A Look At The Data Center That Crunched Avatar

from the behind-the-scenes dept

You don't often get to see the details of a massive data center. The companies that run them tend to keep things pretty quiet, as they view the datacenter as a competitive advantage. Thus, what happens in Google's datacenters remains mostly a mystery. And yet, it seems that the folks at Weta Digital, famous for providing the computing horsepower behind major Hollywood blockbusters like Lord of the Rings and now Avatar are apparently willing to open up a bit and provide some details about its setup. What struck me as interesting wasn't so much the hardware specifics, but how they had to switch from the industry standard cooling system of raised floors and air-cooling, because the machines were too close together to get the necessary bandwidth. So, instead, they went with water-cooled racks. Water-cooled data centers have been increasingly common over the past few years (and were typical with many old mainframes), but they're still a technology that not all data center operators are comfortable with, and which many still think create more problems than they solve. So it's always interesting to see another one in action.

At the same time, as neat as it is to read about Weta Digital's massive computing power (which apparently represents one of the 200 largest "super computers") in the world, I'm still left wondering if the trend -- even for amazing movie effects -- isn't moving away from such massive data centers. We're seeing more and more what can be done on the cheap. And, no, it doesn't come close to matching the stunning effects found in the blockbuster movies that Weta works on, but it does have all the symptoms of a classic innovator's dilemma scenario, where the new stuff isn't "as good" as the old stuff, but is improving at a faster rate, and quickly reaching a point where it's "good enough" at significantly lower price points.

Given the regular discussions around here concerning movie budgets, where do people think the technology is headed for movie special effects? Will it always be run in giant datacenters, or is there a place for making high quality (even blockbuster-type) films on cheaper hardware?
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Filed Under: avatar, data centers, movies, special effects
Companies: weta digital


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  1. icon
    Robert Ring (profile), 30 Dec 2009 @ 7:49pm

    Both

    I think there will continue to be both types of special effects: huge, supercomputer effects and lower-budget, still-great-looking effects.

    Alien, of course, is an example of a low-budget film with special effects that lack nothing at all. A more recent example is Duncan Jones' Moon. A really low budget upcoming (Finnish, I believe?) movie that appears set to have at least competent special effects is Iron Sky, with a budget of just over $7 mil. At the risk of going on for way too long about this, I also have to mention the upcoming web series The Mercury Men, which is another small, soon-to-be-released project with special effects that, from what has been released, look entirely competent, convincing, and even awesome.

    The thing is, if the director is talented enough, he/she can make really convincing effects on a low budget. On the flipside, though, you have to be good to use "big" special effects, too. Just see the new Transformers movie, which is plagued with so much erratic cutting that even though the effects look great, you can rarely tell what's going on in the more special-effects-heavy scenes.

    Really, special effects can be done both ways. James Cameron has demonstrated a masterful hand with big-budget effects. Other directors seem to thrive off limitations. From my experience (as a film critic), it all just depends heavily on director talent.


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