Linux Goes to the Movies

Studios flock to operating system.

While the Linux operating system has transformed the digital animation movie business over the past two years and now plays a mission critical role in those enterprises, the major Linux vendors are gearing up to address the next set of challenges: more memory and greater processing power.

Movie houses from DreamWorksLLC, The Walt Disney Co., Pixar Animation Studios and Blue Sky Studios, Inc., are all using Linux-based servers and/or workstations for their digital animation movies to achieve reduced cost and increased performance.

The biggest challenge facing many of the studios now is on the rendering side, where they are running up against the 32-bit system memory limit. The rendering process involves fleshing out skeletal images with detailed color and texture.

"Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," the newest animated movie from DreamWorks and which opened to audiences last week, was the first film ever created entirely on Linux workstations and industry-standard servers.

Jeff Wood, a director in HPs personal workstation division in Cupertino, Calif., said DreamWorks was finding rendering sequences that could take days to complete in the 32-bit environment. To speed up and improve that process, the studio was now testing Intel Itanium 2-based systems running Linux, he said.

"DreamWorks had, for example, one sequence that took 24-hours to be rendered on a 32-bit system, but which took just 20 minutes on Itanium-based servers….Think about the rendering times: you have 30 frames a second and 17 Terabytes of data. Think about trying to render those images into final production. That involves a lot of computing power," he said.

Ed Leonard, the CTO for DreamWorks SKG in Glendale, Calif., said the company is testing and deploying some Intel Itanium 2 systems running Linux to render the heavier geometries found in its latest animation film currently in production, "SharkSlayer," which will be released on November 4, 2004. The movie is set in a very complex and geometry-rich underwater environment of coral reefs and textually compelling things.

Last year Pixar Animation Studios said it had ported 300 million lines of code to Linux and was moving from SGI to IBM IntelliStations. Walt Disney Feature Animation, part of the Walt Disney Co., in Burbank, Calif., has also chosen HPs Linux-based workstations and servers for its next-generation digital animation production pipeline.

But the studios are not standing still. DreamWorks and HP Labs are working together on a number of new products and technologies to see how the studio can use new technology and content in interesting ways. "We have teams working together to explore those. In general what we always need is more horsepower and to make sure that IT companies like HP take advantage of technology leading edge and not when its mainstream.

"This business will always take all the computing power than anyone can give us. Also, as the hardware based graphic accelerators become more programmable, things like in hardware rendering become more interesting," he said.

Scalable systems, clustered systems, 64-bit computing were all interesting to the studio, as was a virtual studio collaboration that would bring together its three existing sites so that less people had to be physically located in Glendale, Calif.

"Its basically taking video teleconferencing technologies to the next level, so were working closely with HP on that. Other things like security, smart file systems and other core technologies around HP research that are very interesting to us," Leonard said.