Tractor dispatcher for Blender released
Ragnar Brynjúlfsson of Storm Studios released the first public version of an add-on that makes it possible to dispatch rendering jobs from Blender to a render farm powered by Pixar Tractor.
What the add-on does
It's all really simple: the dispatcher creates an .alf job script, saves copy of your Blender project along with pre- and post-scripts, then runs tractor-spool.py.
You can find far more details about all the options at the add-on's page. Note that the dispatcher is recommended for use with newly released Blender 2.65.
Writing the add-on didn't take much time. Ragnar explains:
I wrote the first implementation of the Tractor Dispatcher over a weekend. I got it to a point where it was working, and I could dispatch jobs with it. This was before we started working on Boots, so it was more of a fun experiment from my side that I did as a hobby project at home.
When we got the Boots commercial, I thought this would be a great opportunity to give Blender a shot in production, and having the Tractor Dispatcher was a great help. I've probably spent around 3 more days on it since then, adding new features, and cleaning it up a bit.
But wait, is an humble 11KB large Python script really worth all the fuzz? Well, it depends on your perspective.
Storm Studios relies on a diversified production pipeline with both proprietary and free software. Along with Renderman, Nuke, TVPaint, Photoshop etc. they use tools like FFmpeg, ffmbc, ImageMagick, djv_view, Inkscape. Some of the people in the studio had been experimenting with Blender for a while too.
Eventually the team decided that Blender was good enough to use in several commissioned projects, including the commercial for Boots that you probably saw a month ago at Blendernation.com.
The commercial was rendered with Cycles, and if you have any experience with it, you know what it takes to make a noiseless render of an animation: more samples, and hence longer rendering time. Which is where a render farm came in handy along with the dispatcher that Ragnar had created shortly before that.
Production of the commercial
If you are curious, how the commerical was created, here's some extra information from Ragnar.
Characters were animated with FrameToon and TVPaint. Most of the textures were made with the GIMP, while a couple came from Photoshop. Nuke came in at the very end, and did the fade-in of the logo at the end, and added the text on top, as well as the glass pane in the window at the beginning and depth of field throughout.
We exported camera data and geometry from Blender for using in Nuke, as well as depth maps. The main reason for doing these elements in comp was that you get a much quicker turnaround, if you need to do changes.
Of course, we could easily have done the same in Blender's compositor, but again it was a case of another artist doing the work, who was more familiar with Nuke. Everything else you see on the screen is pretty much Blender and Cycles.
According to Ragnar, one thing that would make using Blender in the pipeline much easier is native support for Alembic. As you already know, a year ago Esteban Tovagliari patched Blender for Alembic support, but it never was submitted for review.
BMesh then made a large part of Esteban's work obsolete, because his code was written against the old mesh data structure. And using existing Python bindings (available since Alembic 1.1.0) won't help, because they don't work for Python3.
Eventually Esteban ditched all the code from his Github repository, so there's only a rather outdated build of Blender available at the moment (which Storm Studios used for another, earlier project).
If you have Pixar Tractor in your studio and wish to use Blender in your pipeline, you can test the dispatcher and send your feedback to Ragnar.
Additionally, if you have programming skills, it would be great if you could look into implementing support for Alembic in Blender.
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