The newest animated movie from DreamWorks studios and which opens to audiences this week, “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas,” is the first film ever created entirely on Linux.
Mike Balma, Hewlett-Packard Co.s Linux business strategist, told eWEEK in an interview that the company has been working with DreamWorks since 2001 when it helped the movie studio bring Linux graphics work to animated movies.
While Linux graphics played a role in the animated movie “Shrek,” “Sinbad” is the first movie the studio has made entirely using Linux. “The graphics animation was done on HP workstations, while the back-end rendering was done on Linux servers,” Balma said.
“The studio can now do all the front-end and back-end work on Linux, so why would they want to use anything else?” he asked.
In “Sinbad,” DreamWorks used a technique called animatics in preshooting the entire film. Animatics is similar to storyboarding but uses a digital format. That, along with the power of HPs workstations, allowed the studio to see the storyboard in real time and make better creative decisions, Balma said.
The Linux animation project also blends traditional and digital animation, while leveraging hand-drawn characters with the visual power of three-dimensional and high-resolution animatics.
With animated films becoming more graphics-intensive, DreamWorks has adopted high-performance, industry-standard HP workstations running Linux to provide greater flexibility and the scalability required for the animation as well as to save on hardware costs, Balma said.
More than 250 mostly 3-D accelerated dual-monitor HP workstations running Red Hat Linux made up the the core of DreamWorks graphics platform for the artists working on “Sinbad.” Dual-monitor environments increase workflow productivity by allowing artists to have multiple windows open, he said.
DreamWorks has also developed a Digital Animation Review Tool, an uncompressed and full-resolution color-accurate playback solution on the desktop, which replaced an SGI Unix-based operating system known as Irix, which was costly and was limited in functionality, Balma said.
Ed Leonard, chief technical officer for DreamWorks SKG, told eWEEK that the DreamWorks work flow process has two components: the interactive workstation used by an artist for lighting, animation and rendering, which is then submitted to a render farm batch process that takes it from low resolution to high resolution or across multiple frames.
The company decided in 1999 that it wanted to become the first studio to embrace a total Linux desktop company as commodity processors were becoming fast enough. Until then, it had been relying on SGI technology as well as several million lines of proprietary code used in custom tools and the pipeline it used to make these movies.
“The biggest challenge was how we got this code over onto an Intel or commodity-based platform. As we were using Irix, it was a far easier transition and migration path to Linux than it would have been to Windows, which we do use for our IT and business automation pieces,” Leonard said. “At the same time HP was embracing Linux and had a whole bunch of product plans, so we did an evaluation study and decided this was what we wanted to do. But both HP and we had to invent the many pieces that were missing to make it work on the desktop.”
HPs graphics team in Fort Collins, Colo., which had already built its own layers of Xserver and graphics drivers, worked with DreamWorks on these pieces to create the new platform that the company uses today.
There was also a huge cost savings involved in moving to a more commodity-based platform from a specialized one, Leonard said.
The collaboration between HP and DreamWorks on “Sinbad” builds on a three-year, multimillion-dollar technology strategic alliance aimed at revolutionizing animation production using Linux.
In her keynote address at the January 2001 LinuxWorld conference, HP CEO and Chairman Carly Fiorina said the company would provide computing infrastructure for DreamWorks next-generation digital studio, making it possible to create computer-generated animation more quickly and cost-effectively and with greater artistic quality than ever before.