The Day the Earth Stood Still

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

“Hammerhead did a handful of really difficult and excellent shots”, says Okun. “They did one really difficult 3-D helicopter with the Secretary of State on it. They did a matte painting that was really 'saving the day' that had an automobile factory. They did the trooper-healing shot.”

“Hammerhead uses Linux for all of our graphics workstations for our visual-effects artists, as well as for our render boxes, and file servers”, says Hammerhead Visual Effects Supervisor Thomas Dadras. “I feel that Linux is the best possible environment for visual-effects production because it's so incredibly customizable and scalable. We utilize a full spectrum of in-house scripts, aliases and environment variables that enable artists to easily navigate the file systems for the many shows that we have in-house at any given time.”

Hammerhead uses Maya with RenderMan and Mental Ray for rendering, Shake and Nuke for 2-D compositing and rotoscoping, Photoshop for texture painting and matte painting, and SynthEyes for 3-D tracking. They've internally developed software for 2-D and 3-D tracking and rotoscoping.

“The company size fluctuates between ten to 25 people depending on the amount of work”, says Dadras. “We currently have 17 people. We have nine artist desktop-Linux workstations, all with dual monitors. The capacity of our Isilon server is 17TB. We also have an older SGI file server, about 5TB in size. We currently have 22 render blades on our renderfarm.”

“All our workstations and render nodes are running on CentOS 5”, says Hammerhead Systems Administrator Fatima Mojaddidy. Hammerhead has eight Macs that are used by producers and coordinators for running software such as Filemaker. A few of the Macs also are used in production with Photoshop and SynthEyes.


“Hydraulx stepped in right near the end”, says Okun. “They did the most amazing job of creating an army out of eight jeeps and 50 people. They were the only other people on the show to deal with any particle systems stuff.”

“All our workstations, our entire facility is now Linux”, says Hydraulx Visual Effects Supervisor Colin Strause. “We use Inferno and Flame, Shake, Maya, Photoshop, a little bit of After Effects, Combustion, Synflex for cloth simulations, Real Flow for fluid stuff and Massive. Everything after that is our own custom tools. We use GIMP for doing mid-level painting stuff—quick texture stuff. We've gone dual-boot on most of our Linux machines, so modelers and texture modelers can run Z-brush and Photoshop.”

“We have more than 500TB on the SAN network”, says Strause. “We have a Think Logical KVM switch, based on fibre, that will route your monitor, keyboard, mouse and tablet. You can take any machine in the building—our 25 Inferno stations or three big Final Cut Bays—and route it to any other machine in the building or up into the screening room.” (The screening room has a 23'-wide screen.)

“Our sequence takes place where the Swarm escapes from a missile silo where they were storing Gort”, says Strause. “The US military has hundreds of tanks and soldiers and missile launchers there in case something bad happens. The Swarm takes out the whole army. We were able to rent a handful of vehicles...some M-1 Abrams, some Bradley Fighting Vehicles, a bunch of Hummers with 50-caliber machine guns on the top and troop transport trucks.”

“We had only six to seven weeks to do the entire sequence”, says Strause. “Normally, you'd have three or four months. The other problem we had was matching all the Swarm dynamics that Weta did. Each company has such a unique pipeline, there's very little we can share. We looked at the trailer from to figure it out and reverse-engineer their Swarm effects to create them from scratch for our shot.”

“With all the fires in Los Angeles, we couldn't shoot the weapons”, says Strause. “So for all the weapons you see firing, we had to add CG shell casings, and we created all the tracers and muzzle flashes with fluid simulations.”

“When a 60-ton tank shoots, it's going to shake the ground, so all the dust comes into the air”, says Strause. “When the tanks fire, we have all the correct dynamics, such as the heavy tank tread jiggling on the suspension. We went through YouTube, which is great, and found all these videos that guys had taken in Iraq of their tanks shooting. It was an amazing reference.”

“On set, we have a Sphere-On camera that lets you take 360-degree HDRI images”, says Strause. “We use these super-high dynamic images for photometric lighting, trying to re-create how the real light behaves in the real world in our digital environment. When we have a real tank and a CG tank right next to it, we have to use a much fancier technique to make it all look photo-real.”

Hydraulx photographed the vehicles at a desert location in Los Angeles, then modeled everything in Maya. Camera tracking uses Linux Boujou software, brought into Mental Ray for lighting and shading.

“We use digital crowd simulation software called Massive”, says Strause. “We've written some custom tools that let us get the stuff into Maya so we can render it in our Mental Ray pipeline. We have soldiers with guns and they're running. The soldiers avoid the moving vehicles automatically. It's all done with this neural network.”

“We have a custom version of Piranha here that we use for all our dailies”, says Strause. “We have it on every single Linux machine. We have an elaborate database, based on MySQL, that's our shot management and render manager. We can dynamically build edits. We can take an EDL of an off-line, and whenever people mark a new daily that they want to look at in the cut, they can hit View and Cut, and it will dynamically build off an XML file all the different QuickTimes, load Piranha and dynamically build the cut. We use Shake to build the QuickTimes as a job on our Linux renderfarm.”



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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!