The Day the Earth Stood Still

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

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a re-invention of the 1951 science-fiction film classic. Keanu Reeves stars as the benevolent visiting alien Klaatu, come to Earth to warn us to change our barbaric ways or face destruction.

The arrival in New York's Central Park of a giant sphere from another world may have dire consequences for our planet. Photo credit: WETA.

Klaatu's (Keanu Reeves) arrival on Earth via a giant sphere triggers a global upheaval. Photo credit: WETA.

A massive and seemingly unstoppable alien force destroys a stadium in seconds. Photo credit: WETA.

Ten years ago, Titanic was the first film to use Linux in a big way. Today, Linux dominates big-budget visual effects and 3-D animation. Ever since The Matrix, it's become routine to have several visual-effects companies working on the same film. A visual effects supervisor at the studio, in this case Fox, selects which companies will create the visual effects.

Twentieth Century Fox

“I came in and met with the director Scott Derrickson”, says The Day the Earth Stood Still Visual Effects Supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun. “In Scott's opinion, and one I agree with, the day of visual effect as star of the movie is gone. He wanted to focus on story. He wanted spectacular effects that were invisible. When dealing with spaceships, aliens and giant robots, that's a bit of a challenge.”

“Weta was our primary group on the film that did 220 shots on the film”, says Okun. “Then Cinesite. We had Flash Filmworks and CosFX. Later on we added Hammerhead and Hydraulx, a company called At the Post, and a couple other little companies. Weta handled the Sphere, the alien, the robot and the Swarm. It's all particle systems based on chaos theory. That means it's render-intensive.”

“There's a shot of the Sphere that we call the super-sphere shot”, says Okun. “That starts in the swamp and takes you to various Spheres activating around the world. That took 30 days to render. That's pretty crazy. It's around 1,100 frames. It's an amazing shot. You don't want to show it to the director at the end of the day and have him say, 'That's not really our sphere'...which is what happened. We came up with a patch system at Weta Digital where we could render a section and patch it over the offending thing. This particular patch took three days to render.”

Weta Digital

“Linux is an integral part of what we do here at Weta”, says Production Engineering Lead Peter Capelluto. “It's very well suited for the dynamic needs of the visual-effects industry. Our department would have a much more difficult time accomplishing our goals with any other operating system.”

“Weta predominantly uses Linux for our workstations and also for our renderfarm and servers”, says Capelluto. “There are a few applications that require the use of Mac OS X, Windows and Irix. Whenever possible, we use Linux. The open-source nature of Linux and the many Linux applications are a major advantage. We also prefer it for stability, low cost, access control, multiuser capabilities, control and flexibility.” Capelluto's department develops pipeline software, such as the digital asset management system and the distributed resource management system for their renderfarm.

“We have 500 IBM Blade Servers, 2,560 HP BL2x220C Blade Servers and 1,000 workstations”, says Weta Digital Systems Department Lead Adam Shand. “Ubuntu is our primary render and desktop distro. We also use CentOS, RHEL and Debian.” The workstations are IBM and HP. Weta uses NetApp DataOnTap, NetApp GX, BluArc, Panasas and SGI file servers. Storage is mostly NAS, not SAN. For open-source apps, they use Apache, Perl, Python, MySQL, PostgresSQL, Bind,, CUPS, OpenLDAP, Samba, Firefox, Thunderbird, Django, Cacti, Cricket, MRTG and Sun Gridware.

“We're big fans of open-source code here at Weta”, says Capelluto. “We're utilizing Sun's Grid Engine for distributed resource management and have helped them fix a number of bugs. It's very powerful to be able to improve upon open-source software and to fix any problems you encounter.”



Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.


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!