With the advent of Cloud Computing technology, the ability to dynamically scale up and down has become cost-effective and accessible even to small organizations. All over the world, major companies are migrating their operations to the cloud and finding creative new ways of incorporating the technology into their businesses.
HP, for example, utilized the technology by offering a cloud based music and video streaming services over Touchpad, effectively beating Apple to the punch. Apple has since caught up, and are trying to raise the stakes by also delivering Video on Demand via Internet-capable Smart TVs and Blu Ray players. They are also planning to expand the services to PCs by allowing subscribers to watch the movies they rent or buy through web browsers.
Aside from using cloud technology to offer entertainment and multimedia content over the web, various companies and organizations are also seeing a potential for using the concept of cloud computing for the animation industry. The main reason being that animation these days, whether it’s 2D or 3D CGI, requires massive amounts of computational resources. Normally, animation studios invest a lot of money in buying entire server farms and workstations in order to have enough computing resources to render their animated projects. Added to this is the cost of hiring IT people who will maintain the hardware and the electricity needed to power the hardware.
Cloud service providers are seeing the potential of delivering on-demand and dynamically scalable computing resources as a service, which will allow the animation industry to adopt a more cost effective pay-as-you-go models instead of constantly bleeding money over hardware and manpower that they don’t really use all of the time. Getting rid of all these costly infrastructure will reduce operational costs as well as streamline an organization. Additionally, cloud technology itself gets rid of glass ceilings that the animation industry bumped into in the past, wherein they were limited by the amount of hardware they can muster. With cloud technology, their needs can be met by highly scalable infrastructure.
The Current State and Needs of the Animation Industry
The global multi-billion dollar animation industry these days is dependent on 3D animated film projects that are full of photorealistic textures, colors, expression, and movement. Blockbuster films like Wreck-It Ralph and Brave are constantly pushing the limits of what animation is capable of, when an animator’s skill and talent is mixed with massive computing power.
As an example of how much computing power the modern animation industry requires, it is not unusual for big name studios to spend more than three hours just to render each frame of a CG film on a workstation. For example, it took Pixar two years to completely render all 114,000 frames of the 77 minute film Toy Story using a render farm with inherent parallelism.
The need for massive computing resources is not limited to animated movies, as even live action movies like the Avengers, Thor, and Spider-Man require scenes to be shot in CG, as the situations involved would not be possible using conventional stuntwork and actors. Another added cost that the studios need to shoulder is the license for all the software they work, as there’s no professional-level animation and rendering software. All of these must be bought and licensed for each workstation that will use it.
The massive costs involved in producing an animated movie these days, combined with the rigorous deadlines that they have to meet in order to satisfy quotas and seasonal schedules means that they would benefit from something that can reduce the amount of rendering time, the overall cost of rendering, as well as free up a lot of manpower, which they can then divert into other parts of the business.
Cloud Computing for Animation
The first animated film that took advantage of cloud technology is “The Painter,” which is a 4 minute animated short about a tiny robot whose artistic quest is nudged along by a Genie with the right tools. The short’s rendering was done on a Utility Rendering Service, with the power used being the equivalent of a single Pentium III Proliant server working 24/7 for 278 days. With the URS, the rendering of The Painter only took three months to render. Later on, DreamWorks decided to use URS for their own project, Shrek 2, marking the first time a big name studio used an external infrastructure for their rendering process.
Another aspect of the animation industry that will benefit from Cloud Computing is startup, as there are many startup animation shops that would have otherwise not been able to start due to the high cost of entry. With the cloud’s pay as you go and pay per use models, new animation studios don’t have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars for render farms and workstations that won’t be able to recoup their investment yet. With cloud rendering farms, animation studios can start small and then scale up once their needs increase and their budgets get bigger.
If you pay attention to the details found in old CG animated films like Shrek and Toy Story, to new ones like Rise of the Guardians and Up, you’ll see that the detail and quality of textures have risen to the point that some scenes already look photorealistic, and could be mistaken for live action if it weren’t for the stylized animated styles. This increase in clarity means that the demands on data storage infrastructure has also increased dramatically, and animation studios now find that they need to store and retrieve extremely large amounts of data at high speeds, and they are in need of a cost effective solution that could still scale well when growth requires it.
To handle this conundrum, DreamWorks Animation has partnered with cloud computing provider Cerelink, which will allow the former to render computer animated films using the latter’s computing resources in a facility at the New Mexico Applications Center. The ability to quickly scale up and down their computing capabilities allowed DreamWorks Animation to better manage their upcoming slate of films, resulting in a series of movies that came out one after another, while other animation studios had to wait almost a year before starting with their next project.
The US is not the only country with an animation studio that already realizes the potential of cloud computing. India is catching up, with its Crest Animation Studio and Lions Gate partnering in order to produce the 3D stereoscopic animated film Alpha and Omega. Lionsgate effectively outsourced the animation and rendering of the movie to India. The movie was rendered using the cloud computing capabilities of a super computer from the Computational Research Laboratories, called EKA.
EKA, which is Sanskrit for number one, is rated as the fourth fastest supercomputer in Asia at the time of its release. The computer cost $40 million to build, and has a peak performance of 120 to 170 Teraflops. The EKA also has a capability to introduce “checkpoints” into the rendering process, which is where it saves the state of the task every fifteen minutes without stopping its main task. The benefit of this is that any problems that result in the rendering being halted doesn’t require the rendering to restart from scratch, as it can go back to the check point, which means it only loses 15 minutes of progress.
Major animation studios these days are making strides in the field of animation, as cloud computing technology allowed the studios regarding of size to churn out high quality animated projects without getting bogged down with hardware upkeep and maintenance costs. The cloud has also opened up the industry even to amateurs and budding startups, providing a level playing field where the only limitations are in the mind.