Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

The VFX industry embraces the idea of open source.
Anatomy of a Wave: Why not Microsoft?

"Once upon a time there was a great focus on the part of Microsoft that the VFX industry would be the next realm they would conquer", says Feeney, who is also the founder of VFX studio Silicon Grail. "They would fix big data transfer issues in their OS and so forth, taking Windows from a consumer tool to the enterprise." But that never happened, he says,

This industry is like a team sport--it's a collaborative effort. The ability to share data and other material, aside from office-style documents, is extremely complicated and made more so by the limitations of the Microsoft environment. So it was for technical reasons that the industry is looking back to the [Linux] market.

Axyz's John Coldrick agrees and adds that the idea of going NT sent shivers through him. "We were used to working in a UNIX environment where we had control and networking and stability. It's more like NT doesn't offer enough for us: the networking is awful, there are no links and the stability is not as good." Moving to Linux provided less technical problems from a porting standpoint. Because Linux is UNIX for all practical purposes, porting from IRIX was far easier than going to NT.

A recent Giga survey found that a large group of Microsoft customers not related to the VFX industry were not willing to upgrade because of the new licensing rules for XP, which locked them into two-year upgrade cycles. Instead, many are planning to migrate to other options, mostly because they plan to keep their PCs for longer periods. Surprisingly, the group that wants to upgrade fairly often--the VFX industry--didn't get much support from Microsoft. Feeney says,

They're off to work on issues that don't solve the set of issues relative to the high-end effects industry. They decided that they would be better off spending their time elsewhere, like on the Web with Hailstorm and .NET. So they never bit on the enterprise market.

But it isn't just that Linux is more like UNIX. Before the first Linux Summit, the studios were contemplating their upgrade policies. "This industry is a relatively new industry that grew up in the past five or seven years", said DreamWorks' Leonard, "And that is about the lifespan of the SGI hardware."

Industry insiders began wondering what to do about that--either buy new SGIs and deal with the issues of corporate stability that might imply, or go with commodity platforms. Leonard says that Intel's IA-64 is going to make a quantum leap for the VFX market. "It will force everyone to migrate to commodity hardware over the next 18 months", matching the IA-64 release cycle.

As part of their migration, the industry has had to consider upgrade policies in a new way. Studios find that upgrading commodity hardware doesn't make much sense. Desktops and renderfarms have a two- to three-year lifetime, matching the time frame for a given film production, after which faster hardware makes them replaceable. As new systems are brought in, new software installations are too, and that means verifying applications continue to work on both. In many cases, studios will continue to depend on a single-source vendor--though they now have a choice of vendors--to supply Linux and third-party applications certified for their hardware. From the start of the migration the vendor with the most interest in the industry movement has been Hewlett-Packard.

Anatomy of a Wave: Praise for HP

Much of the early work in migrating companies like Pixar, DreamWorks and Axyz Animation was helped in no small part by the energetic team at HP's Ft. Collins graphics group.

Both SideFX's Salvini and Axyz's Coldrick praised HP for their help in getting the initial port of Houdini working. Recognizing the lack of accelerated hardware support in XFree86, HP ported their own server from HP/UX over to Linux along with a supporting OpenGL environment. This solution, while not completely open-source oriented, moved the process along to the point prior to the first VES Linux Summit.

Nothing Real had ported their Shake compositing software to Linux by April 2000. The company would have had it sooner, except for the lack of hardware-accelerated drivers. They credit HP for helping them make the move to Linux, as well as video card maker NVIDIA, which they say moved more slowly but eventually came around to providing proprietary drivers of their own.

But while these early offerings from companies like HP and NVIDIA included some closed-source software components, such situations are considered interim solutions only. Ed Leonard says that the industry is willing to accept these short-term, closed-source solutions because of the early stage of the overall migration. But they still want to see long term strategies that include open source. "We've said to vendors like HP, 'In order for us to partner, we really want to see you embrace Linux and open source.' That gives the industry more flexibility in choosing hardware. The industry is driving open-source solutions from vendors." And HP, for their part, agrees. They have already noted their desire to exit the X server business, leaving that work to both the XFree86 group and video card makers.

Solution providers such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM offer VFX studios complete system solutions running various distributions of Linux, with the industry default standard being Red Hat Linux. HP's digital content creation (a.k.a. DCC) systems are the x2000 and dual processor x4000, and both are certified for use with Red Hat. IBM's Linux Digital Studio Solution is that company's DCC offering and includes their IntelliStation M Pro workstation, the eServer xSeries for rendering duties and various other hardware for storage options. Threshold Entertainment produced the Berkeley Breathed short Edward Fudwupper Fibbed Big, shown this year at SIGGRAPH 2001, entirely on IBM's offering.

Pixar's PRMan, Alias|Wavefront's Maya, Nothing Real's Shake, Silicon Grail's RAYZ and SideFX's Houdini are all certified to run on Red Hat. Softimage, which makes the XSI compositing package, plans to support multiple distributions. But there has to be a limit to the number of distributions they can support simply based on the requirements of having those distributions ready and available for testing. Each distribution has a good chance of working, but the management of all those distributions would be too much for any application vendor to handle.

For this reason studios will continue to rely on single source vendors. Leonard says that in DreamWork's case, partnering with HP for their initial work just made sense:

They owned the entire stack, just like SGI did. Not by directive or choice. It just happened that they manufactured the hardware, such as their FX line of graphics cards. They had their own drivers for their graphics cards. If we had a problem, they could own that problem through to resolution.

But eventually, when open-source drivers are readily available for the NVIDIA or ATI cards of choice, DreamWorks and other studios will expect to get the open-source solutions from any vendor. The studios can keep a single source to get the complete solution if they choose, they'll just have more than one vendor to choose from to get it.



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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.