Linux in the Chain
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 3 (March 2004)

Linux in the Chain

A few years ago, studios creating digital content for film and broadcast began adding Linux-based hardware and software to their production pipelines. An early, high-profile example was DreamWorks SKG, which used Linux-based applications in its feature-film pipleline for the first time back in 2001 on Shrek. At that time, animation studios large and small were either moving to Linux or considering such a move (see "Linux Invades Hollywood," Computer Graphics World, September 2001, pg. 38).

Three years later, the invasion looks more like a gentle assimilation—studios are using Linux to save money and bolster productivity, but, in most cases, they have not thrown away all their Irix and Windows boxes. They may be using Linux-based content-creation software, but not all their software is Linux-based. Linux may be the dominant OS in one part of the production pipeline, but it could scarcely exist in another.

Why hasn't Linux completely taken over the DCC environment? It's free, after all, and it's considered more stable than most commercially available operating systems, for which users pay sizable licensing fees. Moreover, as it is a version of Unix, Linux allows studios to port legacy code created under Unix or Irix (also a version of Unix) much more easily than does Windows.

Actually, many animation professionals would say that Linux is taking over, but not yet, and not everywhere. "The marketplace is finally getting to the point of—I won't say 'full maturity'—but it's far beyond where it was even a couple of years ago," says Patty Fry, global offering executive with IBM's Digital Media Group. Reasons for the slow but steady pace of adoption have as much to do with the marketplace and the nature of production houses as with the OS itself. "Initially," says Fry, "the market was slow to have sufficient graphics drivers to support Linux." Another gating factor was that companies that developed 3D applications weren't developing them for Linux.

Then there is the complexity of the operating system itself. A GUI shell for basic commands exists, but the main interface is the command line, which can be daunting to users accustomed to the point-and-click world of Windows. And because Linux is developed and supported on an ad-hoc basis, studios can't rely on one large company (such as Microsoft) to get their questions answered. "If things don't work out the way you've planned," says Rob Hale, senior software developer for Mainframe Entertainment, "you have to be prepared to go through the open-source community to get help rather than placing a support call to your supplier."

For these reasons, Linux is currently fulfilling different roles in the pipeline depending on who's using it, where, and why. If you're a Maya house, for example, you might be using Alias Systems' Linux-based Maya to create content. Alias began porting its Maya product line to Linux four years ago, while Softimage began offering a Linux-based version of its content creation software in 2001. If you've always used Discreet's 3ds max, which, as a Windows-based application, hasn't been ported to Linux, you won't be making that move now. Many studios are using Linux-based rendering servers, and it is here, in fact, that Linux first made its mark in the animation world, when the producers of Titanic used a Linux-based renderfarm in 1997. Here's a look at how some studios are using Linux today, and what their principals have discovered about its pros and cons.
Barbie of Swan Lake is one of the first Barbie animations to be created by Mainframe Entertainment using the Linux OS.

An example of a studio that has incorporated Linux on a wide scale is Mainframe Entertainment of Vancouver, British Columbia. Mainframe used a Linux/Irix renderfarm to produce the Barbie as Rapunzel video film for Mattel in 2002, and subsequently developed an entire Linux-based Softimage|XSI pipeline to create the Halloween TV special Scary Godmother this past fall (see "Witches Brew," Computer Graphics World, October 2003, pg. 30).

Mainframe began the move to Linux two years ago. Says Hale, "Our renderfarm was Irix-based SGI Onyx, Challenge, Octane, etc. Because of the reduced costs of a Linux box, it was apparent that a Linux renderfarm could be built much more cheaply. At roughly the same time, we did a study to determine the cost of converting our proprietary software to another platform. Because our software was initially developed on a Unix operating system, the cost and time of converting to Windows was prohibitive, as opposed to converting to Linux." Hale notes that Mainframe has used a phase-in process for the conversion. At the start, approximately 10 percent of its machines were switched to Linux. That percentage has increased substantially, he says, and the studio's conversion process is still very active.

As far as Linux goes, the pros have outweighed the cons at Mainframe. "Linux has lived up to its promise as a much cheaper and faster graphics processing platform," says Hale. "Animators and modelers are more productive, and they spend less time waiting for scenes to render." Besides the aforementioned lack of formal support, lack of availability of Linux applications also has been a sticking point, according to Dave Fracchia, Mainframe's vice president of technology. Furthermore, he says, "many vendors that do support Linux provide features and updates to their software in a Windows-first, Linux-next fashion, so there is a lag in new features between the platforms."
According to Alias Systems, the Linux version of its Maya software is used by a small but influential portion of the overall Maya user base.

Linux is entrenched in a different way at Blur animation studio in Venice, California. "We never had proprietary Irix," says Blur principal Duane Powell. Because Blur's desktop systems are Windows 2000-based, and because the studio uses Discreet's 3ds max as its main content creation tool, there has been no great impetus to switch to Linux thus far.

The back end of the pipeline is another story, however. "In 2000, there was something wrong with our server," says Powell, "It turned out to be the Code Red Virus." Frustrated with the vulnerability of its Windows-based servers, the company principals switched to Linux, a move Powell says they have not regretted. "It stays up; it doesn't quit."

"What Linux has done," Powell says, "is totally liberate the back end of the business. Everything in the back room—servers, Web, e-mail—depends on Linux." What does not depend on Linux at Blur is any of the animation processes, including rendering. But that will change, according to Powell, as additional products become available.

As for moving the back end to Linux, "it was a great decision," Powell says. "A lot of people are afraid of the command line, but it's not difficult to do anymore."

The path to Linux doubles forward and backward at Riot in Santa Monica, California. But the studio could be a poster child for the state of Linux in animation. The company had already converted many of its render machines to Linux, so that the farm was about half Linux and half Windows boxes, according to visual effects supervisor Ken Nakada. But then it had to convert back to Windows because of one piece of incompatible software. The studio was all set to use Softimage|XSI and Maya under Linux, but it turned out that the XSI batchserve—a vital component—didn't run in Linux at that time. So it returned to its former setup.

None of this seems to have discouraged the studio. Nakada says Riot is wholeheartedly behind Linux. "We recommend it," he says. "We're looking to go full-tilt Linux."
Riot used a Linux version of Apple's Shake compositing program for the opening sequence of the movie Peter Pan.

The company has already used Apple's Shake running on Linux, he notes, to help produce projects like the opening sequence for the film Peter Pan.

Each of the three studios mentioned here is using Linux in different ways, and to different degrees. But what each has in common is the plan to move forward with the free and flexible operating system, especially as software vendors make more of their products available for it.

Partly, the studios are following the lead of the high-profile houses, such as DreamWorks, that already are using Linux. Hardware vendors are reluctant to name names, but clearly the big production houses are the bellwethers. "The folks running on Linux may have 300, 400, or 500 programmers," says Jeff Wood, director of product marketing for personal workstations at Hewlett-Packard, which helped lead the way in working with studios transitioning to Linux. The typical Linux customer for Maya, according to Jill Ramsay, senior Maya product manager for Alias Systems, is a large film production studio or effects facility. "Fewer than 10 percent of Maya seats [including Windows, Irix, and OS X] are on this platform," says Ramsay. "But the importance of these Maya seats goes far beyond a mathematical percentage." Avid/ Softimage wouldn't disclose what percentage of XSI seats are Linux-based, but "it has become a sound strategic point to support Linux," says XSI product manager Jason Brynford-Jones.
Softimage|XSI for Linux is in use at medium- to large-size effects houses, according to Avid/Softimage.

Smaller studios aren't just playing copycat, however. The real motivations for moving to Linux are money and productivity. "Linux really does lend itself to higher production with lower resource requirements,".according to IBM's Fry. "In fact, the heads of one of the major studios we work with have told us that their total cost of ownership reduction was in the 20 to 25 percent range. Also, it enabled them to hit animation milestones, within their budgets, while actually reducing their support requirements by about 40 to 50 percent and enabling them to increase their animators by the same amount.
Apple's Shake 3 compositing program runs on Linux and is optimized for the company's 64-bit G5 processor.

"The bottom line," says Fry, "is that Linux makes it possible for studios to make better animated features or special effects."

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor toComputer Graphics World.

Alias Systems