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
    Richard (profile), 31 Dec 2009 @ 2:42am

    What it ought to cost

    Computer animation ought to be cheaper than live action. The fact that it isn't says a lot about the way the film industry works.

    Doubtless "Toy Story" could now be rendered on a standard PC in a reasonable time - but if they made a new "Toy Story" they wouldn't be happy just to reproduce the effects of the original.

    Likewise, unless Moore's law hits its thermal limit in the meantime, Avatar will probably be renderable on the PC I will have 10 years from now.

    Also the "SETI at home" approach would allow an amateur group to crowdsource the computing required to render "Avatar" if they could marshal the public interest. After all the Microsoft search puppy probably consumes more computer power per day than all the supercomputers in the world put together....

    There are two main reasons why computer animation is expensive at present.

    1. It is bought alongside other expensive items (star actors voices and all the "grunt effort" required to create 3D assets do mo-cap etc etc) and so there is little incentive to cut costs.

    2. They always want to be "better than the last one" even if the result is scarcely visible on the screen - let alone important to the story. The slow rendered frames that end up on the screen will be using ray tracing, radiosity etc etc - techniques that can absorb unlimited computation if you are lazy - but the direct rendered (real time) versions that were used to edit the sequences would probably be perfectly adequate to tell the story.

    A cheap computer rendered film will arrive when some bright spark with no money has an idea that requires computer animation and just goes for it. Maybe we will see the "Blair Witch" of computer animation and then it will all change.

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