The Hair-Raising Potential of Exascale Animation

November 9, 2017

Nov. 9, 2017 — There is no questioning the power of a full head of shiny, buoyant hair. Not in real life, not in commercials, and, it turns out, not in computer-generated (CG) animation. Just as more expensive brands of shampoos provide volume, luster, and flow to a human head of hair, so too does more expensive computational power provide the waggle of a prince’s mane or raise the hackles of an evil yak.

Hair proves to be one of the most complex assets in animation, as each strand is comprised of near-infinite individual particles, affecting the way every other strand behaves. With the 2016 release of their feature TrollsDreamWorks Animation had an entire ensemble of characters with hair as a primary feature. The studio will raise the bar again with the film sequel slated for 2020.

The history of DreamWorks Animation is, in many ways, the history of technical advances in computing over the last three decades. Those milestones are evidenced by that flow of hair—or lack thereof—the ripple in a dragon’s leathery wing, or the texture and number of environments in any given film.

Exascale computing will push the Media and Entertainment industry beyond today’s technical barriers.

As the development and accessibility of high-performance computers explode beyond current limits, so too will the creative possibilities for the future of CG animation ignite.

Jeff Wike, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of DreamWorks Animation, has seen many of the company’s innovations come and go, and fully appreciates both the obstacles and the potential of technological advances on his industry.

“Even today, technology limits what our artists can create,” says Wike. “They always want to up the game, and with the massive amount of technology that we throw at these films, the stakes are enormous.”

Along with his duties as CTO, Wike is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Exascale Computing Project (ECP) Industry Council. The advisory council is comprised of an eclectic group of industry leaders reliant on and looking to the future of high-performance computing, now hurtling toward the exascale frontier.

The ability to perform a billion billion operations per second changes the manufacturing and services landscape for many types of industries and, as Wike will tell you, strip away the creative process and those in the animation industry are manufacturers of digital products.

“This is bigger than any one company or any one industry,” he says. “As a member of the ECP’s Industry Council, we share a common interest and goal with companies representing a diverse group of U.S. industries anxiously anticipating the era of exascale computing.”

Such capability could open a speed-of-light gap between DreamWorks’ current 3D animation and the studio’s origins, 23 years ago, as a 2D animation company producing computer-aided hand-drawn images

Growing CG animation

Wike’s role has certainly evolved since he joined DreamWorks in 1997, with the distinctive job title of technical gunslinger, a position in which he served, he says, as part inventor, part MacGyver, and part tech support.

When Chris deFaria joined DreamWorks Animation as president in March 2017, he instantly identified an untapped opportunity that only could be pursued at a studio where storytellers and technology innovators work in close proximity. He created a collaboration between these two areas in which the artists’ infinite imaginations drive cutting edge technology innovations which, in turn, drive the engineers to imagine even bigger. In essence, a perpetual motion machine of innovation and efficiency.

Under this new reign, Wike distills his broader role into three simple goals: make sure employees have what they need, reduce the cost and production time of films, and continue to innovate in those areas that are transformational.

High-Performance Computing Is Key to Innovation

For DreamWorks—and other large industry players like Disney and Pixar—the transformation of the animated landscape is, and has been, driven by innovations in computer software and hardware.

Much of the CG animation industry was built on the backs of what were, in the late 1990s, fairly high-performance graphics-enabled processors. But computer technology advanced so quickly, DreamWorks was challenged to keep up with the latest and greatest.

“Some of the animators had home computers that were faster than what we had at work,” Wike recalls.

By the time Shrek appeared in 2001, after the early successes of DreamWorks’ first fully CG animated feature, Antz, and Pixar’s Toy Story, it was clear to the fledgling industry, and the movie industry as a whole, that CG animation was the next big wave. Audiences, too, already were expecting higher quality, more complexity and greater diversification with each succeeding film.

To meet mounting expectations, the industry needed a computational overhaul to afford them more power and greater consistency. As the early graphics processors faced more competition, the industry banded together to agree on common requirements, such as commodity hardware, open source libraries, and codes. This developed into an approved list that makes it easier for vendors to support.

Today, DreamWorks’ artists are using high-end dual processor, 32-core workstations with network-attached storage and HPE Gen9 servers utilizing 22,000 cores in the company’s data center. That number is expected to nearly double soon, as the company has now ramped up for production of How to Train Your Dragon 3.

It’s still a long way from exascale. It’s still a long way from petascale, for that matter; compared to current petascale computers that can comprise upwards of 750,000 cores. But the industry continues to push the envelope of what’s possible and what is available. Continuous upgrades in hardware, along with retooling and development of software, create ever-more astounding visuals and further prepare the industry for the next massive leap in computing power.

“I’d be naïve to say that we’re ready for exascale, but we’re certainly mindful of it,” says Wike. “That’s one reason we are so interested in what the ECP is doing.  The interaction with the technology stakeholders from a wide variety of industries is invaluable as we try to understand the full implications and benefits of exascale as an innovation driver for our own industry.”

To read more, follow this link: https://www.exascaleproject.org/hair-raising-potential-exascale-animation/


Source: Exascale Computing Project

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