The next generation of film animation will rely more heavily on technology and data processing than ever before.
Film animation technology has come a long way since the early days of hand-drawn cartoons. The techniques used by animators to bring characters to life have improved dramatically over the years, and unlike traditional animation, which made its debut in 1906 and created the illusion of movement through frame-by-frame manipulation of drawings and illustrations, most animators today use computers to generate three-dimensional images.
Pixar, together with Disney, was the first company to create a feature-length computer-generated animation, with Toy Story in 1995. DreamWorks followed in 2001 with Shrek, which earned $484.4 million at the worldwide box office, and solidified computer animation as one of the most sophisticated and emotive forms of animation.
While computers have assisted animators in their efforts for decades, the advent of computer animation was a turning point in terms of the type of technology animation studios needed to use. Until then, all of their animation could be carried out on workstations (powerful desktop computers), but computer-generated (CG) images create such large amounts of data that animation companies now have to build their own data centres in order to handle it all.
These data centres contain hundreds of powerful servers, which provide vast amounts of processing power, enabling CG animation studios – big and small – to work with large, complex datasets and intricate 3D models. HP is one of the main providers of data centre infrastructure, alongside Dell and Cisco, and brought together some of its animation studio customers at the Cannes Film Festival to discuss the importance of technology to their businesses.
French-based Dwarf Labs, a fast-growing animation and visual effects studio, relies on a combination of workstations and data centre infrastructure from HP to do its rendering. Belisaire Earl, head of production engineering at Dwarf Labs, said that the company's latest short film, Lune et le Loup, consists of 4 minutes of animation, which equates to 7,500 frames. But each frame is 150-200 MB, so the four minutes represents about 1.5 TB of data.
These demands are big, but the data demands of major animation studios such as Pixar and DreamWorks are even bigger. Today, almost all films are shot at 24 frames per second, which equates to 130,000 frames over a 90-minute film. In computer animation, each frame has hundreds of assets, and every character has thousands of control points, so an entire film can consist of up to 500 million digital files.
As a result, some animation studios have had to start outsourcing some of their data processing to even larger online data centres. While animation companies may not do all of their rendering in this 'cloud', there are inevitably times of year when the demand for processing power exceeds the capacity in their own data centres – especially if they are working on several animated films at one time – so they will 'burst out' into the cloud for short periods.
“Yes we're storytellers, yes we love great characters, but under the hood, DreamWorks Animation is a digital manufacturer,” said Kate Swanborg, head of technology communications and strategic alliances at DreamWorks. “We are crafting 100 per cent digital goods for the consumer.”
A single DreamWorks film, like the soon-to-be-released How to Train Your Dragon 2, requires as many as 10,000 simultaneous computing cores, and 75 million computing hours, to render all the images. It also requires 250 TB of active disk space to store the film and deliver it to the servers and the artists. One movie is half a billion files, resulting in 250 billion pixels on screen.
In order to support this, DreamWorks has 20,000 computing cores in HP servers across three data centres around the world. Swanborg said that HP’s latest ‘Gen 8’ servers are 40 per cent faster than the previous generation, which means “40 per cent more pixels, 40 per cent sooner”. The company also has capacity in a fourth ‘cloud’ data centre, which is owned and controlled by HP.
“We are no longer living in a time in which you have to have all the compute resources you need under your own roof,” said Swanborg.
“We’re a creative enterprise and creativity is not linear – you have moments when things are working at the same time, and then you have moments when you’re rethinking and re-planning. If we had to build to the peak, we would have to nearly double our compute infrastructure to accommodate those moments, but we don’t have to do that, because we have HP Cloud, so when we have those moments of inspiration, we are not constrained by technology.”
HP said that technology not only has an important role in storing and processing data, but in analysing it. David Chalmers, chief technology officer at HP’s European Enterprise Group, said that film studios can benefit from using tools like HP Autonomy to conduct sentiment analysis, to gain insight into how viewers are responding to their films.
“It used to be you’d go to a screening and then fill in a little card. The film studios would take those little cards and try and work out whether they thought it was going to be a hit or not,” said Chalmers.
“Now we can use the Autonomy technology to build an analysis tool to look at social media output. What we’ve shown already is that in very early generations of that style of analytics, we are at least as good at predicting as the way they used to do it in the past.”
In the future, the amount of data generated during the creation, distribution and reception of animated films is only going to grow. Films will move from HD to Ultra-HD (4K) resolution, resulting in a multiplication of the amount of performance needed for rendering, and the amount of capacity needed for storage.
The spread of new animation techniques – like motion capture, which involves tracking the movement of objects and people to create more life-like characters – will also inevitably contribute to the data avalanche. Meanwhile, Lucasfilm has announced that the next generation of Star Wars films will use 48 frames a second rather than 24, signalling a new era for the film industry.
As these numbers increase, studios will depend more and more heavily on faster processors and cloud computing. The onus is therefore on companies like HP to continue supplying the industry with cutting-edge technology that will enable and drive the next wave of film animation.