Video: The animators behind Monsters vs. Aliens had an HP assist

Beverly Hills, Calif. — When Hewlett Packard (NASDAQ: HPQ) brought the international technology media to the Los Angeles campus of DreamWorks Animation (NYSE: DWA) as part of the launch of its new Z Series workstations, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg himself made a brief surprise cameo appearance on the eve of the release of the studio’s 3D feature Monsters vs. Aliens.

“We wouldn’t be able to do the cutting edge work we do without the technical support of HP,” said Katzenberg.

That message was expanded-on by DreamWorks chief technology officer, Ed Leonard, who said an HP-powered technology infrastructure helped make Monsters vs. Aliens possible.

“We do two movies a year, and we’re using technology to enable our filmmaking,” said Leonard. “There’s always things we intend to do in our films that bush the boundaries of filmmaking, and we couldn’t do that without technology.

DreamWorks uses HP technology across the company, from managed print services and workstations for the animators to HP Halo studios for collaboration.

“We really grab technology and embrace it,” said Leonard. “Collaboration with Halo has become an integral part of our business.”

The production of Monsters vs. Aliens essentially involved the production of three features at once: a 3D version, an IMAX version and a standard 2D version. That required more than 40 million computing hours, more than eight times previous DreamWorks features such as Shrek.

The animators used several HP xw8600 workstations for animation, and also leveraged a large grouping HP ProLiant blade servers to speed the rendering process and increase the downtime for DreamWorks’ animators.

Leonard said the Monsters vs. Aliens signature character of Bob, a blue liquid blob voiced by Seth Rogen, required 15 million rendering hours alone due to the technical challenges posed by its liquid texture.

Derek Chan, head of digital operations for DreamWorks, said Monsters vs. Aliens was a real test for an already tightly-packed 3500 sq. ft. data centre. The film required the rendering of nearly 100TB of disk storage, and one battle scene alone required more than 3TB of storage.

“Before we put anything into our data centre we need to evaluate the computational fluid dynamics of the heat dispersal,” said Chan, who noted for the film they had 9000 cores in the data centre. “In order to fit that much power into our data centre we need to be very careful about where we place it and how we upgrade. When we take people into the data centre we can you can breathe in, but you can’t breathe out.”

Chan said he’s very sensitive to the amount of electric power coming into the DreamWorks campus, and the improved power efficiency is one of the things that has been excited about HP’s new Z Series workstations.

The Z Series workstations have also caught the eye of SpaceX, the space transportation company founded by PayPal co-founder Eldon Musk that is developing partially reusable launch vehicles to place satellites into orbit and potentially deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

HP is already a technology partner of SpaceX, providing everything from printers and servers to laptops and workstations.

“This is rocket science, and the demand for us is not only for great performance but also for reliability. That’s why I feel we couldn’t have gotten this far without the partnership with HP,” said SpaceX CIO Branden Spikes. “Virtually every development environment in our company uses HP workstations, so the faster and more reliable these devices are improves our bottom-line.”

Spikes has been benchmarking the Z series workstations with its current HP xw machines and he said he’s protecting a 45 per cent productivity improvement with the Z series, with another five per cent when solid state drives (SSD) are used.

“I’ve been very impressed with its performance,” said Spikes, noting the Z800 with SSD does 15 minutes worth of work in nine minutes compared to the xw. “It means our developers can get more work done. I think the z800 is definitely going to replace the xw for us and it’s definitely going to improve out bottom line.”

Guillaume Jacquemin, IT manager for the Renault F1 racing team, echoed Spikes’ predictions of productivity improvements, adding the modular design of the Z Series workstations will mean less time spent by his organization on maintenance and support, as well as a quieter work environment for the team’s engineers and designers.

“We take great care in the work environment and believe with this improvement in acoustics it will reduce the noise in our offices and create a less stressful environment, which we believe will benefit the innovation they bring to the car,” said Jacquemin.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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