The cutting-edge tech bringing magic of the silver screen to life

Computer firms such as HP provide the back-end technology that increasingly brings the movies to life

Disney’s smash-hit animation ‘Frozen’ - Disney’s relationship with HP extends back 70 years, when Bill Hewlett’s audio oscillator was used in the making of ‘Fantasia’

Disney’s smash-hit animation ‘Frozen’ - Disney’s relationship with HP extends back 70 years, when Bill Hewlett’s audio oscillator was used in the making of ‘Fantasia’

 

The annual Cannes film festival is a star-studded event, and one that the movie industry watches closely to see which will be the major films for the year. But behind the glitz and glamour there is a serious amount of work that goes into making the films. That is in no small part helped by technology firms, some of whom have been involved with the film sector for decades.

The use of technology in the film industry has evolved considerably in the past few years. Where computer-generated imagery was once something that was used sparingly, these days it’s not uncommon to have entire films constructed completely from such images.

Animated movies such as Frozen and Monsters Inc are testament to that. It’s a multimillion dollar industry and one that has been treated with a rising level of importance over the years as the technology improves.

And, increasingly, the technology that is used in the film sector can be an indicator of what is coming down the line that could be applied to other industries.

HP, the festival’s technology partner, has been involved in the film industry for about 70 years. Back in the 1930s, one of HP’s founders, Bill Hewlett, built an audio oscillator, which was later used for sound testing in Walt Disney’s animated feature Fantasia.

“We’ve been involved in the film industry literally from the day the two of them got together and started building things,” said David Chalmers, HP’s vice president of enterprise business in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region.

“It’s harder for us in today’s computer- generated world – certainly in the film world – to think that even back in the 1930s people were using very sophisticated equipment for its day to help do the animation then. It was all hand-drawn animation of course, but the sound had to be right, and HP were involved from the very beginning.”

Over the years, HP’s focus has shifted considerably, particularly as the film sector moved into the more modern area of proper computer-generated graphics.

At Cannes this week, attendees saw a demonstration of some of HP’s more visible technology, from the printed wraps adorning the Palais de Festival buildings to animated films that were built using HP technology.

These days, the company works with companies ranging from household names such as Pixar and Dreamworks Animation to French-based Dwarf Labs, a fast-growing animation studio that used HP technology to develop their short film, Lune & le Loup, which was entered in this year’s Cannes competition.

There is also an Irish element to film technology. Havok, a spin-out from Trinity, may have its roots in the games industry – its technology has featured in some of the biggest games released in the past few years, from Killzone: Shadowfall and Infamous: Second Son, to Call of Duty: Ghosts and Halo 3.

Tools and software The company has developed a suite of tools and software that helps developers bring their creations to life, and while the bulk of its business is still in the games sector, managing director David Coughlan says the film industry is an important sector for the Intel-owned firm.

“At an overall level, Havok’s core business is still focused around games. But a lot of the technology we developed, and a lot of the core computational technology we developed out of Trinity College Dublin, is applicable to any type of area in which you are trying to visualise and simulate complex scenes,” he says. “While games and movies are very different, what we found was having built out the technology for leading companies in the games space, we’d really built out technology that could be used in the movie space to generate special effects.”

That technology has been used in everything from Harry Potter movies to James Bond and X-Men.

Each sector presents unique challenges. A typical movie special effects shot can be rendered over hours using warehouses of high-end computers known as render farms. Every frame takes lengthy periods of high-end computing power to render, a luxury that a game doesn’t have.

“That helped us raise the bar for the technology. The same technology can be leveraged in movies as well,” says Coughlan.

Highly dynamic scenes, such as shattering and deformation, or animating large numbers of characters, can draw inspiration from the games sector. “On the games side, it’s all about real-time computation – how fast can you calculate this stuff. When it comes to movies, it’s much more about visual fidelity and about doing really ambitious things where you’re trying to put together scenes where the human eye can’t tell what’s live action and what’s CGI.”

Film may still be a small part of Havok’s business, but it’s an important one, Coughlan says.

“As we work with the movie companies it gives us good insight into where the future of high-end visuals are going, and in turn that helps inform the games side of the business for us,” he says.

That’s an experience that’s replicated by other player s in the market.

But likewise, movies can provide a good indicator of where the technology should be moving in the future.

“The film industry has been a fascinating leading indicator of where technology has been headed, and still is today. It’s a very interesting market. It can not only add huge value but also what the film industry does today is an interesting indication of what many other other industries will do – in slightly different forms – tomorrow,” Chalmers said.

Improved graphics means a demand for more power and storage, which companies such as HP are only too happy to supply.

“[Dreamworks] reckons that for every film they produce they need about twice as much processing power and slightly more than twice as much storage space to create the film the way they want to this year versus the one they did two or three years ago,” says Chalmers.

That “explosive” growth in demand for storage could also be replicated across the business landscape, where the production of data is growing exponentially, leaving them drowning under a wealth of unstructured data that could yield useful business intelligence over time.

Another such area is in printing, where the technology used for the oversized building wraps was also used to print the personalised labels that formed part of Coca Cola’s recent marketing campaign.

But while the CGI element of the industry is front and centre, there are other aspects that need to be considered. Workstations need to be powerful enough to render the 3D graphics; storage needs to be robust enough to take the large 3D graphic renders and keep them safe; servers need to handle large amounts of data on a regular basis.

Security measures One often overlooked element is security, something Chalmers says has become increasingly important in today’s connected world, where nothing stays secret for long and leaks of upcoming works can go global in a matter of hours.

“It’s a bigger and bigger risk, and it’s one of the reasons we put a huge amount of emphasis on the security technology,” says Chalmers. That doesn’t mean just preventing outsiders from intruding into the network; it could also mean preventing employees from removing sensitive information from within the safety of the company’s network.

That improved security can have benefits outside the film industry. Although protecting intellectual property is a major concern in creative sectors, it is of equal concern to businesses keen to protect their assets, making the movie industry yet another leading indicator.

HP’s work with Dreamworks has expanded in data centre technology, with the company also involved in more environmentally conscious cooling of data centres.

“We designed some very specific technology just for them around how they physically cooled their data centre,” he explains. “You may not think that’s a particularly interesting thing for a film studio to worry about, but like everybody else they are concerned about the power consumption. The cost of physically running the IT is a major concern for them.”

The technology allows data centres to be cooled in a much more efficient way, and has now been made available to clients on a wider scale.

“A partnership, we feel, works both ways. We invest in sharing ideas around technology with them; they invest in sharing ideas and needs that they have about how they build better, faster, more complete technology,” Chalmers says. “If you take that as a leading indicator for everybody else, then you’ll see where we’ll start deploy that across the commercial sectors.”

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