new 28 core Mac Pro. This project was a perfect “real-world” scenario for us since this is the kind of work we usually do: 8K source material, 4K timeline, rendering out to ProRes 422 HQ @ 4K, with a fair amount of FX applied to the clips (Cosmo II skin smoothing, compositing layers of 8K footage, and color grades).
The iMac ran at 2 hour 16 min and the new Mac Pro ran at a speedy 46 min. Yes, it’s comparing two very different machines, but the performance increase was delightful, to say the least. And the best part about this test is that DaVinci Resolve has yet to utilize the potential of the Mac Pro. Just look at that low CPU usage during one of the more difficult sections of the render. And Resolve didn’t touch 3 of the 4 internal GPUs. While hardware acceleration is always codec specific, we are hopeful for more system usage in subsequent updates from Blackmagic Design. Jarred Land, from RED has already started rolling out the METAL integration, and we expect many more to follow suit.
Our Hopes for the 2019 MacPro
So what will the new Mac Pro do for us? 2020 is going to be a big year for Mystery Box. Some pretty big projects are lined up that will put the MacPro to the test, and every bit of time-saving is going to be key. Here’s what we are expecting to happen with the 2019 MacPro and the XDR display:
Better HDR acquisition as we use the XDR display as an on-set monitor. We see the same image on the camera that will be in the coloring suite.
No more proxy/optimized media workflows in the editing stage. Working straight from the RAWs.
Our finishing intermediates will most likely be more ProRes centric as we make better use of the HDR ecosystem Apple has created in both software and hardware.
Double and possibly triple the render speeds, cutting our waiting time in half.
More projects are living in FCPX from beginning to end. (Including the HDR final grade)
A “future proof” system that will still have a place in our studio 10 years down the road.
It’s a lot to ask for, but we have a lot of faith in this ecosystem. It’s not just the insane graphics cards, the unheard of amounts of RAM, or the AfterBurner card that makes ProRes butter smooth at any resolution. It’s not the extremely optimized FCPX which handles HDR color spaces, cuts incredibly fast, and makes asset organization a breeze. It’s not the gorgeous 6K display that is capable of brightness and saturation levels on par with $40,000 calibrated color grading monitors. It’s the combination of all those components working together to make 8K 60p HDR so much more accessible.