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How To Set Up an After Effects Render Farm

The cheap and easy way to get the most out of the After Effects Production Bundle By Dave Nagel
If you're using Adobe After Effects on a Mac, no doubt you've taken note of the debate currently raging here at Digital Media Net. Do you favor the Mac's workflow and functionality, or do you favor the PC's render speeds? Well, with an After Effects render farm, you can take advantage of both, using the Mac on the front end and multiple PCs and/or Macs on the back end to help improve your render times significantly with very little additional processing power.

Render farms allow you to take advantage of multiple computers churning out frames of the same project all at the same time. Most of you, no doubt, have some old PCs or Macs sitting around doing nothing. So why not put them to use to save you a significant amount of time, even with low-end computers helping out?

For this example, I'm going to use a dual 1 GHz G4 as my primary system and two old 400 MHz G4 systems in the render farm, all running Mac OS X. This is not the only way to do it by any means, but I happen to have these machines handy, which is really the point: A render farm takes advantage of equipment you already have lying around, and it makes tremendous use out of these systems.

Note:This tutorial covers the network render feature of the After Effects 5.5 Production Bundle. You can network render with the standard version as well, but the process is more laborious. See your online help documentation for setting up a network render using the After Effects standard edition.

Setting up
First some preliminaries. The After Effects network rendering process is not flawless. First, it has a few quirks during the initial use. Second, it renders image sequences rather than movie files, though this shouldn't prove to be a problem for anyone. (It takes about one second per 100 frames to convert an image sequence into a movie in an NLE or QuickTime Pro.) And third, the Windows and Mac OS X network Render Engines are not compatible with one another. So, if you have a mixed environment, you'll have to boot your Macs in OS 9 for the time being, until Adobe updates its software to run correctly between these two platforms. (If you have the Mac version of After Effects 5.5, it runs on both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X without having to do any additional installations.)

Nevertheless, the Render Engine is efficient in the extreme, which more than makes up for the little oddities you might encounter at first. In fact, it's so efficient as to be almost unbelievable. But we'll get to the results at the end....

Whether you're using Macs or PCs (or combinations of the two), the setup is the same. You begin, of course, by connecting all of your computers to be used in the render farm onto a physical network. (For a look at how to network Macintosh and Windows systems together, visit http://www.macwindows.com/tutorial.html. This link will take you to the MacWindows site, which is not affiliated with DMN.)

If you already know how to network computers and mount remote volumes, you can skip ahead to the next section, "Installing the Render Engine."

Next, create a folder somewhere that is accessible by all of the systems on your network. This will be your Watch Folder. For this example, I'll be placing the Watch Folder on the Desktop of my primary system, and I'll be calling it simply "AE Watch Folder."

To make it accessible to all of the machines on my all-Mac network, I'll need to turn on File Sharing, and then I'll need to mount my primary machine's hard drive on the remote machines. No problem.

1. Turn on AppleTalk in your Network System Preferences (Mac OS X) or Chooser (Mac OS 9) on all of your systems.

2. Turn on File Sharing in your Sharing System Preferences (Mac OS X) or File Sharing Control Panel (Mac OS 9) on the system that contains your Watch Folder--in this case my primary system.

You're now sharing your disk across the network. Now you need to mount this volume on each of the machines you plan to use in the render farm. So go to each machine and do one of the following:

  • In Mac OS X, go to the Finder and select the Go menu. From there, choose "Connect to Server." The volume containing the Watch Folder will appear in the list, and you just select it, and then type in your user name and password.
  • In Mac OS 9, select the Chooser from the Apple Menu. Click on the AppleShare icon, and then click on the volume that contains your Watch Folder. Type in your user name and password in the dialog that appears.

Simple Mac networking. Nothing difficult about it.

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