Hollywood’s Render Farms Move to the Cloud

The Academy Awards have wrapped up for another year. But last night’s ceremony provided reminders that even Hollywood can not escape the cloud computing trend, as the powerful render farms of computers that make animated films and incredible visual effects take to the clouds to power the movies.

Best Animated Feature Film

The 2011 Oscar for Animated Feature Film went to Pixar’s Toy Story 3.  Pixar counts Steve Jobs among its founders and is a pioneer in animated films and rendering.  One of the primary rendering tools used at Pixar is called Renderman and is available as a stand-alone tool, or for use within Autodesk’s Maya. At Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference (PDC) last fall, Pixar’s RenderMan team unveiled a proof of concept demonstration showing RenderMan Pro Server running in the Cloud on Windows Azure. Pixar’s next generation distributed processing solution, Tractor 1.0 was released in April 2010 and is a completely new and robust solution specifically engineered to address the extreme scalability and performance requirements of multi-core networks of tens of thousands of processors and beyond.

Hollywood Ponders the Cloud

Variety Magazine has an article on how major visual effects animation companies are pondering the cloud computing model.   Like DreamWorks turning to HP, Hollywood needs quick access to massive amounts of compute power, yet only for the time it takes to produce the effects or movie, and then they don’t want to be stuck with data center that powered the film. The notion of cloud computing with access to the vast resources of servers, processing power and storage is thus an attractive proposition.  “Our strategy going forward is to push as much as we can into the cloud,” says Darcy Antonellis, president of technical operations for Warner Bros. “When you can scale up or scale back so easily, that’s a big economic advantage.”

Addressing the issue of latency in working between the rendering cloud and and the effects company Cerelink CEO James Ellington said “We have an acceptable, imperceptible amount of latency so an artist using our services would never notice that that cloud they’re using is hundreds of miles away.”  Cerelink is using the Encanto supercomputer in New Mexico, and uses Lambda Rail sothat it has plenty of bandwidth to connect Hollywood.

DreamWorks and HP

DreamWorks has had a long relationship with HP as a computing partner to produce films. HP has helped provide the rendering power back-end and collaboration tools for DreamWorks staff for Shrek Forever After, and other projects.  In Douglas Chey’s recent blog post, he explains how HP and DreamWorks   used a HP Media Cloud solution.  In a recent need for processing power DreamWorks turned to HP, which in turn provided a studio with a farm of servers at their facilities in Palo Alto, which DreamWorks utilized on a utility basis. A benefit to this solution was at the end  of film production DreamWorks was not left with an inventory of unused HP servers.  2011 Oscar nominee  How To Train Your Dragon was also an HP-assisted production,   keeping nearly 10,000 cores busy almost 100 percent of the time – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 28 weeks.


Following the cloud-based render farm model, RenderRocket markets itself as a self-service 3D render farm that supports many of the big name effects software like Maya, Mental Ray, 3ds Max, V-Ray, Cinema 4D and Maxwell Render.  Los Angeles-based RenderRocket has its own base of servers for rendering, but then follows its own prescription and partners with other cloud computing providers to have access to hundreds and hundreds of other servers quickly and easily.  Pricing models for RenderRocket are similar to other cloud providers, with rates as low as 50 cents per core, per hour. As their web page states – how fast do you want to go?

Weta Digital

When it comes to a data-crunching powerhouse many think of New Zealand’s Weta Digital. Their recent project, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is set to be a blockbuster, as a collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.  Empire Magazine obtained some exclusive photos and a Weta-created cover of the movie that showcase some of the graphics power from the movie.

Weta is in Wellington, New Zealand, about 273 miles north of ChristChurch, where the recent earthquake occurred. The Hollywood reporter stated that there was no impact or expected delays in the other film in production at Weta – Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Part 1.

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About the Author

John Rath is a veteran IT professional and regular contributor at Data Center Knowledge. He has served many roles in the data center, including support, system administration, web development and facility management.

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  1. It is interesting that this is a big story in the states, I suspect it may also be true in New Zealand since an awful lot of Lord of the rings was rendered animation as well. I'm afraid in England the film industry isn't such a bad state that the likelihood of us getting a client like this is slim. pity

  2. The cloud is really showing it's benefits across many different verticals including the motion picture industry. Scalability and efficiency is something on everyones mind these days.

  3. Phil Cox of System Experts put it best when he said "The amount of risk you take in the cloud should be in proportion to the value of what you're putting in there." Placing valuable data in the cloud may heighten the motivation of a criminal, and Hollywood is known for its criminals; both in the movies and in real life. There will likely be a strong resistance (at least in the near term) to resist a complete move to the cloud until it evolves from its infancy stage. Collcation and managed servers will likely handle the load for many companies until the cloud has had some more "time in the sun."

  4. Swoosh

    How long it took for Weta Digital's render farm to render the whole 3d scene from the movie Avatar? 3 hours or maybe less? Based on some online articles ive read regarding their render farm, Weta Digital's servers are top notch and 90+ percent of it are running on Ubuntu server OS and the center it self (where the servers are located) are systematically cooled by water using complex piping system in order to properly cool all its servers when on very hi loads, since the center packs around 4000 Blade servers and are connected to a 10 gigabit advanced network system. Perhaps the heat it generates are tremendous.. I bet the producers of Avatar have spent around 5 to 10 million dollars just for the rendering services they outsourced to Weta Digital for the whole 3d scenes.

  5. Crazy buyer

    Is there any way to use volunteer computing to do such kind of task? I also sender, how long does it take to render a movie like avatar?