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.
The rapid advances in commodity hardware also means that DreamWorks now replaces all its hardware on the workstation and server side every 18 months rather than every 5 years as used to be the case.
While DreamWorks is using HP x4000 workstations running Linux to create “Shrek 2,” it is also adding the newer xw8000s for the “SharkSlayer” movie. “Every six months we adopt a new platform and you can see three generations of hardware here at any time. Moving to commodity hardware and Linux means we now pay just 20 percent of the infrastructure costs we used to, which helps,” he said.
DreamWorks current platform was also both a mission-critical and enterprise tool. “The scale of what we are doing here is quite significant. We have nearly 1,000 HP workstations across two sites as well as another 3,000 processors in render farms.
“If we can get it to work well at a creatively and technologically demanding environment like here at DreamWorks, it should have a far broader general appeal. Ive been in a lot of environments and this seems pretty mission critical to me,” Leonard said.
HP will also be hosting its first Studio Advisory Council over the next month where it would talk to CTOs from studios around the world on what their rendering needs were and what the next issue was that HP needed to solve for them, Balma said.
Leonard agreed that the movie industry was changing and a lot of the technology was moving out of the intellectual property space and becoming more technology plumbing for movies. Technologies that all the studios used like rendering and compositing were no longer competitive and, while some parts of the business, like its tools and staff talent, remained its competitive advantage, the core operating system was not part of that.
“Wed rather share and learn focus our effort on what really matters and in the end if we do that more as an industry, well all benefit. So we give technologies like that to the open source community, like all the technologies we co-developed with HP found its way back into open source,” he said.