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HP, Ibrix storage products add kick to film animation

DreamWorks draws on Ibrix clustered file system and HP storage to improve 'aesthetic' quality of Kung Fu Panda movie.

When viewers see the animated movieKung Fu Panda in theatres in June, they'll probably recognize the voices of Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Black. However, they probably won't recognize the work that storage vendors Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Ibrix Inc. played in the movie, but DreamWorks Animation chief technology officer Ed Leonard will.

DreamWorks turned to a bundle of HP storage and Ibrix clustered file system (CFS) software to speed the process for its lighting artists to add rendering detail and lighting nuances to the animation. Leonard said the lighting artists that used the HP/Ibrix bundle performed a job that could make or break a movie that costs around $125 million.

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"Lighting is probably the most expensive part of the production process," he said. "We only bring out a movie like this twice a year, so there aren't a whole lot of chances for a success. That's where technology helps us to stay on the leading edge. It gives the filmmakers the tools they need to make a much more aesthetic movie. In our market there are 500 movies a year. When you make two of the 10 most expensive films, they better get noticed."

Saving time for services rendered

DreamWorks began running Ibrix Fusion software with HP ProLiant DL385 servers and StorageWorks MSA70 low-end disk arrays near the end of its production process for Bee Movie last year, and it has used the bundle since beginning the lighting rendering on Kung Fu Panda about six months ago. Leonard said the process cut the rendering time from two hours a frame to seconds a frame.

"The whole work experience radically changes," he said.

High-priced animation movies, such as Kung Fu Panda, usually use four or five lighting artist teams consisting of 10 to 15 people per team, Leonard said. The artists had a total of 30 million rendering hours to complete their work, so saving rendering time allowed them more repetitions to go over the frames and improve the realism.

"Making these films involves compute intensive processes," Leonard said. "One is interactive, where artists sit in front of workstations and interact with pieces of a frame and work on special effects. When they're happy, then send it off to a batch queue and each queue computes those jobs over multiple frames. So we've taken the lighting application – where artists adjust lights and parameters in a scene to get the lights and textures right – and improved the process. As they tweak a frame, instead of taking hours to compute on the back-end process, we can compute them using scalable processing in a few seconds."

No longer I/O bound

Leonard said before turning to the HP/Ibrix bundle, DreamWorks lighting artists used Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) NAS filers with caching appliance clusters, but that didn't scale as well. "The Ibrix stuff scaled much better for applications where I needed to have a dedicated file system that would scale with a large number of processors. Other file systems fell short there," he said. "We'd be I/O bound; I couldn't throw more computational power at it because they'd be waiting for filers to catch up."

DreamWorks artists use the Ibrix software on direct-attached HP storage, although Ibrix is commonly run on NAS and SAN systems. Ibrix has reseller deals with EMC Corp. and Dell Inc., as well as HP, and Ibrix marketing vice president Milan Shetti said Walt Disney Studios and Pixar Animation Studios also use his vendor's software for animation projects.

"Fusion makes small units of DAS [direct attached storage] look like one giant pool," Shetti said. "Or it turns a large SAN into one giant farm of CPUs and RAM."

In the case of DreamWorks, Ibrix Fusion allows its artists to use the compute power of multiple systems to speed processing. DreamWorks also uses Fusion for archiving images.

"They could have used a SAN and parallel NAS, but the cost was too high," Shetti said. "They had all this DAS storage in an Ethernet loop. We gave them the benefit of parallel and shared file systems."

Leonard said his lighting teams will get more use from Ibrix Fusion when it makes all of its movies in a new stereoscopic 3D format beginning in 2009. Unlike current 3D movies that are created in the traditional format and then rendered into 3D in post-production, stereoscopic 3D films will be created in 3D from the start.

"If we had a problem with compute power before, we just doubled it with stereoscopic," Leonard said.


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