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November 17, 2004

Lights! Camera! Compute!

Animators put HP Labs' utility computing technologies to the test


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Still from Peanut Pete - Getting Out by The Box
Still from Peanut Pete - Getting Out by The Box

Content starts here
What’s exciting is that we are using artists and animators to shape the technology.

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.

Dynamic utility computing environment

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 of months.”

It’s an idea that offers HP an umbrella under which to test an unusually wide range of new technologies associated with utility computing.

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.

Potential to transform 3D animation

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.”

Connect from anywhere

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 shorts.

Managing the economics of IT

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 available resources.”

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.

Numerous technologies working together

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 meet promises.

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 explains.

Artists shaping new technologies

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 be done.

“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.”

Related links

» SE3D
» Read more about the technologies
» Shrek 2: HP Labs goes Hollywood
» SmartFrog

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