Parallel software speeds DreamWorks animation efforts

Ibrix helps studio speed development of next feature film, Kung Fu Panda

DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. has added Ibrix Inc. parallel file server software to its digital animation system in an effort to accelerate high-resolution lighting and rendering applications by up to five times. Artists at the animation studio are using the technology to improve visual detail on films such as Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks' next animated feature, which is set for release in June, studio officials said this week.

The Ibrix software has been added to an animation-producing system that includes Hewlett-Packard Co. ProLiant DL385 servers and StorageWorks MSA70 disk shelves. Ed Leonard, DreamWorks' chief technology officer, said the Ibrix Fusion software has boosted I/O speeds to shorten concurrent information access by artists across the company's 4,000-processor Linux cluster computing farm.

Leonard said that he expects the technology will become a fixture for all future DreamWorks Animation films.

DreamWorks added Ibrix to its animation system about six months ago to create an interactive lighting prototype for digital artists working on lighting for Kung Fu Panda, Leonard explained. The company was seeking to stop system I/O from being brought "to its knees" by animators simultaneously pinging the compute cluster overnight to retrieve digital frame data, he said.

For example, artists perform between 75,000 and 100,000 batch-processing jobs per night, each ranging from a few minutes per frame to 15 hours per frame, depending on the rendering complexity of the digital frame sequence.

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Scenes from DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda

"We needed super performance [for our] file storage and access so when 2,000 computers start asking for the same texture file for one of the [film's] characters, our system isn't overweighed by I/O," said Leonard. Scenes that once took two hours to create are now completed in seconds, he said, adding, "That's pretty remarkable, and we're scratching the surface on where we are going with this."

DreamWorks Animation films typically require 25 million render hours from start to finish. The studio releases at least two films every year and is generally developing 10 different animation features at once, noted Leonard. He said that the already healthy compute appetite is being further strained as movie-goers grow to expect more lifelike character facial expressions, movement controls and scene background visuals.

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Scenes from DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda

"It's not enough to have a great story anymore. When your competition is coming out with Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, you need to have the animated world visually come alive in ways that you haven't seen before," said Leonard.

The animation studio is in the early stages of evaluating Ibrix for long-term storage of its Microsoft SQL Server database and online reference library built to archive previous DreamWorks Animation film releases and production data.

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