Things have certainly changed A LOT since we started Blink Image. In the very early days - when we were still using 486-based computers - we were extremely limited by the power of our machines. Rendering reflections, transparency, global illumination, realistic cars or high polygon plants was next to impossible. We had to 'cheat' quite a bit (a 'dome of lights' to simulate GI was one of our cheats)!
As machines have become more powerful, we can push things upwards several notches. Now GI is almost the standard. Soft reflections can be added where necessary. Displacement can add subtle details that enhance realism. High polygon models, such as trees and other plants, can be added to our scenes without too much concern.
Does all this power yield faster/better results? That's a difficult question to answer. In terms of speed, yes, we could turn things around quicker. However, the knowledge that we have this extra power means that we often add more detail than ever before, offsetting some of that speed advantage. Every project is a balance of course.
A recently completed project, for example, was comprised of a number of different 'Cotswold-style' buildings that we had to design, model and render. To convey the charm and character of this sort of vernacular meant that we needed to really focus on the roofs which were all to be of stone/slate construction with randomly sized tiles that shrink in size as they near their respective ridge line. Quite a challenge. If we had modelled each tile as a simple extruded square piece of geometry (6x sides/6x polygons), the result would have been very clean and modern. We therefore needed to break up a selection of tiles and break up their silhouette - stone roof tiles are not perfect.
Scaling this out to the multiple buildings that featured in the development created a 3D file of over 72 billion polygons! This was - I think - a new record for Blink Image. Our machines were still able to handle the files, though we did perform some optimisations to make things work a bit more fluidly!
72 billion polygons. That's quite a lot.