The lovable ogre Shrek, newly married to Princess Fiona and heir apparent to the kingdom of Far Far Away, returns to theaters this weekend in “Shrek the Third,” and thanks to a tech boost from Advanced Micro Devices and Hewlett-Packard, it will arrive much sooner and richer than similarly complicated animated feature films.
The animation studio has leveraged its close relationship with chip maker AMD and technology giant HP to make its films more realistic.
“The speed of the technology is nothing less than breathtaking from Shrek to “Shrek the Third,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder and CEO of DreamWorks Animation, in Glendale, Calif. “The richness and details of the environment are only possible through our technology partnerships, like those we have with HP and AMD. It has allowed our animators to create a level of detail that let our characters come to life.”
“Technology is essential to what we do,” said Ed Leonard, DreamWorks chief technology officer. “With every film, we try to raise the bar visually and enable our filmmakers to tell any story they want without limits.”
In all, 150 HP workstations were used in the making of “Shrek the Third,” with almost half of those using the standard configuration of HPs xw9300 high-performance workstation, which features two AMD dual core Opteron 275 processors, Red Hat Enterprise Linux Workstation RHEL 4, an nVidia Quattro FX 3450 graphics card, 4GB RAM, a 400GB SATA hard disk, a 70GB SCSI hard disk and dual monitors.
These new workstations were much faster, as much as 50 percent faster for some applications, according to an HP spokesperson.
In addition, DreamWorks animators used HP Halo (Virtual Studio Collaboration) rooms and HP remote graphics software to work in real time with people in DreamWorks studios in both Glendale, Calif. and Redwood City, Calif.
“This Halo system is now pushing the bleeding edge of video conferencing and is the most expensive thing out there,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, a research firm based in San Jose, Calif., pointing to the $300,000 price tag.
Enderle added that the Halo system is still in the nosebleed range in terms of price, but it is the first system designed by the customer.
“As a customer, DreamWorks was uniquely qualified to create a product that is unique and special,” he said. “This system was designed for collaborating over distances, bringing down cost and keeping people off of planes. Historically, people havent used video conferencing systems…but this time it worked!”
Telling the story remains the prime goal for DreamWorks—and the company hopes the newest adventures of the green ogre will please audiences of all ages.
“Ultimately, our goal is great storytelling… When audiences around the world go in to see our work, they care about the story and the characters, which can only be told in animation,” said Katzenberg.
Next Page: Using technology for better storytelling.
Using Technology for Better
In this newest adventure, King Harold, Shreks father-in-law who became a new man when he was turned into a frog in the last movie, falls ill leaving Shrek and Fiona to care for the throne. Unwilling to assume the mantle of leadership, Shrek, along with Donkey and Puss in Boots, sets off to bring Fionas rebellious cousin, Artie, to take his place as the new king.
The story unfolds with both primary and secondary characters, as well as background scenes, created in more detail than in any previous film. For example, in past movies, characters hairstyles were limited since creating tresses that moved and flowed realistically was prohibitively complicated and computationally intense.
The well-known hero scene in Shrek 2, a scene that lasted several seconds in which Prince Charming took off his helmet and tossed his golden locks, took months of dedicated work to create, Leonard said.
In the new movie, though, everyone from princesses to Prince Charming (and even Merlin with his flowing beard) sports individually styled hair made possible through massive computing power. “Shrek the Third” required 20 million render hours (compared to five million for Shrek and 10 million for Shrek 2) and, at peak production, almost 4,000 AMD64 processors in the renderfarm were dedicated to that task, said Scott Miller, principal systems engineer at DreamWorks Animation.
Instead of months, these scenes were created in days and hours by leveraging the increased computing power. In addition, animators were able to add more realistic movement to water, fire and magic scenes, said Leonard.
And working faster provides more than just an opportunity to do more—it has emerged as a competitive advantage as well. “This technology is giving them a competitive advantage in the creation of movies over Pixar,” said Enderle. “Now, they are working on a three-year cycle, whereas Pixar is still on a five-year cycle.”
To meet its storytelling goals, the animation company packs as much technology as possible into its data center, which takes up roughly 20 percent of the space on its campus in Glendale, Calif. The average data center uses 40 to 60 watts of power per square foot, while DreamWorks data center averages 150 watts, said Leonard.
And, for DreamWorks, underutilization is not an issue. During the final product of Shrek the Third, the data center was routinely at percent utilization, added Miller.
Although the company is silent about what might be in store next for Shrek and Fiona, the data center promises to remain in high gear as the company churns out its two-per-year release schedule. Next in line for processing power are Bee Movie (in theatres Nov. 2), Kung Fu Panda (slated for Spring 2008) and the sequel to Madagascar (Fall 2008).
Meanwhile, the technology used on “Shrek the Third” promises to empower others.
“These workstations are heavily focused on graphics and rendering,” said Enderle. “Things happening in the movies are now crossing over to games, and game houses are facing big rendering jobs. Theres now a blending between the two industries, gaming and moving animation. Going forward, anything with heavy graphics and performance drivers will benefit from this.”
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