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Business Report

Hollywood's Cloud

Remote rendering lets big-budget animators add more effects and opens doors to smaller studios.

For years, the dominant animation studios like Pixar and DreamWorks Animation made their cinematic magic via expensive computers that ran in data centers at the studios. Now the rise of cloud computing, which enables anyone to buy computer power on demand, is allowing smaller, independent animation firms to produce very slick work.

Computer magic: DreamWorks uses 15,000 processor cores to animate characters like Puss in Boots.

One such firm is Afterglow Studios, based in Minneapolis. Its owner, Luke Ployhar, is currently finishing Space Junk 3D, a 40-minute stereoscopic film about the 6,000 tons of garbage circling the planet (teaser here); it is scheduled be released in February. It’s a big project for a small firm, which has required more than 16,000 hours of computing time to animate, or render, the scenes of orbiting debris. Ployhar estimates that if he’d bought computers to do the job, he would have spent at least $50,000 on equipment.

“It wouldn’t have been economical for me to buy all these machines,” says Ployhar. “I knew off the bat that rendering would be the biggest problem.”

Instead, Ployhar leased time on a cloud service run by a New Mexico company called Cerelink. It shares time on a supercomputer with the University of New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Santa Fe Institute. Such a setup “opens up a lot of doors for a studio like mine,” he says.

Services like Cerelink’s are also helping established players like Sony and DreamWorks Animation juggle their big-budget productions, which are becoming ever more computationally intensive as audiences come to expect more realistic-looking imagery and 3-D effects. 

DreamWorks Animation releases two or three movies a year, and each film takes about five years to produce. It does much of the work in house: it owns tens of thousands of computer processors, which it has used to render the graphics in its feature-length films such as Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and the forthcoming Puss in Boots.

Cloud rendered: Animations for the independent film Space Junk 3D will be completed using more than 16,000 hours of computer time purchased from a commercial data center.
Credit: Afterglow Studios

Four seconds of animation—96 still frames—takes about eight to 10 hours of computation to make sure the light appears to fall in a precise, lifelike way on animated panda or cat fur. Each night, 10,000 to 15,000 processing cores in DreamWorks servers in computers in California work in parallel to stitch together still frames from the previous day’s work, says Derek Chan, head of digital operations at DreamWorks Animation.

But with roughly 10 projects going at any given time, the California studio has peak periods when it needs to tap the resources of cloud-computing providers, including Cerelink and Hewlett-Packard, which for several years has sold DreamWorks its high-end hardware. Last year, about 5 percent of DreamWorks Animation’s rendering was done in the cloud, but the company plans to increase that to 50 percent by the end of 2012, Chan says, rather than spend many millions of dollars to expand its existing data center.

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