Faith in 3D pays off for Huhu Studios

Snells Beach studio working on 12 planned 3D animated Bible epics

Huhu Studios, based at Snells Beach north of Auckland, has gone from producing a local TV series to making animated feature films for American distributor Promenade Pictures — and from employing just eight staff to 60 since its launch in 2000.

The Ten Commandments, a $15 million 3D animated feature film, which screened in New Zealand in September, is the first of 12 planned Bible epics, worth US$120 million.

The studio is also working a Canadian TV series, Turbo Dogs, and two DVDs for the US market.

Huhu Studios launched in 2000 with the TV series Buzz and Poppy, which screened in more than 60 countries, says CIO Bill Boyce. Back then, there were eight guys in the studio.

“We just had our own computers and couple of boxes under our desks,” says Boyce. “That was our render farm — we called it our ‘render-garden’,” he says.

Huhu Studios got involved with Promenade Pictures, headquartered in Santa Monica, California, in 2005. The small animation studio managed to raise the money it needed, brought in a Singapore animation partner and managed to win the deal, says Boyce.

In the last three years, the team has grown from eight to 60 people, of which most are contractors, he says. The “render-garden” has also been upgraded to a proper render-farm, he adds.

For the first film Boyce and his team built a solution of 1U racks, which they assembled themselves. The next step was a “pseudo-blade” solution, he says. But with the studio growing and the team moving on to the next film, Boyce realised that his company was going to need “a fair bit of horse power”, he says. It was time to take a step up and look at a proper blade solution, he says.

Huhu Studios started talking to IBM and decided to invest in an IBM blade centre, hosted on-site.

The company now has 70 blade servers, running quad-core Intel Xeon processors, he says.

The production team first creates characters using pencil and paper, then models them in Maya, says Boyce.

Broadband speed and cost are some of the biggest challenges for the company, he says. At the moment, the studio is pushing around 15GB per week to Canada. The huge amounts of data that are pushed around within the studio is also a challenge, so Boyce is investigating ways in which to streamline networking, he says.

Finding skilled staff is becoming less and less of challenge, he says. While the company is big on importing animators, there are also quite a few talented animators coming out of local design schools, he says.

When the company started, about 20% of the team were locals. Now, local talent makes up nearly half of the team. Overseas team members come from all over the world, for example from Canada, the US, China, Taiwan, Argentina, Japan, Russia and Poland, says Boyce. The studio also collaborates with partners in the US, Canada, China and Singapore.

The beach-side location was chosen because Boyce’s business partner, Trevor Yaxley, had founded a Christian college and a trust to support children and families at Snells Beach in the late 1980s.

The Ten Commandments was originally intended for high-definition DVD release but, when Promenade decided it wanted to put it on the big screen, the level of detail required in each frame went up a notch. The result was a movie that occupied five computer hard drives when it was transported to Peter Jackson’s Park Road post-production facility in Wellington for final polishing, he says.

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