SANTA CLARA, Calif.-DreamWorks, the maker of computer-generated movies that has produced such hit films as “Shrek,” “Madagascar” and “Bee Movie,” knows what it’s talking about when the topic is high-performance computing.
Senior Technologist Skottie Miller, who’s been with DreamWorks for nine years after serving seven years at Disney’s animation studio, told the audience at the Platform Global Conference held May 19 to 21 here at the Hyatt Regency that he’s seen quite a change in the HPC tools for rendering streaming video.
“In 1999, when I arrived here, we had a total of 140 cores [processors], and now we have more than 10,000 of them-in fact, I’ve lost count,” Miller said. “We used to have to physically share the most powerful computers by putting them in boxes and shipping them from one studio to another to get a movie done. Sometimes we’d have fistfights over the RAM, because memory used to cost $4,000 to $5,000 per megabyte back then.
“We just didn’t have the bandwidth, tools or computing power in 1999 that we have now. Now we’ve got multicore processors, dynamic allocation of computing power, incredible amounts of storage. It’s been awesome to witness all these advancements.”
DreamWorks’ latest computer graphics film, “Kung Fu Panda,” which debuts June 6 and was created in a three-dimensional-like style, took more than 25 million CPU hours and about three years to make, Miller said.
“That compares to about 5 million CPU hours and four years to make ‘Shrek,’ which was the last of the 8TB movies,” Miller said. “And the bulk of those hours happen during the final three to four months of production.”
“Kung Fu Panda” is the most advanced CG movie made thus far, Miller said, because of the 3D-like nature of the production. It requires about 50TB of storage space.
“We had to account for every single hair in the fur of the panda bear, for example,” Miller said. “Each hair has a thickness and a behavior pattern, according to the way it moves during an action sequence. The way the light shines on it is also a factor. Silk clothing is also a challenge to do correctly. Much of the movie is basically animals fighting and in water and with fire; those actions are particularly tough to do well in CG.”
Miller said the processing power and all those hours eventually pay off in a memorable film, but there is no cutting corners to do it right.
“You take a movie like ‘Polar Express,’ for example,” Miller said. “Now I hate to criticize work like that, because it’s generally very good. But if you look closely, the eyes in the characters are dead; some of the expressions just aren’t right. It ultimately makes the characters a bit creepy.
“The bar is very high: Viewers will notice if the result isn’t as close to perfection as it can be.”
A Ruthless Approach to Updating Storage
Miller has about 500 animators working in various locations, although most of them reside in the Bay Area. The two DreamWorks campuses are located in the Presidio section of San Francisco overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and about a half-hour drive south in Redwood City.
When a movie is in production, various parts of the overall artwork- backgrounds, main characters, scenery, minor characters-are constantly streaming into the company’s main data center to be processed, so that various assistant directors, producers and other studio staff are able to watch them and make comments.
“We have to store an awful lot of video. And we don’t throw anything away,” Miller said. “For example, there are 129,600 video frames in one 90-minute movie. Most scenes are 5 minutes or less in length. But there’s so much more [artwork] created that goes into the process before it’s finally cut down and melded together into a cohesive movie that tells the story. Basically, we’re just doing file-based supercomputing every day at work.”
Miller is not big on keeping older data center equipment around for very long.
“About every four years, there’s a quantum leap up in computing power and I/O speed,” he said. “We find that it’s best to just throw everything away and buy new hardware, because they will pay for themselves in about one year.”
Of course, most of those servers, workstations and laptops are actually recycled, not thrown away.
Miller said his 25,000-square-foot main data center in San Francisco hasn’t needed to be expanded physically, nor does he expect to have to build it out anytime soon.
“Everything [all the hardware] just keeps condensing, getting smaller, denser and faster,” he said. “I’m actually using much less physical space now than we were when we started nine years ago.”
DreamWorks uses mostly products from NetApp, Ibrix and Hewlett-Packard for its data storage. Its extremely powerful dual-core Intel “Woodcrest”-powered workstations have been supplied by HP for the last seven years, Miller said.
DreamWorks may have lost count of how much storage it owns. Asked how often he needs to purchase new storage, Miller was quick to retort: “Storage isn’t a buying decision anymore … it’s a way of life.”