Computer animation has come a long way since the story of a boy’s beloved toys coming alive and learning how even the greatest of challenges can be overcome with friendship.
Technical advances since have made computer-animated features even more jaw-dropping, taking us to a day when skyscrapers slide down detail-rich streets to leave a city in a turbulent cloud of dust in its wake – all in state-of-the-art 3-D and looking as real as unreal can get.
That’s an actual scene from DreamWorks Animation’s newest 3-D movie, “Megamind,” and the destruction of “Metro City” is one of the more visually stunning moments in the film. Metro City’s structural loss is the audiences gain, one could say. And to think that just a few years ago studios couldn’t build complex cities because rendering one would crash the computer system.
Intel has been providing software engineering expertise to DreamWorks Animation developers since 2008, developing a strong technical relationship with the Glendale, Calif.-based studio that capitalizes on new scalable, multi-core computing necessary for computer animation today.
“DreamWorks Animation needed to transform the way they make movies,” said Renée James, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Software and Services Group. “We were coming out with the new Xeon processors and recognized in the course of that timeframe that we have a group at Intel that can help them achieve their goals on a bigger scale.”
The initial collaboration on 2009’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” included the companies’ inaugural joint effort of InTru3D, which culminated in a 90-second sneak peek of the animated feature film that aired on broadcast television in 3-D during the Super Bowl. Including a pair worn by President Barack Obama during a White House Super Bowl party, 150 million glasses using InTru3D were distributed in a marketing effort described at the time by DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg as “perhaps the biggest media-advertising event in history.”
The power (and challenge) of three
“Megamind” is the third feature film released by DreamWorks Animation this year. Moviegoers who stay for the credits will see the Intel logo, which also appears on the crawls of the studio’s “Shrek Forever After” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” two films currently among this year’s Top 10 domestic grossers, the latter also among the current top-selling DVDs in the United States.
While the collaboration with Intel isn’t the reason DreamWorks Animation was able to release three features in a single year, an accomplishment touted as “unprecedented” by the studio, it did offer significant advantages.
“The work we’re doing on the scalable multi-core architecture allowed our engineers to maintain their focus on those three films and ensured that we as a technology group were delivering the highest-end computer graphics software to the artists on those movies,” said Kate Swanborg, technology executive at DreamWorks Animation. “Our partnership with Intel provides a unique and incredibly valuable collaboration between their software domain experts and ours.”
A “no-brainer” is how Swanborg described her company’s decision to tap Intel’s shoulder for the job. “We recognize the value of serving as a lighthouse for Intel to showcase the power of multi-core technologies and remaining on the forefront of innovation,” Swanborg added.
Working side-by-side with a dedicated Intel team based at and near the studio, DreamWorks Animation R&D engineers solve such challenges as rendering times that increase as images become more and more complex and rich — and that’s even before they’re authored in 3-D.
“‘Megamind’ pushed our tools to the limits, literally hitting computational load peaks as much as 50 percent higher than any previous production,” said DreamWorks Animation CTO Ed Leonard. “Intel’s combined contributions to performance and throughput delivered in both software and hardware arenas.”
From a software side, “Megamind” benefited from the adoption of Intel’s compiler and contributions by Intel engineers to performance-tune DreamWorks Animation’s rendering and simulation tools for both single and multi-core processing. Hardware-wise, the filmmakers augmented their batch compute capability with more than 3,000 Intel Xeon processor cores.
“We could talk about the tremendous compute required to model the enormous coordinate system and the unprecedented details of the turbulent flow, but in the end, it was the combination of faster software and greater capabilities in compute that allowed us to put it all on screen and deliver the excitement and emotion our artists imagined,” Leonard said.