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"Star Wars" effects studio shifts to Intel

Industrial Light and Magic will switch from using RISC-Unix workstations to those based on Intel processors for the bulk of its animation and special effects work.

Industrial Light and Magic has joined the empire, at least in terms of hardware.

The technical effects studio has switched from using RISC-Unix workstations from SGI to using Intel-based Dell systems running Linux for the bulk of its animation and special effects work, said Cliff Plumer, ILM's chief technology officer. As part of the conversion, ILM recently deployed 600 Pentium 4 workstations.

"The Intel workstations that were deployed were probably 20 percent of the price of SGI workstations we bought a few years ago," Plumer said. "Performancewise, they are about three times as fast."

ILM created the special effects in the "Star Wars" series of movies, among other blockbuster films.

ILM's shift from RISC workstations to more standardized workstations is part of an ongoing change in the computer rooms of the entertainment industry.

RISC-Unix machines from companies such as SGI dominated Hollywood for years because they offered far superior computing power. Most of the high-end graphics applications also were written for RISC computers. Typically, RISC companies built their own chips and computers, and developed their own version of Unix.

Now, the performance gap has largely vanished and application developers such as Alias/Wavefront have moved their products to Intel machines. In addition, several of the companies building workstations around RISC chips have gone out of business or, in the case of SGI, begun to de-emphasize RISC because of the cost involved in developing the chips.

It's also easier to find employees with experience on machines running Windows or Linux with Intel-compatible chips.

"Right now you have to grab someone from an Irix (SGI's version of Unix) background to serve as your system administrator. It is a very limited circle," said Grant Boucher, a consultant with Digital Revelations, a studio owned by actor Morgan Freeman.

Digital Revelations is largely relying on Intel-based computers for the effects on "Rendezvous with Rama," a thriller coming out in 2006 in which Italy gets blown up and Morgan Freeman tries to make contact with aliens flying around in a giant cylinder.

RISC-Unix machines, though, are far from dead. Currently, a number of studios have deployed Intel-based machines for their render farms, conglomerates of hundreds of servers working in tandem to refine scenes and special effects. Much of the more precise animation still takes place on RISC-Unix.

In "Shrek," for instance, DreamWorks studio used Linux/Intel servers to render the skeletal images for the movie, but then used SGI-RISC workstations for much of the final animation. For "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," an animated film starring the voice of actor Matt Damon as a horse, DreamWorks used more than 200 HP workstations.

ILM began experimenting with Intel-based workstations when working on "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," and used them extensively in "Episode II: Attack of the Clones." The conversion process took about nine months, Plumer said. The company is currently using these machines on "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

Along with replacing its workstations, ILM also has installed a 1,000-processor render farm based on Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon processors and a server cluster built with Compaq Alpha processors.