Immersed Movies: DreamWorks Demos New Apollo Platform

DreamWorks Animation unveiled its new Apollo software platform with How to Train Your Dragon 2, and I got an in-depth presentation last month at the Redwood City campus. Taking advantage of Intel’s multi-core technology and its own hybrid cloud computing resources, DreamWorks has come up with a next-gen platform for visual computing from data center to chip set. Harnessing more power out of the CPU, it is intuitive, interactive, fully scalable, and makes computing a powerful animation and enterprise tool.

Apollo consists of Premo for animation (artists can pose on tablets and get instant playback of high-res models) and Torch for lighting (it’s really a services architecture that not only delivers more complex imagery but also gets data quickly through the pipe).

As character animation head Jason Schleifer (Mr. Peabody & Sherman) demonstrated, Premo is a lot more artist-friendly than the previous Emo software, which was laborious and full of data entry steps. Premo allows you to edit frame by frame at full resolution and computing power. You can interact directly with the CG characters and manipulate skin and muscle in real-time. Even I got to play with poses in just a few quick steps.

Meanwhile, Torch is used to design the look of a project and all of the data is handled by lighting supervisor Stephen Bailey. For instance, an animated feature has half a billion digital files containing information for such attributes as geometry, color, and texture. So it’s a massive data set that is under continuous revision. The Torch Project browser manages shots and other sub projects with the remaining assets.

“This is very critical from a business point of view in terms of implementing the idea of any artist, any project, at any time,” explains CTO Lincoln Wallen. “So Stephen is sitting here essentially computing on the entire enterprise and has access to the full distributed data center, the internal hybrid clouds that are partly owned and partly leased. He manages the complexity of how an image is put together.

“We knew that we had to put these two things together [cloud computing and multi-core] in a seamless way and architect a platform that allowed us to move data load and compute load across the two. So that’s where the partnership with Intel was critical in getting the best out of the software because now we’re able to measure, schedule, and allocate resources at that level. The impact of that on the artist is that we were able to go into the design processes and take off all the constraints.”

The results are clearly evident on How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is DreamWorks’ most ambitious and aesthetically beautiful feature in its 20-year history. “The boldness of camera, the subtle emotion, the ability to explore were [evident on the animation side], while on the enterprise side they were able to sit back and move resources around, apply compute at exactly the place where it matters most.”

For Dragon 2 director Dean DeBlois, Apollo was a godsend. “It’s remarkable now because given enough time and given enough of a budget to really make use of that time there isn’t an image that we can’t create any more. Shots like Drago’s army of thousands of soldiers on a beach is not something we would’ve attempted before because the system would bog down with more than one character.”

“And obviously the combination of [artistry and enterprise] will lead to better movies, done more efficiently with more flexibility and more agility, and, ultimately, lower cost,” Wallen concludes.

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