HP wriggles its way into Weta, to deliver a ‘superior’ performance

Rendering power needed to meet high animation expectations saw Weta shop for new servers

Hewlett-Packard has secured a toe-hold at Peter Jackson’s Weta film studios with its new servers being used to render Weta’s Jane and the Dragon animated TV series.

Work has been underway on the TV side of the project for the last two years but the rendering power needed to meet the high animation expectations of the show’s creators saw Weta recently shopping for new servers.

Jane’s executive producer, Martin Baynton who originally created the stories and characters as children’s books, says the brief to his animation team was to create a animated feature film-quality production at 20% of the cost.

The show is notable for its convincing animation and lush pencil-shaded look, which helped an episode of Jane pick up the award for best animated TV programme at the World Television Festival held in Canada last month.

Weta is traditionally an IBM shop when it comes to servers and operates the biggest server farm in the country.

Weta used the IBM servers for rendering the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as King Kong and they are in constant use still.

Network Appliances sold 230TB of storage to Weta for storing rendered King Kong footage indicating the storage needs for such projects.

Jane was originally started on the IBM servers, but Baynton and the show’s visual effects supervisor and producer Trevor Brymer soon realised they’d need “three times the rendering power” they had available to them.

“We changed the way we were doing things. We ended up rendering everything. We used more memory, more storage, more resources,” says Brymer. The purchase was made swiftly during production.

“You’ve got to make a decision in 24 hours. There’s no time for a tender process,” says Brymer.

“It gives us a far higher density of processors. We only get a certain amount of space within the air-conditioned building,” he says.

Tony Parkinson, a vice president of HP’s Asia-Pacific server division, says the production team had a rack of 96 dual-core blades at its disposal.

“The Opteron rendering performance was so far superior what they’d got with IBM. They had to use three times as many servers and there were power and cooling issues [before],” he says.

While IBM still dominates at Weta overall, HP is talking up its server win as a sign that its hardware is well-placed to serve the entertainment industry.

HP’s vice president for the Adaptive Infrastructure technology solutions group pointed to HP’s relationship with production company Dreamworks, where HP servers housing 1,000 Proliant processors were used to render the Shrek animated feature films.

Both films were directed by New Zealander Andrew Adamson who recently completed filming The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

“They didn’t have to set up anything. It makes a huge difference on the production of those movies,” says Hellebold.

The computing power was leased from HP as part of its computing-on-demand service.

Brymer says the model was also attractive to Weta but, so far, the studio has kept all of its IT in-house.

“You need reliability and the best way to get that is to own it,” he says. “If you get behind, you still can’t move that end-date.”

Baynton, who invested in the project alongside Oscar-winning Weta Workshop director Richard Taylor, says the experience producing Weta’s first fully fledged animated TV series had laid the groundwork for a more efficient method of production.

“We believe that using the Jane pipeline, we could produce a feature at prices that would really challenge the industry,” he says.

He added that it is a “scary” time for the film industry as it struggles to come to grips with the delivery mechanisms new and emerging technologies are delivering.

Griffin attended the Singapore HP briefing as a guest of Hewlett-Packard

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