ROUND ROCK, TEXAS — It’s not easy to develop, produce, and deliver an animated feature film, but Reel FX did just that, completing its first such achievement thanks to technical assistance from Dell.
The movie, "Free Birds," is an animated feature about two turkeys who travel back in time to try to take themselves off the Thanksgiving menu. In theaters now, the film is directed by Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!) and features the voices of top comedy stars, including Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Amy Poehler.
The film's release marks the introduction of Reel FX Animation Studios brand to consumers, as it is the studio's first home-grown movie after 20 years of creating animated content, including films, commercials and interactive projects, for Fortune 500 businesses and nearly every major entertainment company. Developing a feature-length film was a colossal undertaking for Reel FX and the studio relied on a complete Dell solution comprised of Dell Precision workstations, Dell Latitude laptops, Dell PowerEdge servers, Dell Networking, Dell Storage, and Dell UltraSharp monitors to meet the intensive demands of the project under a condensed timeline. For Reel FX, Free Birds is a testament to the fact that "with incredible machines in the hands of brilliant, creative artists, anything is possible," said Chuck Peil, the vice president of business development at the studio.
Reel FX was nearly halfway through production with a target release date of late 2014 when a significant film vacated its November 2013 target release timeframe. Reel FX decided to push up the timeline for Free Birds by an entire year to take advantage of this prime pre-Thanksgiving opportunity. The new timeline meant turning more frames in a shorter amount of time and having the processing power to move the film's incredibly complex scenes through the production pipeline quickly and reliably was critical to success.
"In a typical animated film, as you near the end of production you're producing 35-40, maybe 50 shots a week," said Kyle Clark, chief operating officer at Reel FX. "In Free Birds, because the schedule was compressed, we were doing upwards of 200 shots a week. So the technology had to be on point and very consistent. Any downtime minutes were critical at that point."
With so many shots to render in a relatively short period of time, Reel FX needed more horsepower so it turned to Dell to help it scale its render farm quickly and without any downtime. Reel FX increased processing power to 12 cores per machine and moved from 24GB to 48GB systems with an upgrade to Dell PowerEdge C6220 rack servers, allowing them to reduce render time per frame by 30 percent.
"Dell provided the processing power we needed for our artist workstations, production laptops and render servers, in order for us to successfully produce and render our feature film," said Ross Moshell, Director of Business Technology for Reel FX. "Dell's outstanding reliability meant we were able to scale our render farm in the middle of production, and have powerful machines delivered to our door, right on time for us to hit our critical milestones."
Free Birds contains a large amount of feathered turkeys, dense forest scenes, and many complex effects - all elements that require a lot of processing power to generate and as many iterations as possible in order to define and refine the look of the finished frames. To meet these high demands, artists and animators at Reel FX used Dell Precision T5600 workstations, which offer the high-end graphics and power they need to run compute-intensive professional applications including Side Effects Houdini, The Foundry Nuke Autodesk Maya and a home-grown plug-in for Maya to create the characters' feathers.
To manage its dynamic software environment in a limited amount of time and with a limited amount of man hours, Reel FX used the Dell KACE K1000 Systems Management Appliance.
"Our Dell Precision workstations have enabled us to create and animate 97 characters with a team of six people, which is practically unheard of in a larger studio. So, we've obviously got some performance muscle behind us," said Monika Sawyer, fur, feather and hair supervisor on Free Birds at Reel FX. "We're very happy with our Dell Precision workstations. They're very stable, fast, powerhouses that enable the artists to process the data and open scenes quickly, move assets around and make as many iterations of the shot as possible."
High-speed networking is also important for Reel FX artists to have quick access to the data they need, allowing them extra time for more iterations. Last year Reel FX switched from its previous vendor entirely to Dell Networking for the low latency, high speeds and full breadth of product range. With Dell Networking S55 and S4810 high-performance switches, Reel FX was able to increase network throughput, taking the studio from a 10Gb backbone to a 20Gb backbone.
"We've been partners with Dell for a very long time. They've provided great customer service and are always there when we get into a bind at the end of production. There's someone we can call, they respond in a timely manner, and we feel like they understand our business," said Ross Moshell, director of business technology for Reel FX. "And then of course from the pure technology perspective, we benchmark our machines, processors and infrastructure on a very regular basis and Dell continues to win in those benchmarks."
"We are excited to partner with Texas-based Reel FX to provide the technology used to develop their first feature film Free Birds," said Andy Rhodes, executive director, Dell Precision Workstations. "The film industry is a very dynamic and competitive business, so our mission is to make sure our film customers have the most powerful and reliable technology in place to move through the production pipeline on time and without interruption so they can focus on exploring new story ideas and creating new looks."