by Simon Firth
HP researcher Steve Hinde is getting to be something of
a movie mogul.
Back in 2003, when Hinde was looking to test the limits
of utility computing, he commissioned a four-minute animated
film, "The Painter," to be made using a prototype Utility
Rendering Service created by Hinde and his colleagues at
HP’s Bristol, UK Labs.
Now Hinde is looking to push utility computing further
by commissioning 10 short films to be rendered, simultaneously,
with the aid of a new version of the HP service.
Rendering is the addition of fine detail into each frame
of a 3D animation. It takes a huge amount of computer processing
power to produce the high-quality images audiences have come
to expect from movies like "Shrek" and "Shark Tale." That
makes it ideal for probing the future of utility computing – where
users "rent" processing power on an as-needed basis from
a remote location rather than owning it themselves.
The new project, named SE3D (pronounced ‘seed’), was officially
launched this week (17-21 November) at the Brief Encounters
Short Film Festival in Bristol, UK. It will be managed by
the Watershed media arts center and is co-sponsored by HP
and the 3D animation software company Alias Wavefront, whose
Maya 3D software the filmmakers will use.
The 10 animators, selected by a panel of industry heavyweights,
now have four months to use Maya and HP’s Utility Rendering
Service to create their 3D shorts. All 10 films will be showcased
in April 2005 at Animated Encounters, an international film
festival that Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," has
described as "the best place to be if you want to see the
best new cartoons and meet the geniuses behind them."
While "The Painter" involved a single user on
the rendering service, the 10 filmmakers in the SE3D project
will be making more complex demands on the technology.
“To really investigate the next stage of research in terms
of utility service provisioning you need lots of users,” explains
Steve Hinde, “so we found this scenario that has people using
the service in a sustained and realistic way over a period
It’s an idea that offers HP an umbrella under which to test
an unusually wide range of new technologies associated with
But Hinde – as befits his new status as a movie producer – sees
additional promise in the SE3D project. Thanks to the attention
it is receiving and to the quality of the work likely to
be produced, SE3D “promises to help creativity and technology
to come together in a new and exciting way," he says.
One person with high hopes for the SE3D project is Bristol-based
producer and directer Ben Lock, whose surreal ‘mini-epic’ set
in Depression-era America – "Elroy III, the Potato Head
Boy" – will be one of the 10 films made. He says SE3D
offers animators like him a rare opportunity.
Typically, says Lock, “you have in your head what you want
on the screen, but you have constant limitations. And the
biggest limitation is how much you can render.”
And not even the big guns always have enough rendering capacity – in
early 2004 HP worked with DreamWorks, for example, to create
a 1,000-server farm at its Palo Alto, California, lab to
act as an extension of DreamWorks' own data center. That
gave the studio a vital 50 percent more capacity for the
final stages in the making of its recent hit, "Shrek 2."
Lock sees a service such as that offered by the SE3D project
as changing that equation.
“Suddenly,” he predicts, “you’ll unleash all of this creativity
that’s been held back because people haven’t been able to
realize their vision through the rendering.”
Not only could utility computing open up 3D animation to
individual animators, but since the service is provided at
a remote location, it allows those animators to be based
anywhere they want.
“Now, with a decent Internet connection, there’s a whole
leveling of the playing field,” says Mike Kirwin, another
film maker chosen to be a part of SE3D, who is based in the
city of Manchester, North West England.
Because Manchester is a small media market, most of Kirwin’s
work has been commercial. His SE3D film, though, is very
much a creative labor of love that he has spent the last
four years trying to get made.
Thanks to SE3D, he says, “who knows where it might lead?” noting
that plenty of animation classics, from "The Simpsons" to "South
Park" to "Toy Story" first appeared as one-off
If some of the SE3D animators are hoping the project might
offer bigger opportunities down the road, HP researchers
are looking for a more immediate payoff.
Most significantly, SE3D offers the chance to test a broad
range of HP Labs technologies for utility computing in a
real-world setting, and all at the same time.
“We frequently do small-scale integrations of our technologies
in Labs,” says Peter Toft, the program manager behind SE3D
at HP Labs. “But we rarely have the chance to bring together
this large a set of technologies.
“We’ve created what we call the Service Utility,”says
Toft. “This is a platform that allows us to run many
instances of utility services, and allows them to share the
A key feature of the Service Utility, he notes, is a set
of market-based approaches for determining which services
get which resources. The market-based mechanisms, called
Sumatra and Tycoon, allow users to purchase resources for
immediate use as well as purchase resources in advance for
use at a future time.
Coupled with this is a technology called Management by
Business Objectives (MBO), which helps make optimized choices
about resource allocation when unforeseen circumstances result
in resource scarcity.
“Imagine you have promised resources to a team of
animators and five machines fail, so you are unable to meet
that promise,”Toft says. “How do you then rebalance
the promises across the set of different services running
on the utility?"
MBO, he explains, helps the system efficiently rebalance
resources based on what promises have been made, how much
each service is paying for resources, and any penalties that
the Service Utility might incur as a result of failing to
The Utility Rendering Services that animators interact with
runs on top of the Service Utility. The rendering service
is a fully featured remote service –including a technology
called Elephant Store, for efficient storage of multiple
versions of animation input data, as well as efficient use
of network bandwidth when communicating with the remote service.
Underpinning all of these software components, is a technology
called SmartFrog that automatically deploys and manages both
the Service Utility and Utility Rendering Service.
"SmartFrog is at the heart of the system’s ability
to allocate resources and to cope with failure," Toft
The unusual SE3D experiment has attracted widespread media
interest, including The Discovery Channel, which is following
two animators as they make their film.
That attention, along with a high-powered advisory board
made up of some of the biggest names in the UK animation
industry (including David Sproxton, Executive Chairman of
Aardman Animations, Shelley Page, European Representative
for DreamWorks and Paul Appleby of the BBC) has researchers
hoping that SE3D will both push the cutting edge of utility
computing and offer a new model of how creativity and technology
can come together.
“What’s exciting is that we are using artists and animators
to shape the technology that will go on to become industry
standard,” says Clare Reddington, SE3D coordinator. Artists
will have the opportunity to use the technology creatively
and at the same time, they'll provide feedback to programmers
about how well it works and how they think it should work.
With the launch of SE3D, animators are now getting down
to making their films. Even with a huge render farm on tap,
digital animation remains a painstaking business, and no
one is under any illusion about how much work there is to
“Even though we’re only doing about four minutes of animation,” says
Manchester’s Mike Kirwin, “it’s going to be a long four months
to try and complete it.”