Intricate Tech Brings Madagascar to Life

Animators went to extremes to create the new DreamWorks film, such as every hair on every animal representing a line of computer code.

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

At a recent media conference about "Madagascar," the latest animated movie from DreamWorks, which opens at theaters around the country on Friday, Katzenberg answered an eWEEK question about technological advances by saying, "If you can imagine it, then we can pretty much make it happen."

He 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 fact that the color palette has expanded from four colors to 250 over the past 13 years, while the "Madagascar" landscape has 150,000 objects moving at once.

On the technical front, all of the technical work, production design, animation and rendering for "Madagascar" was done on a complex system of Hewlett-Packard hardware running Linux as well as its own proprietary operating system known as e-motion.

The movie has taken about four years to complete, which sounds like a long time, but when all of the stages and components are considered, its not really long at all. Consider that every detail of every person, creature, element, plant and background has to be painstakingly coded and then stored in the huge database of the e-motion operating system.

Also, every movement made by the foliage, background, elements such water, and the characters, in this case all animals, had to appear realistic to the design of the movie, which has gone back and adopted the "stretch and squash" technique along with the not-quite-real approach of cartoons and animations of the past.

Every hair on every animal represents 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 different kinds of lemurs with 12 variations of hair type, or 60 possible combinations, for characters. This would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Philippe Gluckman, who supervised a team of 45 and all of the films visual effects, told eWEEK in an onsite interview at his office in Redwood Shores, Calif., that HP supplied all of the servers, desktops, laptops and notebooks, which were powered by AMD Opteron processors. The render farm for production consisted of HP Proliant servers running AMD Opteron processors.

DreamWorks moved to the AMD Opteron processors during movie production, which was risky given the possibility of disruption, but this turned out not to be the case. "The transition to the AMD Opteron processors was made midway through production and was amazingly smooth," Gluckman said.

E-motion, DreamWorks proprietary software, used a specific programming language close to C and allowed those users who were technical to go in and program certain components, which gave them a good measure of control over their work and also saved time. "Production artists dont program in any of the core technologies like the render program; they program in script on the production side," he said.

Asked what some of the main rendering challenges were, he said getting the diverse foliage and the fur of the lemurs to render was very problematic at first, using up way too much memory. The fur had to be created from scratch because there was no existing component in the software database, so some memory problems emerged early on in which only five or six lemurs could be rendered before all of the memory was used up.

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