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. identicon
    Thomas, 31 Dec 2009 @ 5:19am

    Time's are a changin'

    After reading this article, it appealed to the inner-geek and possible budding video/movie producer type. All these high budget special effects movies will be able to be produced on systems that are starting to fall in price way down into the budget of a home-enthusiast's pricerange. Supercomputers are coming down in price to where you can not only build them cheaply, but also buy them for a reasonable price. The GPUs are dropping in price while geometrically increasing in capability for production. All this leads to hardware tools for the home movie producer to use. Of course, the area that usually lags behind the hardware is the software, but even this is starting to catch up.

    The software will pretty soon be out there, if not already, for home users to download and use. Then for the rendering, all one will have to do is build, or buy, a machine that can do the rendering while the home user goes about his/her way.

    Eventually, there will most likely start to be crowdsourced/group collaborated movies where you will find users out there working with others who have developed specialties like sound effects/visual effects/characters/3D environments getting together to make or tell the stories in movie format.

    I also agree with the person who commented about games because that is where the whole "movie" perspective is going anyway too. Interactive environments for the potential viewer.

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