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More and more, any summer blockbuster — and probably any movie in general — owes a lot to High Performance Computing (HPC). As I watch more and more movies, I notice just how convincing CGI is becoming, and this is largely due to the amount of computational power used to render the films. We’ve seen several examples over the past few years of how stunning movies can be.
For me, one film that sticks out as a visual effects milestone has to be Pixar’s Brave. The animators were very concerned with developing and rendering realistic hair; they were so concerned with this process that they actually developed an entirely new hair simulation engine, which they called Taz after Warner Bros.’ Tasmanian Devil character. One of the things that impresses me so much about the movie (which I have viewed many times partly on account of my daughters) is that if you watch the grass, the horse’s hair, or almost anything in the movie it behaves very realistically, especially when compared to other animated films.
Brave certainly isn’t alone in rendering milestones, but it definitely sticks out for me personally as one that made me stop and admire the technology. How is this possible? Taz and other new rendering techniques are taking advantage of animation techniques that previously required too much computation — until recently.
Let’s consider the example of the wind blowing in a modern animation film. Instead of animating the effect of the wind on a few main objects in the frame, animators for current films can write algorithms specifying how grass, trees, leaves, and almost anything, including background objects, should behave. Once the simulation algorithms are written, it’s just a matter of having enough servers to simulate all of the different effects on the many objects in every frame of the movie. This is why some films spend so much time rendering: Monster’s University reportedly took 29 hours for each frame of the movie to render. It took over 100 million hours of CPU time to render the movie.
But HPC’s reach isn’t just limited to animated films. For those who have seen X-Men: Days of Future Past you might recall the scene this photo comes from; it’s one of the most impressive and memorable parts from the movie — and it isn’t possible without marrying the best of computer graphics with physical scenery. Years ago, movies interweaving live action and computer graphics ranged from passable to being distractingly, obviously fake. Modern films repeatedly demonstrate that the technology has matured to where it looks and feels seamless.
All of this is only possible from the extreme computing power used by design studios. This particular scene was made by Rising Sun Pictures, and it shows how important production studios are becoming to summer blockbusters; one can rightly say that they are a new kind of movie star. I can imagine people discussing frame rates and production companies as reasons why they are excited to see an upcoming movie, similar to the ways we get excited to see a new movie starring our favorite actor or actress. That’s the influence of HPC on summer blockbusters.
It’s All HPC
Because rendering is so important, we see many production studios running their own data centers. In 2013, Pixar housed 2,000 servers with a total of over 24,000 cores. One of their employees estimated it would’ve been a top 25 supercomputer. Weta Digital is another HPC production company. They have produced several visual marvels such as Avatar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, and The Avengers among others. At the time that they made Avatar, they actually ran the Linpack and had their various computers verified at No. 193-197 on the Top500 list.
The need for HPC power is continually growing: this year’s mega-hit Dawn of the Planet of the Apes used 10 times the computing power required for The Return of the King (2005). As the need grows for big-time simulations, companies have a more complicated problem to solve: they must have the power to simulate at scale, but do not require the machines to be in use continuously, meaning they are racking up a large expense that isn’t in use all of the time. Additionally, current cloud offerings can’t handle the need for an extra 10,000 servers for the next two months because it would basically require bumping a significant amount of their users to accommodate the request.
This is where mature HPC experience can greatly help the movie industry. Advanced HPC schedulers such as Moab have been helping different departments share resources for a long time. Whether it is only a matter of reserving the cores or hard partitions required so that proprietary information can’t leak from one user base to the next, Moab can help provide many different options that make it possible to better utilize the entire cluster.
As movies continually depend more and more on realistic computer graphics, movie production companies will increasingly become another industry that depends on HPC. Many of the challenges the movie industry is currently facing are challenges that HPC has been solving and is constantly evolving to handle. These industries can only mutually benefit as they inevitably grow closer together.