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"The Painter" is a brush with the future

Animated film produced for HP Labs Bristol could be the first of many to use new computing technologies

September 2003

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Advances in computer technology are on the verge of transforming the global film and animation industry - and the community of media companies surrounding HP Labs in Bristol, UK, is ideally placed to profit from the transformation.

According to John Manley, head of utility computing research at HP Laboratories Bristol, these powerful, flexible technologies will radically change how small- and medium-sized media companies operate, allowing them to plug in to huge amounts of processing power when they need it, flexibly and reliably.

Manley was speaking at the launch event for the animated film, "The Painter", created for HP by Bristol production company 422, using an innovative experimental rendering service developed by researchers at HP Labs.

Bristol is arguably the leading centre in the UK for the film production and media industry, and is home to multi-award-winning companies such as the BBC, Aardman Animations and 422, which are recognised internationally.

Early users of future technologies

Manley told the audience of some 70 Bristol media company executives, animators, film-makers and university and industry researchers that they had the opportunity to be early users of these future technologies if a compelling appeal to the UK Government for support over a three-year period could be made. He invited them to join HP Labs in a planning workshop in the autumn to decide what needs to be done to create an advanced media community.

The requirements are likely to include a utility computing fabric, 24*7 management, broadband connectivity to the digital media services utility, media applications deployed as on-demand services, together with training and support for the users.

"HP Labs and 422 have shown what can be done with advanced technology, but 'The Painter,' which used our experimental HP Utility Rendering Service, is just one example," said John Manley. "If we can build a powerful computing and storage utility and network in Bristol it could be used for transcoding, digital asset storage, rendering, streaming, on-line editing/approval and many other critical services for the media industry.

"Bristol's rich seam of media companies will have a overwhelming advantage if they act together and plan now," added Manley. "But if we don't act quickly it won't take long for other regions in the UK -- and around the world- to catch up."

More flexibility for media creators

So what advantages did the HP Utility Rendering Service give 422? The service runs on a powerful new computing system, called a utility data centre*, at HP Labs Bristol. 422's production team was able to send frames from "The Painter" to be rendered just when it needed them, without the need of having large numbers of expensive, dedicated machines in its office, waiting to be used. And, as the rendering demand in making "The Painter" increased, the service and the data centre were able to dedicate more computing power to the task.

Speaking at the launch, Andy Davies-Coward, Creative Director and co-founder of 422, said that such a service would give creative media organisations such as his much more flexibility and access to computer power that would allow them to take on projects that are today effectively out of reach of small- and medium-sized companies.

Rising demand for computing power

He gave the example of high-definition TV (HDTV) that is about to be introduced in the US. Animations shown on HDTV will be much more detailed and will six times the amount processing power as for today's standard TV.
422 is now planning a 3D IMAX version of "The Painter," he said.

This would require significantly more computing power for rendering than today's TV versio - again, much more than 422 has or could afford to buy.

"With 'The Painter,' we have shown what can be done with advanced utility computing technology, much of which is being developed by HP and at our Labs in Bristol and Palo Alto," Manley said. "But this is only the start, and the future is closer than most people realise"

The Bristol creative media community has "a golden opportunity," he said, to create a world-leading position as a global provider of digital media services.

by Julian Richards

* story uses UK English

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