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Lord of the Rings Media Movies

Third Largest Supercomputer... at Weta Digital 245

Designadrug writes "This story at the BBC details how the worlds third largest supercomputer (conditions apply) lives at Weta Digital - the company that provided CGI effects for The Lord of the Rings movies. The article also goes on to discuss the 500 TeraBytes of data generated for the films and how the epic Battle of Pelennor Fields almost defeated the film itself."
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Third Largest Supercomputer... at Weta Digital

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  • What platform? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nbvb ( 32836 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:42AM (#9050104) Journal
    All the thing says is that IBM did the manufacturing ... were they xSeries, pSeries or zSeries? :-)

    (I doubt the zSeries.... nobody buys 3300 processors' worth of mainframe :)
  • conditions apply (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pbjones ( 315127 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:42AM (#9050106)
    and for a limited time only... things change tooooo quickly these, todays supercomputer is tomorrows laptop
    • things change tooooo quickly these, todays supercomputer is tomorrows laptop

      In ten years time kids will be wearing that much power on their wrist and if they don't have a terabyte or two they'll feel left behind.

      I was astonished to buy a handheld computer three years ago and realise that it had more computing and better graphics than the early Crays.

      But the scary part is that in twenty years, they won't need computers to create orcs and oliphaunts.

    • Re:conditions apply (Score:5, Interesting)

      by SmackCrackandPot ( 641205 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:51AM (#9050176)
      Too right ... but progress is good. My supervisor recently bought a laptop - the embedded video card does hardware bump-mapping as well as multi-texturing. Ten years ago you would have been lucky to afford a workstation with that capability.

      Today's roomful of rack-mounted systems is tomorrow's server unit.
      Today's server unit is tomorrow's workstation.
      Today's workstation is tomorrow's desktop.
      Todays's desktop to tomorrow's laptop.
      Today's laptop is tomorrow's PDA.
      Today's PDA is tomorrow's wristwatch.
      • Today's roomful of rack-mounted systems is tomorrow's server unit.
        Today's server unit is tomorrow's workstation.
        Today's workstation is tomorrow's desktop.
        Todays's desktop to tomorrow's laptop.
        Today's laptop is tomorrow's PDA.
        Today's PDA is tomorrow's wristwatch.

        So how long long until my wristwatch can render the entire Lord of the Rings in the time it would take to watch? Second question, what could I use that much processing power on my wrist for?
      • Yes! Roomful of computer-power on my wrist by next Monday.
      • Today's roomful of rack-mounted systems is tomorrow's server unit.
        Today's server unit is tomorrow's workstation.
        Today's workstation is tomorrow's desktop.
        Todays's desktop to tomorrow's laptop.
        Today's laptop is tomorrow's PDA.
        Today's PDA is tomorrow's wristwatch.
        I knew I should have waited until next week to buy that new server...
  • What processors? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BorisZ ( 772356 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:42AM (#9050109)
    Those numbers are nice and all, but what kind of processors are they? I doubt that they are x86...
  • File system ? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kbsingh ( 138659 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:43AM (#9050111) Homepage
    Be interesting to know what kind of a file system they use one something like this, and while they say loads and loads of data was generated - how and in what format was it actually stored.

    MySQL is prolly not the best fit in this situation :)
  • Well.. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    they don't have to go to 'Los Alamos National Lab' or 'Earth simulator' to shoot scene with cool super computer and hundreds of geeks (saves them on extras :-)
  • At least... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Hangin10 ( 704729 )
    At least assembly isn't required...
  • Future films will use even more digital effects and will require even more data storage. If you consider Bill Gate's famous 640K quote, it won't be long until you'll have a 500 Exabyte keychain...
    • by dioscaido ( 541037 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:59AM (#9050752)
      Yeah, famous made up quote.

      http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,1484,00.htm l [wired.com]

      Still, your point about storage stands.


      QUESTION: "I read in a newspaper that in l981 you said '640K of memory should be enough for anybody.' What did you mean when you said this?"

      ANSWER: "I've said some stupid things and some wrong things, but not that. No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time."

      Gates goes on a bit about 16-bit computers and megabytes of logical address space, but the kid's question (will this boy never work at Microsoft?) clearly rankled the billionaire visionary.

      "Meanwhile, I keep bumping into that silly quotation attributed to me that says 640K of memory is enough. There's never a citation; the quotation just floats like a rumor, repeated again and again."

      Silly quotations do have a way of floating like rumors.

      Well, the truth starts here.

      He never said it. No free software.


  • by NSash ( 711724 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:45AM (#9050129) Journal
    He is confident... "King Kong is covered in hair," he said, "we could be animating that."

    Is it just me, or does that sound more desperate than confident?
    • Indeed he does.

      He sounds like he's shitting himself at the prospect.

      Sure, they CAN do hair - Monsters Inc was the proving ground for that, but when it comes down to it, the rendering difference between geometric wig units, and actual dynamic flowing furr is immense.
      It is similar to the steps from real time game graphics to full on ray-tracing.

      (Unless of course they have done some pretty damned nifty optimisations in the last few years)
      • Sure, they CAN do hair - Monsters Inc was the proving ground for that

        Several years before Monsters Inc. there was a not-too-successful Disney project called Mighty Joe Young. Most of the shots of the gorilla were animatronic, but there were also many CGI shots.

        Go back and watch it. You'll be surprised. Yes, it was all CGI fur, and no, nobody really noticed. It looked that good.
        • It wasn't really an independent animatronic, but a costumed performer. The practical gorilla was made by Rick Baker, though the face was animatronic (radio controlled). Lots of those shots were done either with perspective tricks or just composited in.

          Both Dream Quest Images and ILM did CG version of Joe with digital hair. ILM did several shots when Joe is running evading capture, when he crosses the freeway at night with the heli on top and the final shot of Joe running, among others. DQI's Cg Joes was fe
    • by GeekDork ( 194851 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:12AM (#9050294)

      ... would the hair be animated, the hairs would be fighting each other!

  • 3rd Largest? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by binaryDigit ( 557647 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:45AM (#9050131)
    If they're just counting the number of cpu's available to do a particular task, don't you then have to include things like Googles setup (10000+)?
    • Re:3rd Largest? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by EricWright ( 16803 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:47AM (#9050149) Journal
      I doubt Google has any one "host" with that many CPUs. As I understand it, they have thousands of machines that work (mostly) independently of each other. Google's goal is to perform a very large number of short tasks very quickly. Weta's goal is to perform one very large task as quickly as possible.
      • Re:3rd Largest? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by pe1rxq ( 141710 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:03AM (#9050238) Homepage Journal
        Weta's goal is to perform one very large task as quickly as possible.

        Maybe not, if you render frame by frame you end up with lots of independ tasks.

        • Re:3rd Largest? (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mmusson ( 753678 )
          The rendering isn't as interesting to me as the generation of the content. Another article I read said that the system simulates every single person/thing/it on the battle field as discrete entities with their own limited form a intelligence in order to create a more realistic battlefield.

          The funny thing was that their first attempts were spectacular failures because they attempted to model things as realistically as possible and the good guys fled the field.

          So in the end they reduced the effective intell
          • Re:3rd Largest? (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Finuvir ( 596566 )
            In fact the Orcs at the back of the fighting could hear the fighting, so they became "afraid" but they weren't close enough to become "frenzied". The net effect was a large-scale fleeing, starting at the back. Apparently it looked just like a real routing.
          • Re:3rd Largest? (Score:5, Informative)

            by galen ( 24777 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @10:16AM (#9050953)

            The system is called Massive. During one of the early runs they noticed the guys in the back (on both sides) were wandering off. The problem was that they couldn't 'see' the action so they wandered around randomly looking for opponents. The effect was that it looked like they were running away. The problem was solved by giving the agents something similar to the ability to hear. Thus they could sense the action over greater distances and act accordingly.

            I've seen this misrepresented so many times it's begun to bug me. I believe all the information I just dropped is available on the Extended Edition DVDs special features (probably FotR). If not, then I'm sure a Google search will turn it up.

          • So in the end they reduced the effective intelligence of the good guys until they wouldn't run and then they got what we see now.

            That was the joke but not really the case. The warriors would fight with opponents directly in front of them, They started out in two masses that ran towards each other in hopes that they would run into an opponent and fight it. But their field of "sight" was too narrow and they ended up running past each other and out the other side of the battle. They made the AI a little sm
      • Re:3rd Largest? (Score:3, Insightful)

        No, rendering each frame is a separate task. This more comparable to Google than to traditional supercomputing applications.
        • True, but the article says that each of the 120,000+ characters in the battle had its own AI. Computing that data in order to calculate where all the polygons should be when it comes down to rendering sounds like a traditional 'really big computer' kind of task.

          Having a set of machines that need to be switched from distributed massive AI calculations to render farm work (or setting them to work out the movements based on AI and then render the frame, rinse and repeat) doesn't sound like the kind of job tha
          • The calculations for the AI were quite separate from the rendering. The animated movements were not tracking every polygon all of the time, instead there was a (large) bunch of pre-set moves, and the AI simply chose which is the best move for each character at each timestep. I doubt this was particularly CPU-intensive.

            I don't know whether filling in the individual polygons was a separate step from the frame rendering, but if so then that itself is 'embarrasingly parallel'.

            The implication from the arti

            • Re:3rd Largest? (Score:3, Informative)

              Correction, they currently come in 44th [top500.org]. This presumably doesn't include the extra 1000 processors mentioned in the article, doubling the performance would place it as 16 - although in practice for a distributed calculation you wouldn't get anything like double the performance by doubling the number of boxes.

              Look at the difference in R_max (maximum achieved performance in a real LINPACK benchmark) and R_peak (theoretical maximum) - you can see that it is not a machine built for distributed calculations.

      • They *are* talking about a cluster too, not a single system, so the comparison is relevant.
    • Google: 20,000 processors ( " + a LOT " )

      I have seen ASCI red, white, and blue, and none of them come anywhere close to the distributed power of Google's machines. These jokers just have no idea.

      (nb. a friend of mine worked for Weta on the Twin Towers. Weta is a great bunch, but they fucked up in this interview.)
  • by musikit ( 716987 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:45AM (#9050132)
    the whole article only mentions the processor number to quantify it being a super computer. no tera-flops/seconds. nothing else. they may have the 3rd largest number of processors actively running at one time but a super computer that does not make.
    • I was more impressed by the fact that they needed 1000 more processors and a new data center so they asked IBM to open a new production line just for them.
    • by JAPrufrock ( 760889 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:55AM (#9050196)
      No kidding. Especially since it sounds more like a renderfarm than a single "supercomputer". Then there's the data storage. That's nothing (though I say it myself). Go to high-energy physics for serious storage/processing centers. Little ol' me uses ~15 TB from 4 months of work, and I'm nothing compared to some people's requirements. I use up about 0.4% of our mass storage here (rough guess). WETA's cool - but not in supercomputer/HPC land.
  • Well.. (Score:3, Funny)

    by manavendra ( 688020 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:47AM (#9050148) Homepage Journal
    ...third largest supercomputer on the planet if you count the number of processors: 3300.

    The ones that beat Weta are the Japanese Earth Simulator (5120 processors) and Los Alamos National Laboratory's supercomputer (8192 processors).
    Doesn't mention the actual processing power. Neither does it mention the individual processing power of each processor. Or what technologies were used to create the digital characters. Or how this "third-largest supercomputer" works...

    Oh and it was fun to read Houston's comment: "We needed another 1,000 processors and we had nowhere to put them" - Someone must have surely commented "Houston, we have a problem!" :-)
  • Looking forward ... (Score:3, Informative)

    by arhar ( 773548 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:50AM (#9050158)
    I'm really looking forward to Weta doing more amazing special effects work in future projects.. without them, LOTR movies would be, of course, still good, but probably wouldn't have the amazing success among the mainstream, non-geek audience.

    Actually, I'm drooling right now thinking what could they do with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" - depending on how much their stuff would be used in the movie.
    • This brings up an interesting topic.

      In my opinion what makes special effects add to a film like LOTRs is not how spectacular they look in isolation, but how the director integrates them into their film.

      From what I gather, Mr. Jackson was heavily involved (and very knowledgeable) on what effects were being used where, and he was also very specific as to what he wanted.

      A hallmark of a good effects film is where you can't tell where the effects begin and where the effects end. Regardless of how good your ef
      • by ScottGant ( 642590 ) <[scott_gant] [at] [sbcglobal.netNOT]> on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @10:46AM (#9051295) Homepage
        Indeed, the good effect is where it comes off as believable and not even noticed. It doesn't matter HOW they did the effect, the bottom line is if it works in the movie.

        There are certainly scenes though in movies where it's an obvious effect and doesn't look real. But the ultimate moments in modern effects is where the ONLY way you could tell it's an effect is knowing in your head that such things don't exist.

        To this day, one of the most convincing scene is still the original "Jurrasic ParK" where Jeff Goldblum strikes his flair and waves it at the T-Rex...the scene where the T-Rex is chasing him looks like they captured a real T-Rex and put it in the movie. I mean, my jaw just dropped.

        There are certainly parts in the LOTR movies that are like this also, that you only know they are effects because they couldn't have done them in real life. Sure, there are parts of these movies where the effects fall short...with the amount of shots in this movie and the amount of time and limit of money (yes, 350 million for 3 huge movies isn't really that much these days), there will be some scenes that could have used more attention. For instance the warg scene in "The Two Towers" could have used more work (PJ even comments on this in the commentary for the DVD). But still, the scene works.
  • by BondGamer ( 724662 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:50AM (#9050168) Journal
    If I collected 5121 computers (486s) and connected them all together I would have the largest supercomputer in the world?
  • by noewun ( 591275 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:51AM (#9050174) Journal
    "Yeah, IBM? Yeah. . . Apple told me there was a four week wait for my G5. Could ya crank out a couple for me? Thanks. Hugs to all. . ."
  • by R.Caley ( 126968 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @08:58AM (#9050208)
    When he could do beowolf and bring down /. under a rush of nerds posting the same joke?
    • I bet they could animate a kick-posterior Grendel.
      • I bet they could animate a kick-posterior Grendel.

        Then install an extra data centre to do mother?

        I have wondered for ages why no one has done a movie of Beowolf. Three huge monster battles and a death scene which would have all the Hollywood action heroes scratching each other's eyes out for the chance to show they are serious actors, really. honest. It's short enough that you wouldn't have to cut it to shreds or make 3 bladder busters. And you could give Seamus Heaney a writing credit and score masses

        • Three huge monster battles and a death scene which would have all the Hollywood action heroes scratching each other's eyes out for the chance to show they are serious actors, really.

          Yeah, but you know the casting office would end up doing something as stupid as... oh, I don't know... Brad Pitt as fucking Achilles.
          homer.ingrave(rotating) == true

  • Not just graphics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by surgeonsmate ( 633065 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:00AM (#9050222)
    Weta also did the model work. I was over in Wellington some months ago and the model for Barad-dur was on display in the foyer of the national museum. About twenty feet high and superbly detailed. Awesome.

    They also built the models for the ships used in Master and Commander, but the computer graphics were handled elsewhere.

    After seeing these films, I'm going to be very keen indeed to see what these Kiwis can come up with next!

    • After seeing these films, I'm going to be very keen indeed to see what these Kiwis can come up with next!

      The will probably go back to crying about being shit at Rugby ;)
    • WETA was originally a non-CG effects shop, just like ILM. Both were created before the dawn of CG and specialized in miniatures, painting, puppetry etc. work.
    • After seeing these films, I'm going to be very keen indeed to see what these Kiwis can come up with next!

      A VR sheep?
    • Well, sorta. Weta is actually two companies in one that seem to operate somewhat independently of each other. Weta Digital does the computer stuff, Weta Workshop builds models and minatures, costumes, weapons, props, etc.
  • Top500 (Score:5, Informative)

    by FU_Fish ( 140910 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:00AM (#9050224) Homepage
    *cough* Top500 List [top500.org] *cough*
  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:05AM (#9050253) Homepage
    "The Return of the King, which had more than 1500 special effects shots in it. By contrast the first movie had only 400 and the second 900."

    The funny thing is that personally I lovedthe first movie, really liked the second, and... well... the third movie was pretty good too but seemed a little long.

    Many factors could have contributed to this, but after hearing all of Jackson's encomia to model work and miniatures in the DVD "documentaries," I have to wonder whether the increased use of digital effects contributed in some subtle way to some loss of mood or atmosphere or reality in the third movie.
    • I completely agree - the first was far and away the best of the three. But I tend to think it was because there was time for... dialog, and character development. There just seemed to be too much running around and head bashing in the following two to allow for either of these things. Plus Legolas's lines got infinitely more cheesy throughout the series. :P
    • More digital effects does generally mean more scenes involving anonymous hordes. The problem I had with the third movie, and more with the second movie as originally editted, was that it had a substantial portion devoted to battles, which don't really have interesting character interaction.

      I think Peter Jackson's mistake was in not cutting any of the battles for the theatrical releases. I found the second one tedious in the theater once Helm's Deep started, but it didn't feel as long, ironically, in the ex
  • by jsin ( 141879 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:13AM (#9050300) Homepage Journal
    I'm sure that there are landfills that beat this setup...
  • Wetta@home (Score:5, Insightful)

    by WillRobinson ( 159226 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:14AM (#9050311) Journal
    Maybe something along the lines of paying for processing time, on millions of computers would get the work done like seti@home.
  • DVD set (Score:5, Funny)

    by erroneous ( 158367 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:16AM (#9050320) Homepage
    Personally, I'm looking forward to the 2005 release of the 100000-DVD-set with all 500TB of extra footage and of making of documentaries.
  • by nfabl ( 748199 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @09:20AM (#9050349)
    2 posts ago they were building stonehenge, now they have the 3rd largest supercomputer in the world.

    I for one...
  • Not quite true. (Score:5, Informative)

    by anzha ( 138288 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @10:08AM (#9050876) Homepage Journal

    Saying the WETA render farm is the third largest machine in the world based on the number of processors is wrong. Just check the latest top 500 list [top500.org] and a quick skim points out that Lawrence Livermore National Lab's ASCI White (8192) and ASCI Blue Pacific (5808), Lawrence Berkeley National Lab/NERSC's seaborg (6656), Sandia National Lab's ASCI Red (9632), and Los Alamos National Lab's ASCI Blue Mountain (6144) all have more processors as well as the two already listed.

    Also interesting that WETA Digital is listed as #44 on the list too, huh? They only listed a Xeon cluster though with 1080 processors. (prolly not be the same machine, but...).

    I love technical articles from the popular press about technical subjects. They do soooo much in depth research. I hope that they don't hurt themselves.

    *Disgusted look*

  • Not Third Largest (Score:3, Informative)

    by turm ( 125406 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @10:25AM (#9051061) Homepage
    "...third largest supercomputer on the planet if you count the number of processors, 3300, it can call on..."

    From the Top500 List for November 2003 [top500.org]:

    Earth Simulator - 5120

    LANL / ASCI Q - 8192

    LLNL / ASCI White - 8192

    NERSC / LBNL / Seaborg - 6656

    Nice research, BBC.

  • New Profit Model (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bshroyer ( 21524 )
    And I'm serious, here. From the article:

    Much better would be to use a Grid-type approach that lets Weta call on processing power where-ever it is and when it needs it.

    I'm sure that it's obvious, but so is every other great idea I've ever had. So, here's the business plan:
    1. Build a trusted distributed computing project
    2. Convince your subscribers to allow you to execute arbitrary binary code on their machine, in return for $/CPU cycle
    3. Lease your grid to movie makers, pharmaceutical companies, mathematici
  • Third largest super computer and for what? Entertainment. I don't know, it just seems like a skewed sense of priorities. Cancer research, fusion research, any number of possible alternative uses come to mind.

    The article spoke of drawing additional computing power from other sources (à la grid computing). I didn't see a mention of it offering any computer power to anyone during their business "troughs".

  • by EnglishTim ( 9662 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @12:28PM (#9052417)
    It's not a supercomputer, it's a render farm - there's a big difference. I'm sure there there are several VFX companies that have that number of processors in their renderfarm. The one I work for has somewhere between 2000 and 2500 processors in it, and I'm sure companies like PDI, ILM and Escape have more.

    The way the render farms tend to work is this: you have a bunch of jobs, which get sent to the farm. You'll have a bit of software which allocates each job to a computer, or set of computers. Your job might be something like:

    for frames 1 - 100
    generate .rib file from scene for frame #
    munge .rib
    send .rib to PRMan

    This would generate 300 jobs that will get allocated on the farm - obviously some of them are dependent on others being completed. However, each section of the job is a standard program on a fairly standard (normally) Linux install.

    If all the computers were being combined into a supercomputer, they wouldn't all be running their own programs, they'd be combined into a huge 'virtual' computer, presumably with each processor running a virtual thread on that computer.
    • ILM had about 2500 processors on the renderfarm as recent as last year, could ne more now with the work for Ep. 3. Pixar also recently upgraded. At Rhythm and Hues (and many other places) they incorporte the workstations at night for the render jobs so it also depends how you count "render processors".
  • by Ingolfke ( 515826 ) on Tuesday May 04, 2004 @07:39PM (#9058219) Journal
    That the system is collectively known as "the precious".

If graphics hackers are so smart, why can't they get the bugs out of fresh paint?