As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working from home once again. My split with my previous company was an amicable one and I hope to work with them again in the future, but a really great opportunity came up for me and I had to take it. It’s much more in line with my career interests and experience and is with a really cool client.
Equipment-wise, it was time to update my home studio. My freelance work for 2009 was about 60% in-office and about 40% from home, but 2010 was about 95-5. I spent most of my time on-site for one client, which was stable and dependable, but sort of took me away from the type of freelancer I’d like to be. It also meant that my outdated 2009 equipment was completely unprepared for 2011.
Just so we’re clear on how outdated, I was running a PowerPC G5 Quad-Core 2.5GHz machine with 1.25TB of storage and 5.5GB of RAM. While those seem like fairly appropriate specs for a computer, even though it’s over 5 years old now, it’s not powerful enough for the 3D work that I do, and the PowerPC platform is no longer supported by a growing number of software makers. The newest version of the Creative Suite that I can run on it is CS3, which makes me feel very silly when a client sends me CS4 or CS5 files that I can’t open. I didn’t mind asking people to downgrade for a bit, but now it’s getting pretty embarrassing. The only from-home project I worked on in 2010 was completed mostly on a slightly newer laptop and just used the G5 to render and for storage.
This is all going to be terribly nerdy, and was inspired by Frank Chimero’s post yesterday of the same nature. If you’re not a computer geek or interested in people’s work setups, I would probably skip over the rest of this. This will preserve it for me and hopefully provide insight into anyone else setting up a home studio.
I recently purchased a 12-core 2.66GHz Mac Pro tower. It’s got 2TB of storage (broken into two 1TB drives) and 8GB of RAM. It was a difficult decision to make. I was about to max out an iMac, which would have saved me a considerable amount of money and still functioned quite well as a workstation. However, it wouldn’t have been powerful enough to render the massive files I knew I was about to work with. I contacted a couple of companies that host render farms and priced a few things out, and found out that we’d be looking at $1000+ to get this file rendered. If I rolled that into the cost of the computer, I’d come out with a much better computer that would last me longer, and I’d be able to render at home without dealing with an external service. It pretty much sealed the deal.
I am currently only using one small monitor instead of running a dual monitor setup. My home work area, as you can see, is terribly small and not all that easy to expand. We’ve recently completely redone this room and I’m really liking the aesthetics of only having one monitor. It was difficult to work with at first, but I’ve set up my palettes and everything in a pretty minimal way that’s starting to work out okay. I’m most likely going to end up either moving to a larger single monitor or caving in and getting a second one, but for now, I’m trying to go as minimal as possible. (I love the 27″ Apple monitors, but at $1K plus that nasty 9.5% California sales tax, that’s just not in the budget for now.)
My software needs are pretty minimal. I use the Adobe Creative Suite, which really means I use After Effects for all animation and compositing, and Illustrator and Photoshop for their respective vector and raster capabilities. I’ve been using them for a decade now and have no reason to look elsewhere.
For 3D animation, specifically the architectural work that I do, I prefer Cinema 4D. I’ve used it for around eight years now. It has grown into a really incredible general tool that’s appropriate for all of the work I do, from architecture to motion graphics to product visualization. I love its internal render engine and haven’t ever been compelled to use anything else. I’ve used 3D Studio Max professionally and I tinkered with Maya years ago, but I’ve been using and teaching Cinema for so long that there’s no reason for me to look elsewhere. Your mileage may vary, but I feel like the learning curve is so shallow on this one that you really get to spend a considerable amount of time finessing skill rather than overcoming basic obstacles.
All of my bookkeeping and tracking is done via Google Docs and Google Calendar. I’ve given additional applications a try in the past, but they’ve always felt like a ton of work. I love keeping my documents in the cloud – they’re accessible from my phone, from my workstations when I’m on-site with a company, from the various computers I might use at home. My income and project tracking spreadsheets have evolved over the years and are still evolving, but it’s great to be able to pull up a computer anywhere and see exactly where I’m at. My accountant is pretty happy with the situation as well. When I work with other partners on projects, I can invite them to my project tracking spreadsheets and they can collaborate with me in real time. I back these up probably less frequently than I should, but I try to keep fairly updated files on my local drive at home.
I occasionally use a laptop at home, and when Harry works on a project with me he usually uses a laptop as well. Our “file system” is pretty basic – we just wirelessly connect to my desktop computer and access files over our home connection. This has worked well enough for us so far that I haven’t had a need to look into other options, but it’s sort of on my radar in case we ever start to get frustrated with it.
Other things I’m trying out
Not pictured here is the camera I’m using to take the photo, a Canon Powershot SD4000 IS. I purchased it in early December and it’s one of the greatest tools I own to do my job. I also own a DSLR that takes incredible photos for me, but it doesn’t fit in my coat pocket. I kept this in my pocket for the two weeks I was in the midwest and took more photos with it then than I have all year. When I went to a meeting on-site with my current client, I was able to just snap off some photos of their fixtures that I’d be modeling. It’s barely smaller than my cell phone and I don’t even notice it weighing down my coat. Its biggest benefit is that it opens up to F2.0, so lower-light situations aren’t a problem. At F2, it’s pretty soft, but sometimes you just need an image to remember something.
You’ll also notice the Magic Trackpad sitting on the desk. It was a total impulse buy because I think it’s pretty. I’m attempting to use it for 3D, which sounds insane to me, but I’m really excited to see how it goes. The biggest problem I have with new devices for 3D animation is that you need to be able to use your center mouse button. I love the Apple Magic Mouse that came with my computer, but it doesn’t have the three button interaction that is absolutely vital for 3D software. I was originally disappointed with the Magic Trackpad because I couldn’t figure out how to customize it to my liking.
Enter Better Touch Tool. I have customized exactly one thing about it: tapping with three fingers is the same as clicking my middle mouse button. I can switch back and forth between 3D cameras with my trackpad, finally. I’m not entirely convinced yet that I can really use it for all my 3D needs, but I’m definitely not convinced that I can’t. The ability to customize any gesture I want is really, really cool. And it’s a free download, though I suggest you make a donation if you’re as blown away by it as I am.
The trackpad is great. I can’t say enough about it. I was laying in bed watching ESPN3 yesterday so I could catch a basketball game, and kept the trackpad laying in bed with me. It’s my own little remote. It’s totally gadgety, but I’m so happy I have one. And near as I can tell the battery life is great – I’ve been using it for a week and it’s still at 100%.
How’s that lack of mobility?
Well, it sucks. Animating from my couch is awesome, but there are simply no laptops out there that will sit on my lap and run my 3D software. Also, it sucks to use 3D software with just a laptop trackpad. Sure, I could connect a mouse, but at that point I have to be on a solid surface and I might as well just use the desktop.
I would like some sort of mobile options, though. I don’t really own a laptop (the one I use at home is Harry’s and it’s three years old and heavier than I’d like). I have given consideration to buying an iPad but I just don’t think it’d be all that useful. I go to client meetings about twice a year, since I do most of my business with clients online. Upload an animation to Dropbox, send an email and I’m done. I considered buying an iPad when I went to a client meeting in Cincinnati, but ultimately they had a computer set up there so I could reference my portfolio and things on the web, so there would have been no reason for me to really have one. I’ll probably pick up an iPad 2 if they drop the price, but it’s more of a novelty for me than anything.
And my cell phone is worthless since Sprint refused to upgrade it to Android 2.Anything, so at some point I’ll have to deal with that.
What would you change?
Most of these things are a pretty big recent change in my life. As I mentioned, I completely redid the bedroom to better accommodate all of our needs. One 10×13 room has to function as a bike shop, a design studio, a bedroom, and someplace to watch television. It also holds all of our clothes and my grandmother’s sewing machine. We have completely overhauled the room – it doesn’t even look like the same place – and things are going pretty well.
This isn’t true for everyone, I’m sure, but I find that when I evolve things over time, they usually end up feeling very cobbled together. When I spend way too much money all at once, everything just works the way it’s supposed to, but I end up going way too long without making those decisions and it bites me in the end.
I need to figure out the monitor situation. I’d potentially like to get some new speakers. I really should figure out a way to keep images and videos on me at all times. This probably means I’m going to suck it up and buy an iPad.
The location of my desk is perfect. Insanely perfect. Buying a desk that was half the size of my old one was one of the best decisions I ever made. I have a window directly in front of me and a door three inches to the right of my desk. It opens to the outside, so on nice days (and for some reason we have had a lot of them recently) I can just leave the door to the back deck standing wide open. Fresh air, the noise of the city, and it brightens up the whole room. It wasn’t a plan when I first set everything up this way, but it certainly has worked out.
This was a whole lot of words about some pretty nerdy stuff that no one but me should care about, but it’s nice to have written it all out. Here’s to working from home, evolving processes and creating a happy environment to sit in for ten hours every day!