Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

The VFX industry embraces the idea of open source.

Before the summer of 2001, Linux supporters often pointed to any of a number of single-company deployments as a measure of success for the fledgling operating system. There was Burlington Northern, which committed in February 1999 to deploy Linux in 250 US stores. That was followed by Japan's Lawson, which struck a deal with IBM to supply that convenience store retailer with 15,000 IBM Linux-based eServers running on Red Hat software. Ford announced a plan where they would deploy 33,000 Linux desktops. These were big wins for the open-source faithful. But they were corporate waves in a sea of change. What Linux needed was a tidal wave--an industry-wide migration--to signal that the penguin had come of age.

Enter the visual effects industry, the collection of studios that produce special effects, or VFX in industry parlance, for movies and animated tales like Toy Story and Shrek. This is an industry ripe for change, an industry struggling to shake the bondage of single-vendor solutions and high-priced specialized hardware. It's also an industry that tested the waters of Windows and found it flowing in the wrong direction.

This isn't a story about one or two studios adopting Linux as servers in their renderfarms, those back rooms full of servers used to produce the individual sets of frames used in a movie. We're talking about the entire industry--from Rhythm & Hues to Pixar, from Digital Domain to DreamWorks. DreamWorks-PDI had over 2,000 Linux-based CPUs on-line by the summer of 2001. Their summer blockbuster Shrek was rendered on 1,000+ mostly Linux machines (see GFX: "DreamWorks Feature Linux and Animation", August 2001 issue of LJ). Pixar has only deployed 15 stations in production and 25 in software development, but VP of Technology Darwin Peachey says the studio is on the verge of a major purchase and deployment of desktops to replace their current SGI desktops. Even Industrial Light & Magic is considering a major switch to the penguin OS.

And this isn't the infrastructure saying they will support Linux, like IBM or Compaq or HP announcing they will support the OS--it's the end users demanding it from suppliers of applications and hardware. Back in June 2001, Ray Feeney, technology committee chair of the Visual Effects Society said, "For the high-end part of movie making, 80-90% will be Linux-based inside of 18 months. Everything is going Linux." This sort of mass migration has never happened before in the Linux world. The tidal wave is here.

Signs before the Tsunami

Understanding how this wave was formed requires some understanding of the industry itself. Effects studios talk about movie production as pipelines, the set of processes required to create effects and integrate them into a movie. A pipeline has two distinct sides to it: the graphic workstation and the renderfarm. The latter is like any other room full of servers, crunching away on any given problem. In this case, the problem is producing the 3-D imagery from models fed to the farm by the many artists working for the studio. The artists work on the other end of the pipeline, on the graphic workstations.

The first ripple in this tidal surge came with the use of Linux by Digital Domain to render frames for the movie Titanic. Involved in this film was well-known Linux graphics guru Daryll Strauss, who covered this story for Linux Journal back in February 1998. At the time, Daryll used a room full of Alpha-based Linux systems networked together to render some of the water scenes used in the movie. In this early stage, Linux still was used in its traditional role as a back-end server. The front-end graphics workstations were still primarily the domain of SGI IRIX systems.

In 1999, SideFX software ported their very popular (and very expensive) high-end 3-D modeling and animation package, Houdini, to Linux. Linux Journal again covered the story, this time in an interview I did with SideFX's Director of Research and Development, Paul Salvini. Houdini is an artist's tool used to create the models that renderfarms crunch on. At the time that Houdini was ported, Linux still had graphic-related limitations, such as a lack of support for hardware-accelerated OpenGL (a de facto industry standard for doing 3-D applications and games). This created a chicken-and-egg problem, according to Salvini. Doing a product like this for Linux required hardware acceleration to make it really viable, but hardware acceleration often requires applications in order to warrant drivers to be written." Drivers from video card makers weren't being written because there were no applications that needed them, and applications weren't being written because no drivers were available. SideFX sidestepped the issue by using software-accelerated OpenGL, a slower and problematic alternative that didn't require special video card drivers. Still, it was enough to entice the VFX industry toward Linux. It also provided motivation to graphics card vendors to provide both assistance to XFree86 and to begin work on their own proprietary drivers.



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Linux Graphics Group meets Tuesday, March 5, 2002

RobinRowe's picture

For anyone in the Berkeley, California, vicinity who may be interested, the Linux Graphics Group meets Tuesday. Informal discussion of Film Gimp, Shake, RAYZ, Maya, etc. Info at


Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

A little over-dramatic. The industry change to Linux isnt nearly as kinetic as people want to make it sound. Sure - Maya, Shake, XSI, Houdini, etc. work in Linux -but where are the plugins? Where is all the support software we use on a daily basis, namely the Adobe software and countless others.

This article implies that we as an industry had just a slight brush with NT but decided we hated it and moved on. As though everyone started on Irix!

There are NUMEROUS visual effects houses in 'Hollywood' (the industry worldwide) who use NT and Windows 2000 religiously for visual effects because it works, the software is there now, and it's still a hell of alot cheaper than SGI.

Sure - I would prefer Linux, but to get the work done NOW we have to stick to alot of cross-platforming. The studio where I am a technical director uses 50 or so Macs, 20 NT machines for 3D, all Linux for the renderfarm, and all irix for servers / high end compositing (Inferno). This article reminds me of the expose' style article making it sound like a sweeping change. Watching Linux move into the industry from the front lines has been about as much fun as watching grass grow, I can attest.

Also - one correction - this article constantly refers to the "Softimage XSI Compositing Package"


Softimage is 3D software - as old as Alias. XSI 2.0 has integrated some compositing facilities- but it is by no means a compositing package. This is well known by anyone who actually works with this stuff. This simple error makes me worry about the credibility of the article. And did Ray Feeney mention that his company's (Silicon Grail) compositing software - RAYZ has barely ever worked? It's great that someone is developing for Linux natively now and I am happy to hear it, but it has a long way to go. Rayz is a buggy piece of crap 2 versions into it.

In truth the industry has changed very little over the last several years. The big players like Dreamworks, ILM, Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, etc. have the privelege of using vast amounts of proprietary software all written in some flavor of UNIX. If Rhythm and Hues wants to move their animation package to Linux, they just tell the software development department to do so. It makes perfect sense for all of them to switch over - but for the MAJORITY of the industry, that is the rest of us who are not doing Star Wars Episode 2 and the next Pixar film, things are not moving so quickly - because we rely on third party vendors.

Also- did Pixar mention that they render on Sun with Solaris? and that they always have and continue to? They dont even use Linux on the back end - hard to use them as an example of the 'sweeping change'.

Check your sources next time and try to avoid being sensational. Dont hold your breath for things to change overnight.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Agree. Mac and NT are far more better as Workstation in front-end. Linux is good for renderfarm.

If Ford will use Linux on its Desktop it is only the mistake of the CEO. On desktop Linux is five years behind the Windows and Mac.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

And 15 years behind Irix in the GUI/Graphics integration department.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

This is just a superb article. Informationally intense, entirely relevant and, to top it off, great news on Linux. Cudos, Michael.

Part of this saddens me...

Anonymous's picture

SGI has supported Linux a lot and they have some of the best hardware out there, it's too bad that SGI should suffer as Linux makes a win.

Re: Part of this saddens me...

RobinRowe's picture

SGI likes Linux.

Linux runs on everything. Linux on SGI means that customers don't have to make an either/or decision in purchasing hardware. The training/support barrier to entry is gone. New markets dominated by Sun in which SGI couldn't compete (due to IRIX being considered a specialty OS) are now open.

SGI briefly promoted and sold Windows, before switching to Linux. Although Linux does ease the migration to other platforms, SGI is better off with Linux than the alternative of everyone going to a Windows. At least Linux runs on their hardware.

Linux leaves the door open for SGI to make a comeback in workstations if they would want to try, and supports their present strategy of focusing on high-end servers in mixed environments.

You can read what SGI says about Linux in my Linux Journal article, "GFX: Mainstream Linux."


Re: Part of this saddens me...

ghostdancer's picture

How does SGI earn $$?

AFAIK, is their Hardware+Software that brings in the cash. With Linux, people will not buy new hardware from them. We can just take much *cheaper* X86 system.

This leave with Software portion (OS). Since Linux can install into old/existing SGI machine, why should people upgrade their OS? This also result existing customer not buying new hardware from them (since they can continue to use existing hardware).

In the end, what is left for SGI?

Is my personal opinion that we won't see SGI in the near future. They most likely will become another SCO, bought over by someone.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Burlington Coat Factory is the deployer of Linux.

Burlington Northern was a railroad company now owned by Union Pacific.

Burlington Industries is (was) a textile manufacturer.

I believe they all at one time stated they had no relationship to each other.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Burlington Northern merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and the combination is known as the BNSF. It is in fact one of the few competitors of the Union Pacific.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Well the VFX industry needs to consider what will happen to their nice new platform (linux) if legislation like the SSSCA is passed. For all practical purposes corporate Hollywood is attempting to exterminate open computing platforms, and open source software developement.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Please snail mail your Congressman and Senators today. Microsoft has in the last year, patented core technologies required by the SSSCA. If the SSSCA passes it would require that all bootable devices pay a Microsoft tax.

Re: Industry of Change: Bite the hand that feeds you

Anonymous's picture

The big media companies don't seem to realize that the SSSCA, and its ilk, will cost more in lost sales than these "laws" will bring in by reducing "unauthorized" duplication. Nobody with an IQ above room temperature will pay to be Disney's *****: these laws will so alienate the consumer that there will be no market for the products of these large "media" companies. Remember DivX?

The big computer companies had better act NOW to prevent the idiocy of the SSSCA by buying their own politicians and fighting Diznee. What the computer executives don't seem to grasp is that the SSSCA will destroy the computer industry. It is basic economics: if the utility of a product is reduced, consumers will be far less willing to purchase it. If there is no utility to be garnered from purchasing the product, nobody will buy it. Don't let Disney destroy the technology sector of the American economy by legislating the utility out of our products, don't let Disney put you out of business, don't let Disney regulate your right to innovate.

Get out the Mouse poison.

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

Well, the VFX industry doesn't have anything to do with the SSSCA, they work for the movie industry, like contractor, work for hire, they are not part of the big media corps that push things like the SSSCA.

There is also something to watch out for in this article. Apple just bought Nothing Real about a couple weeks ago. So the future of Shake on Linux is nebulous, seems that Trmor was killed. Also ILM is indeed moving to Linux, not just considering it. They started the move last year, maybe replacing at least one third of the workstations by now and also some of their big origins with a P4 and Alpha solution.

The Unofficial Industrial Light + Magic website

Re: Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

Anonymous's picture

SSSCA would mean the end of American nuclear weapons development as we know it. All the big iron at Los Alamos and most of the T division guys I know run Linux and rely on it's external development. So the MPAA really is a bunch of commie, terrorist dupes.

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