DreamWorks Turbo-Charges Its Technology
By Samuel Greengard
Over the last half century, animation has evolved from hand drawings to remarkably complex computer-generated images. For a studio such as DreamWorks Animation SKG, information technology is at the heart of successful movie making.
"The focus is on creating captivating, state-of-the-art, 90-minute computer-generated films," states Kate Swanborg, head of enterprise marketing and technology communications.
The task is made more challenging by the company's aggressive production cycle. DreamWorks Animation releases two or three films a year. Its most recent film is a 3-D comedy called Turbo, a story of a super-powered snail with ambitions to race in the Indy 500.
Each movie requires three to five years to produce and requires upward of 500,000 files and as much as 300 terabytes of data. "Each production is an incredible combination of technology, artistry and storytelling," Swanborg explains.
The digital technology and infrastructure behind each of these films is remarkable. DreamWorks relies on an HP converged infrastructure spanning servers, storage, networking, services and management software, as well as HP Workstations and printers.
The goal, says Derek Chan, head of technology global operations, is to "push our tools out to artists and reduce the amount of time they're waiting for programs and files to load. We try to give them the most powerful workstations on the market, along with the most powerful computing infrastructure."
DreamWorks Animation relied on HP Z Workstations to rev up Turbo and recreate the thrill of the Indy 500. Animation sequences featured the snail traveling 220 miles per hour, and more than 500,000 crowd characters appear in a replica of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The HP Z800 and Z820 workstations allowed artists to manage drawing and rendering tasks 50 percent faster than previous workstations, all while developing complex camera angles and state-of-the-art special effects.
But the huge computing demands of making a film also require powerful back-end and cloud resources. Chan says that HP cloud services deliver upward of 20 percent more compute capacity. DreamWorks operates a private cloud that spans Glendale and Redwood City in California and Bangalore, India. In addition, HP's FlexNetwork architecture solutions allow DreamWorks Animation to boost performance, reduce latency between global studio locations, and provide constant availability to support faster rendering and review times.
Animators also have access to a central repository of digital assets. The network infrastructure allows artists and others to collaborate on an anytime, anywhere basis. For example, HP Remote Graphics Software enables screen sharing across locations.
Altogether, Turbo required 75 million render hours to create fully realized images, including 32 Indy 500 race cars and 32 million crowd character instances. In fact, the film consumed more computing resources than any DreamWorks Animation film to date.
Swanborg says that the studio takes a long-term proactive view of IT and the overall business of making films. "We are typically planning information technology four to six years out—sometimes longer," she says. As a result, the studio works closely with HP to develop a strategic technology road map for DreamWorks. "At any given moment, our technology leaders and engineers are looking out five to 10 years," she adds.
Staying ahead of the creative and technology curve isn't an option for DreamWorks Animation. It's a necessity.
"Every film must be fresh, captivating and exciting," Swanborg concludes. "We invest heavily in technology in order to remain at the leading point in the marketplace."