Quiet in the data center: New film recasts 3-D animation process

Startup studio Illumination Entertainment leans heavily on IBM servers for rapid collaboration on the new 3-D animated film, Despicable Me.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

The creative types behind the summer's latest animated (would-be) three-dimensional blockbuster, Despicable Me, have the sort of artistic and comedic voiceover credentials that make buying the hefty 3-D admission ticket a fairly good bet.

But the real secret sauce behind the movie from this geek's perspective just might be the technology that helped startup Hollywood producer Illumination Entertainment and Paris-based digital media studio Mac Guff Ligne render the astonishing 142 terabytes of digital media created during production in one of the greenest ways possible.

The film, which opens July 9, features Steve Carrell as the voice of Gru, a character who wants to be known as the world's biggest baddest super-villain but meets his match in three little girls.

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment

Upstart Illumination called in IBM and its Business Partner Serviware to help it create a server farm using the IBM iDataPlex technology. To meet Despicable Me's tight production requirements, the servers were housed in an impromptu data center in the productions' facility's garage that took up four parking spaces. The configuration used IBM's Rear Door Heat eXchanger, which meant that no additional air-conditioning was required to run the hardware -- which included up to 6,500 processor cores.

The result, according to IBM, is that the servers required 40 percent less power than typical server configuration.

From Illumination's perspective, though, the green technology angle was just part of the business benefit. The servers have literally allowed the relatively new-ish company pull off the production that required the coordination of 330 artists, producers and support staff in about a year. Here's some perspective from Illumination Entertainment founder, and producer of Despicable Me, Chris Meledrandri:

"By seamlessly bringing together creative talent from the U.S., France and other locations around the world via technology, we completed a massive production undertaking that is often left to larger single-location Hollywood studios."

Meledrandi should know; his past credentials include animated films such as "Ice Age" and "Horton Hears a Who."

To all those movie investors looking for way to cut production costs, especially for red-hot animated films, this smart film-making project should serve as inspiration. We've been conditioned to expect technology to do more than its part in film-making, but its benefit isn't limited to special effects. In fact collaborative server farms like the one used by Illumination Entertainment and Mac Guff Ligne on this project could revive a new era of independent production.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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