Watch your back, Pixar

From Gates to Google, Americans are familiar with the motif of the paradigm-shifting little guy. Of course, technological improvements have a lot to do with this. Look what’s happening to animation:

Thanks in large part to technology trends such as fast-growing computer power, access to supercomputing facilities, and a rise in open-source and standards-based software, small animation studios are tackling projects that would have been out of reach just a few years ago … [I]t’s the animation process, painstaking and hardware-intensive, that accounts for the bulk of costs. Over months and years, artists and programmers separately create three-dimensional models of characters, textures for bodies, trees and other backgrounds, light and shadows, and other individual elements of their worlds. At the end of the process, all of these components and instructions must be “rendered”–essentially a processor-intensive task of combining all of the elements into a single frame of animation. According to Pixar, each frame–24 of which flit past a viewer’s eyes in a single second–takes about six hours to render using today’s technology. Some individual frames have taken as much as 90 hours, the company says on its Web site. This requires what ultimately amounts to one of animation studios’ biggest expenses, both in time and hardware. Big companies like Pixar and Dreamworks have huge “render farms,” with servers that amount to hundreds, and typically more than 1,000, individual processors for this task. Pixar has used blade server technology from RackSaver, while IBM xSeries servers are also common. Now a myriad of technological advances are bringing these tasks down to the level of smaller companies. The equivalent of computer workstations and software packages that used to cost $100,000 10 years ago now can be purchased for just a few thousand dollars, with high-end desktop machines running off-the-shelf software and the open-source Linux operating system. Exponential processing power growth has let artists do their work faster and add increasing levels of realism to their 3D worlds. The massive rendering tasks can now be outsourced as well.

Take it easy, outsourcing hand wringers. This time it’s regular, old domestic outsourcing:

A small company called RenderRocket, for example, has just launched a Web-based service through which animators can reserve time on and send their work to IBM’s supercomputing facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., offloading the heaviest computer duties.

Of course, most outsourcing is domestic. And, of course, technological progress also has its downside. Case in point. For more on the big picture upside, go here.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.