Industry of Change: Linux Storms Hollywood

The VFX industry embraces the idea of open source.
Cooperation: the Next Wave for VFX

The industry has learned that the secretive nature of their business is in its twilight, soon to be replaced by the more sharing nature of the open-source world. The cooperative spirit required to move the industry to Linux is allowing studios to solve common problems more quickly. Pixar's Peachey says his studio welcomes the change:

We're all competitors in one sense or another, but [migrating to Linux] has helped us share a little more than we historically have about our thoughts and plans. Not surprisingly, those problems are very common across the many studios. We're starting to see that if someone solves a problem that isn't central to the art we do [as individual studios], and there is a technological component to that art, but many of the things we have to solve are not related to that art, there is suddenly a feeling we can all benefit from it. That's encouraging. It's fun to see.

DreamWorks' Leonard says he'd still like to see the Open Source community look toward entertainment as a partner in innovation as well as recognition:

One of the hard parts of dealing with open source is that it's still viewed as a bit of a hacker's world, as long as you're willing to hack at the code you'll get what you want. A reality for the VFX industry is that as real businesses we need to find a way to channel the talent in the open-source world so that we can get value from it.

Leonard adds that the industry is probably easier to work with for open-source developers than other industries might be:

The VFX industry is willing to take risks. Our solutions don't have to be wrapped with a pretty bow--we're willing to work together to make these things work. I think the application for what we solve together with open source can be applied to a much larger community.

Ray Feeney agrees. "We're the canary in the mine shaft", he says of the willingness the industry has to push Linux in new ways.

Still, many in the industry have concerns about working with open-source developers. One early example of conflict came about while making the GIMP, the open-source world's answer to Photoshop, better suited to the needs of film industry. GIMP is highly thought of in the industry, but the 1.2 version lacks 16 bit color channels, something the industry needs to maintain the high quality color found in films. A separate Hollywood branch of GIMP was created to solve this problem, but the solutions it offered, which were made available back to the Open Source community, weren't accepted directly by The GIMP developers. Instead, they opted for a redesign that would be more practical over the long term, but also not available for a much longer period (they still aren't available more than a year later).

Unfortunately, says Pixar's Peachey, this left a bit of a bad taste in the industry's collective mouth:

Extensions were done by the VFX industry but weren't picked up by the project. This left some members of the industry feeling that because we're a market segment different than what open-source developers are interested in, the industry can't get any open-source developer seriously interested in what the industry needs.

"The industry", Peachey says, "is interested in doing open-source work, but if you do the work and no one accepts it, how do you get that work to survive?"

Feeney agrees. "The Linux community works well with the development savvy, but how do you get film makers and open-source developers communicating? For the industry, it's a complicated issue." For example, The GIMP always has lacked a professional color management facility. There are plenty of external proprietary systems that are available and could (with the right technical work) be added to the program. But there are logistical and political issues to resolve as well, such as how those proprietary systems can be made to work with GPL code like The GIMP.

Does the VFX industry know what the GPL is or what it means and how it relates to proprietary software? Feeney says probably not. "In our community, the open-source push is great when you need to reach consensus and standards. But what our customers do requires differentiation through their own specialized approach. There is a big difference between open source and shared source." Feeney thinks that the application level that the VFX world works in is more of a shared-source world.

Other Waves

Despite concerns on how to work with open-source developers, the VFX industry continues its wholesale conversion to Linux. The operating system gives them more control of their own futures, both individually as studios and collectively as an industry.

At this point most of the major tools used by the industry are available. The major conference and tradeshow for the industry, SIGGRAPH, was full of Linux offerings in August 2001. This includes modeling and rendering tools, tools for distributing rendering work and 2-D compositing tools such as Avid's Softimage XSI.

While VFX is the first major industry to adopt, others may follow very soon. If Ford does deploy 33,000 Linux desktops, industry insiders say that it will likely push GM, Daimler and others to make similar moves due to the cost competitive nature of the auto business. And that will make Hollywood's Visual Effects industry move look like a silent film.



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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.