Lincoln Wallen Steers DreamWorks Animation Forward
Cutting-edge insights into moviemaking technology
Lincoln Wallen is a man on a mission. As the chief technology officer for DreamWorks Animation, his teams are involved in one of the most complex digital manufacturing processes in the world: the creation of a CG animated film. Famous for creating memorable movie franchises such as Shrek and Madagascar, the studio’s artists and animators continually expect more power, better tools, and faster systems to deliver the next blockbuster. It’s Wallen’s job to balance these needs with the realities of running a business, while envisioning the future tools and technical infrastructure that will repeatedly create a visually rich and spectacular moviegoing experience.
He must be doing something right—Wallen received the Computerworld 2013 Top 100 IT Leaders and InfoWorld 2012 Technology Leadership awards, both honoring senior executives who have demonstrated creative, effective leadership in inventing, managing, or deploying technology. Also under his guidance, DreamWorks Animation was named to the 50 Most Innovative Companies list in MIT Technology Review. His tenure running the DreamWorks Animation technology team is a case study in making smart decisions, prescient bets, and savvy choices. With the ongoing partnership between Intel and DreamWorks Animation, Wallen gets the support for his developers to bring their ideas, products, and technologies to the marketplace.
Push Yourself, Push Your Vendors
DreamWorks Animation relies on a high-performance computing infrastructure for manufacturing their animated films. It can take 3 to 5 years to make one film, creating as much as 250 terabytes of data and using up to 80 million render hours. Resource and performance demands increase as the studio’s filmmakers envision more stunning effects for the next movie. In the past, performance upgrades followed Moore’s Law where new silicon hardware improved processor clock speeds. DreamWorks Animation adjusted each time as new Intel® microarchitecture became available by tweaking their animation toolsets, adapting their programming models, and changing their compilation processes. But it wasn’t enough.
Wallen challenged Intel with a simple paradigm. “You guys are the experts. You are building these new compute engines, and we want to learn how to invent new software architectures that change how we fundamentally use multi-core processors.” Wallen wasn’t interested in just tinkering with the old single-core architectures and making his tools incrementally better. His approach was that DreamWorks Animation and Intel should “link arms together” and explore the future in tandem.
“Intel is one of the largest and most successful silicon companies on the planet,” he said. “It is often difficult to establish a connection between innovation in the underlying silicon product and advances in the supporting toolsets. We quickly learned that the tools Intel was providing could become a basic building block for the technological future that we now live in.”
Before moving forward, DreamWorks Animation and Wallen had to challenge a long-held notion: Today’s tools work, so why do they need to change? Artists were making movies and happy with the current results. Disruption to the flow seemed unwarranted. At the time of this interview, Wallen was anticipating the general release of The Croods, a movie that helped to exemplify the internal challenges that needed to be overcome. “The main theme of The Croods is the fear of change and technology. Grug, the dad, keeps his family secure with his old ways until his cave is destroyed. Guy, the new caveman, has ideas to make life better in the new world they are about to embark on. You need leadership at the highest level of the company to say, ‘You cannot see the problem that is upon us. We need to lead you beyond this problem to the next phase,’” he said.
“The premise of our ‘next gen’ program was to transform the way we make movies. We wanted to make them better and make our process more efficient at the same time. The key to that was recognizing that the way we use compute power is determined in part by the way in which that power is provided to us, via the platforms, the chipsets, as well as the tools that allow us to exploit those platforms. It’s both a hardware and a software question, and Intel has consistently provided answers to both.”
The new approach would result in re-architecting the studio’s manufacturing pipeline. Using Intel libraries and analysis tools, DreamWorks Animation proprietary software would be optimized to execute many operations in parallel rather than relying on mega-hertz to increase performance. The tools would enable artists to spend less time using a tool and more time creating richer experiences.
When Wallen first came to DreamWorks Animation, he told his Intel representatives that he intended to deliver a complete business transformation. “I told them we are going to connect the dots all the way from your chipset, architecture, and roadmap straight through to the product in front of the consumer. And we are going to do it on a timescale that is actually within our lifetime. All of us here today are still going to be around to tell the end of the story, as opposed to it being a 10-year or 15-year transformation. That was as exciting to us as it was to Intel, and it cemented the willingness of both companies to invest time and engineering talent in bringing this about.”
Invest Resources Strategically
Companies typically struggle over deciding whether to build their own tools or purchase them off the shelf from a vendor. Wallen said that over time, he’s changed his answer to that fundamental question. “When I came here in 2008, the pipeline was predominantly reliant on internal software. We used our own code and the majority of the tools we used were homegrown. But it was a huge, ongoing investment to maintain that level of software. Now, if commercial products are available, we’ll use them.”
DreamWorks Animation invests internal development resources in animation and lighting tools, two key areas of production involved in creating the final imagery for the film. Wallen discussed how the animators for The Croods created an enticing, primordial light and glow in the environment as the prehistoric family takes a “road trip” to a new fantastical world. “Light is such an important part of that movie, and I can trace that back to many of the process innovations and technological breakthroughs that allowed our filmmakers to actually tell a story the way they wanted to.”
Focusing the investment in these critical areas of the business would provide the most agility to DreamWorks Animation’s manufacturing pipeline. “Our process requires that we have the flexibility to adjust our product as we get closer to the release date. That’s when we get the most feedback. When something is just an idea, somebody can say, ‘That sounds like a good plan.’ When they can actually see most of the movie, they might say, ‘Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time, but that character isn’t working for me. I need it to change.’ The ability to quickly get back inside the product and improve it is really important to the quality of the end product.”
At DreamWorks Animation, Wallen has led key decisions directing technology paths and evolving tools. One of these achievements was the creation of a global data center utilizing cloud computing. “We’ve always been a cloud company,” he said. “The cloud was fundamental for us from the outset, and maybe that’s why DreamWorks is somewhat of a lighthouse for what the future will look like. Because our core product required large amounts of processing power, we had built many versions of cloud systems simply to be able to manufacture what we need, at the quality we need, and on the timescales we need.”
Today, DreamWorks Animation teams operate multiple data centers, accessed by artists dispersed across geographies. The company started that trend in 2003; now, cloud computing is part of the DreamWorks Animation DNA. “I told my team to think of multi-core as a mini-cloud. The architecture could view addressing a local machine or a remote machine much in the same breath. We had the cores available to experiment and see what we could do to an individual workflow if we allowed a single artist to have access to a cluster of machines in the data center while in the design process. How fast could they go? How much could it enhance our workflow? The idea of taking all of those cores from the data center and putting them on a single platform was a natural one. Today, for example, on a 3rd generation Intel® Core™ processor-based workstation, our artists have the same turnaround time when making a change to an image and then rendering it on a box with 16 cores as they had when we gave them a cluster of eight machines back in 2007.”
Other technology companies can learn from DreamWorks Animation’s approach to technology. While the products have some unique characteristics, the studio isn’t unique in having to continually operate at the absolute cutting edge. Each movie needs to deliver to the consumer compelling imagery they’ve never seen before and create an experience that they’ve never had before. “We’re at the very high end of this market in terms of putting out products that return significant sums—a half a billion US dollars per movie—worldwide,” he said. “We’ve always got to be at the top of our game. That means we are forever innovating in terms of the quality of what we want to put on the screen. That sort of arms race is a month-by-month-by-month imperative.”
Alpha Geek and Business Guru
The common image of a CTO is that of an experienced engineer who serves as the company’s “alpha geek,” who loves technology for its own sake. But Wallen has to consider the business side, investing strategically in order to stay effective. He likened what is happening now to historic trends. “During the Industrial Revolution, businesses moved from just exploiting the natural environment to more innovative manufacturing. It changed people’s lives and created new economic opportunities. Now we’re in the Information Age. The role of a CTO is to ride those currents and spot the points where the business can use them for its own economic advantage —whether that involves the products it’s producing for its customers or improving its internal processes and efficiency. Exploiting technology for a business impact is the job of a CTO; you can’t ignore the business side because technology for technology’s sake goes nowhere.”
Over his career, Wallen has seen just about every side of software engineering from machine code, assembly code, mainframes, workstations, PCs, networks, and the Internet, to cloud computing and mobile devices. His background also includes experience as a successful PhD candidate studying artificial intelligence and a stint as a professor at Oxford University teaching industrial math and systems engineering. It all adds up to having a solid foundation for his decision making and identifying disruptive market forces.
“I do find that many of these lessons come back around,” he said. “Many of our engineers are much younger than I am, and they haven’t necessarily gone through periods in which some of these problems first arose. These guys are still far too clever for me to keep up with, but I have a pretty good instinct for what direction actually makes sense.”
Call it instinct, or call it good sense, but it all adds up to the kind of world-class, demanding customer that great technology companies rely on to succeed. For moviegoers everywhere, it’s been a magical ride already, and the future looks bright.
TECHNOLOGY BEHIND THE CROODS
• It takes a tremendous amount of high- performance compute power to create DreamWorks Animation’s latest release, The Croods. As the studio’s 26th animated movie and 9th in stereoscopic 3D, the film consisted of 400 million data files requiring over 80 million render hours to produce. About 12 percent of the movie was rendered in the cloud with a one-day peak usage of over 7,000 Intel® Core™ processors.
• DreamWorks Animation artists use HP workstations with dual Intel Core processors to create every character detail and the many creatures in the prehistoric world. For instance, character effects artists created more than 270,000 individual strands of hair for the character Eep, compared to the 90,000 you would find on the average red-haired human. There were also 67,000 piranha-owls that were created to attack the Croods at sunset on the family’s first night after their cave is destroyed.
• DreamWorks Animation artists utilize a fluid simulation framework leveraging the Intel® Math Kernal Library for creating environmental visual effects such as smoke, dust, fire, and explosions. There are typically 2 to 3 special effects incorporated into a single effect on screen. The Croods filmmakers took this to a new level. In the intense shot where the Croods’ cave is destroyed, 11 distinct effect techniques were combined, including 5 different debris simulations, 3 different dust simulations, a shockwave effect, a ground-cracking effect, and a cave destruction simulation.
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