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Wired News: Sinbad Hears Linux's Siren Song

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  • Vincenzo Ing. Virgilio
    http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,59452,00.html Wired News: Sinbad Hears Linux s Siren Song Welcome to Wired News. Skip directly to: Search Box ,
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      Wired News: Sinbad Hears Linux's Siren Song

      Text Size: Small Text Normal Text Large Text Larger Text [Home][Technology][Culture][Business][Politics][Wired Magazine Site][Animation Express]

      Sinbad Hears Linux's Siren Song 

      By Michelle Delio  |   Also by this reporter Page 1 of 1

      02:00 AM Jul. 01, 2003 PT

      A thousand years ago, people were telling the story of Sinbad the Sailor and his seven amazing voyages. Now the swashbuckling sailor has been given new life with Linux.

      Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, an animated movie from DreamWorks Animation Technology that hits theaters July 2, is the first Hollywood production created entirely on Linux. More than 250 Hewlett-Packard workstations running Red Hat Linux make up the core of DreamWorks' graphics platform.

      AnimatingSinbad proved a demanding test of the Linux operating system. DreamWorks animators said that when they first began work on the film four years ago, there was no technology capable of doing exactly what they needed it to do.

      Starting work on the film was a leap of faith. Animators plunged in and hoped that by the time they arrived at the really tricky scenes the technology would have caught up with their plans for the movie.

      The biggest problems were the women and the water.

      Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas virtually sloshes with ocean scenes, and water is one of the most difficult things to animate realistically.

      The mathematical modeling required to ensure that waves, wakes, mist and splashes look and interact as audiences expect is a true computational challenge, said Skottie Miller, a staff engineer at DreamWorks.

      Mike Balma, Linux business strategist at HP, said that HP worked with the DreamWorks effects department to develop a way to expedite the rendering of the water scenes. Done in the normal way, segment by segment, creating the film's oceans could have added years to the movie's production time.

      They came up with a novel solution: Rather than compose the ocean frame by frame as needed, it would be more efficient to simply render an entire ocean and let it roll.

      Once the ocean was "baked," animators could capture whatever segments they needed for a particular scene from whatever angles suited their purposes and then add landscape elements.

      "Animation geeks will get really excited over the water simulations," said Miller. "And the ships. Sinbad and crew spend a lot of time onboard his ship, theChimera. The ship models are amazingly detailed, with over 20,000 textures used to get just the right look."

      The Sirens -- sea nymphs who lure mariners to destruction on a rocky island -- are the most dangerous creatures faced by Sinbad and among the most complicated to animate.

      Animators studied the movements made in gymnastics, ballet and modern dance and looked at underwater filming to get a feel for the fluid movements these "water women" might make.

      But the Sirens still looked like naked plastic women until the effects department incorporated particle systems -- a technique that automatically renders thousands of small interacting image bits, each with correct shading and lighting -- to create the flowing, natural-looking curtains of water that give the Sirens their liquid appearance.

      Creating the Sirens' hair was another difficult task. Each Siren has 16 strands of hair, and each strand has a minimum of seven different controls used by animators to manipulate that strand's shape.

      Getting one strand to move properly was a challenge, but getting all 16 to move correctly was a true test of technology and patience. Animators admit that there were more than a few moments when their seductive sirens looked like monstrous Medusas.

      Many of the characters inSinbad were first drawn by hand and then integrated into the 3-D computer-created background scenes.

      To do this, DreamWorks used a custom program called Toon Shooter, which allowed them to capture hand-drawn animation from a scanner and incorporate it seamlessly into the computer-created images.

      "It was important to figure out a way to pull the characters in without losing any of the magical qualities the animators had created," said HP's Balma. "Toon Shooters is a fully automated way to grab those images and place them into 3-D scenes."

      DreamWorks had been using Unix on its workstations but switched to Linux a few years ago, believing that the open-source system is the future of animation, Miller said.

      "Linux provided a cost-effective way to put the fastest available computers in front of our animators," he said.

      DreamWorks used Linux servers to render frames -- creating detailed images from simple outlines -- in its Oscar-winning animated film,Shrek. WithSinbad, the majority of the 250 animators worked directly with Linux, using 3-D accelerated dual-monitor HP workstations.

      "You hear a lot about Linux not being ready to work on desktops," said HP's Jeff Wood, director of product marketing for personal workstations. "Well, here we have the perfect example of how Linux is more than ready for the desktop -- hundreds of animators successfully used Linux to create a film right from their desktops."

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