How a Small Studio Pulled Off a Major 3-D Film Using Energy-Saving Technology

Despicable Me

3-D animation has traditionally been dominated by mammoth Hollywood studios, and for good reason—the amount of processing power that goes into 3-D animation usually requires dedicated server farms that are air-conditioned 24 hours a day. Illumination Entertainment, the production company behind the just-released feature Despicable Me, decided to try something new—instead of using air-conditioned server farms to render images, the company asked IBM to built a customized server farm using the iDataPlex system, a processing system that cuts down on energy use by 40% compared to traditional server farms.

The iDataPlex has two key advantages: a flexible configuration that doubles the amount of systems that can run in a single IBM rack and the ability to run an ambient temperature room (no costly air-conditioning required). The system has been on the market for over a year, but Illumination is the first studio to use it for animated film.

This doesn't mean that any scrappy studio with a dream can now produce a high-end 3-D animated film. Illumination used a 330-person team of artists, producers, and support staff to produce 142 terabytes of data. And the rendering farm, which processed up to 500,000 frames per week, was built in conjunction with Mac Guff Ligne, a French digital production studio.

But the iDataPlex gives Illumination a leg up in the graphics rendering process. Illumination Entertainment's server farm, for example, is the size of four parking spots. That's half the amount of space the company initially allotted to the farm. "Oftentimes a small studio like Illumination really wants to put their energy behind creating as compelling of content as possible," explains Steve Canepa, Vice President, Media & Entertainment Industry at IBM. "By minimizing the technological issues associated with building and managing the [rendering] environment, we allow studios to reduce the amount of time, energy, and resources necessary to create an underlying technological platform."

It's a compelling idea for studios—even major ones—that want to cut costs and look environmentally conscious at the same time. IBM is already working with a number of other studios to implement similar solutions. Canepa concedes that studios could build similar systems by purchasing off-the-shelf racks and processors, but the iDataPlex's unique configuration of servers packs a lot of processing power into a small space—and that's not easy to replicate. Don't expect these rigs to be appearing in suburban garages anytime soon.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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