'Shrek' producer's pigeon play

Is indie studio the next Pixar? Maybe not yet, but it's rewriting rules--and slashing costs--for computer graphic productions. Images: Patriotic pigeons take flight

Tech Culture
When Hollywood producer John Williams finished Dreamworks Animation's "Shrek" in 2001, he set himself a goal: He wanted to make another animated feature, but on his own, and for far less money.

This week, the product of that resolution will hit U.S. screens. It's a $40 million, Disney-distributed story called "Valiant" about a daring young World War II homing pigeon. Spending less than half of what its most prominent recent competitors spent on comparable projects, Williams' Vanguard Animation has successfully undermined the notion that you have to spend in the range of $100 million to produce a modern computer-animated film.

Does this make Vanguard the next Pixar? Reviews of the film in Britain, where it was released in March, indicate that the team hasn't quite matched the "Toy Story" studio's razor-sharp storytelling. But Vanguard's experience shows that there is still room in the big leagues for small companies armed with high-tech smarts.

Valiant

Pixar "has many years of experience on us, but we want to play on that field," said Buckley Collum, "Valiant" co-producer and Vanguard co-founder. "Our hope is to deliver films of the same quality that people are expecting, but at a price point that is much easier for investors."

Thanks in large part to technology trends such as fast-growing computer power, access to supercomputing facilities, and a rise in open-source and standards-based software, small animation studios are tackling projects that would have been out of reach just a few years ago.

Certainly, the animation business in the United States is still dominated by Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, whose films account for the vast majority of the genre's ticket sales. A handful of others, such as "Ice Age" and "Robots" creators Blue Sky Studios, fill in the gaps.

Those companies' big-screen productions are expensive. Pixar's first picture, "Toy Story," cost $30 million to make in 1995. Last year's "The Incredibles" came in at $90 million, while Disney's 2002 "Treasure Planet," which was an unambiguous disaster despite some critics' accolades, cost a staggering $140 million.

Some of these costs are attributable to big-name salaries for voice-overs from actors ranging from Tom Hanks to Samuel Jackson. But it's the animation process, painstaking and hardware-intensive, that accounts for the bulk of costs.

Over months and years, artists and programmers separately create three-dimensional models of characters, textures for bodies, trees and other backgrounds, light and shadows, and other individual elements of their worlds. At the end of the process, all of these components and instructions must be "rendered"--essentially a processor-intensive task of combining all of the elements into a single frame of animation.

According to Pixar, each frame--24 of which flit past a viewer's eyes in a single second--takes about six hours to render using today's technology. Some individual frames have taken as much as 90 hours, the company says on its Web site.

funny money

This requires what ultimately amounts to one of animation studios' biggest expenses, both in time and hardware. Big companies like Pixar and Dreamworks have huge "render farms," with servers that amount to hundreds, and typically more than 1,000, individual processors for this task. Pixar has used blade server technology from RackSaver, while IBM xSeries servers are also common.

Now a myriad of technological advances are bringing these tasks down to the level of smaller companies.

The equivalent of computer workstations and software packages that used to cost $100,000 10 years ago now can be purchased for just a few thousand dollars, with high-end desktop machines running off-the-shelf software and the open-source Linux operating system. Exponential processing power growth has let artists do their work faster and add increasing levels of realism to their 3D worlds.

The massive rendering tasks can now be outsourced as well. A small company called RenderRocket, for example, has just launched a Web-based service through which animators can reserve time on and send their work to IBM's supercomputing facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., offloading the heaviest computer duties. IBM already has similar relationships directly with individual studios. Big Blue charges between 50 cents and 60 cents per CPU-hour (one processor used for one hour, in a facility where many machines have multiple processors) for this time-sharing.

None of this means that the animation business itself is getting easier, animators note.

That's because technology advances cut both ways. Computers do more, so animators have to do more. Audiences who have seen Pixar's best work, many of whom have logged hundreds of hours inside beautifully rendered video game worlds, are brutally critical of shortcuts.

"The audience is too smart for this to get any easier," said George Johnsen, chief technology officer of Threshold Digital Research Labs, a midsize animation studio with a feature film called "Food Fight" slated for release in 2006. "They've watched too many behind-the-camera shows and played too many video games. A game-trained society is a very fast visual-processing society."

Homing in on "Valiant"
The "Valiant" producers are quick to say that their experience can't be attributed all to technology. Indeed, much of their cost-cutting came from their ability to start from scratch, without the full infrastructure of an established studio.

"I think this is clearly something where technology is leveling the playing field between the bigger companies and smaller companies."
--Dick Anderson, general manager, IBM

Williams started the project in 2001 by coming to Collum and his visual effects production partner Curtis Augspurger, who had worked on movies including "Scooby-Doo," and asking them whether a "Shrek"-style film could be done much more cheaply. The three hashed out the question over a series of months, decided the answer was yes, and launched what would become the "Valiant" project.

By early 2003, they had the project funded and an agreement with Disney to distribute their work. They hired story developers and set up a preproduction shop in Los Angeles, where computer artists began work on the characters. Late that year, they moved to the United Kingdom for full production work--in part because that allowed them to access British tax breaks, funding and cheaper animators, and also because it is a very British movie, with a U.K. director and actor Ewan McGregor providing the voice of the lead pigeon.

Collum said the team also took advantage of powerful off-the-shelf software now available such as Alias Systems' Maya animation package, and Pixar's RenderMan, while some studios create their own. On the hardware side, it kept everything in-house, ultimately using about 500 "nodes"--the equivalent of 1,000 processors--to render the artists' work into the final film.

The end result? A big-budget film that cost less than half of Pixar's and DreamWorks' latest. Reviews have been just lukewarm, however, with the BBC online calling it "bland as birdseed."

Whatever the critics' response, Vanguard's creative juggling of technological and staffing norms has blazed a path that smaller companies may also be able to follow.

"I think this is clearly something where technology is leveling the playing field between the bigger companies and smaller companies," said Dick Anderson, general manager of IBM's Media and Entertainment division, who oversees the company's close relationship with many studios. "This industry has really transformed itself in 18 months in terms of the technology base that it is running on."

That may be true--but the technology side will never be enough to produce success by itself, studio executives say.

"It ultimately has nothing to do with hardware," Threshold's Johnsen said. "Hardware is egalitarian. But not everyone can have talent."

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