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Linux in Hollywood

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The First Linux Movies Conference

A Sampler of Linux Movies
Some Motion Picture Studios Using PrimarilyLinux

A Brief History of Open Source and the Movies

ILM developed proprietary facial animation software based oncommercial 3D package SoftImage to make Yoda into a digital actorfor Star Wars: Episode II.

For Star Wars: Episode II, Linux made Yoda a lightsaber-wielding action figure. In Lord of the Rings 2, waves ofOrcs attacking the colossal fortress at Helm’s Deep are not thousandsof human extras, but digital actors created using Linux. To consumers,Linux may rank third after Windows and Macintosh, but Linux dominatesmotion pictures more than anyone but studio insiders may realize. Ithas been used to produce more than 30 blockbuster films, includingLord of the Rings, Star Wars: Episode II, Harry Potter, Shrek,and Titanic.

In short, the big news in Hollywood about Linux is it is no longerbig news. Linux has won not only renderfarm servers, but the artistdesktops of the top studios. It’s hard to find a large studio that doesnot rely upon Linux as its primary animation and special effects OS,and many smaller film studios have adopted Linux, too.

At the software level, studios are using Linux versions of some ofthe leading commercial applications for 3D animation, compositing,special effects, and rendering — Alias Maya, Apple Shake, andPixar RenderMan. Internally, the major studios have ported millions oflines of proprietary code to Linux and are creating their new programsin Linux.

Linux began in 1991 as grad student Linus Torvalds’ personal hobby.How did it become a professional graphics powerhouse in the mostdemanding of CG industries?

Humble Beginnings

Linux got its commercial boost as a platform to serve web pages.During the Internet boom Linux captured a third of the ISP servermarket on its effectiveness powering Apache web servers. What Internetcompanies like about Linux servers is they are fast and cheap. Moviestudio technologists saw the parallel between a rack of Apache serversoutputting web pages and a rack of renderfarm servers outputting movieframes. It begged the question: could Linux make movies faster andcheaper?

Linux got its big Hollywood break in 1997 when Digital Domain (D2)used Linux to render the special effects for Titanic. D2 has nowused Linux for more than two dozen motion pictures, including bestvisual effects Academy Award winners Titanic and What DreamsMay Come.

Before taking the plunge (so to speak) with Titanic, effects studioDigital Domain had proven that Linux could coexist with its existingSGI renderfarm in tests on Dante’s Peak. Being able totransition smoothly from UNIX on SGI was key to the adoption ofLinux.

ILM created its own proprietary compositor, CompTime, shown hereworking on a scene in Star Wars: Episode II, rather than relyupon a commercial package such as Shake.

Since then, Linux renderfarm technology has matured to the point astudio such as Sony can install a hundred Linux Intel renderfarmservers and have them up and running in one hour. Linux machines comefrom the manufacturer (such as HP or IBM or Dell) with softwarepreloaded to each studio’s specification.

Linux on the Graphics Desktop

Making Linux a success on servers and renderfarms was simplecompared to the next step — the desktop.

The chief obstacle: graphics drivers. Linux graphics performance wasterrible, much slower than other operating systems. Linux lacked theproprietary accelerated 3D graphics drivers available on SGIworkstations. Breakthroughs by nVidia and other PC game cardmanufacturers had made graphics performance on Windows stellar.Microsoft Windows seemed poised to take over Hollywood.

When large studios tried converting to Windows it was much harderthan expected. Rewriting millions of lines of internal UNIX code to runon Windows would take forever.

Meanwhile, nVidia created a new graphics driver for Linux, using thesame high-performance code in both its Windows and Linux versions (andnow FreeBSD, too). Linux went from having the worst graphicsperformance to the best. In addition to nVidia, many PC graphics cardmanufacturers began offering high-performance Linux drivers.

So what did the availability of high-performance graphics cards forLinux mean in the working world of ILM? “More than 350 Linuxboxes were deployed during Episode II,” says ILMproduction engineering manager Ken Beyer. Six hundred Linux desktopswill be used for Star Wars: Episode III to be released summer2005.

Linux Speed

DreamWorks’ Shrek, released in 2001, was the firstblockbuster to be both authored and rendered using Linux. In fact,DreamWorks SKG did more than convert their existing studios in PaloAlto and Glendale. They built a second Linux production pipeline todouble their Glendale capacity. “For production of Sinbadevery workstation and the entire renderfarm was Linux,” notesDreamWorks head of animation technology Ed Leonard.

DreamWorks created a proprietary plug-in for Maya called Calypso toanimate oceans for Sinbad.

Back at ILM, sequence supervisor Robert Weaver noticed a tremendousperformance boost upgrading from RISC workstations to Linux PCs duringStar Wars: Episode II. “The old system was so slow thatthe clones firing lasers appear to be throwing javelins,” saysWeaver. “We’ve seen about a 5x speed improvement in Linux. I’dsay Linux is one of the most successful efforts we’ve had. I can’t sayenough good things about it. It is intuitive, incredibly stable, and wecan get stuff fixed at a moment’s notice.”

DreamWorks’ Ed Leonard says the performance of Linux-based machinesmakes artists more productive. “To dramatically reduce costs wasone of the big motivating factors in moving animators to Linux,”says Leonard. “But it is our animators’ productivity that reallycounts.”

The transition at Weta Digital to Linux occurred during productionon Lord of the Rings. Weta Digital used software called Massiveto create the hordes of digital Orcs in Lord of the Rings 2.“Autonomous characters could only be done in a limited waybefore,” says Massive developer Stephen Regelous. “There’sno way you can animate a hundred thousand characters in any othersoftware in a reasonable amount of time,” says Regelous.“Massive runs twice as fast on Linux as it does onWindows.”

Why Open Source Rocks Hollywood

It seems ironic that Linux dominates at studios known for buildingsecret proprietary technology to gain competitive advantage. What’shappened is Hollywood has recognized that having a standard openplatform to develop upon enables them to dedicate more of theirresources to creating their secret sauce, the technology that sets themapart as a studio.

Contrary to common sense, to build the best secret proprietarysoftware you need an open-source platform underneath it. The reason isthat proprietary software can require tweaks to the operating systemitself that no proprietary operating system vendor would be interestedin implementing. Moreover, motion picture production is a verytime-sensitive business. A problem in the operating system can’t beallowed to hold up production. With open source, studios can throwprogrammers at anything, whether at the software or OS level.

CinePaint is an open-source deep paint and image retouching programavailable for free to anyone at CinePainthandles standard motion picture image formats such as Kodak Cineon asshown here and ILM OpenEXR.

Some studios have more than a hundred Linux programmers, normallyworking on internal proprietary software. Although not inclined to doso because of the expense, in an emergency a studio can re-task a smallarmy of Linux programmers. Linux companies supporting the studios areoften tiny by comparison. Studio technologists are bemused by Linuxvendors trying to impress them with their “large engineeringstaff” of five or 10 programmers.

Top Software Vendors Join Linux

Of course, not all motion picture CG is done on proprietarysoftware. Commercial software packages have a long history and vitalrole in motion picture production. When DreamWorks/PDI producedShrek on a Linux platform, it was done using internallydeveloped software. Little commercial software for making movies wasavailable for Linux then.

Now, three of the most popular 3D animation drawing packages areavailable in Linux versions: SideFx Houdini (Linux in 1999), Alias Maya(Linux in 2001), and SoftImage (Linux in 2001). The Linux conversiontouched off an unusual amount of software upgrade activity at the majorstudios, which will often stick with an older version indefinitely aslong as it works. When ILM switched to Linux it meant upgrading all ofthe studio’s old copies of SGI-based SoftImage software to Linux all atonce.

An irony of the migration of software to Linux is that Apple andPixar became leading suppliers of Linux software. The most popularmotion picture compositing software — Apple Shake (Linux in 2000)— and the most popular renderer — Pixar RenderMan (Linux in1999) — are both sold by companies headed by Steve Jobs. Jobshasn’t made any pro-Linux statements regarding the future of hisproducts (and recently Apple dropped the price of the Apple version ofShake so much that the Apple computer to run it seemed free). How theMac/Linux equation will play out remains a concern for studios intenton controlling their destiny by staying with an open-source operatingsystem rather than beholden to a proprietary third-party platform.

The Next Open-Source Platform?

Another irony of Linux software proliferation is that, unlike Linuxitself, only one popular motion picture production tool is open source.Will more open-source software applications eventually gain popularityas well? As the official (but unpaid) project manager of the mostpopular open-source motion picture software application —CinePaint — I have a front row seat to observe how that questionplays out.

CinePaint is an image paint and retouching program with featuressimilar to Photoshop. Like Linux, it is open source and anyone candownload it for free. The checkered history of its development includeshigh hopes, bitter disappointment, abandonment, and resurrection.

CinePaint was based on a software project called Film Gimp, launchedin 1998 to meet the practical requirement for a deep paint package forLinux. Deep paint, with more than 8 bits per channel of color depth, isnecessary to support the higher dynamic range of film. Could theHollywood market support a commercial deep paint tool tailored tomotion picture production? Considering the small market niche, studiotechnologists didn’t think so.

Hollywood came up with a novel solution. What if the popular Linuxopen-source GIMP program was enhanced for motion picture work? Althoughthe industry couldn’t justify developing a deep paint program fromscratch, it could support a few open-source programmers to make a deepGIMP. Starting in 1998, technology company Silicon Grail (lateracquired by Apple) and movie studio Rhythm & Hues footed the billto enhance GIMP to become Film Gimp. The sponsors intended Film Gimp tobecome GIMP 2.0 in 2000, but that was not to be.

Linux anarchist-style GNU programmers and deadline-driven capitaliststudio executives didn’t mix well. The Film Gimp project was shelved in2000, seemingly forgotten. As part of a story I wrote about Rhythm& Hues in 2002, I revealed that Film Gimp was still in use thereand had been used on Harry Potter and many other films. It waseven available for download for free by anyone who wanted it. Studiosseemed to want it.

Film Gimp was subsequently used by Rhythm & Hues forScooby-Doo, Dr. Dolittle 2, and Planet of the Apes. SonyPictures Imageworks picked up Film Gimp for use in Stuart Little2. Hammerhead Productions used it in Showtime, Blue Crush,and 2 Fast 2 Furious.

In February 2003, I chaired the first Linux Movies Conference in LosAngeles. (For more on that conference go to Apanel session on Film Gimp reunited many of the original Film Gimpdevelopers. (With volunteer programmers spread all over the world, itisn’t unusual for open-source projects to never meet in person.)Getting together the Film Gimp team resulted in an unexpected butunanimous decision — to rename Film Gimp because it had nothingto do with GIMP anymore. The new name became CinePaint.

The open source mantra is to “release early and releaseoften.” That keeps a project alive and vibrant. GIMP never made arelease of Film Gimp, but the CinePaint project has made more than adozen releases since the launch on SourceForge on July 4, 2002.CinePaint isn’t only on Linux, and has been ported to Mac OS X andWindows. Although not yet to a 1.0 release (currently 0.18), CinePaintcontinues to spread to more studios, including ComputerCafe (Leagueof Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Flash Film Works(Duplex).

Why Fund Free?

Open-source software is available for free. Users don’t have to senda check or credit card number. Yet software is not, of course, free inthe development sense — open source, commercial, orproprietary.

Studios spend a lot on software development internally, but thatsoftware is typically for their own use and jealously guarded. Somestudio programs are written from scratch and others are specialplug-ins for use with commercial tools such as Alias Maya or AppleShake. Although commercial programs are closed software to most users,studios make special agreements with software vendors to have access tothe source code.

As a rule, no major studio will rely on a tool without access to thesource code. The risk is too great. It’s not that the studios want toputter around modifying commercial programs, rather it’s insurance thatthey can do so if they must to meet a production deadline. Thatinsurance can be expensive, and the relationship with vendors issometimes strained. Software companies are often uncomfortable withstudios holding their source code. Sometimes they won’t make sourceavailable at any price.

In the case of deep paint software, Adobe has very limited deeppaint support in Photoshop 7, but that is expected to improve inupcoming versions. Last year, DreamWorks and Disney funded Linuxdeveloper CodeWeavers to make the CrossOver emulator run Windows AdobePhotoshop 7 on Linux — without Windows. Can Photoshop withCrossOver meet the motion picture industry’s need for Linux deeppaint?

Not without the source code, and it remains to be seen whether Adobewould make its source code available to studios just to sell a few morecopies of Photoshop. Enabling support for Photoshop on Linux throughCrossOver seems stop-gap. Will open-source CinePaint turn out to be thelong-term solution? If nothing else, it will show whether the movieindustry can get behind building open-source software.

An open-source OS has clearly earned its place in Hollywood. Asimilar transition in software poses much more complicated andinteresting issues. Stay tuned.

Robin Rowe writes about Linux for Linux Journal, is theunpaid project manager for Cinepaint Software, and a partner


The First Linux Movies Conference

The first Linux Movies Conference was held on February 18, 2003, inLos Angeles. Chaired by Robin Rowe, a partner in and leader ofthe open source CinePaint project, the conference presented a full dayof success stories for Linux in the motion picture industry, as told bythe experts themselves.

Nathan Wilson of DreamWorks SKG led off the day with “Linux beyondthe renderfarm,” describing the construction of the effort to use Linuxas a complete solution from the artist’s desktop to the final outputonto film, and in the process creating the largest desktop Linuxinstallation in the world.

Dan Novy of Flash Film Works presented “Channel-bonded Ethernet andother capabilities,” delving into the technical nitty-gritty of Linuxtechnical issues.

Alan Boucek of Tippett Studio presented “Using off-the-shelf Linuxeffects software,” describing the many commercial packages availablefor Linux, including Shake and Maya.

Mathew Lamb of Asylum Visual Effects presented “Digital oceans,” amathematical odyssey into the techniques to create computer-generatedoceans.

Rod Bogart of Industrial Light & Magic presented “What does’one’ mean?” a description of the implementation of ILM’s recentlyreleased open-source OpenEXR file format and how high dynamic rangerendering programs smash the widely held view that 1.0 represents thebrightest that a pixel can possibly be.

Jack Brooks of Walt Disney Feature Animation presented “Using Linuxto move to a range of platforms,” which discussed how to combine Linuxseamlessly with other operating systems and how to choose whichoperating system is best for a particular situation.

Thad Beier of Hammerhead Productions presented “Color, the look offilm” and how to take control in Linux animation systems to simulatethe look of film.

The Film Gimp panel discussed where this open-source painting andretouching program came from and where it is going. The panel consistedof Film Gimp user Thad Beier (Hammerhead), programmer CarolineDahllöf (Rhythm & Hues), release manager Sam Richards (SonyPictures Imageworks), project leader Robin Rowe, and project founderRay Feeny (RFX). An unexpected development during the panel discussionwas a unanimous decision to rename Film Gimp. The name eventuallyadopted was CinePaint, suggested by Sam Richards.


A Sampler of Linux Movies


Dante’s Peak (Digital Domain)
Titanic (Digital Domain)


What Dreams May Come (Digital Domain)
Armageddon (Digital Domain)


Stuart Little (Rhythm & Hues)
Ed TV (Digital Domain)
Lake Placid (Digital Domain)
Fight Club (Digital Domain)


Little Nicky (Rhythm & Hues)
The Grinch (Rhythm & Hues)
The Sixth Day (Rhythm & Hues)
Supernova (Digital Domain)
Rules of Engagement (Digital Domain)
X-Men (Digital Domain)
Red Planet (Digital Domain)
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Digital Domain)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Digital Domain)


Enemy at the Gates (Double Negative)
Cats & Dogs (Rhythm & Hues)
Shrek (DreamWorks SKG)
The Fast and the Furious (Hammerhead)
Dr. Dolittle 2 (Rhythm & Hues)
Final Fantasy (Square)
Planet of the Apes (Rhythm & Hues)
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (Double Negative)
Harry Potter (Rhythm & Hues)
A Beautiful Mind (Digital Domain)
Vanilla Sky (Digital Domain)
Lord of the Rings (Weta Digital, Digital Domain)


Collateral Damage (Flash Film Works)
Blade II (Tippett Studio)
Star Wars: Episode II (ILM)
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (DreamWorks)
Scooby-Doo (Rhythm & Hues)
Blue Crush (Hammerhead)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Digital Domain)
Lord of the Rings 2 (Weta Digital)
We Were Soldiers Once (Digital Domain)
The Time Machine (Digital Domain)


The Matrix Reloaded (Tippett)
2 Fast 2 Furious (Hammerhead)
Junglebook 2 (Disney)
Incredible Hulk (ILM)
Pirates of the Caribbean (ILM)
Sinbad (DreamWorks)


Some Motion Picture Studios Using Primarily Linux

Digital Domain
Double Negative
Flash Film Works
Industrial Light & Magic
Rhythm & Hues
Sony Pictures Imageworks
Tippett Studio
Weta Digital