New Zealand Herald
August 23, 2000
Lord of the Rings
Realism Moves Up a Step
Wellington-based Weta Digital's ability to process work on the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy has just dramatically improved - with big savings to boot.
Weta has bought 16 dual-processor SGI 1200 servers running the Linux operating system.
The servers will convert object, environment, and motion data into photo-realistic images and blend them with live action for final scene production - a process known as rendering.
SGI account manager Scott Houston said the Linux cluster created for Weta is doing work which previously required multi-processor Unix servers costing over $1 million. "It's high performance with low overhead and low cost. It's all about bangs for bucks."
Weta chief technical officer Jon Labrie said the company's animators worked on 90 Octane class SGI workstations, each costing about $40,000 with single processors. "We were able to get the SGI 1200 servers for about $15,000 each or $7500 a processor, and they run more than twice as fast as the Octanes for pure rendering."
Rendering was a key constraint to the firm's ability to successfully complete something as large as Lord of the Rings.
"We like to get as many processors as possible on it, as the quality of what you can achieve and its complexity rises."
Weta uses a Pixar software product, Renderman, to batch process the material for rendering.
Mr Labrie said being able to run this on Linux drastically reduced the costs involved, and was a watershed for the animation industry.
"Just by putting in a Linux processor, the price to do a frame is up to a tenth of the cost as on an SGI workstation [running SGI's Irix operating system] so the things we can attempt are more complex.
"There's a saying it always takes about an hour to render a frame of film.
"The time to render a given frame doesn't drop, but the level of detail grows based on the speed of the processor and price we pay. So the amount of detail we can put in is far higher than even a year ago."
Mr Labrie said that by the time the trilogy was finished in 2003, Weta would have more than 200 CPUs doing rendering.
"It makes sense to buy them when we need them, so I hold the money back. This rack is based around 700 MHz Pentium III processors, for the next round I expect I will be buying 800 MHz or 1 gigahertz processors, and so on."
The 16 servers each have 1GB of RAM and a 9GB SCSI hard disk.
Weta, an offshoot of Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films, expects to create and manage nearly 100 terabytes of information during the production of over 1200 visual effect shots needed for the films.
The sheer volume of data movement each day, with many files in excess of 1Gb, creates major technical challenges.
It is talking with SGI about creating a storage area network (SAN) based on ADIC's Centravision product.
Ultimately 20 of the compositing, paint, and rotoscoping seats will be connected via a fibre channel SAN environment.
Mr Labrie said SGI "understand our business - when we talk about our requirements as entertainment or media. They don't shrug their shoulders. It's been a core business for years - they 'get' visual effects."
Linux was not "bleeding edge stuff."
"We don't tend to get too far out of the pack, we have a lot of expensive artists in this facility who need to be working, so we can't afford for the system to go down."
Mr Houston said SGI had worked closely with Weta since 1994, when Jackson directed Heavenly Creatures.
"Weta's The Lord of the Rings project has been given a high level of visibility and commitment by SGI headquarters at Mountain View, California."
SGI had supplied the Linux support, he said.