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Now Playing at a Theater Near You: Linux

Jun 18, 2002, 22:00 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Dan Orzech)

By Dan Orzech

It may not be getting as much hoopla as Spiderman or the latest Star Wars flick, but Linux is making a dramatic entrance this summer in movie theaters across the country. The animated film "Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron," released last month, marks a milestone in movie making: It is the first movie created entirely on Linux systems.

It won't be the last, either. Today's announcment that the Walt Disney Company will be shifting to the Linux platform for their movie-making is just the latest in a long line of Linux sucess stories in Hollywood.

The digital animation industry has been experimenting with Linux for several years--parts of the 1997 film Titanic, for example, were done on Linux. But now, Hollywood's animation studios are in the midst of a wholesale migration to the open source operating system. At Dreamworks Animation, the studio responsible for Spirit, as well as films like Shrek and Antz, almost all film production work is now done on Linux. The move has slashed the company's computing infrastructure costs in half.

Like most of the digital animation industry, Dreamworks has relied for years on high-powered graphics workstations from Silicon Graphics. Two years ago, with the lease coming up on its existing SGI machines, the company decided to switch to Linux on Intel. "We wanted to get faster machines to our animators," says Ed Leonard, Dreamworks' Head of Animation Technology. "And the performance of Intel-based systems was growing more quickly than that of proprietary hardware."

Dreamworks replaced $25,000 SGI systems with machines that cost well under $5,000, and provided more performance to boot. "We're getting machines that are four or five times faster at 20% of the cost," says Leonard. "That's pretty compelling."

The company's animators now do their work on more than 500 Linux workstations, primarily dual-processor Hewlett-Packard systems running Red Hat Linux. In Dreamwork's render farm, a similar number of rack mounted Linux servers are used to turn the single frame drawings created by the animators into lifelike movies.

A Linux Tidal Wave

While Dreamworks is further along the Linux path than most other Hollywood animation studios, the rest of the industry is not far behind. Linux is already being used to make movies at studios including Digital Domain, which used it to render some images of the ill-fated Titanic, at Weta Digital -- think Lord of the Rings -- which is Linux on SGI systems, and at the Moving Picture Company (Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone).

The movement towards Linux among animation studios is nothing short of a "tidal wave," says Mike Balma, Linux Solutions Strategist at HP, which is making a major effort to supply the film industry with Linux systems. At least two major studios, Pixar and George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, are reported to be on the verge of major deployments of Linux.

Getting to this point, however, required an unprecedented level of cooperation among competing studios. Many studio executives were growing increasingly concerned about relying solely on one vendor, SGI, which dominated the high-end graphics industry. Their technical staff saw the advantages of being able to run Linux on inexpensive commodity hardware, and wanted the flexibility that access to the operating system's source code allowed. But while some of the studios internally produced packages, such as Pixar's PRMan image renderer, ran on Linux, much of the key third-party software required to produce animated films didn't.

That changed with a summer 2000 meeting of the Visual Effects Society, the industry group for the film animation industry. Dubbed the "VES Linux Summit," the studios used the occasion to make the case for Linux to their software vendors. Software producers such as Alias|Wavefront, of Toronto, Canada, paid attention. Shortly after the meeting, Alias|Wavefront announced a Linux port of Maya, its well-known special effects package. "Customer demand for a Linux version of Maya has driven this development," said Bob Bennett, General Manager of the Entertainment Business Unit for Alias|Wavefront. Today, there are Linux versions of most of the industry's key software packages.

Support for the new systems was also a concern for studio executives. When Dreamworks bought its systems from SGI, says Leonard, "We had one company supplying an integrated system: CPU, graphics cards, operating system and software. Now that those pieces come from different places, trying to synchronize them can be a challenge."

Dreamworks tackled this by signing a support contract with HP, which is also supplying many of its machines. But not running proprietary hardware also gives the studio flexibility. "Since these are commodity components," says Leonard, "if a computer breaks, we can just go to Fry's [Electronic's, of San Jose, Calif.] and pick up the parts we need."

Other film studios have been impressed with the techie-to-techie help available online from other Linux users. "The quality of technical support in the Linux community," says Steve Rosenbluth, control systems designer at Jim Henson's Creature Shop studio, "is equal to or better than the technical support from commercial companies."

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