NewsWire: Lord of the Terabytes - OnFilm

The Rack at Weta.
The following article appearing in November's OnFilm Magazine. I have several other's I need to type up from previous month's of OnFilm magazine. Expect to see those in the next few days. OnFilm magazine is a trade publication which covers the New Zealand film industry. I have had a subscription now for about a year, and it looks like they are now starting to cover some of the more technical aspects of this project.

This month's article discusses the finer aspects of Weta's computer infrastructure and network. As a computer geek, I would love to play around on these systems.

Lord of the Terabytes

Figuring out how much data the The Lord of the Rings project would create was the starting point for Jon Labrie, "The Three films are being shot simultaneously," he says, "and we're creating the effects for all three films in a single block.

"We expect to create and manage 100 Terabytes of data before the show is over. It's my job to plan for that growth and to meet the infrastructure challenges associated with it.

"There are 200 people in the Weta production facility, every one of the involved heavily in the creation of a lot of digital data. I think of it as a kind of blizzard or storm of data flying through the facility," Labrie says. "What we're about is the ability to move large amounts of information around the facility all day, every day, and we rely on SGI to help us do that. Ninety percent of our equipment is SGI."

Weta uses two SGI origin 2000s as its primary file servers. One Origin 2000 is for the near-line and offline tape-based storage. The other is for ventral online disk storage.

"Given the 100 terabytes, we're demanding a lot from those file servers. We currently have four terabytes of data on hard drives, which will eventually grow to 10. The nearline/offline storage we're using DMF, SGI's hierarchical storage management system. It's greatly simplified our management of the thousands of tapes needed to store the bulk of the data."

Weta's primary rendering resources is based on SGI 1200 Linux servers. "Rendering hinges on the ability to efficiently use processor cycles," Labrie says. "We have 32 dedicated processors today and expect to extend that to well over 200 by the time we're finished.

"We also have 90 Octane Irix workstations from the principal artists, and another 25 or so Linux-based workstations that we're using primarily for paint, rotoscoping, and compositing. These systems also contribute to the rendering pool when available."

The Linux workstations run Nothing Real's Shake, which is the primary compositing application at Weta. An eight-processor Onyx II also runs Inferno, Discrete Logic's high-speed, single seat compositing system.

"We have a large number of seats running Maya, Alias/Wavefront's modeling, rendering and animation system. Maya is the core 3D application for the facility," Labrie says.

Weta Ltd.
"We also have a number of other applications for niche requirements: Houdini for effect and particle animation; 3D equalizer and Softimage for camera match-moving. There's a sprinkling of other things, and a lot of proprietary technologies that we've been working on specifically for The Lord of the Rings.

"There are unique graphical applications that Peter Jackson has asked us to create. We've been in research and development for three years, planning and working on standalone proprietary systems or extensions to off-the-shelf applications. We're moving into the actual production of shots now.

"We've been writing custom extensions to Maya for the past two years to improve the look and performance of our computer generated characters.

"Over the past four years we've used SGI workstations to custom-build a new crowd animation system, called massive. We're using Massive for battle animations scenes with hundreds of thousands of fighting, screaming, and dying Orcs, Elves and all other magical and fantastical creatures that appear in The Lord of the Rings.

"For these sorts of graphical challenges we prefer to work in the Irix/Unix world. The graphics engines available to us for use on the SGI platforms make our jobs easier. Of the 140 special effects artists that will work on this project, nine out of 10 will work on SGI workstations.

"There are both classic and unique IT challenges," says Labrie. "Classic challenges are the kinds of IT issues any company would expect to face: What sort of networking technology you use, how do you manage backups and disaster recovery? What kind of workstation is typical for a user? This breaks down to the "what's the fastest machine that I can use to achieve what I need in a reasonable time for a reasonable cost?

"The unique challenges are things that are specific to digital visual effects for film. Every director wants to deliver a unique viewing experience, to show people things they've never seen before. We break down those expectations and requirements into specific technical challenges and get to work on them. The results could be as mundane as a new way of describing the internal skeleton of a creature, or as fantastic as Massive."

The three movies are The Fellowship of the Ring (to be released worldwide on 14 December 2001), The Two Towers (December 2002), and The Return of the King (December 2003). The trilogy shoot should wrap early next year.

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