Advanced Tech Creates Picture-Perfect Results

Producing a feature-length animation film is a remarkably complex endeavor. Not only must artists and animators generate terabytes of detailed images, but it’s critical to track objects and characters across a film and ensure that the entire production process takes place efficiently and cost-effectively.

For Reel FX, a leading design, visual effects and animation studio based in Dallas and Santa Monica, Calif., the need for speed and processing power has redefined the business.

The company recently developed, produced and animated its first full-length feature film, Free Birds, a 3D computer-animated feature about two turkeys from opposite sides of the tracks who travel back in time to try to take themselves off the Thanksgiving menu. The 90-minute film, which was released November 1, includes the voices of Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Amy Poehler and George Takei.

Developing the feature-length movie presented a significant challenge for the studio, which over the last 20 years has created an array of animated content—including short films, commercials and interactive projects—for Fortune 500 firms and other entertainment companies.

“We required robust, state-of-the-art computer technology and IT systems,” says Scott Correll, senior operations engineer at Reel FX. “The rendering and production of the film required tremendous computational horsepower.”

In fact, when another film already in production was delayed, the firm opted to fast-track Free Birds. Typically, the studio produces between 35 and 50 shots per week. However, in order to meet deadlines, the production team had to generate upward of 200 per week.

What’s more, “A lot of the rendering had to take place on local machines, which put a lot of performance pressure on our systems,” says Monika Sawyer, feather, fur and hair supervisor for Reel FX.

To meet those requirements, the studio turned to Dell to ratchet up its capabilities—without incurring any downtime or performance hiccups. Reel FX boosted its processing power to 12 cores per machine and moved from 24GB to 48GB systems with an upgrade to Dell PowerEdge C6220 rack servers.

In addition, artists and animators used Dell Precision T5600 workstations, which provide the high-end graphics processing power necessary for production. The company also added Dell’s Latitude laptops, networking, storage and UltraSharp monitors, as well as upgrading switches to boost its backbone from 10 gigabits to 20 gigabits.

The infrastructure upgrade paid significant dividends. The technology allowed Reel FX to reduce render time per frame by 30 percent. What’s more, the ability to render faster across a total of 300 terabytes of data led to a better film.

“Because we could view a scene in 20 or 30 minutes, we were able to change characters an exponential number of times,” Sawyer says. “We also were able to qualitatively and quantitatively improve the approval process for characters and, in the end, create a better film.”