Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole
COW Library : Cinematography : Alex Timbs : Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole
Editor's Note: "Happy Feet" was Australia's first digital animated feature, and won the 2006 Academy Award(R) for Best Animated Feature. At the helm of production and visual effects? Melbourne's Animal Logic. Founded in 1991, they have been part of some of the most groundbreaking, visually rich pictures and television of our time, including "The Matrix," "Babe," "Farscape," "Moulin Rouge!" "The Thin Red Line," "House of Flying Daggers," and many more.
Just a few months after "Happy Feet" was released came another film that Animal Logic worked on, the stunning "300," directed by Zack Snyder, whose work also includes "Watchmen." On one level, it might have seemed odd for someone whose last couple of features were rated R for graphic violence, sex and language to take on a movie based on a popular series of children's books, "The Guardians of Ga'hoole." On closer examination, it was a remarkable fit: stories of an alliance to protect a kingdom, a group of "Pure Ones" whose leader wears a mask to conceal his battle scars, kidnapping, slavery, and the rise to honor in the midst of exceptionally bloody battles.
Oh yeah, and the Guardians of Ga'Hoole are owls. Now you know at least some of attracted Zack Snyder to what turns out to be not exactly a children's movie, and some of why he naturally turned to Animal Logic again, this time to make an all-CGI feature with the intensity and visual impact he required, released as "Legends of the Guardian: The Owls of Ga'hoole."
When we had a chance to speak with Alex Timbs, Animal Logic's head of IT, we suspected that Zack had very strong feelings about how to execute a vision that was certainly rooted in the books, but every bit as certainly, a world with Zack's stamp on it. Because a project of this scale typically takes three years from start to finish, we also suspected that Zack began working with Animal Logic very early on. Here's some of what Alex told us about the project, starting, it turns out, before the beginning.
At Animal Logic, we come in very early in the process, even before a project gets greenlit, at the point the project is being quoted. We start by determining the cost to deliver a single seat -- the facilities to support that artist, the food, environmental control, desks, telephones, etc. There were about 400 people working at the peak of production for "Legends of the Guardian," with nearly a third of those people hired specifically for this project.
As things get greenlit, we begin working with productions to come up with very rough render and storage estimates, to at least get a stake in the ground. We then review what sort of infrastructure we have available at the time, a) whether you've got the capacity, b) whether you've got the processing power, and based on whatever you already have available, what you're going to need to add. Even whether you've got the right models or brands of products to address that specific production.
It turns out that there is significant infrastructure churn to keep running at the capacity and performance required to get the images out the door. Over the course of a three-year production, you're refreshing your entire render farm, or a large portion of it, and potentially replacing your entire storage after each project as you ramp up for the next one. Each project almost carries its own storage and render budget.
You know the old rule about doubling processing power every 18 months? We're going through a period where we've seen big improvements in individual machine processing power, much MORE than double every 18 months. Because of multi-core technology, and being able to pack more, faster cores in a given box, processing power is going up exponentially. Of course, we're seeing production requirements go up exponentially too, especially on "Legends of the Guardian." Even from very early on in the piece, we could see that we were going to have to advance technology trying to meet the demands of the graphics in some of these Zack Snyder signature pieces -- not only in effects rendering, but also just for editorial.
Director Zack Snyder, (photo by Simon Cardwell).
For example, he has these amazing speed-ups, where he might speed up the action 1000 times, or slow down 1000 times, while he's wrapping the camera around a character. That was putting unreasonable demands on the disk system that we had in place at that time -- which was reasonably new. We bought it for this production, a SAN designed to support up to 10 editorial seats at once, but we found that a single editor could cripple the entire network because of the enormous demands being placed on it. We used a combination of workflow changes and configuration optimization to the SAN for this particular problem. Things like, "Okay, if the director wants to see this shot a thousand times bigger, you guys are going to have to render it first before we can look at it," because they were trying to look at it immediately, and you can imagine what this did to the disk system. Rendering was constant of course, just about any codec you can think of, just about any resolution. We somewhat jokingly call ourselves the world's largest proxy farm! We generated 30 or 40 different codecs in many different sizes, depending on the part of the workflow we're talking about. In editorial, we were mostly working in 720p, but sizes might be as small as 320 for proxies in the asset management system, all the way up to 2K uncompressed DPX files.
The goal was to optimize data so that we weren't sending huge uncompressed data where it was not needed.
(L-R) Kludd, voiced by Ryan Kwanten and Nyra, voiced by Helen Mirren.