Beware! It's a jungle out there

A new breed of film animators is giving Pixar and Dreamworks a run for their money - and wowing Cannes. Mark Harris reports from the red carpet

Away from the famous directors and stars striding the red carpets, a quiet revolution is taking place at this year's Cannes Film Festival. In a small viewing-room at the American Pavilion, the technology giant HP is showcasing a dozen short films that have the potential to turn the world of animated film production on its head.

Away from the famous directors and stars striding the red carpets, a quiet revolution is taking place at this year's Cannes Film Festival. In a small viewing-room at the American Pavilion, the technology giant HP is showcasing a dozen short films that have the potential to turn the world of animated film production on its head.

With impressive 3D graphics, creative storylines and natural fur and water effects, these films look similar to Hollywood productions such as Dreamworks' summer blockbuster Madagascar. The production of Madagascar required more than 1,000 dual-processor computers, an army of professional animators and cutting-edge Virtual Studio technology, and had a multimillion-dollar budget.

In contrast, the 12 films being shown at Cannes have been created in the UK by tiny companies, or even individuals, some of them working with a single home computer.

The films were made possible by the SE3D project, a joint venture by the Bristol media group Watershed and HP, using the concept of utility computing. Just as none of us filters our own water or generates our own electricity, utility computing aims to use remote computers to outsource the processing of data, whether it's for financial analysis, gene sequencing or even car-crash testing.

The latest 3D animated films are well suited to utility computing because of the enormous amount of computing power required for rendering - the process of turning basic wire-frame figures into fully textured and realistically illuminated objects.

"Two Fellas was a film I wanted to make for a while," says Dan Lane, its director, "although I initially planned on doing it all myself. Each of the film's 5,500 frames would have taken over an hour to render on my own computer. I was looking at 18 months just to render my four-minute film. That's assuming my computer worked round the clock and nothing went wrong."

SE3D offered Lane and other UK-based animators free access to HP's utility rendering service (URS) in Palo Alto, California, which is home to more than 100 powerful servers. "SE3D made it infinitely easier to achieve my goal," Lane says. "I simply installed some software, logged in and sent the source files over the internet, and got the rendered images back, sometimes in a matter of minutes."

Peter Toft, the project manager at HP Labs in Bristol, points out that utility services, and even render "farms" serving animators, aren't new. About 95 per cent of all animated films are made using 3D software, and HP has been working with the major studios for some time. When making Shrek 2, Dreamworks used a URS from HP consisting of 500 dual-processor servers running Linux, each configured with 4Gb of memory and fed by a 4 terabyte NFS storage system. More than a million frames were rendered, consuming more than 100 processor "years" and contributing around 10 per cent of frames used in the final film. This was the first time a major animation studio had outsourced its rendering.

Toft believes the advantages of utility computing for large studios have been proven. "Animators can call on extra capacity when they need it: for rush jobs, to meet theatrical deadlines, or if a rendering job is larger than expected." But HP's scaling down of the technology for use by makers of smaller-scale films is a real step forward, he says. "Most render-farm technology is immature and doesn't work well over low bandwidths, such as regular consumer broadband. We've developed compression and management technologies that make the best use of the limited bandwidth, and we use strong encryption to prevent the finished frames ending up in the wrong hands.

"Another problem is managing a multi-user environment. How do you decide who gets the computing power? SE3D uses a market system where users are allocated processor time on the basis of bids in a succession of auctions - a little like eBay. The more you pay, the faster your job gets done."

Although the experimental SE3D system used virtual cash to give independent film-makers access to the technology, HP believes that a commercial launch of its URS will cost studios only about one-tenth as much as buying, installing and maintaining their own render farms.

This cost reduction can't come too soon for European studios, whose animated features typically have budgets just one-tenth the scale of their Hollywood rivals, and who are struggling to attract audiences to their cheaper, less computer-intensive 2D films. American studios largely abandoned 2D films following Disney's high-profile 2D flop Treasure Planet (2002), prompting the studio's chief executive Michael Eisner to proclaim: "The 2D business is coming to an end, just like black and white came to an end."

The introduction of affordable utility rendering services could ensure that there's a future for smaller animation houses - or it could make the big studios irrelevant altogether, suggests Peter Toft of HP. "Today, animation is largely in the context of a production house," he points out. "But with widespread utility computing, virtual communities could come together from all over the world to attack large projects."

Tim Westcott, an analyst at Screen Digest, is more sceptical. "Distribution is incredibly important in the movie business. If you don't have one of the major studios behind you and aren't able to get distribution in the US, you face an uphill battle. Animation, even low-budget animation, is very expensive to make. Most people funding animation are looking for a mainstream hit if they can get it."

While it seems unlikely that a lone animator or virtual studio will be scooping the Palme d'Or at Cannes next year, utility computing could at least ensure that home-grown animators have a better chance to compete with Hollywood. As the film-maker Dan Lane says: "This technology opens up the possibility for small, independent companies to make stuff that just makes people go, 'Wow!'" And if films such as Shrek 2 are anything to judge by, where wows go, success soon follows.

Future of Animation discussion at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Friday 10 June, 8.15pm, £6/£5 (01242 227 979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk)

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SharePoint Engineer - Bishop's Stortford

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...

Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering