Dr Queue
for Houdini's Mantra


This tutorial is provided by the folks at Martian Labs. There is no warrantee, written or implied, pertaining to its function or correctness & no guarantee that it will even work or keep your systems in good working order. In other words, use at your own risk.

Basic Idea

Before we start, the basic idea to rendering Houdini scenes with Dr Queue is to write out IFD (Instantaneous Frame Description) files and render each of them from the command line with Houdini's Mantra renderer. Dr Queue lends itself to such a task using the "General Job" which allows you to execute a shell script on all machines on the queue. Like all things Houdini, there exists more than one way to accomplish this task. We will present what we feel is the most clear & concise method that can be used by beginners and modified for professionals.

OS Environment setup

The environment setup for our basic example should be only that which is covered in the Dr Queue installation. As an overview:

  • One Dr Queue server needs to exist.
  • All drqueue files need to be in one, central location to which all machines have read/write access.
  • Each machine needs to run the appropriate slave program for its OS.
  • At the time the slave is launched, all Houdini environment variables must be set. (Note: once the slave is launched, all env variables set at the time of launch will remain set and unchanged until the slave is killed regardless of how variables are changed/removed/added after launch)
  • Each machine must have the environment variables DRQUEUE_ROOT and DRQUEUE_MASTER set correctly.
  • All machines must be properly licensed to run mantra.

We accomplish all the environment variable settings by launching the slave program as the user "render" who has all the correct settings in his login script (.bashrc or .tcshrc in our case).

Houdini Output Setup

In Houdini, for the simple example, we'll assume no external referencing to shaders or plugins. Dr Queue will render IFD files, which can be created from a typical mantra output operator. To create the IFD sequence:

  • First drop a typical mantra output node in the output network editor.
  • Open the parameters of the output operator by hitting the 'P' key while your mouse is over the output network editor.
  • Chose an appropriate output picture location. (Note: "$F4" is padded $F - it's the same as doing `padzero(4,$F)` & yields 0001, 0002, 0003, etc.
  • Change "Render Any Frame" to "Render Frame Range" and check that the range is correct.
  • Check the "Generate Script File" option.
  • Chose an appropriate location for the IFD files.

And then just hit the render button. This should generate a directory full of IFD files. To help understand the process, you can now open a terminal window (or Houdini Command prompt if you're in Windows land) and test a single frame render with the command:

mantra < /path/to/project/ifd/sequence.0001.ifd

Which should render out frame 1 of your scene to the file /path/to/project/pic/test_scene.0001.tif. Assuming that works, you're ready to setup a Dr Queue job. If the test did not work, you'll need to double check paths for both picture and ifd. You can also get a little more information by using "mantra -V1a" as opposed to just "mantra".

Setting up a Dr Queue Job

Keeping in mind that a Dr Queue "general job" simply runs commands on each node in the queue, it should make sense that the command we used above as our test will also be the one we want Dr Queue execute on each machine. To do this, first open up the drqueue manager. (To ensure your settings are correct, you may want to check the "Computers" tab to see that at least one computer is showing up, it should look something like this. If you don't see any computers in the list, make sure that the slaves are running and that your DRQUEUE environment variables are set correctly on your workstation).

In the Dr Queue Manager "Jobs" tab, right click anywhere in the "Job Status" selection window and chose "New Job". This should bring up "New Job" dialog. For our mantra render, do the following:

  • Ensure the "Kind of job" is set to "General"
  • Give the job some meaningful name (for display in the manager).
  • Type in the command you want to be executed. The one non-standard Dr Queueism here is that the padded frame number needs to be substituted with "$DRQUEUE_PADFRAME" (see this image as a guide).
  • Set the frame range to match the scene.
  • Double check other options & hit the "Submit" button at the bottom of the dialog (you may have to scroll the dialog to see the button)

And that should do it. Your job should now show up in the Job Status selection window of the Jobs tab in Dr Queue manager. You can watch frame logs and check render stats by right clicking your job and choosing "details," where right-clicking on frame and choosing "watch frame log" will bring up the log. All frames should then render to /path/to/project/pic/test_scene.$F4.tif

Advanced topics

Using shaders/plugins:
By default, houdini looks in two places for shaders and/or plugins - $HFS and ~/houdiniX.X. If you have [non-embedded] shaders in your scene, in order for all machines on the queue to use them, you can either copy all the files in your ~/houdiniX.X to the render user's homedir on each machine (probably not the best way to do it) or you can modify the HOUDINI_PATH variable so that it looks for these files elsewhere.

Dynamic environment variables:
If you would like to be able to change a path (or any other environment variable) at any time after you launch the slave, you can do it at render time by adding a shell script to the general job's render command like so:

shell_script /new/path; mantra < ./ifd/foo.$DRQUEUE_PADFRAME.ifd

It follows, then, that any number of things can happen in that shell script & therein lies the flexibility that one will need to use Dr Queue in production. At Martian Labs, we run two shell scripts before the mantra command that set up a slurry of environment variables for the particular job/shot we're working on and then changes directories to the correct location so that everything remains standardized across the project.

Automating submission:
The more humans become involved in the process, the more likely it is that errors will be introduced. It's often the case that the render command will get mistyped in the tedium of typing out a long string. We have come up with a couple methods for automating the process:

  • A shell script that outputs a correct render command for Dr Queue
  • A command line submission program.

We've made a *rough* version of the shell script that's available here. Execution should be self explanatory.

We've made a *rough* version of the command line submission program available here: martianSendJob.h martianSendJob.c. Please note: This source code is COMPLETELY UNSUPPORTED & is only known to work at Martian Labs (though there are no proprietary operations made by the code, so it's possible it will work elsewhere) with Dr Queue v 0.63. It is up to the reader to compile the code (done by modifying the Dr Queue makefile) & ensure that it is functioning properly. Another note: It is also possible that the general sendjob submission in the current source tree works properly in which case this source code will be of little use, however, at the time we last upgraded, general sendjobs were not working.