Linux takes Hollywood by storm

Linux has replaced software from the likes of Microsoft and Silicon Graphics as the main technology for creating special effects in Hollywood films.

Linux has replaced software from the likes of Microsoft and Silicon Graphics as the main technology for creating special effects in Hollywood films.

An ugly green ogre named Shrek may make an impression when he arrives in theaters nationwide Friday. He might also spook some people in the computer industry.

The ornery, mud-loving creature morphs into a romantic hero through some of the richest digital animation yet created. Producer DreamWorks SKG gives considerable credit for the performance to another transformation -- animators' use of the free Linux operating system instead of software from the likes of Microsoft Corp. and Silicon Graphics Inc.

"Linux is becoming a significant force for how movies are being made," says Ed Leonard, DreamWorks' chief technology officer. "For a certain amount of investment, you get dramatically increased returns."

Linux is indeed going Hollywood. Industrial Light & Magic, the San Rafael, Calif., division of George Lucas's production empire that created special effects for Star Wars, says it is preparing to replace nearly half of its 1,300 SGI workstations with a variety of Linux-based hardware still to be decided.

Pixar Animation Studios, which helped bring Walt Disney Co. into computer-generated animation with "Toy Story," is also converting its workstations to Linux. The studio was in the process of switching from SGI technology to Microsoft's Windows NT platform, but shifted to Linux in midstream as it gained momentum and credibility, says Ed Catmull, president and chief technology officer of the Emeryville, Calif., company.

Though not a huge market, movie-making technology has always carried prestige. SGI, Mountain View, Calif., cites a seven-year string of Academy Award winners and nominees in special effects. Sun Microsystems Inc. gloats about Pixar's longtime use of its servers for features that include the coming "Monsters Inc."

But Linux is being used on an increasing number of animators' workstations, as well as the rendering servers that apply shades and textures to images that the artists create. The trend is a public-relations coup for a technology that still has a somewhat anticorporate image.

Linux is free in two senses. It can be obtained on the Internet without charge, and its underlying source code can be freely studied and improved through a process known as open-source development. That helps studios tweak the operating system and update key programs they have written themselves.

"Although we're a shop of 1,300 people, we don't have the clout to get Microsoft to change their operating system," says Andy Hendrickson, director of systems development at Industrial Light & Magic. "With Linux, we can do it all ourselves."

Microsoft's Windows 2000 Professional operating system lists for $319, although companies typically pay less under volume-discount programs. SGI sells a variant of the Unix operating system called Irix with its machines, adding about $300 to the price.

Customers also can save on hardware. Linux or Windows NT can run on a $5,000 workstation that uses chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices. In comparison, some SGI machines using the company's high-performance MIPs processors can easily exceed $20,000.

Those prices may lead makers of specialized animation programs to lower their prices, too. "It's going to be very hard to charge $40,000 for a license to run software on a $5,000 machine," Hendrickson says.

Hewlett-Packard, a longtime competitor to both SGI and Sun, is promoting Linux in the digital-content market as part of a broader campaign to market the software. The Palo Alto, Calif., company says that its workstations and servers running Linux played a key role in "Shrek," bringing a 10-fold speed boost to DreamWorks' rendering chores. That speed, aided by the use of multiple-processing units, allowed animators to squeeze more frames per second through the rendering process, says Martin Fink, head of Linux operations at H-P.

The result, DreamWorks says, is an unprecedented level of realism for everything from characters' hair and clothes to the fire and liquids around them.

"Ten years from now, maybe we don't need actors like Tom Cruise anymore, because we've reached the stage where we can render them so well," Fink says.

Some studios began using Linux for some chores as far back as 1996. Director James Cameron and special effects concern Digital Domain Inc. used Linux-based computers to render water scenes in "Titanic." The push into workstations, however, is a more recent phenomenon, driven by cost pressures on studios, improvements to Linux's reliability and performance, and new Linux versions of popular animation programs.

Alias/Wavefront, an animation software unit of SGI, in March adapted its flagship Maya program to run on Linux. It estimates that at least one-quarter of the major studios have begun switching to Linux. Softimage Co., whose animation software helped create a colosseum in "Gladiator," expects to ship Linux versions of its two leading products in September. The Montreal firm expects the Linux market to account for 15% of sales shortly.

Not necessarily cheaper
Some rivals still scoff at the threat. Sun, which sells servers loaded with its Solaris operating system for rendering animated images, contends that Linux isn't necessarily cheaper.

The Palo Alto, Calif., company began selling a server for less than $1,000 in February and stopped charging a licensing fee for Solaris last year, says William Shelton, Sun's manager of alliances for digital-content creation.

And even some of the biggest Linux advocates question whether success in movies will greatly help the Linux push into other industries.

"This is a market where Linux is absolutely perfect," says Linus Torvalds, the Finnish programmer credited with starting the Linux movement. "But it's not a driving market."

But there is no denying that Linux has created a buzz in Hollywood. SGI, in fact, is responding by offering Linux as an option on its machines. It argues that the software could accelerate the advent of filmless, all-digital production and reignite demand for its high-end computers.