Linux and Star Trek

by Robin Rowe

Linux got its first big Hollywood break in 1997 when Venice, California studio Digital Domain (D2) used Linux to render the special effects for the hit movie Titanic. We spoke with D2 while they were in production using Linux with Star Trek Nemesis, which has a scheduled release date of December 13, 2002. D2 uses Linux for both renderfarm servers and artist desktops.

D2 has used Linux for 21 motion pictures, including best visual effects Academy Award winners Titanic and What Dreams May Come. D2 has won two Scientific and Technical Achievement Academy Awards: one for Track motion tracking software and the other for the compositing software NUKE.

Like most studios, D2 was primarily using SGI hardware running SGI's IRIX variant of UNIX, both on renderfarm servers and artist workstations. Experiments at D2 with Dante's Peak in 1996 proved that a move to Linux was feasible. “The Linux renderfarm came first”, notes D2 Digital Production and Technology Creative Director Judith Crow. “With Titanic we were working with a company called Areté using Renderworld, their ocean-simulation software. It ran three times faster on our Linux Alphas than on our IRIX SGI machines.” While the renderfarm paved the way, applications such as NUKE and Houdini pushed Linux to the desktop.

Figure 1. Preparing to insert a star field into the window of a spacecraft using NUKE. The tree graph to the right is a nodal view of the composite script.

A compositor is what software artists use for overlaying moving images, for example, the starship Enterprise flying past a background matte of a space station. “Digital Domain has been running NUKE on Linux since 1997 when it was used extensively on Titanic”, says Digital Effects Supervisor Jonathan Egstad. Egstad, along with D2's Bill Spitzak, Paul Van Camp and Price Pethel received an Academy Award for the NUKE compositor.

“NUKE is essentially a 2-D renderer”, says Egstad. “It is five or six times faster on Linux than IRIX, but it wasn't until the beginning of 2001 that the Linux GUI was able to run fast. Back in 1993, NUKE was the original scanline-based design. It only took 20MB of RAM to render a typical composite instead hundreds of megabytes.” Later commercial compositor applications, such as Shake, the popular node-based compositor sold by Apple, have a similar design.

“There are many instances where 2-D can assist in the workload”, points out Egstad:

We can build a complete 3-D scene in NUKE then refer to that in a 3-D package like Maya and vice versa. A 3-D scene can be created and rendered in Nuke3, complete with lighting, texturing and shader support—diffuse, Blinn and Phong are built-in. There's a complete 3-D subsystem in NUKE. That's a trend in all 2-D packages. 2-D packages are more and more turning into 3-D packages.

Houdini, a commercial 3-D package of which D2 is a big user, offers its own integrated compositor called Halo in its latest version. As with NUKE, it is hierarchy-based in conjunction with 2-D hierarchy. D2 also uses the commercial 3-D packages LightWave and Maya.

FLTK, the Window Toolkit of NUKE

NUKE version 3 has been in use at D2 since 2001, running on Linux, IRIX and Windows. D2's first Linux renderfarm was on Digital Alphas and still gets some use. The NUKE design retained the keystrokes used in IRIX, so users, especially freelancers working at D2, wouldn't face a learning curve when moving between operating systems. “The NUKE interface is deliberately Spartan, designed more toward feature work”, notes Egstad. “It probably has the strongest color-correction tools of any major package.”

D2's Linux Movies

D2 had requests for years to make NUKE into a commercial product for use by other studios, and the pressure increased after Apple purchased industry-leader Shake. Studios became concerned when Apple dallied with announcing future Linux support.

“We've founded the D2 Software Company to sell and market NUKE and other applications that currently exist or don't exist within the studio”, says Digital Production and Technology VP Michael Taylor. He continues:

We have NUKE evaluation sites out in the field. We're providing the latest NUKE 3 version that we use internally. About two years ago when making the decision to do a complete NUKE rewrite incorporating a 3-D into 2-D model, we considered switching to Shake, but decided we had a better program.

Taylor says Linux, Windows and IRIX versions will be available in early 2003. There are no plans yet for Mac OS X. Pricing starts under $10K US, which is comparable to Shake. For students, there will be a free-of-charge or inexpensive version, comparable to the apprentice versions of Maya and Houdini.

Digital compositor Brian Begun describes working on a scene in NUKE for Star Trek Nemesis:

I'm working on a temp, that's a shot that isn't finished—isn't ready for film. We have a production intranet for each show we work on with a web page for each shot. A lot of artists need to share information. Our job system uses Netscape with a lot of HTML forms and a server written in Perl. Rather than files in directories, we have links in directories. We can keep files in any directory on any drive anywhere without seeing what drive it is on. This allows our Systems department to juggle our disk space when necessary and to use it as efficiently as possible, without affecting production.

Begun walks us through setting up a typical effect in NUKE—moving the Enterprise across a star field:

Figure 2. A NUKE window displays an OpenGL 3-D wireframe of the virtual viewing camera.

Here's Trek's environment. We have a predefined list of variables for each show. Let's say I choose Star Trek SS145A:

$ job trek                 [sets show variables]
$ shot ss145a                  [sets job variables]

The cs command switches to my work directory, in this case work.begun:

$ cs

From here, I can go to an image directory that contains elements, parts of composite—or the work directory that contains NUKE scripts and if we do tracking, the in-house Track scripts. The work directory will contain files for NUKE, Flame, Track and Elastic Reality (old but cheap software used for roto and Avid morphing, such as bad frame or wire removal by morphing).

If I need to create my work directory, I use the jsmk command. Other directories, such as image directories also are created this way. They contain each green screen, full-resolution and scaled-down proxy image, previz and temp comp (which gives the client a rough idea of the shot, but is not necessarily pretty).

The lss command displays files in a more readable format than ls. For example, instead of looking at files like this:


Typing lss displays files like this:

test.%04d.rgb 1-3

Before launching NUKE, I change to the NUKE subdirectory in my work directory:

$ cs
$ cd nuke
$ nuke3

When I launch NUKE, it brings up a GUI window, and I choose Image®Read®File and then ss145a.wh to load the foreground (green screen) images. When working on a project, I use both high-resolution images and quarter-resolution proxy images.

The images are Cineon 10-bit log. NUKE itself will convert that to 16-bit float. NUKE is capable of displaying up to ten images in one viewer. By simply entering 1 to 0 on the keyboard, I can have up to ten views.

Figure 3. Adjusting a green screen Ultimate composite in NUKE while inserting stars into spacecraft cockpit window.

Here's a green screen of a cockpit [see Figure 3]. I bring in the background image of stars. When pulling a green screen, you'll typically pull three types of mattes. An edge matte is used to retain all the fine detail present in the photography. A fill or “innie” is used to fill any holes that may occur due to green spill or green material in front of the foreground subject. And, a cleanup or “outtie” matte is used to remove anything that is supposed to be replaced by the background—such as stage lights. To pull these mattes, I'll select a “backing color” in Ultimatte's color picker that best represents the color I want to remove, and that will give me the best matte. After that, I'll make any necessary tweaks, including pulling additional mattes where necessary, or additional cleanup.

Technical Director Jason Iversen is responsible for energy beam effects and debris for Star Trek:

For ships exploding we use as many practical effects as possible. Practicals are faster, even though it takes time to build the model. That may take two guys two months, but it is three people for four to five months to create a 3-D shot. We shoot the explosion at 300 fps slo-mo. It's a big task, and still might not get realism. Some explosions are enhanced with digital debris using Houdini. Some Enterprise shots are still real, but not the hull-scraping beauty shots.

As we're talking, one of his SGI machines is being taken away for use on the renderfarm. At D2, workstations are being upgraded to dual-Pentium PCs.

Star Trek work at D2 was previously all done in Houdini on Linux, but most of the Maya artists are on Windows NT because of Maya plugins not being available on Linux. “One of the largest sequences we've got is the avalanche sequence, all in Linux Houdini plus our own internal tool called VoxelB for doing volumetrics”, notes Iversen. He continues:

The avalanche is a huge powdery trail that is generated in a 3-D sense—not a 2-D cheat. Our voxel compositor VoxelB is a plugin. All of our tools can take in data from Maya or Houdini. We often combine those with our fluid dynamics software to create flowing water.

“Terragen is our terrain-generating program that was used in Time Machine for planet shots”, says Iversen. He adds:

We use it for previz and to create the initial plate for digital painters. Digital actors are all in Maya, primarily on NT. Our pipeline is based on previz rolling into production. All artists do precomposites of our work, then get assigned a compositor to take it to film out.

Although Linux supports popular 3-D packages such as Houdini and Maya, Crow says she feels frustrated by a dearth of Linux paint packages. “There's a depth to Photoshop that Film GIMP doesn't have. Film GIMP isn't mature enough.” Crow says a promising development is Amazon16, a 16-bit paint package that maker Interactive Effects is porting to Linux. Amazon has a long history on IRIX. “It was layer-based before Photoshop, supports user-defined macros, provides 3-D texture paint capabilities, and most importantly, supports HDR formats like Cineon that are critical for film work”, says Crow. “Another promising development is the 32-bit Linux paint package Photogenics by Idruna, currently in beta.”

According to Crow, porting D2's IRIX-based applications to Linux went rapidly, especially with their compositing software NUKE. The Linux conversion at D2 happened in stages, first the renderfarm that performs batch processing of movie effects, then the desktops where artists work. “When Linux was ready for the desktop we were eager to adopt it”, says Crow. “As soon as we got an OS like Linux supporting the features we relied on we were excited to move to it.”


Robin Rowe ( is a partner in motion picture technology company and founder of and
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