|Business||Film production and intellectual property development
|Number of employees||170 (used in making Valiant)
|Project||Equip animators with appropriate resources, while reducing rendering times and maximising security
|Solution||Maya 3D rendering software running on Linux; IBM eServer x335 servers
|Business benefits||Network infrastructure for a 200-seat digital studio set up in three months; project completed with no security leaks
Vanguard Animation is an independent studio launched by Shrek producer John Williams. Having made the jolly green ogre a family name, Williams wanted to prove that with talent and imagination it was also possible to produce top-flight entertainment such as Valiant independently of industry giants like Industrial Light and Magic. 'He wanted to create his own animated features under his own company and outside of the studio system,' explains Tom Jacomb, line producer at Vanguard. 'He also wanted to make the film for $40 million, which sounds a lot, but is about half of what it normally costs. So we had to find a way of making this film at the quality required for a full theatrical release, but at a fraction of the normal price.'
Few of us are lucky enough to make our own animated films, but Vanguard’s solution to that challenge is an increasingly familiar one for businesses across the board. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Vanguard shopped for off-the-shelf tools where possible, and instead of paying to be locked into a proprietary hardware and software system, it looked to Linux. 'There’s already enough work to be done on a project like this without having to write every routine and plug-in,' notes Mark Pammenter, European director of Alias Systems, which provided the animation tools. 'People realise now that they don’t have to do that -- after all, they want to deliver the book, not the word processor.'
Alias produces Oscar award-winning 3D animation and visual effects software called Maya, which stands out in the market not just as one of the first 3D software packages to move to Linux as its operating system, but to take the open-source approach a step further and let anyone develop skills and tools for free. 'For a variety of reasons, Vanguard could not have timed it better in terms of production costs,' explains Pammenter. 'Hardware prices are dramatically lower, and, with Linux hitting the high notes on rendering capability and multi-tasking workflow, Vanguard was able put together a very fast, sleek pipeline using Maya on Linux and take on the Americans.'
Made for sharing
Alias has a freely downloadable version of Maya, which means there is a large pool of users out there sharing ideas. As Maya runs on Linux, users get access to the vast library of Linux tools being written and shared for free around the world. Plus the fact that Linux leaves the user free to cherry-pick the hardware with the best price/performance benefit gave Vanguard the opportunity to break out of the proprietary system that has traditionally dominated high-end animation. With all concerned giving the green light, work could commence on Vanguard’s first production: Valiant, a WWII film about a cheery carrier pigeon (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who lies about his age to sneak into the RAF and finds himself in occupied France, working with the mice of the French resistance to take on the evil falcons of Von Talon and his henchbirds. It’s a stirring story of stiff upper beaks and bird-brained bravery.
As Jacomb puts it: 'It was a British production, written by an Englishman, directed in England, set in England, and so we wanted to make it here. So we built our digital studio in Ealing Studios.' And the spiritual home of British comedy has never seen anything quite like it. 'Trying to set up the network infrastructure for a 200-seat digital studio in three months was a tough order,' laughs Jacomb. 'But the software was excellent, the partnership with IBM was fantastic, and the whole thing proved very stable. Remember you are talking about a "render farm" of 290 machines, each with two processors, plus another 130 workstations that switch over to rendering during the night, and suddenly you have getting on for a thousand processors working together at once.'
The idea of render farms is that after the 3D artists have created their virtual actors, their movements and their interactions, all of this detail is then fed into a huge bank of high-power machines networked together to crunch the numbers and put the lighting, detail -- and in this case the feathers -- in place for every frame. Networking all the machines (in this case IBM eServer x335s) to work together simultaneously allows for supercomputer performance for an off-the-shelf price. Traditionally, this has been done using Unix, since this operating system was specifically developed for large-scale collaborative computing. Over the years, the price of the proprietary systems dominating the imaging market has led to artists and technicians looking for a way of combining the power of Unix with the affordability of today’s hardware. By switching to Linux, with its free-to-share philosophy, Vanguard has achieved just that.
The big issue of security
Technical issues didn’t just concern creation though, security is key since certain great escapes are to be avoided at all costs. In an age when entire films have been known to be leaked onto the Web before their release, great emphasis is placed on preventing even single images of the cartoon characters getting out. As Richard McGuinness of ERA, the company that supplied the hardware, explains: 'Security was indeed a very big issue, since a film can be made or broken long before its official release, and studios want to control every aspect of this. What we did to help was introduce a new style of technology for the render boxes. Each animator was given a small, thin machine with a graphics card and that’s it -- no CDs, no ports, no access to get data out, just the input tools, a screen and a connection to the workstations which ended up so small we got the lot in just three racks. For that we used the IBM x335 machines -- essentially the eServer machine, because it basically consists of processors and RAM and that’s it, making the device rock solid. The first installation consisted of 200 of these render boxes and 100 workstations for animators, which rapidly grew to about 290 render boxes as the scope of the project grew.'
If the installation was technically advanced it was at least quite straightforward in other ways. 'The whole thing went very smoothly,' says McGuinness, 'and we were lucky to have a blank canvas to work with where there was no infrastructure, legacy, or space limitation.' This partly came out of the nature of Vanguard itself, a company born to fulfil one purpose, create one project, and then break down and completely reshape before the next one. Certainly when it’s time to do it again there won’t be worries on the technology side since the procedure and the hardware came up trumps.
As McGuinness confirms: 'You have to say it worked because Valiant’s release is on us and no one has seen anything leaked at all, even though the animations themselves are typically done three to four months before the renders are finished.'