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Breaking the Hug Quota: DreamWorks, Dragons, HP, and the next creative revolution

COW Library : Cinematography : Tim Wilson : Breaking the Hug Quota: DreamWorks, Dragons, HP, and the next creative revolution
CreativeCOW presents Breaking the Hug Quota: DreamWorks, Dragons, HP, and the next creative revolution -- Cinematography Editorial
Palm Springs California USA All rights reserved.

The next step in the creative revolution? "Scalable multi-core processing."

Then he laughed. "If you had told me I'd ever be in front of a room saying that, I wouldn't have believed you! But it's true!"

The speaker was Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, as he introduced "How to Train Your Dragon" at the DreamWorks campus in Glendale, CA, near Los Angeles. We were there as the guests of HP, the culmination of three days of seeing the latest wonders from HP's Workstation division. (More about this, below.)

Before founding DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, he ran the motion picture divisions of Walt Disney Studios, where he reversed the sad decline of Disney animated features with a string of hits that began with "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and included some of Disney's greatest successes: "Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King."

Among his hits at DreamWorks: the "Shrek" movies, "Monsters vs. Aliens," and "Kung Fu Panda," to name a few. The man knows his creative processes, and talked a bit about the ones behind "How to Train Your Dragon."

Photo courtesy of Angela George,under the Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike license

He began by observing that even the most advanced technical leaps in filmmaking begin with drawings and paint done in traditional media, with pencils and paintbrushes. When it comes to computer animation, though, "artists are still painting blind, only predicting what something is going to look like. They're experienced, and they're pretty good at guessing, but they might get it 70% right." This is after months, even years, of previsualization and testing. From there, of course, they refine both modeling and animation through many additional iterations.

Concept art for 'How to Train Your Dragon,' courtesy of DreamWorks Animation. Click image for larger.

"We believe that in 18 months or so, they will be able to do it in real time. This will change the model in which we work, and it will affect every business - not just ours. You can see how transformative Linux on the desktop has been - this will be far bigger. It will change every aspect of the process, and therefore, the product. 'Better, cheaper, faster, choose two?' For the first time, we will have all three."

If this sounds ambitious, it is. DreamWorks Animation is very much swinging for the fences. They were the first studio to announce that every one of its features would be in 3D, which began with "Monsters vs. Aliens." Their operation has now become the largest animation studio on the planet, says Katzenberg. "We will release three animated features in 2010 - 'How to Train Your Dragon,' 'Shrek 4' and 'Megamind' - when no company has ever done two. These are five-year bets, typically among the most expensive movies made each year."

Katzenberg adds that DreamWorks is roughly halfway through a three and a half year process of converting all of their tools to take advantage of multi-core processing - their biggest technology investment ever. This includes rewriting their primary animation environment, Emo, which is developed in-house. He notes that "Emo" is short for "emotion," which remains for him and DreamWorks the point of all this technology. While it is easy to focus on the most sweeping, epic passages in "How to Train Your Dragon" - flying through the air on a dragon's back, a climactic battle with hundreds of dragons -- Katzenberg says, "It's in the smallest, most intimate moments that 3D has its biggest impact."

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON Watching the movie bears this out.

Certainly there are some startling advances in modeling, especially with hair and fur. For Vikings, this is a really big deal, as hairy characters in fur are very much in abundance. It is also startling to see how far the animation of that hair has come - I really haven't seen anything like it. To say that it's "natural" is an understatement. Katzenberg says "It's not animated hair - it's HAIR," and I have to agree.

(Right to left) Sailing to Dragon Island in hopes of ending their centuries'-long feud with the beasts once and for all, Chief Stoick the Vast (GERARD BUTLER) and blacksmith and Dragon Training drill sergeant Gobber (CRAIG FERGUSON) prepare for the worst in DreamWorks Animation's 'How To Train Your Dragon' ™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. Click image for larger.

There are other delights in the details. Each of the several kinds of dragons in the movie breathe their own very distinctive kind of fire. There are deep textures, especially on hammered metal. The richness of the lighting reveals itself especially in dim interiors - perfectly balanced in ways that previous animated features have barely attempted, and certainly never achieved.

(Many of these new looks were achieved through the work DreamWorks Animation did with cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. You've definitely seen his work.)

And yes, the flights through the clouds are breathtaking. I'm not surprised that many reviewers have called this the movie's most stunning achievement.

Astrid (AMERICA FERRERA) and Hiccup (JAY BARUCHEL) soar through the sky on the wings of Toothless --in DreamWorks Animation's 'How To Train Your Dragon' ™ & © 2010 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. Click image for larger.

There is also a truly epic sweep to the film as a whole -- for example, over 2500 dragons in one shot, over 800 Vikings in another.

This is all the nerdy part, of course. What about the story? There are two of them, actually. One of them is around the tangle of issues around a boy finding his way through the expectations of his father and his community, to embrace who he really is - as well as the father's journey to also set aside his expectations to embrace the boy as well.

The centerpiece of the movie for me is a long sequence where our hero, Hiccup, forms a relationship with a dragon he names Toothless, that he had (mostly inadvertently) wounded. Their tentative steps are very nearly heartbreaking. It peaks as Hiccup closes his eyes and extends his hand, and Toothless leans into it in a truly intimate way. You can see it in the poster frame for the trailer below -- and by all means, play the trailer -- but it still doesn't prepare you for the impact of this scene in 3D. Not even close.

(I asked afterward, and I wasn't alone. Pretty much everybody in the audience choked up here.)

There are a few comic bits shared, uhm, let's call them "meals," but Hiccup's first move after building trust is to use his blacksmith skills to build a prosthesis to repair the damage he made to Toothless's tail that was preventing the dragon from flying. Again, these were very intimate scenes, lots of close-ups, lots of touching. Both technically and artistically, this is new stuff.

Everything else in the story follows from that. The boy's realization that the dragon has its own fears, and that it is capable of forming relationships. As the story unfolds, he even learns that the attacks on the village by all the dragons are driven by an incredibly massive dragon that holds them all in its sway - they are paying the price every bit as much as the villagers are.

The third act is familiar enough - Dad freaks out when he finds that the boy isn't trying to kill the dragon, he leads the Viking warriors to destroy all the dragons, giant battle ensues, etc. The battle's finale and it's outcome, though, provide the emotional twist that truly pays off the battle, the relationship between the boy and his dragon, the boy and his father, and everything else. It lends the proceedings a weight I've rarely seen in an animated feature before.

If anything, I could have used more of the old school "things jumping out of the screen" aspect of 3D. I was nevertheless impressed by the subtleties of the 3D, and above all, its service to the most emotional aspects of the storytelling.

THE ART OF TECHNOLOGY There were of course a lot of smart people working with a lot of powerful machines to pull it all off. DreamWorks Animation CTO Ed Leonard points out that previz and modeling started five years ago, with modeling and texturing taking most of a year and a half. Much of that involved thinking really, really hard. "We spent a lot of time developing fur," he says, "but our next question was, 'How does the fur react with the rest of the clothing? Or when you get it wet? How does the water react, or make the fur BEND?'

That's the greatest challenge with hair and fur, he says. Yes, you have to make it look realistic, you have to make it move realistically on its own - but you have to make the interactions look right, too. Imagine an arm around the shoulder of someone wearing a fur vest - the individual hairs bend in a very specific way.

Even worse, he says, imagine furry animals hugging each other, as they did in DreamWorks Animation's "Madagascar" pictures. The hair on one animal's arms AND the hair on the other animal's back had to both react, and react differently to account for their different textures. The process was all so complicated, and so expensive, that Leonard enforced a "hug quota:" no more than two per sequence.

'Madagascar 2: Escape to Africa' ™ & © 2008 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.

These are the kinds of limitations that he and DreamWorks Animation hope to overcome in very short order. They're certainly not making it easy on themselves. While Shrek has 500 curves in Emo's animation editor, there are as many 4800 for the two-headed dragons. Even with huge leaps in processing power, compare five million render hours for the first "Shrek" to over 55 million render hours for "How to Train Your Dragon." (Also worth noting: the space grew from 5TB on Shrek to over 100TB on Dragon.) The rendering was accomplished on a farm of more than 25,000 computer cores, nearly 10,000 of which were busy all day, every day, for 28 weeks. The render farm was composed of HP Z800 workstations that DreamWorks found to be up to 50 percent faster than the previous generation.

"At DreamWorks Animation, technology and creativity go hand in hand and a large part of my job is to ensure that our filmmakers can dream without boundaries," Ed tells us. "With the help of HP's amazing technological breakthroughs, our artists are able to bring our worlds and characters to life on screen in sequences that are just as detailed and visually rich as they can possibly imagine." For example, an array of HP ProLiant blade servers allowed Roger Deakins to design the lighting and tweak it while watching in full final-frame quality.

For long-distance collaboration, DreamWorks also worked with HP to develop a range of Halo Telepresence Solutions - not just the HD videoconferencing capabilities themselves, but also the Halo Video Exchange Network (HVEN), the only global fiber optic network designed specifically for video collaboration. Among Halo's specific uses was for finessing the distinct fire styles breathed by dragons being designed at multiple facilities. Being able to pull different development teams into a single virtual space dramatically sped the process.

DreamWorks most famously collaborated with HP on the DreamColor monitor, a 10-bit display optimized for RGB file-based workflows, but thanks to advanced calibration tools, ideal for collaboration across facilities. It also played its part in tuning the precise output of the large-format HP Designjet Z6100 printers used for checking development shots.

(Check out Creative COW Contributing Editor Jeremy Garchow's review of the HP DreamColor monitor as a CRT replacement for HD broadcast editing here.)

As the first studio chief to commit to an all-3D slate, it's natural that Jeffrey Katzenberg is asked what comes after 3D. "I love it when people ask that!" he laughs. "Think back to the last major shift in how people watch movies - what was it? Color, and sound about a decade before that. In the 70 years since then, there hasn't really been anything. I've been around 59 years, making movies for 35 of them, and I feel fortunate to be alive to see even ONE of these major shifts. I don't expect to see another in my lifetime."

Not that we're quite through with this one. "I expect that we'll see autostereo for the big screen in the next 8-10 years." He is also excited to see 3D for the home coming to fruition through the partnership between DreamWorks Animation, Samsung and Technicolor. Although he confesses that he doesn't have a 3D set yet, he says that he is especially impressed with Samsung technology that creates 3D imagery from 2D inputs on the fly. "Is it the same thing as 3D-originated material? Of course not. But it's quite remarkable."

He also notes that a 3D DVD of "Monsters vs. Aliens" is currently being bundled with Samsung 3D sets, and that by the end of the year, all four Shrek movies will be.

In the meantime, he says, "The thing that is so interesting about [these new technologies] is that they are more empowering - they help artists think spatially in ways that they haven't before -- but also easier to use. They are going to lower the barrier to entry, rather than raising it." They will help enable new kinds of animation, he says, and more vibrant visualization of imagination than has been possible before.

Starting with scalable multi-core processing. Katzenberg's not kidding.

MORE FROM HP WORKSTATIONS As I mentioned, we were at DreamWorks as the guests of HP. In addition to the technologies above, they introduced the HP Z200 workstation, so small that it comfortably fits inside the chassis of the full-sized Z-series workstations we've been using here at the COW. As you might imagine, it is in its own way a beast: quad-core processor, dual link video, optional 64GB solid state drive, connectivity galore (none of this one monitor interface nonsense) and more, including the standard Z series gleaming "no tools required" interior.

You have to see the computer in person to appreciate how small it is, and you have to see the interior in person to appreciate how gleaming it is. Here's the interior of the Z800 to at least give you an idea.

HP doesn't get nearly enough credit for its industrial design, among the reasons that it's at the top of the workstation market, with over 40% share, and growing fast.

Speaking of which, I will confess that I seriously, seriously covet the new 15" EliteBook 8740w Mobile Workstation with a built-in DreamColor display!!! It is absolutely, entirely insanely gorgeous. And not just the display. The picture below doesn't do the laptop itself any kind of justice.

It's not your typical black plastic. Instead, it's a gorgeous gunmetal blue aluminum, built to military spec. Here's the quote from HP's site:

Enhanced durability and protection
  • Meets tough military standards (MIL-STD 810G) for vibration, dust, humidity, altitude and extreme temperatures
  • Travel confidently with the HP DuraCase with magnesium-alloy structure, hardened steel pin axels and scratch-resistant HP DuraFinish
  • Automatically protect hard-drive data from drops and sudden impact with HP 3D DriveGuard

Here are more details.

Also note: the 8740 also includes 2 USB 3 ports. Do you know USB 3? It's jaw-dropping. The 4.8 GB/sec. speed is enough to comfortably handle 10-bit uncompressed 1920x1080 HD. Seriously. While you wouldn't want to capture that to a laptop hard drive...which alas does NOT spin fast enough to accommodate said 10-bit uncompressed HD....the USB 3 ports are exactly what you need in order to hook up Blackmagic's new Pocket Ultrascope. Here's the details, and here's the purty pitcher.

Yep, pretty much what it looks like. Pocket-sized monitoring with SDI up to 3G/s, through yer USB 3 port, running the Windows version of Blackmagic's Ultrascope software. Why Windows? Because only Windows computers currently support USB 3.

And certainly, for anybody in the market for a pro-grade PC laptop, add USB 3 to DreamColor, gunmetal, droppability, and speed, the EliteBook 8740w Mobile Workstation is a screaming no-brainer.


Re: Breaking the "Hug Quota:" DreamWorks, Dragons, and Creative Revolution
by Tim Wilson
A note: I edited the original version of this to add some juicy HP goodness.
Emotional impact
by Tim Wilson
Thanks for the comment, Scott.

The 3D scenes in Avatar that jumped out at me were things like the briefing room, or one-on-one conversations between "un-avatar'd" people. The 3D seemed natural, and pointed the way to what I believe is cinema's inevitable fate: the movies will be in 3D because the WORLD is in 3D.

What jumped out at me most in Dragon is the strong use of close-ups. They were certainly there in Avatar too, but there, to lend weight to the epic tale. Here, the close-ups are were explicitly to create a sense of intimacy in relationships that WAS the story -- a boy and his dragon, a boy and his father, a community's identity.

As sound and color in cinema ushered in a wave of epics, then gave way to a much wider range of styles, we'll see the same with 3D. Dragons contained steps in that direction.
Great Movie, Great Technology
by Scott Roberts
Great post, Tim! I agree with everything about the story, it went to emotional levels and mature topics that I wasn't expecting it to.

And it was really interesting learning about the technical side of it too. 100 terabytes! 55 million render hours! As an amateur 3D artist in Cinema 4D, that makes my over-the-weekend renders seem like Microsoft Paint doodles...

I'm 100% behind these computer animation movies going 3D, it seems like they can do it right. I never really thought that 3D could add so much emotional depth to things as well, I didn't see it very often in Avatar.

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