DreamWorks Takes a Picture-Perfect Approach to IT

By Samuel Greengard

Making movies is an incredibly high-tech endeavor. These days, it requires state-of-the-art systems and technology, including massive numbers of servers, sophisticated software and a huge storage infrastructure.

DreamWorks Animation, SKG, is at the leading edge of the digital revolution. The firm has 10 movies in its production pipeline at any time: It releases two or three films each year, and a typical film takes three to five years to produce. As a result, the company must manage upward of 500,000 files and as much as 300 terabytes of data for a single film, such as its current release, The Croods.

“Making feature-length computer-generated films is incredibly IT intensive,” says Kate Swanborg, head of technology communications and strategic alliances for DreamWorks. “Each film—and every shot in the film—goes through as many as a dozen departments—from story to visual development, editorial, cinematography, animation, character effects, environmental effects, surfacing, texturing, modeling, compositing and lighting.”

Altogether, this amounts to somewhere in the neighborhood of 130,000 3D stereoscopic frames in a single film. Over the span of a typical project, DreamWorks consumes about 80 million CPU hours—mostly during the latter stages of production.

“Each of these frames is a composite of hundreds of assets, and each of these assets has been constructed from the ground up,” Swanborg points out. “In reality, our product is data that looks like a movie. We are a digital manufacturing company.”

DreamWorks has maintained a business relationship with HP since 2001. It now relies on an HP converged infrastructure that includes servers, storage, networking, services, management software, workstations, printers and digital rendering tools. The environment includes HP ProLiant BL460c Gen8 server blades, as well as HP Z820 and Z800 workstations. This allows artists to work on large, complex scenes across multiple shots, notes Scott Miller, staff engineer for DreamWorks.

The workstations, which contain 12 to 16 Intel compute cores and between 48 and 96 gigabytes of memory, altogether provide approximately 20,000 compute cores in a massive render farm, Miller notes. In many cases, animators rely on dual or triple monitors with high-end Nvidia GPU cards to drive ultra-high-resolution 3D performance.

The workstations allow DreamWorks to place more than double the computing horsepower in a physical rack, Miller adds. The practical benefit is faster turnarounds, as well as more nuanced and immersive graphics within scenes and shots.

“If you go back to older movies, such as the first Shrek, you will see trees, leaves, grass and clothing move, but if you compare it to more recent films, such as Puss in Boots and The Croods, you will see a far richer visual experience,” he says.

In all, about 250 to 400 artists and software developers work on a project at any given time. They are connected within a massive private cloud that spans four locations: Glendale and Redwood City in California; Las Vegas and Bangalore, India. DreamWorks uses HP’s Remote Graphics Software to keep everyone connected. In fact, the company must manage multiple projects over a shared infrastructure.

“We constantly push the limits on information technology,” Swanborg concludes. “We require the highest-performance systems and environment to keep us on the leading edge.”