I have found a saying that epicsoft has keyed on in their marketing of MULE, "If you use LightWave for making a living, then you have to have MULE!" I also gave them a quote once, something like, "You have saved thousands from Screamer-Net madness!" I have found both of these lines to be absolutely true.
MULE, the Lightwave Network Render controller has been out now for over a year. In that time, its maker epicsoft has started to bring together fans from around the globe. MULE makes using Lightwave's internal network renderer Screamer-Net a thing of the past. If you have ever tried to configure Screamer-Net then you know just how daunting that task can be. MULE makes network rendering a 1-2-3 process that is easy and requires no prior networking experience. Simply follow the on disc video tutorial, and within about 10 minutes you can have your network configured to utilize MULE's server and client apps. It is great to see that epicsoft has dedicated itself to making MULE even friendlier with the release of version 2.0. MULE 2.0 uses the slogan, "The Power of Two" playing on the power of the 2.0 release, but also the power of Lightwave and MULE as a team. The power that you can harness using MULE is absolutely mind blowing.
MULE 2.0 has a new redesigned interface that adheres to the Lightwave color scheme. Color coding of tasks such as scenes waiting in the queue to be rendered, ones finished and ones needing attention are all easy to pick out with just a glance. MULE 2.0 now offers non-modal panels that allow you to tear off panels and set up the interface as you want it. There are of course batch render options, a render scheduler, error reporting and more. You simply set up your scene files as you would inside Lightwave's render and camera options and add the scene to the queue. The MULECLIENT™ allows you drag and drop control over adding scenes from client workstations, which is a huge plus. The MULECLIENT also houses most of the features of the MULESERVER, giving you complete control of the rendering process from a client machine.
One thing that I personally have experienced and love about MULE is that it will allow you to still jump back into Lightwave for work, while your server machine doles out render tasks and is also being used as a client. That is something I didn't think was possible, but it is. MULE 2.0 works with multiple processors, of course, and multiple cores. The power to now render huge scenes that previously would take days to render, can now be done in hours with MULE 2.0. There are a slew of other features that MULE 2.0 brings to the game as well.
epicsoft has covered a lot of bases with this release. When setting up MULE 2.0, it is fast and friendly. You have the choice to either use the UNC naming convention or mapped drives.
The MULECLIENT is where MULE really shines. It's this software that removes the tedious setup that ScreamerNet is known for. Gone are the lines of DOS code and Windows shortcuts. MULECLIENT does it all for you. With the release of 2.0 the client now houses many of the features of the server. You can add scenes, prioritize the render queue, and change SMARTGROUPS, and a host of other powerful features. MULE also gives every client the awesome MULEVIEWER feature.
For those that do large scale, single frame image rendering, or need a quick preview of a video frame, then you will love FRAMESPLITTER PRO™. FSP allows the user to focus all your network power at a single frame, and results are fast and impressive. Just select the amount of splits for your frame, select a group from the SMARTGROUP™ Menu, and your slices come back to FSP assembled and ready for export. Other features in FSP, are the ability to add non-destructive filters, check title safe, and a slew of other useful enhancements. For my line of work, FSP works wonders when rendering out an image with CPU intensive Radiosity and/or Raytracing.
Having used MULE at my studio, Ocean Visual FX, for well over a year, (longer if you include beta testing). I have had more than a few gnarly rendered frames, and this is usually a result of a power surge or a funky plug-in. But now, if a frame did fail, MULE 2.0 has FRAME RE-Q™ which tells you that a frame is corrupt and then allows you to send the frame error right back in line and re render. When it's done, it then places it back in proper sequence order. Can you say "lifesaver"?
Then there is SCENE-Q™ which enables you to add or delete clients at anytime without having to stop your render. You can also change render groups on the fly, and MULE will change the group without dropping a frame. But I find that the real power of SCENE-Q is the ability to re-arrange or re-prioritize scenes with drag and drop efficiency. These are all such well thought out functions that it makes you yearn for what epicsoft will do down the road with future releases.
Another one of the features, is the above mentioned SMARTGROUPS™. It enables you to categorize your available render clients into groupings that are best suited for specific types of render tasks. More powerful systems can be designated for higher-res images or scenes that require intensive calculation, while your moderately equipped machines can be reserved for less taxing work that won't choke the overall render process.
MULEVIEWER ™ is one of those features that had me scratching my head thinking, "what the heck is epicsoft thinking?" This program alone is worth the price of admission. It acts much like the powerful Iridas FrameCycler, but ties beautifully into the MULE work flow. Loading a scene into MULE and seeing its rendered output is just one aspect of MULEVIEWER. You can load multiple scenes, view the individual frames from those scenes, add filters, select R, G, B color channels and alpha, add a title safe, add and view meta data from the render, and so much more! Selecting a scene and loading into the MV interface, gives you the ability to see your animation in all its full motion glory. If the render's complete, MULEVIEWER gives you the ability to compile those frames into an AVI, or QuickTime compression. These are just a few of the powerful features that are wrapped into MULEVIEWER.
For those who need to show a client render business data, MULE has a great render data export function that will create an excel document that shows exactly what processor rendered what and how long it took, along with render times, client information, and much more. It's obvious that epicsoft has been listening to their users and beta testers.
If you have even a single processor system, you too can harness the power of MULE. But it's when you add a network of systems that the true power of MULE shines. It is a true workhorse and has yet to let me or my studio down. With the new dual core, dual processor systems becoming a fast standard in our industry, it is great to know that epicsoft has taken this into account by allowing MULE 2.0 to take advantage of this new power standard. Own a dual core dual processor system? Then run 2 clients for every processor! That's right, now a dual core, dual processor system can be taken advantage of for everything it's got.
It may seem by this review that there's a bias surrounding MULE, and I guess there may be some truth in that. My years at Foundation Imaging taught me so many valuable lessons and among them was pipeline. My pipeline for all things animation starts with Lightwave and ends with our trusty pal MULE.
In closing, MULE2.0™ just makes using Lightwave much more fun. I know that may sound strange, but if you're a novice then this is word of advice. If your a pro, then you will understand what I'm about to say. Half the fun of animation is "seeing" your finished animation. Then, being able to show your friends, family, co-workers, and boss your animation. Having to wrangle the rendering process can be a pain in the butt, and that creates a trickle down depression effect, and for the pros, the relocation effect. MULE is here for you, to do the grunt work for you, to "haul ass" for you, and to help you do what you want to do. CREATE and ANIMATE! Happy Hauling!
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Special thanks to Guest Columnist, Robbie Robfogel [doublerob],
President/VFX Supervisor at Ocean Visual FX.