Ronny Courtens was lucky enough to spend some time again with James Tonkin from Hangman Studios. James has had a new Mac Pro & Pro Display XDR in his studio for the last month and Ronny asked James about his experience working on real-life projects with the new machine.
I was very excited when I heard that my good friend James had been asked to test-run the 2019 Mac Pro and two Pro Display XDR monitors four weeks before the launch. As a small team that constantly flips between shooting, directing/producing and post production, always working with cutting-edge technologies against very tight deadlines, no-one could be better placed to try out this new professional hardware than Hangman.
If the name Hangman does not ring a bell, they are the guys who tour around the world with AC/ DC, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Robbie Williams, Metallica, David Gilmour, Duran Duran, and many others. In 2017, we published an in-depth article about their work.
In this first article, we won't get into any geeky bench marks or comparison charts. I'm sure that other people will happily publish things like that in the next days and weeks. Instead, we will focus on what James thinks of the new Apple hardware from the point of view of a business owner who produces, directs, edits, and grades stunning music videos, high-end commercials and long-form concert documentaries, working with 4K to 8K footage in Final Cut Pro X and Davinci Resolve.
As a post production professional, I find testing new hardware on real-world projects to be much more reliable, and we will try to answer the most important question of all: is this new Apple hardware really a good future-proof investment?
Next week, we will publish a more detailed breakdown of the projects that James has worked on, including editing in Final Cut Pro X. So let's get started.
What was your first impression when you saw the new Mac Pro?
I was lucky to have seen it for the first time at WWDC. But when it arrived in our studio, I was not prepared for how beautiful it looks inside when you take the chassis off, how accessible everything is. You rarely look inside a machine and appreciate the artistry of the internal mechanisms. But it's absolutely beautiful. You have like this 360° accessibility.
It looks very upgradable, and very modular. I was really blown away with how well manufactured this is.
I have the 16-core model with 192GB DDR4 ECC RAM and a pair of Radeon Pro Vega II GPUs with a total of 64GB VRAM. And it's got an Afterburner card as well. So, basically, I have a middle-of-the-road specced machine. The performance we got out of the 16-core Mac Pro so far is incredible, so it's quite reassuring to know that we could even get a faster machine than this if our future needs would require so.
I installed the Mac Pro in our our main grade suite, which you know quite well. I was shooting the entire week when it came in. So I arrived in the middle of the night, installed it, and started working on it. I was really committed to using it on real-life projects and not just run it as kind of a test bench. It has been our main grade system from day 1.
To have a system like that up and running in no time without any external support, speaks volumes of the fact that it's a very accessible piece of hardware.
I want to come in every day and simply use the computer on any kind of project I want. Any downtime or any time spent on correcting settings, testing drivers and all sorts of other things, is either time that I'm doing in the middle of the night or it's time that is taken out of a working day. And we cannot really afford that.
Tell us something more about how you set it up.
Alongside the Mac Pro, we are running one Pro Display XDR as our computer monitor and another one as our reference monitor. The second Pro Display has replaced our Sony broadcast monitor. It's kind of a perfect pair in that sense, since I now have reliable colours track across my UI monitor and my output reference monitor both in SDR and HDR. This is absolutely unique to me.
The stand on the Pro Display is an incredible piece of design. If I need to do anything in portrait mode, I can turn the display without any risks. I can easily position and angle it without having to worry about anything, it's so well-balanced. And it also looks very good with the displays.
I attach great importance to what people see when they come to work in our suite. From the colour on the walls to anything that sits on the desk, I want everything in our studio to reflect that sense of finishing and quality that our clients expect from our work. And these displays look gorgeous.
We are also running a Thunderbolt 3 output into a Blackmagic Ultrastudio 4K Extreme, which gives me an HDMI output for our 77" LG OLED client monitor, as well as an audio output for our Sonos audio system in the room.
We have 4TB internal storage in the Mac Pro. Without doubt having fast storage on the Mac is great, we can always use it as an option. But our average project sizes are too big just for local storage, they go up to 20TB per project. That's why we always work off our ultra-fast Jellyfish Rack shared storage system that sits in our machine room. The Mac Pro is connected to our 10GbE network. I don't have any Thunderbolt 3 adapters yet, but we will certainly try these in the future with the 40G connections on the Jellyfish.
So everything sits in your main grade suite. What about the noise?
From a pure use-case, the Mac Pro has been running full-pace in our studio for the past month and we never even notice that the machine is on. I have managed to make our iMac Pro make more noise in the past. I'm just impressed being in the room with it. Gone are the days where we would have needed a machine room just for fear of all the machines making so much noise. It's tucked away in the studio and you wouldn't know it's in.
It's running incredibly quietly despite the fact that I've done so many big long renders, constantly exporting 8K material in 4K projects. That's quite astounding as well.
Onto the fun part. What kind of projects did you work on with your new hardware?
One project was working with Common People Films, to produce about 21 music videos for I Saw It First, a one-stop online shop for stylish female fashion. The biggest challenge here was the workflow and the amount of data we had to deal with. And also the speed at which it had to be creatively worked on and delivered.
It was all ProRes 4K footage from an ARRI Alexa. They had 21 artists and they wanted to release 3 full-length music videos per day. So I had to quickly devise a workflow using Resolve collaboration with someone grading on the Mac Pro and a second machine prepping and conforming the footage in the same project.
It was a good test of both the hardware and the displays but also basically testing our facility and our Jellyfish shared storage with Resolve collaboration combined into one project to see if we could deliver in time. And we did.
The other project was quite significant as well because it got turned around so quickly. I have been working with Coldplay for the last three weeks, and one of the jobs was filming at the National History Museum on the 28th of November. The footage came to our studio at around midnight, we finished grading and deliveries at 4AM.
That same day at 5PM, the producer called me asking if we could also grade 3 other tracks for the album. She wanted the first one ready that same evening. So I went home to have some tea and then did an evening grading session. It went out at 9PM and we did the other 2 tracks the following day. It was one of those jobs where everything was delivered to me as 4K ProRes 4444 files via a DropBox link, I graded it and sent it back.
That speaks for the kind of jobs that we are suited to be able to do these days, and for the immediate turnaround that these high-profile clients expect. It's also a great example of the speed and efficiency of modern high-quality file types like ProRes that don't require jumping through hoops just to be able to work with them. The machines and the hardware cannot get in the way anymore.
We have to have hardware that allows us to work as fast as our clients demand, to be honest. And this hardware fully lives up to our expectations.
You also have an iMac Pro. Did you notice a significant difference working with the new Mac Pro on these projects?
Absolutely. These projects were new, so I could not compare, but everything went really fast and without any issues. I did some tests as well on previous projects. We have been doing an EPK documentary for Robbie Williams for his latest album and we needed to export the project.
On the iMac Pro just with the internal graphics cards, it took 1 hour and 8 minutes to export that edit in Final Cut Pro X. On the new Mac Pro, the exact same export took 35 minutes.
That is a game changer for us, especially with the number of deliveries that we have to do. Like we have a full concert to export and we have 8 versions of it, and someone wants to make a final change. So you have to re-export the 8 versions but it has to go out asap with FedEx because the client is expecting it the next morning. Suddenly, if you are talking about a difference of a couple of hours for the export, you don't even have time to do it overnight anymore.
The other tests I did were also incredible. Because I shoot in 8K so much, the first thing I do with any new system is to do an 8K playback test. And what's so exciting about this system right now, is that I got a project live with me in Resolve playing back 8K full debayer 1:1 in realtime while I'm also throwing colour correction onto it.
I keep throwing extra nodes on it and some Open FX, and I have even started putting temporal noise reduction on, and it's still playing realtime at 25fps in full debayer. The more we are going into HDR now, noise reduction is something we always have to apply. There's always a point where it's needed.
In the past, we used to cheat. A good example was the David Gilmour "Concert in Pompei" project which we did in 2017. I was working on 4K material then and I was monitoring everything in HD. At the end of the night, I would put noise reduction on and render everything out overnight so we could watch it the next day. Then we would make corrections, like if the noise reduction was too heavy in some places, and render everything back out again. Because we simply could not see the noise reduction in realtime.
To be able to be in a place now, three years later, where we can basically watch 8K material on a 4K timeline playing out to 4K displays showing everything 1:1 with full fidelity, and to be able to then add the heaviest post production tools such as noise reduction onto the project and still see it play in realtime, that's what I always really wanted.
I had actually considered getting a very expensive Linux computer to be able to do this. But now, seeing how this much cheaper Mac Pro does exactly what I have always dreamed of, I am really excited
What I'm also very excited about is that the folks at RED seem to be very fond of Metal 2 and of the Afterburner card in the new Mac Pro. We mostly use RED cameras on our shoots, and I know that the R3D files are not leveraged by the Afterburner card yet. If this would happen in the future, this would even be more significant for our workflows.
Right from he very beginning when I set up the studio, I made the decision to buy Mac hardware with Final Cut Pro X for editing, Logic X for music and soundscapes, and Resolve for grading, instead of an Avid room with a lot of very expensive hardware attached to it.
From a business point of view, we have also been quite resistant to external hardware or devices that are so specific that they become redundant with every new change in technology.
To have a system now with an Afterburner card in it that could offer me all kinds of workflow improvements in the future, seems to be a very savvy way for me to invest.
After having worked with this hardware for weeks now, what are the most significant points you want to make about the new Mac Pro and the Pro Display XDR?
My first points would be expandability and longevity. I have always been very happy with my 12- core 2010 Mac Pros. They cost us a lot of money at the time, but they were worth every cent. And that's what I also feel with this machine. As far as I'm aware, almost anything in it can be upgraded. You need to protect your investment by having expandability and the option to do different things with your hardware.
Every Mac we purchase becomes part of a work eco system for us. Until a month ago, the iMac Pro was our absolute hero machine. Now it has become our number one edit machine and an amazing assist grading machine for the new Mac Pro.
The pure raw performance is also why I'm so excited by this machine. To be honest, there couldn't be a more suited machine for our very heavy workflows. We need our machines to be the best that can be at a certain point in time, and I feel that we have come to a full circle now. We are already fully running on Catalina and Metal 2, just to get the best possible performance for our projects.
With the new Mac Pro connected to our Jellyfish storage network, our studio is finally getting to its full potential.
I have been shooting 8K for almost two years, ever since we got the RED Helium at the end of 2017. Until last month, when we got the new Mac Pro, I have never been able to play 8K in full debayer and never been able to see it at its full quality in realtime. It feels like the Mac hardware has not just caught up, it's really in a place where these 16-bit 8K camera formats and this post production hardware work perfectly together to give us stunning images on the timeline, even with all grades and corrections applied, without having to render or to export.
But no matter how good the performance is of your suite, you always want to see your images displayed correctly on high-quality calibrated screens so that you have a reliable reference and you know exactly what you are doing. As a grading facility, we have to make sure that the images that we create can also travel through the rest of the world and still be consistent.
That's why the Pro Display is at least as exciting to me as the Mac Pro. There's just nothing like this on the market, not at this price point. As we are doing more and more HDR, I was considering wether we needed to buy a 4K HDR reference monitor. And we both know how much these things cost. With 6K and 8K coming, it's really hard having to bet on a single piece of hardware that costs 40 grand only to be able to play 4K images in HDR.
The Pro Display XDR can have multiple uses. We use it as a desktop monitor, as a reference monitor, it already has different functions in our studio. It lives in an SDR or in an HDR world depending on how I set it up, and it's just a beautiful 6K display. I think that's the point where the techy specs all go out of the window. When you are excited by what you are working on or looking at, that's the kind of fuel that drives your creativity.
A huge thank you to James Tonkin for taking the time to share his first impressions about the new Mac Pro and the Pro Display XDR after having worked with them for four weeks. I will be at Hangman Studios later this week to continue our chat and do further tests on real-world projects with Final Cut Pro X. We will have much more exciting information about the new professional Apple hardware next week.
© Ronny Courtens/FCP.CO 2019