How do they do IT? Avatar's special effects

The motion picture, Avatar, is breaking box office records around the world, redefining the cinematic experience along the way.

The film's director, James Cameron, first conceived the concept 15 years ago. Back then, the technology required to make the movie a reality simply didn’t exist. The live action film features a new generation of special effects. At the heart of the project is visual effects company, Weta Digital, which provided the digital production services from concept design to cutting edge 3D animation.

NZ-based Weta Digital, which has been nominated for five visual effects Oscars, won four and is best known for its work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is listed in the Top 500 supercomputers in the world and used HP BladeSystem technology to support the incredible processing and rendering requirement demanded in the production.

Computerworld asked HP NZ Country Manager for Enterprise Storage, Servers and Networking, Jeff Healey, about the IT systems that created a movie masterpiece.

Computerworld: Could you outline the IT stack that WETA Digital used in production?

Healey: Weta Digital uses HP’s BladeSystem c7000 chassis with BL2x220 server modules, with redundant HP Virtual Connect networking modules, full HP redundant thermal logic power supplies and fans, redundant management modules, each server had two Intel L5335 50w processors, 24GB memory and a mixture of 60GB and 120GB hard disk drives.

How long has HP had a relationship with Weta Digital?

Healey: HP has had a relationship with Weta Digital for many years providing our professional workstation and Dreamcolour displays for the artists. We have provided server technology to Weta Digital since January 2008 and deployed the hyper-dense BL2x220 system to Weta Digital in May 2008. The initial deployment was 1280 servers and this has grown over the years to a peak server deployment of 4352 servers during the peak of production of the Avatar blockbuster.

Why did Weta Digital decide to go with the HP blade setup?

Healey: HP BladeSystem BL2x220 offered the highest level of processor and memory density in the industry and our ability to provide ‘hyper-dense’ solutions, while providing power management, systems management and the levels of reliability required all contributed to the selection.

What kind — and capacity — of storage was required for Avatar?

Healey: The render wall itself does not have a large storage requirement for each of the rendering nodes — each server has two Intel Quad-Core Processors running at 50W, 24GB of memory and a 120GB disk drive — 34,816 processor cores, 104,448GB of memory in total.

How was the data handled?

Healey: The solution comes with Virtual Connect networking, connecting each chassis to Weta’s datacenter core at 10Gbps. Each chassis had redundant Virtual Connect modules and redundant management modules. We also had a full implementation of HP’s redundant power and fans deployed in each chassis to achieve high levels of reliability for our solution.

Were there any technical challenges in providing the IT setup for the film

Healey: Cooling was one of the major challenges for Weta. The HP BladeSystem Thermal Logic technology allows us to run unprecedented levels of density; the more servers we can deploy into the datacenter space available allows for a better return on datacenter investment. Weta achieved maximum density balanced with the ability to cool and manage the solution. The datacenter design that the team at Weta engineered has no equal and it can cope with a hyper-dense solution. They are to be congratulated for the design and foresight as without it the levels of density and reliability could not have been achieved.

We enjoyed working with Weta Digital. They are a highly innovative customer and are willing to push technology boundaries in their quest to using technology to bring to life some of the most innovative film projects in the world.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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