Weta Digital wins an IT Oscar

Weta Digital technical head Scott Houston compares a quadrupling of processing power between the first and second Lord of the Rings films to "changing the engines on a 747 with 400 passengers on board while flying at 900 miles an hour".

Weta Digital technical head Scott Houston (pictured) compares a quadrupling of processing power between the first and second Lord of the Rings films to “changing the engines on a 747 with 400 passengers on board while flying at 900 miles an hour”.

Last year Weta scoped the resources it would need for rendering the second instalment of the trilogy’s images.

“We thought another 256 processors would be enough,” says Houston, “but ideally we wanted 512 — that’s eight racks. I told [producer] Barry Osborne we could do the upgrade in six to eight weeks. He gave us three.”

And there were no mid-flight stop-offs in Weta’s 24 x 7 work schedule to make the upgrade.

Weta’s processing efforts paid off in a way seldom experienced in the IT field: not many tech professionals get a golden statuette and the plaudits of clients and their industry fellows at a glittering internationally televised celebration.

The kiwi industry of Weta Digital and the IT power and crisis management behind it landed the Lord of the Rings trilogy its second Academy award for visual effects. Jim Rygiel, Joe Letteri, Randall William Cook and Alex Funke accepted the award for the second film, The Two Towers, having won the same category last year with The Fellowship of the Ring. Some Weta staff attended the event.

The increased sophistication of effects for the second film included fantastic creatures Gollum and Treebeard and mass battle scenes with as many as 12,000 digital creatures. The myriad other small details intercut with live action put pressure on the Weta IT forces.

“Between films one and two we doubled the number of artists, tripled the online storage and quadrupled the processing power,” says Houston.

All this, from sourcing and implementing hardware to reorganising space in Weta’s Miramar premises for new computer rooms, was landed on Houston from the beginning of his time as CTO. He succeeded Jon Labrie in the middle of 2002, coming from vendor Silicon Graphics.

Weta now possesses the most powerful battery of processing power in the Southern Hemisphere, Houston claims, and an expansion of at least the same magnitude is planned for the third film, The Return of the King.

The artists work at IBM Intellistation workstations, powered by dual 2.2GHz Intel Xeon processors with 2GB of RAM. The main graphics tool is Alias Wavefront’s Maya, which digital operation manager Milton Ngan calls “the Swiss Army knife of the 3D effects world”. It allows artists to build muscles on to a skeleton, for example, and make them flex and bulge realistically. Alias Wavefront won its own Oscar last week in the science and technology section of the awards.

Some of the 3D images are not created from scratch but based on solid models assembled in Weta’s workshop and scanned in. Texturing and shading follows, to give the creature a natural skin. A “lighting” team will then shade the image to blend in with the light conditions of a live-action scene into which it may be placed.

The combination of animated creatures, live action and background are rendered into film frames using a huge array of rack-mounted Intel-based Silicon Graphics processors, known as a “render wall”. “Render farm” is the more usual term, but “wall” seems more appropriate for the vertical racks, each containing 96 processors.

Weta is looking at the opportunity presented by the thin-profile blade servers, considering offerings from IBM, Dell and HP.

Huge storage resources are naturally necessary to support all this work. “We’re currently managing 200 terabytes,” says Houston, “and we’ll be supporting half a petabyte [512TB] by the end of the third movie.”

The primary online storage consists of rack-mounted storage modules prosaically known as “filers” from Net Appliance. Data is passed among all these processors and storage along gigabit ethernet fibre links, directed by six Bigiron switches.

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