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April 2005

Star power: Experimental HP services help up-and-coming animators shine



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Utility computing has the potential to shake up the media industry by lowering cost barriers for animators.

by Julian Richards

Animated Encounters, the Bristol International Animation Festival, is the biggest annual gathering of animation talent in the UK and a chance for professionals to talk about the tools of their trade – most of which are computer-based these days.

The festival, which opens this week, has the positive habit of attracting top names. DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg gives the keynote this year. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and a former festival headliner, has called the event "the best place to be if you want to see the best new cartoons and meet the geniuses behind them."

Groening’s comment is definitely true as far as HP Labs Bristol is concerned this year. When the festival kicks off on Thursday 21 April, a group of up-and-coming animators will proudly show short films they have created using experimental technologies developed by HP Labs.

The animators are taking part in SE3D (pronounced "seed"), an experimental project jointly sponsored by HP Labs and Alias Systems Corp, creator of the award-winning Maya® 3D rendering software.

Animation revolution

The animators, along with researchers from HP Labs Bristol and industry experts, are presenting a workshop at Animated Encounters, in which they will show their films, explain what it was like using the experimental service and join a debate on how this new technology will change the global animation industry.

There is already a massive industry shift in animation because most films now use 3D software for rendering – putting flesh, color, lighting and detail on animated frames – and that needs an awful lot of computing power, more than is available to modest and middle-size animation outfits.

HP, one of the principal sponsors of the festival, is part of this animation revolution, providing technology and access to computing power – 120 dual-processor servers in Palo Alto, CA, completely managed from Bristol – which only the largest film companies can usually expect to use.

Lower costs, lower barriers

Utility computing takes its name from utilities such as electricity. The idea is that customers can ‘plug in’ to enormous amounts of computing power – much more than is usually available to small- and medium-sized companies – and pay only for what they have used.

For HP Labs, the animation experiment will investigate how utility computing will change the technology and economics of media production and its potential for uncovering new talent for the animation industry.

" Utility computing has the potential to shake up the media industry by lowering cost barriers for animators and others. They can call on a service like ours when they need it, paying only for what they use," says Steve Hinde, project manager for the prototype utility rendering service at HP Labs Bristol. "We hope services like this could uncover highly talented young people who would otherwise never be able to work in animation."

Experimental technologies

The experimental service, which uses the Maya software program as its rendering engine, is a test bed for a range of innovative research technologies developed by HP Laboratories.

One of the research projects is an electronic market – spot and futures – where the 12 animator participants can bid for processor time. The researchers believe markets are the fairest and most efficient method of distributing computing resources.

The 12 filmmakers were selected by an expert media industry panel. HP Labs provides the animation service and utility computing resources free of charge, while Alias is providing Maya software licenses. UK film-funding agencies arranged funding for showcase participants.

Animators: more options

So what did the animators make of the prototype service? Tia Perkins, who is making Ebenezer Morgan’s Photography Emporium, with Jaime Pardo, said that the HP Labs service was perfect for smaller-scale animation companies because of the access to computing power.

“It is so much quicker and it leaves our own computer free for us to use," Perkins says. "We can add extra special effects that we could never use normally, yet the frames still render in a fraction of the time our own machines would take."

For more information about the project see www.se3d.co.uk

Related links

» HP Labs SE3D-related research
» SE3D animation showcase
» Animators put HP Labs' utility computing technologies to the test
» Internet Systems & Storage Lab
» Animated Encounters film festival

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