Mark Harris
Wednesday 18 May 2005

Madagascar was made using HP servers A new breed of film animators is giving Pixar and Dreamworks a run for their money - and wowing Cannes. Mark Harris reports from the red carpet.

Away from the famous directors and perma-tanned starlets on the red carpets, a quiet revolution is taking place at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In a small viewing room at the American Pavilion, technology giant HP is showcasing a dozen short films that have the potential to turn the world of animated film production on its head. With impressive 3D graphics, creative storylines and naturalistic fur and water effects, these films look similar to Hollywood productions such as Dreamworks’ summer blockbuster Madagascar. The production of Madagascar used over 1000 dual processor computers, an army of professional animators, cutting edge Virtual Studio technology and had a multi-million dollar budget. In contrast, the 12 films at Cannes have been created in the UK by tiny companies or even individuals, some of them working with a single home computer.

The films were made possible by the SE3D project, a joint venture between Bristol media organisation Watershed and HP, using the concept of utility computing. Just as none of us filter our own water or generate our own electricity, utility computing aims to use remote computers to outsource the processing of data, whether it’s for financial analysis, gene sequencing or even car crash testing.

The latest 3D animated films are especially suited to utility computing because of the enormous amount of computing power required for rendering – the process of turning basic wire-frame figures into fully textured and realistically illuminated objects. Dan Lane, director of the SE3D film Two Fellas, explains. “Two Fellas was a film I wanted to make for a while, although I initially planned on doing it all myself. Each of the film’s 5,500 frames would have taken well over an hour to render on my own computer. I was looking at 18 months just to render my four-minute film, and that’s assuming my computer worked around the clock and nothing went wrong.”

Two Fellas - a short film made using the SE3D programUtility computing
SE3D offered Lane and his fellow UK-based animators free access to HP’s utility rendering service (URS) in Palo Alto, California, which is home to over 100 powerful servers. “SE3D made it infinitely easier to achieve my goal,” says Lane. “I simply installed some software, logged in and sent the source files over the internet. I then receiving the rendered images back, sometimes in a matter of minutes.”

Peter Toft, project manager at HP Labs in Bristol, is quick to point out that utility services, and even render ‘farms’ serving animators, are nothing new. Nearly 95 per cent of animated films worldwide are made using 3D software and HP has been working with the major studios for some time. When making Shrek 2, for instance, Dreamworks used a URS from HP consisting of 500 dual-processor servers running Linux, each configured with 4Gb of memory and fed by a 4 Terabyte NFS storage system. Ultimately, over a million frames were rendered, consuming more than 100 processor ‘years’ and contributing over 10 per cent of the frames used in the final film. It was the first time that a major animation studio had out-sourced its rendering, and Dreamworks was rewarded with the highest ever box office takings for an animated film.

Toft believes the advantages of utility computing for large studios have been proven. “Animators can call on extra capacity when they need: for rush jobs; to meet theatrical deadlines; or if a rendering job is larger than expected.” But HP’s scaling down of the technology for use by smaller film-makers is a real step forward, he claims. “Most render farm technology is immature and doesn’t work well over low bandwidths, such as regular consumer broadband. We’ve developed compression and management technologies that make best use of the limited bandwidth, and use strong encryption to prevent finished frames ending up in the wrong hands.”

“Another problem is managing a multi-user environment. How do you decide who gets the computing power on offer? SE3D uses a market system where users get allocated processor time on the basis of their bids in a succession of auctions, a little like eBay. The more you pay, the faster your job will get done.” Although the experimental SE3D system used virtual cash to give independent film-makers access to the technology, HP believes that a commercial launch of its URS will cost studios only about one tenth as much as buying, installing and maintaining their own render farms.

This cost reduction can’t come a moment too soon for European studios, whose animated features typically have budgets just 10 per cent the size of their Hollywood rivals and who are currently struggling to attract audiences to their cheaper, less computer intensive 2D films. American studios largely abandoned 2D films following Disney’s high-profile 2D flop Treasure Planet, prompting Chief Executive Michael Eisner to proclaim: “The 2D business is coming to an end, just like black and white came to an end.”

Shrek 2 benefited from HP render farm technologyThe future of animation
The introduction of affordable utility rendering services could ensure a future for smaller animation houses – or it could make studios irrelevant altogether, suggests HP’s Peter Toft. “Today, animation is largely in the context of a production house,” he notes. “But with widespread utility computing, virtual communities could come together from all over the world to attack large projects.”

Tim Westcott, an analyst at Screen Digest, is more sceptical. “Distribution is incredibly important in the movie business. If you don’t have one of the major studios behind you and aren’t able to get distribution in the US, you face an uphill battle. Animation, even low budget animation, is very expensive to make. Most people funding animation are looking for a mainstream hit if they can get it.”

While it seems unlikely that a lone animator or virtual studio will be scooping the Palme D’Or at Cannes next year, utility computing could at least ensure that home-grown animators have the chance to compete with Hollywood on a level playing field. As film-maker Dan Lane says, “This technology opens up the possibility for small, independent companies to make stuff that just makes people go wow.” And if films like Shrek 2 are anything to judge by, where wows go, success soon follows.

Event: Future of Animation discussion at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Friday 10 June, 8.15pm. £6/£5., 01242 227979.

Here's the full story on the Indy's website (apologies, it's a pay link).

  Return to Independent work page