Woody the cowboy and space ranger Buzz Lightyear are back, and are not just for the kids.
The Toy Story sequel, originally earmarked for a 'straight to video' release, has already proved irresistible to its US box office audiences. Three days into its domestic release in November last year, it grossed $57.4 million. Seven weeks later it had reached over $220 million - so it's set to stride well out in front of its predecessors, Toy Story and A Bug's Life, in the global film-going stakes.
Pixar is the animation studio behind the success of both Toy Story movies and A Bug's Life. Unsurprisingly, all three movies reside in the six top domestic (US) grossing animated films of all time. And Toy Story 2 is already in second place on the list (first place is held by Disney's The Lion King).
So, it proves Pixar knows how to spin a good yarn. But the company's foothold in the industry also comes from its use of technology. In the space of just five years it has established itself as a leading force in computer animation, edging it close to the biggest animator of them all, Disney.
Disney and Pixar: a co-production
But there is no opposition here: in fact, the companies are working together. Pixar's CEO and Apple Computer co-founder, Steve Jobs, signed a ten year, five-picture co-production deal with Disney in 1997, following the success of Toy Story in 1995, which was, incidentally, released through Disney.
Pixar had also worked with Disney back in 1986, in a deal to develop the Computer Animated Production System, which digitally colours hand-drawn animation. It was the same year Jobs acquired the company, then part of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic division, from filmmaker George Lucas for $10 million.
Jobs named it Pixar after its first product, the Pixar Image Computer, a 3D graphics system. The rest, as they say, is history, and the company is now worth in the region of a cool $2 billion.
A novel use of technology
The skill of Pixar is its novel use of technology. Toy Story took the animation world by storm, not only because it was the first all-computer-animated feature film, but because of how literally it brought its stories to life.
It created lifelike dolls that didn't exhibit the stiff, robotic movements typically associated with them. As characters they are realistic puppets, but with the ability to move like cartoon characters.
With computers, Pixar can do what was once impossible in animation. It can get clothes to hang on its animated characters as they would on a real person, and it can create lifelike fur on animals. And such a result doesn't come cheap. Jobs is believed to spend over $5 million a year on computer R&D.
As Geoff Steadman, SGI's marketing director of the workstation division, testifies: "It's all one big special effect. The level of realism in the characters is amazing - especially the human characters. "Apparently, modelling human hair is very difficult, but they have done it, and to great effect. The shading that has been achieved too, is incredible. One character in the film has razor stubble, and believe me, it doesn't look fake."
Creating Toy Story 2
No less than 300 SGI Octane workstations and 120 Sun Enterprise 4500 servers, along with a 4.5 Terabyte Sun StorEdge Array and a Cisco Fast EtherChannel network - a gigabit Ethernet switched network - powers Toy Story 2.
The SGI Octanes have a range in speed from 175MHz to 300MHz, and between 512Mb and 2Gb of memory each. They are the high-end of the SGI desktop product line and are built to handle big data sets for 3D design, simulation, scientific modelling, real-time simulators and digital prototyping.
In the animation process they are used to test rendering, as the results can be seen faster, but they are mainly used to create the 3D computer models that are stored on a central server. This is done virtually exclusively on the Octanes.
The models are then worked on by the animators. At this stage, the animators mark out how they want the frame to look - essentially, how the characters' hands and eyes are to move.
The 3D effect in each frame is created by the software Pixar uses. Some of the software is commercially available, but much of it is Pixar's proprietary programs - Marionette, Renderman and Ringmaster. (Pixar sells Renderman to visual effects companies. It was the software that was used to create some of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the battle droids in Star Wars Special Edition.)
To complete the finishing touches to each frame of the film, shading, lighting, texture and simulation of depth and motion are added. Animated sequences are run through what Pixar refers to as its 'render farm' - namely, a room crammed with the Sun Enterprise 4500 servers.
Each server is powered by the Solaris operating environment and configured with 14 Ultrasparc II processors. These deliver an aggregate total of 1680 processors, and collectively can deliver 8 terabytes of power. That's roughly equivalent to the power of 2200 of Steve Jobs' iMacs. Once the rendering is complete, all the frames are strung back together to form a film.
Each processor can work on one frame of film at a time, which improves rendering time and easier network manageability. It also means it can produce a richer, more complex film in a shorter length of time. Toy Story 2 has roughly 130,000 frames and it took an average of three hours for a server to finish each frame.
On the networking front, Pixar has 100Mb going to its desktops, 100Mb switched, and all of its servers have 100Mb too. In addition, as Greg Brandeau, Pixar's director of information systems, explains, the concentrators are hooked together into a collapsed backbone with a gigabit pipe. Major servers plug into that.
"Toy Story 2 is Pixar's most demanding film yet in terms of the rendering required. Pixar used 22 times more computing power on Toy Story 2 than it did on the original film," he says.
"In between major productions, when one film completes and one is just beginning to ramp up to full production, we have time to replace equipment that's too old or that didn't work on the last film. After Toy Story finished, we looked at the network and it was just a pain in the neck, because it was too slow."
The hardware demands of film-making
So, for the making of A Bug's Life, Pixar found it had to beef up its system. "The goal was to make a more visually rich film," says Brandeau.
"We originally said we'll use five or six times more computer power, so we did some test frames to assess how much more power we would need and initially came up with six times more. Then we realised after further work that we really needed 12 to 14 times the power we had used on Toy Story, so we had to buy more computers."
And it seems that the system used to make Toy Story 2 is already outmoded. Pixar, now working on its next movie, Monsters Inc, due out in mid-2001, has admitted it will need the system to be ramped up further.
Brandeau explains: "We don't think our current workstations are fast enough. If you are going to speed up what's at the desktop, you're going to have an imbalance of what's at the render farm, so we are looking at the whole system going up a notch. "We think we are going to probably double the size of our render farm, relative to that used for Toy Story 2. Which means - and here's just a crazy number - that Monsters Inc will take 50 times more computing power than Toy Story used."
The apparent thirst Pixar has for more computing power does not mean the company is working towards simply making films more quickly or that technology rules overall. As Brandeau points out, if you go back 15 years, it took Pixar an average of one to four hours to compute a frame, and this has remained constant over the years, despite the improvements to its computing and networking systems. The extra computing power effectively goes into making the film visually richer - providing those lifelike images.
"Technology is not what Pixar is about," stresses Brandeau, who modestly states that he simply provides the digital pens and pencils for everybody at Pixar to work with. He adds: "We are an entertainment studio and so everything we do is focused on a story. It's the story that's important to us."
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