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.
“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. Initially we could only render six Lemurs, and some scenes, like the rave, where they are all dancing, required hundreds of Lemurs,” he said.
The solution? Create something that represented the volume of fur and the edge breakup that real fur would give, and that had shades like the fur itself, but which was not the actual fur. This solved the problem, which was helped by the fact that the AMD processors on the Proliant servers gave an immediate 35 percent increase in performance and speed.
DreamWorks also sent hundreds of thousands of rendering hours to HPs Utility Rendering Service, essentially extending DreamWorks own render farm and helping provide the computing power needed to complete the film.
“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. Once it became clear there was such a problem, we bring 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,” Gluckman said.
Rex Grignon, the head of character animation for DreamWorks Animation, told eWEEK in an interview that the technological advances made over the past five years have allowed a movie such as “Madagascar” to be made, saying the computer had become the tool through which all creative ideas were 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. We need to have access to a huge amount of data, and our software had to facilitate that,” he said.
The companys e-motion operating system, which has all been written internally and is proprietary software, is continually updated and expanded, both to plan for long-term needs as well as to meet the shorter-term technical needs of every movie.
While Grignon said the issue of the company having its own, internally developed custom software has often been debated, for him the positives by 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,” he said, which is clearly not the case with software bought from a vendor.
In addition, DreamWorks and its staff maintain complete control over that software, its legacy, and its development and architecture going forward, he said. But on the downside is the huge cost of maintaining the software, which has been developed over more than 20 years.
Another of the challenges with “Madagascar” was that it used a stylized movement technique, where the characters do not look like real animals and thus do not have to move like them.
But, that being said, the animators wanted any movement to be realistic for that animal form. In fact, the animators have access to a mirrored room where they can act out the moves to see how they look and where the different body parts are placed when those movements are made, before they actually create the poses for the characters.
Also, the “squash and stretch” animation technique had to be programmed in its own sophisticated, script-based programming 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 wants to recreate the technique, as it gives 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. 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,” he said.
When asked what they planned to do next, many of those who worked on Madagascar said, “Take a long vacation.” But given that as one movie is completed another is already in development, there will not be much downtime.