Bodiam Castle

Digital animation: moving stories

Beyond the CGI-rich Hollywood blockbusters thrives a world of digital animation that manages to produce eye-catching results with limited IT resources.

Audiences have become used to computer animation used across a variety of media, from big-screen movies to small-screen documentaries. The vogue has brought into being an industry of digital animation specialists aiming to meet a booming requirement as clients from museums to property planners seek the kind of eye-catching visuals that such systems can create.

However, digital animation is notoriously processor-hungry, and the more dazzling the effect, the more taxing it is for IT. In order for projects to be planned and executed within realistic deadlines, lots of processing power, memory and storage need to be available. Whereas such resources may be customary for the big-budget Hollywood productions, they present a key challenge to the animation studios working on smaller-scale projects.

The use of IT in digital animation is highly scalable. Technology directors may have huge budgets and access to the most powerful machines, or they may need to keep spending to a minimum and make the most of older hardware.

There is also a common misconception that animation SMEs (small- to medium-sized enterprises) are in some ways similar to the big players such as Framestore and MPC. The work they are pitching for may sometimes overlap, but these are two of the largest computer animation studios in Europe, and have considerably more resources than the smaller outfits.

'We all make commercials, but they're on a different scale to us,' explains Neil Marsden, head of technology at Hibbert Ralph Animation (HRA). 'Our provisioning of IT is very different: we are not buying hundreds, or even tens, of workstations. We would use maybe five or six for a job.

'We are in the middle and the people underneath us are the 'two blokes in a bedroom',' he continues. 'To some extent we all compete for the same work. Obviously the 'Framestores' can bring huge resources to a job, but their budgets tend to reflect that. The guys in the bedroom can obviously do things very cheaply, but lack the kind of handholding or history [we have], so there's a place for us all.'

Commercials to movies

They may all offer the most popular services, such as animation for commercials, but the SMEs have become very good at finding and exploiting niche markets to achieve success and a wide clientele base. HRA produces TV and movie commercials, but also long-format, animated television shows through its long-form arm HRTv.

Another SME, Rendermedia, found other markets. It creates high-end animation, interactive 3D and imagery, and much of its work focuses on animation sequences used in TV documentaries and shown on displays at heritage sites and museums. Past work has included an animation sequence of a jet engine at work for a documentary on engineer Sir Frank Whittle, and a CGI reconstruction sequence of Bodiam Castle in Sussex.

'If someone says they want a commercial, fine, but we are pitching our work further afield. Some CGI houses are just creating content for TV and film, we're creating content that's for broadcast, but then can be used on YouTube and visitor attractions, and so on,' says Mark Miles, director, Rendermedia.

'We try to push content as far and wide as possible, so when we see a new client and they want a piece of animation for a plasma screen in a museum we can show them how we can get the content in all these other distributed channels, making their information far more wide-reaching.'

There is the issue of balancing client expectations with what they can do, but more often than not it comes down to the client's budget, rather than the limits of the animator. The SMEs mill over what is possible, being sympathetic to the budget, and then provide an appropriate solution.

Animation styles requested by clients often come from those seen in feature films, such as hand-drawn, 2D vector or 3D modelling. Each can be created to order in a way that fits a budget. Although they do factor in the size of the project and therefore its cost, the main issues are the length of the job (the duration of the animated sequence), and its final TV resolution output. With these in mind an animated advert may vary from 60GB to 200GB in size, and a TV series will be in the terabytes.

Storage and processing

Storage is one of the most important issues for technology directors in this sector. A studio such as HRA may have as many as 12 jobs on in progress at any time – all at different stages of development – and so data storage capacity is key. Marsden recently deployed an Isilon scaleable clustered storage solution, as he found the systems the company had been using did not scale well. Now he has 4TB on there, but it will scale up to petabytes; having petabytes puts his mind at ease, he says.

Marsden also looked into cloud-based back-up services at the time, but calculated that it was not viable – at least not now. The problem was logistical rather than necessarily financial, he explains.

'I worked out that it would take two years to move all our data over a reasonably-sized pipe, and would cost a fortune,' he says. 'With Amazon's Cloud you send them a hard-disk, and it will put it on for you; but even so, the cost implications for the amount of data we are talking about means it just doesn't really work currently, as we can write hundreds of gigabytes of data a day if we are doing an HD project.'

Processing power is another key aspect to success in the sector, as animation rendering is the most power-hungry part of the animation production. The more processing power the quicker the animation can be rendered, meaning it is possible for companies to take on a larger number of jobs. To keep costs down, Rendermedia tries to do the majority of its rendering work in-house, using self-built render nodes; it also has some Dell workstations. It works with a small number of staff, but has a medium-sized render farm of six 'meaty' machines. But when it has very intensive projects to work on it then calls on a large 300-core facility in London to help with the rendering.

'Our render nodes have got 24Gb of RAM, and they are running off Intel Core i7 processors. It gives us scalability and we can handle several projects at the same time,' says Miles. 'You can never have enough RAM or processing power at your disposal, but you do reach a point where you have enough equipment and you are comfortable with what you have to be able to plough through the project without any hold-ups.'

Each head of technology has his or her own ideas and solutions with regards to the management of IT, and for many SMEs the focus is making the most out of the technology they have, as they cannot always be using the latest and greatest system specifications.

'We do keep an eye on hardware and technology because you might have six very powerful machines, but in several years' time all that power might be superseded by just three machines. There is a cost involved with that, so we are not always at the cutting edge of processors,' Miles says.

'We're on the coat-tails of lower-cost processing power at the expense of the faster i7s and AMD-type processors that come out each year. What we also find is that the hardware we are using can have a lot more longevity to it than kit we were using four or five years ago,' he says.

'Where you have got dual quad machines, they have got eight processors. If those are hyper-threaded, you've got 16 processors. You would look at an astronomical cost when first released. AMD has a processor out now with 12 cores, which is really expensive. Give it a couple of years and that will crash in price [making] it much more cost effective.'

'We have to make the most of everything we've got; that is absolutely the core of what our IT is,' Marsden continues. 'We don't have any slack. If we need to buy more equipment we will, but we have to make sure that we're exploiting every last bit of it.'

All cores to the render

To make the most of their rendering capabilities, the SME-size animators just turn on all unused machines to add to the processing power, and leave them running overnight. Says Marsden, '[A bigger studio like] Framestore has hundreds and hundreds of processors; we've got about ten. What we can do is add other people's workstations at night to double the capacity of the render farm. It's just being clever, rather than having machines not do anything [outside of regular work hours].'

Hardware plays the biggest factor in keeping the workflow smooth; however software and the animators are also part of the equation. SMEs need to keep the process as lean as possible, so when animators overcomplicate things like the modelling aspect or intricate 3D effects, it creates a bottleneck down the development pipeline.

'When you come to render something that should have taken ten minutes a frame, it takes about 30 minutes,' explains Miles. 'You might have a super machine in your office, but if you do not have artists who know how to use the render engine or light correctly, then all that extra power gets wasted on redundant information. We have enough experience in the process that we don't over complicate shots for the sake of it, as it only creates longer render times.

'I've heard stories of features films like '10,000 BC' taking something crazy like 12 hours to render a frame. I'd love to get away with charging that, but I just couldn't!'

Asset re-use

Another way they keep costs down is by reusing assets, which saves a lot of time. They may need to be enhanced or tweaked, but companies like Rendermedia often have clients asking for updates on work they created a few years earlier. One of HRA's most innovative cost-cutting ideas however, has to be the use of a Microsoft Kinect to provide cheap motion capture.

Focusing on the games industry, Marsden believes that videogame technology could provide some great opportunities for those working throughout the digital animation world. 'Recently we plugged a Microsoft Kinect into our 3D modelling tool Maya for very cheap motion capture,' says Marsden.

'Having looked at it, Kinect as a tool [in this context] is something quite exciting. It's effectively a 3D scanner, and it costs only £100. It has some crossover for us, because its great to have a cheap motion capture system that allows us to test things before we go into a full motion capture studio, which does cost a lot of money. We can have a rough idea of what we want the character to do, or whether it's going to work before we get there, which saves money. There is always something out there like this, which keeps the job interesting.'

Although the majority of software used by SMEs is off-the-shelf packages, companies do develop their own tools in order to create new things or animate quicker. HRA developed its own TV series management pipeline to improve digital storyboarding called Redboard, and this was built in a game engine.

'Our work with Redboard has brought us into contact with other game applications and we have spent a number of years working with a company called Epic Games, trying to develop their Unreal Engine as a foundation for TV series production,' says Marsden.

'The concept of using a game engine to make cinematic sequences is not new, and is often referred to as Machinima. However a lot of the machinima out there is not very good. We wanted to create machinima that had a high production-value and could exploit the potential benefits that a game engine like Unreal Engine 3 could offer. This has proved immensely challenging. Engaging with the games companies, for example. The relationship we had was very good, but it was very much at arm's length. For them, making TV series wasn't something that they were hugely worried about. I think it will change, but for now they're very focused on games,' he says.

The future of animation

What else does the future have in store for digital animation? Stereoscopic 3D is already gaining a strong foothold in the cinema although sales of 3D capable TVs are still low. Even so, the companies E&T spoke to confirmed that clients are coming in and asking about adverts output in 3D. The ones currently on screen are made by the bigger fish in the digital animation pond, however the SMEs are beginning to muse on the idea of investing in the technology needed to provide this service.

'We've been looking around,' says Marsden. 'I sense that if we've got a feature or a series, we'd probably have to think about 3D output, but for commercials it hasn't quite happened yet. Obviously things like HD have become more popular, and that affects the sort of equipment that we have. Full HD is four times the resolution of standard definition. At a simple level, everything takes four times as long, four times as much space.

'With 3D, you're looking at having dual pipelines. 3D pipeline management is challenging. People are still making it up as they go along. There are 3D pipelines out there, but nothing actually has been fully defined.'

The SMEs may not have the fastest processors or the largest render farms, but it's clear they're one of the most innovative groups in the sector, finding new ways to make the most of the technology available to them. With companies like HRA looking into the opportunities different sectors can provide, we look forward to discovering the role SMEs will play in moulding the future of the digital animation sector. *

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