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April 2004

Animating research

Scientist offers a frame-by-frame look at HP Labs' role in the making of "Shrek 2"


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Still from Shrek 2 movie

Still from Shrek 2 movie

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Services-based computing is going to transform the economics and technical infrastructure of the animation industry, and eventually other industries as well.

As a researcher at HP Labs, Gene Becker typically doesn't spend much time thinking about moviemaking. His research interests lie primarily in the areas of mobility, digital media and ubiquitous computing .

That all changed a little more than six months ago, when DreamWorks tapped HP Labs technology to help make "Shrek 2." Becker lead a team that, in a few short months, built a 1,000-processor data center inside HP Labs and turned it into a remote IT resource with unique capabilities for the film studio.

Among those capabilities was HP’s Utility Rendering Service, which provides a simple, flexible and scalable solution to manage the enormous amount of computational power needed to render high-quality film animation. The service gave DreamWorks the flexibility to add significant peak capacity for the final stages of rendering "Shrek 2.".

"Shrek 2," the sequel to DreamWorks' animated blockbuster about an ogre who falls in love, opens on May 21.

In this interview, Becker talks about what it was like to work with DreamWorks and how HP technologies for delivering computing as a service could transform the economics and technical infrastructure of the animation industry and eventually, many other industries as well.

What challenge did DreamWorks present to HP?

Well, let me give you some background. A little over a year ago, researchers in our Bristol , UK , laboratory were working on the problem of delivering computing as a service. Bristol is home to such well-known digital animators as Aardman Animations (creators of Wallace and Gromit) and our eventual partners, 422, which has worked on projects for Discovery Channel, National Geographic TV, PBS, MTV and others.

What's more, digital animation is incredibly compute-intensive. The process of rendering the wire models into finished frames (adding color, light, texture and other details) requires enormous amounts of computing horsepower -- processing, storage, network, bandwidth. So we chose digital animation as a model to work with in delivering computing as a service. Together with 422, the team in Bristol produced a four-minute film called "The Painter" in just a fraction of the time typically needed.

When DreamWorks found out we’d done this, they proposed something a bit more ambitious. They wanted us to build a new data center from the ground up that would consist of about a thousand processors, 500 servers. They wanted to do it in, oh, about 12 weeks. And they wanted to use that system to render part of the movie "Shrek 2."

After we picked our jaws up off the floor, we said "Yeah, that sounds like a great challenge." It’s really a wonderful match -- HP's technological expertise with DreamWorks’ filmmaking prowess and animation technology.

What sort of team did HP put together to make this happen?

We gathered a small group of really talented HP Labs researchers who were very interested in working not only at the forefront of technology, but also specifically excited about the challenging problems that a customer like DreamWorks would have in the real world.

So what happened next?

We built this new data center at HP Labs' facility here in Palo Alto. In the past, DreamWorks had always used its own data center at its own facility. So it was a significant step, moving to a completely remote environment that was on another company's premises and managed and built by another company's engineers.

The data center would be capable of running our Utility Rendering Service for digital animation. What our center did was act as an extension of DreamWorks' Redwood City IT facility, giving the studio 50 precent more capacity for the final stages of rendering "Shrek 2."

Instead of selling boxes with disk drives and processors and that sort of thing, we’ve made it possible for businesses to submit computing jobs into HP's environment and have those jobs run independently without them actually having to build a data center, buy computers, install racks, manage a system and so forth.

It's computing as a service -- a utility like electricity or water that you purchase as needed.

What’s the advantage for customers?

This allows DreamWorks and other customers to have tremendous resources, and also to flexibly scale up and down as the demands of its workload increases and decreases. Making a movie doesn’t demand computing 24 x 7 every day of the year. There are peaks and there are valleys in the production process.

In the past, companies had to buy systems large enough to accommodate their peak loads, the maximum amount of processing power they could anticipate needing. And when they're actually not using all of that, they're still paying for it. So delivering computing as a service allows businesses to get the performance and the scalability they need without unnecessary expense.

These films are worth millions of dollars. How secure is the transfer of information back and forth?

For DreamWorks, making movies is a mission-critical process. What that meant for HP was that we had to build not only a robust, high-performance system, but also provide a secure, trustworthy environment. In bringing this movie outside DreamWorks' physical environment, it was absolutely imperative that nothing leaked out.

And so we had to pay attention to the physical security of the environment as well as the technical aspects of network security, data security and the human processes involved with this. We also had to build an extraordinary level of trust at the emotional level. Security is not just about technology. Security is also about gaining the confidence of your customer that the work will be conducted at the same level of competence, at the same level of trust, as if they’d done it themselves.

Does it help that HP has an ongoing relationship with DreamWorks?

The relationship between HP and DreamWorks has been tremendously productive over a number of years. We've worked very closely together in the areas of Linux-based computing and commodity computing. We helped DreamWorks provision its data centers and optimize cooling and power requirements in the past. And we've also had an ongoing set of discussions about advanced technologies.

In the context of this relationship, it was very natural for us to work together on this new paradigm of computing. The fundamental notion here is that services-based computing/utility computing is going to transform the economics and the underlying technical infrastructure of the animation industry and eventually, many other industries as well.

Can you describe the data center HP built for DreamWorks?

The center has 500 HP servers, each with two processors, for a total of 1,000 microprocessors running at any given time. We’ve got a dedicated fiber optic link between HP Labs in Palo Alto, California, and a DreamWorks facility in Redwood City, California. And we were running a gigabit-per-second bandwidth over that link. It's powerful.

When we look at HP's vision of the Adaptive Enterprise, we really look at the integration of computing technology and business processes in a way that fundamentally transforms how companies do business.

For DreamWorks, we want to continue to explore that as we move forward in this partnership. We'll continue to work on making movies with them, but we'll also want to look at how to fundamentally transform the economics of that industry, and make DreamWorks even more successful than they are today. For HP, this is a core part of our strategy, especially for the enterprise customer.

Over the course of the next several years, computing is going to change. And the way that IT is provisioned is going to change tremendously. This project with DreamWorks is about really getting a firm grounding in how to make those changes practical for companies that have significant, complex IT problems.

Other customers and other kinds of workloads are emerging that have similar complexity. If you think about bioinformatics, as an example, or large-scale financial services, there are many interesting opportunities to apply some of what we’ve learned from the DreamWorks partnerships to other industries as they move toward the services-based model of computing.

What’s it been like working on a film with a company like DreamWorks?

It's really been great fun. DreamWorks has been pushing the envelope of animation technology and using that to entertain audiences worldwide in a great way. They're telling stories about ogres and princesses and castles, and that's not the usual fare for a technologist who works on information technology.

So this has been a really exciting project, and on the whole, I think it's a very exciting time to be working in this field because of the dynamic transformation that’s resulting from the new ways of applying computing to problems in the real world.

Does this work have any implications for the average consumer?

HP has an enormous consumer business, as well as an enterprise business. And one of the really interesting things that could come out of this notion of service-based computing for animation is that we could make it possible for individuals to create high-quality films.

It's become commonplace for consumers to be able to pull up an application on their PCs and cut a DVD or record a song. But the large-scale computing power required to create a three-dimensional synthetic environment is really not something that's accessible in a PC, nor will it be anytime in the really near future.

So, imagine a world where consumers could dial up their Internet service provider and tap into a computing utility where they could get a thousand processors' worth of moviemaking power to create their own little family 3D environment. Or to build a game for their friends to play. There are really exciting possibilities there in the longer term.

What’s next for the team at HP Labs?

Using the Utility Rendering Service to make "Shrek 2" has clearly been a real high point for us. But really, it's just the beginning. If you think about where utility computing is going, where the adaptive enterprise is going, we have a lot of ground to cover, and it's going to be exciting.

Some of our first steps will be looking at how to create a world where any company can tap into this large-scale resource and get the resources they need on demand.

Following on this project, we continue to be interested in digital media -- the distribution of digital media and playing digital media on mobile devices, to name a few areas.

We expect to see communication between people augmented by the kinds of production capabilities that we currently bring to movies. There are opportunities everywhere for incredibly interesting, fun developments to come out of our partnership with DreamWorks, and we're really looking forward to the partnership continuing and exploring some of these new areas.


Related links

» HP Labs goes Hollywood
» HP and DreamWorks Give Innovation a Starring Role in "Shrek 2" (press release)
» HP's Adaptive Enterprise
» "Shrek 2"
» Internet Systems and Storage Lab

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