Linux Dreamworks Redux

DreamWorks latest entry in the animated movie genre opened this past weekend in US theaters. Robin fills us in on what the studio has been up to lately, Linux-wise.

Last summer we visited the DreamWorks SKG Glendale studio where the animated motion picture Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron was in production using Linux. Spirit, the story of a wild mustang's adventures in the untamed American West, will be in US wide release on Memorial Day, May 27th, 2002. Let's find out what's happened with Linux at DreamWorks since our cover feature in the August 2001 issue of Linux Journal.

“For Spirit the Ink and Paint department was entirely Linux, as was half of rendering”, says DreamWorks Head of Animation Technology Ed Leonard. “Now all the departments have been converted. For our current production, Sinbad, every workstation and the entire renderfarm is Linux.” Linux gained its first toehold in the motion picture industry on servers for rendering and has now become a standard desktop for artists. For Spirit DreamWorks utilized more than 150 Linux desktops. More than 350 are in use for Sinbad.

Leonard describes the DreamWorks Linux conversion as a two-step process: porting an extensive library of internal proprietary tools and convincing vendors of commercial tools to do the same. Alias|Wavefront's Maya 3-D animation package already had a Linux port underway, but DreamWorks' core 2-D system based on Cambridge Systems Animo came to Linux later. In the DreamWorks production pipeline Adobe Photoshop is the sole Linux holdout.

So how does DreamWorks use Photoshop with Linux desktops? “We're running Photoshop in VMware”, reports DreamWorks Technologist Skott Miller. “That combination makes a 2GHz P4 feel like 1.5GHz, but the NVIDIA drivers work accelerated at full screen.” Miller notes that VMware runs Windows Photoshop in Linux without trouble, but the tricky part is the Wacom tablet. “Each OS wants raw pen input. Users have to turn off the tablet in X first to enable it in VMware.”

HP has been working with DreamWorks on Linux for some time, and in January 2002 DreamWorks formally announced selecting HP as its preferred technology provider. Leonard reports DreamWorks is very happy with Red Hat and has a close relationship with them through HP. DreamWorks has made Red Hat upgrades in two phases: 6.2 to 7.1 with 2.4 kernel, then to 7.2 to get better Alias|Wavefront support. Going to 7.2 provided enhanced XFree86 and NVIDIA support. For the first two years DreamWorks was using the proprietary HP/UX X server on Linux, not XFree86.

“With Linux I miss the clear SGI release roll-ups”, says Miller. “With Red Hat it seems like every day you get errata. You don't know what those changes may break.” DreamWorks is adopting Red Hat's Advanced Workstation Edition to gain greater stability.

“On the front end we still use Windows and Macintosh for some preproduction”, notes Leonard. “But, we don't see OS X as a core platform for us. We're very committed to Linux.” Leonard says a key feature of Linux is that being open source allows it to be tuned for performance. Miller says, “We're really happy with what Linux is allowing us to do with commodity software.”

DreamWorks has over 350 Linux desktops, plus 250 dual-Pentium Linux renderfarm servers. The desktops are Pentium dual-P3 1GHz 2GB machines with 100-BASE-TX to a gigabit switch. DreamWorks has just started to upgrade to dual-P4 2GHz 2GB desktops, the HP x4000—the June 2002 Linux Journal cover story. For servers, 1.26GHz dual-P3 PCs are housed as a tower of 42 1RU rackmounts together with a switch and a Cyclades terminal management system. DreamWorks has six of these renderfarm tower units with plans for at least six more.

The workstations for Spirit used HP FX5 or FX10 graphics cards, but the FX cards are since discontinued. For dual-head display two FX cards are used, one AGP and one PCI. “We're still using the FX cards on Sinbad and are scrounging for additional P3 FX machines”, says Miller. DreamWorks is switching to the NVIDIA Quadro4 that supports two monitors from just one AGP card.

For rendering, DreamWorks uses the batch queuing package LSF by Platform Computing. “LSF is a distributed load manager that we and Disney and Wild Brain use”, says Miller. “In fact, Wild Brain's Jim Meyer originally worked at LSF.” LSF provides a job submission API with UI that lets artists draw dependency graphs to be rendered. A final composite step at the end brings partial frames together. For that composite DreamWorks used internally developed compositor Matte for Shrek, Animo for Spirit, and is using Shake for Sinbad. Miller is seeking more artist productivity out of the network between Glendale and Palo Alto, but workflow obstacles include that a given scene might require hundreds of files spread across multiple file servers.

“Our ambition two years ago was to get on Linux”, says Miller. “Now it is to double our film production based on Linux. We're trying to do four pipelines for less than the cost of four films.” Each pipeline is a production unit working on one film.

Pipeline 1: Glendale, California: Spirit, now SinbadPipeline 2: PDI Palo Alto: Shrek, now Shrek 2, then MadagascarPipeline 3: Aardman England: Chicken Run (not Linux)Pipeline 4: Glendale PDI South: Sharkslayer

DreamWorks' new Linux pipeline 4 uses Pentium P4s with dual-head NVIDIA displays. Sharkslayer (July 2004) is simultaneously in production with Sinbad (May 2003). Like Shrek and Spirit, Sinbad and Sharkslayer will be two more DreamWorks animated motion pictures produced primarily using Linux.

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Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

RJDohnert's picture

I am glad to see Linux making some Headway into this market. I bet Articles like this have ticked Apple and Steve Jobs right off. Just one thing tho. What windowmanager do they use ?

KDE or GNOME

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

skottie's picture

We standardized on gnome desktop, with the sawfish window manager. at the time of the initial transition to linux on the destkop, we had stability issues with KDE that did not occur with gnome. I'm sure that's changed, but there are plenty of other things we're working on, and reevaluating and switching desktops is quite low on the list.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

KDE and GNOME ARE NOT WINDOWS MANAGER YOU i*** !

KDE use KWM windows manager and Gnome use Sawfish (amount other) windows manager

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

RJDohnert's picture

Whatever, You say Tomato I say Tomoto

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

While I personally think that proprietary software on machines running linux is where the computing world is headed, I would be curious to hear some of the views of "free" software advocates. It is hard to imagine that Richard Stallman would see the use of the non-free software used in this article as an indication of success.

In my opinion, linux gains more than it loses by the contributions of companies that collaborate in this fashion.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Dreamworks is looking for cost-effective solutions, not religion. If open source fits the bill, good for it. If it doesn't (LSF), then that's just too darned bad.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Agreed, as long as the operating system is free/open we are in good shape.

For people to have the choice between commercial software and open source only makes the platform stronger and more appealing to a lot of people (vho needs to get work done without making a political statement).

Re: Red Hat's Advanced Workstation Edition

rudyordaz's picture

Is Dreamworks the first to use the RedHat Advanced Workstation Edition?

I've read about it not comming out until late 2002.

Re: Red Hat's Advanced Workstation Edition

skottie's picture

We're actually looking at two RedHat offerings:

- Technical Workstation, due out "later"

- Advanced Server, see

http://www.redhat.com/software/linux/advanced/

both platforms have a longer release cycle, which

allows ISV's to port & test and release on a

stable platform. and it provides us with a stable

platform to deploy into production. "stable"

in this sense means "the contents don't change".

-Skottie, Dreamworks Feature Animation

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Hey, what about the new movie with a character named "lilo"?

Any Linux involvement there? :-)

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Well we could get close. Llewellyn ap Gryffyd was an early Prince of Wales...the third I think...and his nickname as a boy was Lelo. I've honestly thought for years that his story would be a good movie.

;-)

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Why they don't using the Gimp instead of photoshop. They will save the overhead of using VMWare and Windows. And The Gimp do almost the same thing that Photoshop

Can't happen - PS users are a Guild, like MSCEs

Anonymous's picture

First, my credentials: I use both. I'm a PS professional. GIMP is great, but today, not mature enough to replace PS. I like it, but it doesn't fit my workflow professionally.

Now, will DreamWorks pioneer it? No chance - the pixel slaves (dweebs like me) have too much vested in PS. SERIOUS PS expertise is hard to come by - and we like it that way. It's a barrier to entry that keeps our jobs semi-secure.

Why do you think otherwise-sane people become MSCEs (shudder)? Same reason. It's a credential that gives some security - not a better technology.

Screw management. We ARE the overhead you're talking about saving - so we'll demand PS.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Gimp do almost the same thing that Photoshop

No, it can't.

Don't misunderstand me, I LOVE the Gimp. The Gimp 2 is going to ROCK - I've been playing with the CVS versions, and it's a LOT more user-friendly.

However, as great as it is, the Gimp is not a full Photoshop replacement. Photoshop is simply a more mature, more polished program with a much larger feature set. Would I ever buy it? Hell no, even the Gimp is far more than I need. But for professional graphic artists, moviemakers, etc, the Gimp doesn't cut it; these people need Photoshop.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

However, as great as it is, the Gimp is not a full Photoshop replacement. Photoshop is simply a more mature, more polished program with a much larger feature set. Would I ever buy it? Hell no, even the Gimp is far more than I need. But for professional graphic artists, moviemakers, etc, the Gimp doesn't cut it; these people need Photoshop.

Then why doesn't DreamWorks invest some time and effert into the Gimp? It is open-sourced after all, and the last time I checked, a situation like this is presiously why open-source is such a good thing.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Then why doesn't DreamWorks invest some time and effert into the Gimp?

Because they have better things to do with their resources, simply put. It would take too much effort to bring the Gimp up to the level Dreamworks needs so they would rather spend far less and just use Photoshop. Dreamworks commitment to Linux is not a commitment to just using open-source products (as is evident by their use of LSF instead of, say GridEngine). They will use open source products when they meet their needs but at the end of the day they need to get the job done. The Gimp doesn't do the job for them.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

Why don't they pay Adobe to finish Gimp into production level?

[sorry, couldn't resist... ;) ]

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

> But for professional graphic artists, moviemakers, etc, the Gimp doesn't cut it; these people need Photoshop.

Gosh. Really? You'd better get in touch with the Film Gimp folk then, as they're clearly barking up the wrong tree.

http://film.gimp.org

And yes, I know that there have been some "issues" getting Film Gimp changes accepted by the Gimp developers, but I guess that's another story.

Sure, the Gimp still has some way to go but please don't imply the Gimp is some kind of poor mans "hobby" tool OK?

Besides, Photoshop isn't exactly first choice in the film world (print, yes), and is mentioned in the article as simply a part of the "production pipeline". Animo is clearly more central to a project like Spirit.

Didn't Animo start life on NeXTSTEP?

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

About every other month, using the Gimp comes up. And we ask our artists to look at it again, and they always seem to tell us that it doesn't work well enough yet.

Our artists are worth much more than the software they use.

BTW, yes, Animo started on NeXTSTEP. That is indeed how it was used on Prince of Egypt.

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

RJDohnert's picture

Amen brother

Re: Linux Dreamworks Redux

Anonymous's picture

The problem is, gimp does require some retraining, and it doesn't support some of the nice fancy features like auto rasterized text shapes etc, that the newer photoshops have. Also, text sharpness is still not all there.

Perhaps animation companies

Anonymous's picture

Perhaps animation companies of the future would like to use some very professional artists who do graphic editing using GIMP, Xmorph and Blender and have mastered this to the same level as Photshop. They could invest more in other areas, like pay...

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