Madagascar Tech Turns Imagination into Reality

The animation blockbuster's creators discuss systems challenges such as meeting file-sharing, processing and storage needs.

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.

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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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