23 Aug 2008

Linux Winning in Hollywood

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Mac may be humiliating poor old PC in those amusing television commercials, but both of them have been caught napping by the penguin in the high tech world of special effects, Stephen J. Vaughn-Nichols reports at ComputerWorld.

While top animation and FX (special effects) programs are run on Macs and some of them, like RenderMan Pro Server are being ported to Windows, it’s on Linux clusters that the really serious movie and television visual effects are created. As Robin Rowe writes at LinuxMovies.org, “In the film industry, Linux has won. It’s running on practically all servers and desktops used for feature animation and visual effects.”

Rowe’s not just being a Linux booster. It’s the Gospel truth. The animation and FX for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Star Wars: The Clone Wars; WALL-E; 300; The Golden Compass; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; and I Am Legend, to name but a few recent movies, were all created using Pixar’s RenderMan and Autodesk Maya running on Linux clusters.

The really short version for why this is so comes down to Linux clustering enables you to put massive computational firepower into rendering 2D and 3D images. It’s ironic. While getting the most out of NVIDIA and ATI graphic cards on a Linux desktop is still a pain and there’s always some trouble dealing with proprietary video formats on Linux, the top animated and FX-heavy videos usually have their start on Linux systems.

Specifically, most photo-realistic special effects are created with programs using Pixar’s RISpec (RenderMan Interface Specification) compliant programs. RISpec is an extremely detailed open-standard set of APIs (application program interfaces) for 3D graphics rendering programs. To be more precise, RISpec isn’t quite an open standard. While Pixar, the animation giant owned by Disney, has published the specifications for all to use, and no longer even requires a no-charge license to create a RISpec-compliant rendering program, Pixar doesn’t go out of its way to specify exactly how developers can, or can’t use RISpec.

That said, there are open-source RISpec-compliant programs like Pixie and other rendering programs such as Blender, which can be used as a source for RISpec software. Pixar’s RenderMan software suite itself, while it relies on Linux in most animation and FX shops, is unlikely ever to be open-sourced.

So, while you can’t point to animation and special effects software as a major win for open-source software, there is absolutely no doubt that every time you gasp at a breath-taking escape by Indy or grin at a particularly clever visual bit of fun in Ratatouille, you’re appreciating the power of Linux.


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