Ever since the release in 1995 of Pixar’s Toy Story, the first completely computer animated film, there has been an arms race to bring ever more vivid animations to the silver screen–culminating this year in a series of 3-D movies, including Avatar, Toy Story 3, and opening tomorrow, Despicable Me. Each escalation of visual richness puts huge new demands on the computers that are used to create and render the images into a full-length film.
In recent years, movie studios have used huge server farms to provide the data-crunching power required for rendering the imagery, but a series of breakthroughs by IBM is bringing down the cost and energy requirements. For Illumination Entertainment, the three-year-old developer and producer of Despicable Me, IBM technologists assembled a single, refrigerator-size computer–think of it as a rendering farm in a box. They packed 6,500 processor cores into the server, a density never before achieved with Intel’s x86 processors.
Normally, putting that many processors into such a small space could have resulted in a literal meltdown of the equipment. Engineers sidestepped that issue by using IBM’s Rear Door Heat eXchanger, a water-cooled door that allows the system to run without external air conditioning. “In the past, you could only pack so many servers in a rack. Not only does this device not require air conditioning, it actually sucks heat out of the room,” says Steve Canepa, general manager, IBM Media & Entertainment industry.
The energy savings are substantial. According to our calculations, it takes about 4,000 kilowatt hours of electricity to render a typical 3-D animated film. This approach slices 40% off the energy requirement.
Another plus: This more affordable approach to computing helps feisty upstarts like Illumination Entertainment compete with Hollywood’s giants.