The Day the Earth Stood Still

Linux visual effects artists around the world create a new sci-fi classic.

“When your supervisor is in New Zealand and your editor is in Los Angeles, it makes things a bit harder”, says Cinesite Visual Effects Producer Ken Dailey, who is based in London. “I'd talk to Jeff every day and make sure he has the right Quicktimes, that everyone is looking at the same stuff. Time was the biggest challenge. The reaper shot in New York came very late. I think we had three weeks from the time we got the plates. We shared Maya models with Weta. We sent them our reaper model and they shared models with us.”

“We did about 60 shots”, says Dailey. “We did where Klaatu is being interrogated, which shows how he can take control of electrical systems. Later in the movie, there's a sequence where the military decides to attack Gort in Central Park with drones. We had 3-D tanks and explosions. We did the big tilt-down from space at the beginning of the movie.”

“We're principally using Maya, Shake and RenderMan”, says Dailey. “Shake is running on Linux. Maya is running mostly on Windows. We use a bit of Photoshop on Windows.” Cinesite uses Maya on Linux and Windows. However, the range of available plugins is far greater on Windows. The 3-D painting package MudBox is the main one. That's recently been bought by Autodesk and may be coming to Linux.

“We have about 80 desktop systems running Linux”, says Cinesite Senior Systems Administrator Danny Smith. “We have at least a couple hundred render systems. All of those are IBM Blade systems. We have about 40 Windows systems as well. Our principal requirement for Windows is Photoshop. There's no way to run Photoshop reliably in its latest release on Linux with CrossOver. The main reason for Photoshop is the color depth—the full 16 bits we require for film work in matte painting and dealing with textures.”

“CinePaint was looked at in the past, back when it was Film Gimp”, says Smith. “Our biggest problem with it is finding people with the skills to use it. People walking in the door already know Photoshop. People would be more interested in GIMP or CinePaint if it was more like Photoshop. If we could find a tool that reduces our Photoshop costs, a lot of people would be very happy. We have 20 or 30 seats of Photoshop.”

“Shake is a product that's being discontinued”, says Smith. “Even though we've done the site buyout, as soon as Apple launches a competing product, they have the right to discontinue our use of Shake. The likely successor is Nuke. We're trying to get people up to speed with Nuke and doing more and more with it. It takes time to train people. It's slowed down our adoption.”

“We mostly run Red Hat Fedora”, says Smith. “We're on version 4, migrating to 8. We've experimented with SUSE. The reason to stay with Red Hat is support from software vendors. We're paying for that support, and it's mission-critical.”

For dailies playback, Cinesite is using the Windows system Scratch from Assimilate. Scratch also is being used by the Avid editors in Los Angeles on the Fox lot. Smith had the Linux SpecSoft RaveHD dailies system at his prior company, but considers the California startup too far away to support London. Cinesite also uses FrameCycler on Linux for movie playback. They have NetApps and Isilon file servers.

Flash Film Works

“We had Flash Filmworks handle a hundred shots, 3-D helicopters and stuff like that”, says Okun. Flash Film Works, based in Los Angeles, has its desktops set up to dual-boot. “This was one of the rare occasions where most of the workstations stayed in Windows”, says Flash Film Works Technology Chief Dan Novy. “That's mostly because we weren't doing a lot of fluid dynamics simulations. The renders were 80% Windows. I didn't need the high performance that I normally use 64-bit Fedora for. The file servers are all Linux. I have a specialized Shake station that has The Foundry Furnace suite on it for doing automation.”

Even running Windows, they still are using open-source tools. “Fusion 5 added Python in addition to its Lua-based Ion scripting”, says Novy. “That can do a lot more automation, getting renders to the editor automatically, that sort of thing.” Fusion recently has become available on Linux, but Lightwave is Windows. Flash Film Works likes Lightwave's free render nodes. A Maya RenderMan node would cost them $4,000–$5,000; Mental Ray costs $1,200.

“I personally run Ubuntu on my laptops”, says Novy. “But, for setting up file servers, I'm so used to the Red Hat paradigm. We have one Isilon cluster, a FreeBSD variant. Each node is 1.4TB. I have five nodes and one backup. It's old, and I'm leaning toward BluArc to replace it. We have about 100 CPUs on the farm and about 50 desktops.” Flash Film Works backs up its data to Blu-ray.



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rbarraud's picture

... How many companies mentioned here, yet no URI's whatever (save the article Author's)...

I hope this isn't a trend ... please put your readers' laziness ahead of your own!