There is a lot of money to be made in film. With Hollywood blockbusters demanding extravagant scenes, which are impossible to shoot in real life and animated films proving to big box office hits, the digital visual effects industry has been booming in recent years.
It got another lift when James Cameron released his 3D fantasy action film, Avatar. Now everybody is obsessed with 3D effects; another win for this dynamic industry.
Australia-based visual effects and animation company, Animal Logic, is riding the wave. Established in 1991, it has done work for films such as Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, The Matrix and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Animal Logic’s first full length animated feature film, Happy Feet, won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and further bolstered the company’s international reputation.
While audiences happily devour these movies, one has to wonder how important IT is to the business. After all, companies like Animal Logic rely heavily on technology to implement visual effects and for animation.
The fact that in 2009, the company was in the TOP500, a list that details and ranks the top 500 computer systems in the world based on performance, is a testament to the important role IT does play in the business.
Animal Logic’s latest full length animation, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, was released this month.
ARN spoke with Animal Logic head of IT, Alex Timbs, about what kind of equipment the company uses to do its animation work, why it is still waiting to jump into cloud computing and its preference for PCs over Macs.
What kind of IT equipment does Animal Logic use for its work?
Alex Timbs (AT):When I started back in 2004, we had a mixture of workstations. Very few of them at that point in time were HP.
We were a much smaller company back then and we have grown quickly and organically.
There was a fairly heavy use of mixture of beige boxes or generic no-name boxes, some name brand machines including HP and other vendor machines. We had some very application specific infrastructure from SGI that were coming towards end of life.
Ramping up for Happy Feet, we became very heavily entrenched with HP initially on the workstation and monitor front. From then the relationship has just grown. We started using HP for our render farm for this production (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole) and continued to buy our workstations and monitors from them.
We also buy large portion of software through HP software services and have a range of HP badged infrastructure throughout the building. Large portion of everything we buy and use as tools to produce our images is HP.
As for the rest, we have everybody from IBM to Isilon and NetApp. We have a very wide range of infrastructure we use and there are very specific applications where other technology is used because of legacy or its doing a very specific task. But generally for workstations and render farms, everything is HP.
Apple Macs are very popular in the multimedia business, why is it Animal Logic settled on PCs?
AT: There are a number of reasons. Firstly, the PC - or HP PC workstation - is designed to run the applications we run, so it’s closely mated with the larger portion of the applications we run.
Some of our applications would run on Mac but the large portion of the applications wouldn’t be designed to run them, so that instantly means we pushed in the direction of PCs.
I think they are a lot more cost-effective, easier to upgrade and generally more powerful than some of the Mac machines we have seen. I guess it’s just the best fit and solution for our requirements.
You may see other industries such as design houses use Macs and generally they use a range of products from Adobe, which works fine, but certainly not in the 3D space. You probably won’t see many people using Macs to animate or to create visual effects in our particular vertical.
No, I don’t think so. I just think it’s because the Macs traditional software hasn’t been - the amount of software developed for PCs certainly hasn’t been developed for the Mac. There hasn’t been as strong of a focus on developing for the Mac and in our particular vertical, as far as I’ve seen, the focus is primarily on workstations with running Linux and in some cases Windows, depending on the requirements
But really the workstation is the best fit for our environment for 3D artists.
What are some of the IT challenges involved with producing a full length animated feature film?
AT: The challenges, from our perspective, with a full length animated feature are almost always going be around rendering and storage.
Those challenges generally come it’s very simply in the nature of the project. As you can imagine, when we ramp up operations for a film, we might take on an additional 50-400 people over a period of say two years. To make this film, obviously you have to cater to them for workstations and in a lot of cases two or even three workstations each.
You need to make sure they got phones and desk and, honestly, to be generally comfortable. More importantly, all that data they are generating, all those iterations of a given shot, make the final film or output require somewhere to be housed on storage
Also we need a large or growing farm to be able to support the rendering demand being placed on it.
From an IT perspective, growing a farm rapidly – very rapidly in some cases – and needing to, maybe, go from 512 nodes to over a 1000 in a matter of months is obviously quite challenging.
In a lot of traditional IT environments, you probably have months or even a year to plan ahead for such an increase in infrastructure whereas we don’t necessarily get that luxury.
If we do know about it, we still have to deploy it in a reasonable timeframe. There are a lot of networking and configuration requirements to go around there.
And just with storage and needing to grow that; you obviously don’t want to commit to something too large because then you are spending a lot of capital too early. So you generally grow it as needed and spend the money when it is actually required.
Growing storage in a very granulated fashion is quite challenging.
Has Animal Logic considered employing cloud computing to solve some of its IT headaches?
AT: Not to date. We are starting to look at a number of solutions from different people. Cloud computing on paper would make a bit of sense – well, a lot of sense – depending on how you look at it.
In our particular industry where you sort of need render on demand and you sort of want to pay for what you need and don’t pay for what you don’t need. That kind of model, I think would work effectively in our kind of industry.
But I guess cloud is just another word for a number of solutions that have been around for a while. Certainly, we need to look at that space very closely.
I think there will always be a need, at least in our particular business, to have at least a base level of render capacity and I think cloud may end up catering in the near future for potential peaks in production on rendering requirements. So we are looking at that space quite closely.
I wouldn’t say we have a particular strategy in place yet, but we’re still looking at what is out there and what it would mean for our business.
So you don’t think the cloud is ready for your business yet?
AT: It’s partially we haven’t seen a financial model work on the sort of scale we are talking about to date and it would also be, yes, because it is fairly new and it’s being refined all the time.
We committed to strategy for this particular film at that particular point in time and, really, cloud is something that we may be using for the next [full length feature film].
But it’s certainly very high on our radar.
Is this attitude towards cloud a widespread one in your industry
AT: I haven’t spoken to my peers that recently about cloud specifically. I dare say that they probably have similar views.
I think everyone is sort of waiting to see a model that works and really just have somebody take the jump on that kind of scale and see whether it works for them.
I can’t see it not working as long as the bandwidth was available at a reasonable price. I mean, generally a lot of the workflows we have and people in similar verticals have requirement to carry a lot of data across to render. There is a very large dataset.
So, traditionally, some of the factors that have prohibited people going down path including ourselves has been sheer cost of getting that sort of level of networking, getting enough fibre or dark fibre lit up at a reasonable cost at short notice to a given cluster somewhere in the world to render on it.
I think that problem is definitely worse if you look at clusters of cloud overseas. Because then you’ve got to contend with international links. If you need a 10GB international link, you will need quite a bit of money if that is even possible.
Is reliability and security of cloud computing a concern?
AT: Yes, definitely. There is certain value place on being able to control our own destiny.
That also gives us flexibility to do what we want with the infrastructure when we want. Security is definitely a concern. I think it is gradually being addressed as people try to understand cloud more and that it can be quite secure.
I think they are two valid points that still needs to be considered and we don’t yet have enough comfort to make a shift right now to the cloud.
What is Animal Logic working on now?
AT: There are a number of projects in the pipeline looking more likely to have activity towards the end of the year to next year. None of them I can really talk about at this stage but there are a number of visual effects projects and a full length feature we are looking at.