How to prepare
Though it is not a requirement to study with us, if you are considering buying or building a workstation, this guide can help with your decision making. Please also note that whilst we will try to assist all students, we cannot fully support your personal laptops or computers.
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The CPU is used in all areas of a computer’s functionality. It contains several “cores” which are like separate CPUs contained within one physical unit. Applications will be able to use many of these cores at once for some functionality but many will run on a single core.
Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
The GPU is a specialised component performing many calculations simultaneously. This assists in graphics operations but is increasingly extended into other functionality such as simulations.
There are two main variants: professional grade, and consumer grade. The differences between these are mainly around drivers and feature sets, not performance. In short, it makes most sense for us to purchase the pro grade cards for our large workstation estate, and for you as a home user to purchase the consumer grade cards since the pro cards are more expensive and the differences are less useful to a home user.
You should also be aware of the two main vendors, NVIDIA and AMD. In most cases either is good, however there are some specialist applications that might only support one or the other (usually NVIDIA). For example, the NVIDIA Optix denoiser, or the Redshift renderer. The latter does have support for AMD cards, but only some models. Lastly, for game-specific workloads, NVIDIA GPUs have historically had stronger ray-tracing performance and support. However, as this is very much still an emerging technology and, as features and prices are in a near-constant state of flux, it is strongly advised that students undertake their own research prior to purchase.
Measured in units of Megabytes (MB) and Gigabytes (GB), the amount you need depends on what you’re doing. With a desktop or some gaming laptops you have the option of starting with a basic level then adding more later. Not to be confused with storage which use the same units of measurement – you don’t “store” files in memory, this is where they exist temporarily whilst you have them open in an application.
Internal Storage / Hard Disk Space
Measured in Gigabytes (GB) and Terabytes (TB). You’re probably going to need more than you think, but you have a lot of options to expand it later even on a laptop. As well as storing your files (which will take up increasing amounts of space as you learn and work on more projects), it can also affect the speed of your machine. You should use an NVME or Solid State Drive (SSD) as your main Operating System/Application drive, and can usually get away with a large (cheaper) traditional mechanical drive for your projects/data/caches. Don’t go below 256GB for the main operating system drive, and at least 512GB if possible.
By far the most overlooked aspect, but one of the most important not just for academic work but your entire digital life. Never assume that someone else is taking care of your data for you, and never have only a single copy of important data.
At minimum you should have an external drive that you regularly update with copies of your data (1TB size recommended minimum). If you’re using that drive to bring your work to and from the studios, then ensure you copy that data to your home machine on a regular basis. If you are carrying your external drive and laptop always together, that is effectively only a single copy of data since you could lose the laptop bag with both.
To mitigate risk, it’s worth considering cloud services such as Google Drive or Dropbox as additional protection. A good option is Microsoft OneDrive which has an Office 365 plan with a 1TB storage allocation plus access to Office 365 apps on your personal devices.
When it comes to Mac, Windows or Linux based computers, the right choice is the one that works for you. Each have their own advantages but will not be the limiting factor. It’s just a tool, with your own dedication and talent being the actual key to the quality of your work. However, machines such as Chromebooks are less likely to be suitable since they can only run a limited set of applications and might not even support connecting remotely to our onsite workstations.
On a practical level, you need to make sure that the software you need is available for your computer. Most applications on our curriculum are available across all three platforms, but if you have no preference then we recommend Windows since there is generally more support and experience available from us and your fellow students.
We use Windows and Linux on our workstations; however, it is not necessary to open your file on the same type of computer you created it on. For example, if a file is created on Houdini running under Windows, you can open the same file on Linux or MacOS machines.
Outside of the classroom you may want a workstation or laptop to work on your projects and develop your skills. Some students have both - a powerful workstation at home and a modest laptop to use on the go. Others might choose only one, or neither.
Desktop (full size) workstations have the advantage that you can customise them and upgrade components but are obviously less portable, whilst a laptop is much more practical if you are living in accommodation. If you are buying a new computer, you could consider a mobile workstation which combines the practicality of a laptop with the functionality of a workstation. Another choice would be a “Gaming” laptop, which has higher specifications than a standard laptop with a dedicated Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) which is essential for many of the workflows we teach.
Bear in mind that laptops have less expandability than desktops. CPU and GPU components are almost never upgradable in laptops so go for the highest you can at the outset. Some laptops offer the option to swap the hard disk or to upgrade the memory (RAM). So, for example, you could get a gaming laptop with two memory slots but comes with a single 16GB stick. You could then later add a 16GB stick for a total of 32GB.
Having your own graphics tablet can also be helpful for working on projects from home, but is very much an optional accessory and some students will either never need one, or can use our onsite tablets when needed. It's best to wait until you identify your specific requirements before making the investment, and be aware that only Wacom branded devices can be used for pressure sensitivity when connecting to our onsite machines.
A headset with microphone is again not mandatory but can be handy. In some cases, you might consider connecting to online sessions or video chat using a smartphone/tablet which leaves your main screen(s) free for following along.
Generally, a gaming PC will be powerful enough to run any 3D or 2D application. If you want a professional workstation, consider an HP Z Series or a Dell Precision. These come in various base packages that can be customised to suit your needs, and are the type used by the major studios. They also usually come with multi-year warranty and support so you’re covered in case of component failure, but of course you would pay a slightly higher price for these professional grade machines.
Since the big companies such as HP and Dell update their product lines frequently to new technologies and releases, we don’t link to specific machines here, however the info on this page should help your shopping around.
Another good place to shop for workstations or to get advice is Escape Technology (a separate company to Escape Studios). Based in Soho, they supply equipment to some of the top VFX facilities.
Building your own computer has never been easier and allows you to completely customise to your needs. There are countless online resources that can help guide you alongside the information on this page.
It’s worth considering some of the CPUs from AMD that offer a larger number of cores for less cost than an equivalent Intel CPU, with the compromise of slightly less per-core performance.
The disadvantage of building yourself is you don’t have access to technical support and deal with returning/exchanging components yourself. However, for the more technically minded/experienced, this is an excellent option to consider.
We won’t give component examples since these can change every few weeks. You should do your own research based on online resources and even magazines if you want to go old-school. You should however be aware of how fast the technology landscape changes, so if something is more than a few months old be aware that the exact examples they give might not be optimal any longer.
For example, the site Ars Technica does an excellent “System Guide” article usually once a year, and these are a solid resource in terms of understanding how to put together a build, and the thinking that goes into them. But after a few months, it might be a better idea to use their example as a base and then research which components (e.g. CPU or GPU) might have newer iterations.
You can also use the website PC Part Picker to get example builds and test your own builds with indicators of component compatibility.
Your main source of cutting-edge information will probably be YouTube videos. However, as with all information and research, don’t rely on one single source and confirm your choices by watching others.
There’s not enough space here to go fully in depth, but for main components, here is some brief guidance.
The table below gives a general idea on the major components and how much you should favour one over the other depending on what your focus might be. Of course, the ideal situation would be the best available in all categories, however this is not cost effective for most people.
|Task (Example applications)||CPU||GPU||RAM||Storage|
|Modeling/Animation (Maya, Houdini, Blender, Cinema4d, Modo)||Medium||Medium||Medium||Medium|
|Texturing (Substance Painter, Mari)||High||Very high||High||Medium|
|FX Simulations (Maya, Houdini FX)||Very high||Medium||Very high||Very high|
|Compositing (Nuke, Silhouette)||High||Medium||High||High|
|Realtime (Unreal Engine / game engines)||High||Very high||High||High|
|Video Editing/Production (After Effects, Premiere)||High||Medium||High||High|
|Digital Sculpting (ZBrush, Mudbox)||High||Medium||High||Medium|