Madagascar Tech Turns Imagination into Reality

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2005-08-01

Madagascar Tech Turns Imagination into Reality

The ability of animators to turn the imaginary world into reality for millions of moviegoers rests solidly on the shoulders of technological advances, says Jeffrey Katzenberg, a co-founder and the CEO of the DreamWorks SKG studio.

At a recent media conference about "Madagascar," an animated movie from DreamWorks that was released nationally earlier this summer and is still showing at theaters, Katzenberg answered an eWEEK question about technological advances by saying, "If you can imagine it, then we can pretty much make it happen."

Katzenberg pointed to how technology has revolutionized animated filmmaking since "Aladdin" was produced in the early 1990s and how it now affects every aspect of the animation process. As an example, he cited the expansion of the color palette from four colors to 250 over the last 13 years, while the "Madagascar" landscape has 150,000 different objects moving at once.

On the technical front, production design, animation and rendering for "Madagascar" were done on a complex system of Hewlett-Packard Co. hardware running Linux as well as DreamWorks proprietary operating system known as E-motion. The movie took about four years to complete.

Click here to read more about "Madagascar."

While a single film project would seem like a manageable network challenge, it is actually quite daunting. File sharing, processing and storage needs alone are enormous for an animated film project of this scale, Katzenberg said. For example, every detail of every person, creature, element, plant and background has to be painstakingly coded and then stored in E-motions huge database.

In addition, every movement made by the foliage; background; elements such as water; and the characters—in this case, all animals—had to appear realistic in the overall design of the movie, Katzenberg said.

Katzenberg sounded as impressed by the film production teams accomplishments as he said he hopes audiences will be. He had a wealth of statistics on what went into creating some of the scenes and elements.

For example, every hair on every animal represented a line of computer code, with lead character Alex the Lion having 1.7 million hairs on his head. The design team also developed five kinds of lemurs with 12 variations of hair type, or 60 possible combinations, for characters.

Philippe Gluckman, who supervised a team of 45 and all the films visual effects, told eWEEK in an on-site interview at his office in Redwood Shores, Calif., that HP supplied all the servers, desktops, laptops and notebooks used by the production team, which were powered by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Opteron processors. The render farm for production consisted of Opteron-based HP ProLiant servers.

DreamWorks moved to the Opteron processors during movie production, which Gluckman said was risky, given the possibility of disruption, but things went well, he said.

"The transition to the Opteron processors was made midway through production and was amazingly smooth," Gluckman said.

DreamWorks E-motion software uses a programming language close to C, which allowed technical users to program certain components. This gave them a good measure of control over their work and also saved time.

Asked what some of the main rendering challenges were, Gluckman said getting the diverse foliage and the fur of the lemurs in the movie to render was initially problematic, using up too much memory. The fur had to be created from scratch, as there was no existing component in the software database.

"On the software side, the lemurs fur put our memory to test, as it exposed things in the render that hadnt been exposed before and needed optimization," Gluckman said. "Initially, we could only render six lemurs, and some scenes, like the rave, where they are all dancing, required hundreds of lemurs."

DreamWorks also sent hundreds of thousands of rendering hours to HPs Utility Rendering Service. This essentially extended DreamWorks own render farm and helped provide the computing power needed to complete the film.

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"When we ran into rendering issues, we just looked at the ways we could solve them, using our hardware, software and on the production side," Gluckman said. "Once it became clear there was such a problem, we brought the production and technology sides together to brainstorm around this. It took us just a few months at most to develop a fix for this."

Rex Grignon, the head of character animation for DreamWorks Animation, told eWEEK in an interview that technological advances made over the past five years enabled a movie such as "Madagascar" to be made, saying the computer has become the tool through which all creative ideas are now expressed.

"Our desktop machines have benefited from the surge in available memory, and that allows us to now deal with those elements that were previously very complex far more easily at the desktop level," Grignon said. "We need to have access to a huge amount of data, and our software had to facilitate that."

DreamWorks E-motion operating system, developed in-house, is continually updated and expanded to meet both shorter-term and long-term technical needs. Grignon said that having its own internally developed software has often been debated at the studio but that, for him, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

"One of the best things about this is that I can talk to the people who wrote the actual software, explain to them my specific needs or problems, and know that they will start working on that immediately," Grignon said.

In addition, DreamWorks and its staff maintain complete control over that software, its legacy, and its development and architecture going forward, Grignon said. On the downside is the huge cost of maintaining the software, which has been continually developed for more than 20 years.

Another challenge with "Madagascar" was that it uses a stylized movement technique, where characters do not look like real animals and thus do not have to move like real characters. The animators still wanted any movement to be realistic for that animal form. In that quest, the animators have access to a mirrored room where they can act out possible moves. This lets them see how the moves look and how different body parts correspond when those movements are made, before they actually create these poses for the characters.

In addition, the stylized "squash and stretch" animation technique used had to be programmed in its own sophisticated, script-based language, which could take days to weeks, depending on the detail and complexity of the image being created.

While this technique had not been used before in a modern animated movie, Gluckman said he wanted to re-create the technique, as it gave the artists and animators as much freedom as possible, including the extreme definitions and the ability to squash and stretch out the characters.

"You cannot imagine the sheer complexity of these images," Gluckman said. "We had to find strategies to manage the jungle [a major element of the film], not only for the rendering of final frames but also to give our staff access to all this data."

When asked what they plan to do next, a common response from those who worked on "Madagascar" was to "take a long vacation." But, given that as one movie is completed, another is already in development, they acknowledged there will not be much downtime.

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