Like most studios, D2 was primarily using SGI hardware running SGI's IRIX variant of UNIX, both on renderfarm servers and artist workstations. Experiments at D2 with Dante's Peak in 1996 proved that a move to Linux was feasible. “The Linux renderfarm came first”, notes D2 Digital Production and Technology Creative Director Judith Crow. “With Titanic we were working with a company called Areté using Renderworld, their ocean-simulation software. It ran three times faster on our Linux Alphas than on our IRIX SGI machines.” While the renderfarm paved the way, applications such as NUKE and Houdini pushed Linux to the desktop.
A compositor is what software artists use for overlaying moving images, for example, the starship Enterprise flying past a background matte of a space station. “Digital Domain has been running NUKE on Linux since 1997 when it was used extensively on Titanic”, says Digital Effects Supervisor Jonathan Egstad. Egstad, along with D2's Bill Spitzak, Paul Van Camp and Price Pethel received an Academy Award for the NUKE compositor.
“NUKE is essentially a 2-D renderer”, says Egstad. “It is five or six times faster on Linux than IRIX, but it wasn't until the beginning of 2001 that the Linux GUI was able to run fast. Back in 1993, NUKE was the original scanline-based design. It only took 20MB of RAM to render a typical composite instead hundreds of megabytes.” Later commercial compositor applications, such as Shake, the popular node-based compositor sold by Apple, have a similar design.
“There are many instances where 2-D can assist in the workload”, points out Egstad:
Houdini, a commercial 3-D package of which D2 is a big user, offers its own integrated compositor called Halo in its latest version. As with NUKE, it is hierarchy-based in conjunction with 2-D hierarchy. D2 also uses the commercial 3-D packages LightWave and Maya.
NUKE version 3 has been in use at D2 since 2001, running on Linux, IRIX and Windows. D2's first Linux renderfarm was on Digital Alphas and still gets some use. The NUKE design retained the keystrokes used in IRIX, so users, especially freelancers working at D2, wouldn't face a learning curve when moving between operating systems. “The NUKE interface is deliberately Spartan, designed more toward feature work”, notes Egstad. “It probably has the strongest color-correction tools of any major package.”
D2 had requests for years to make NUKE into a commercial product for use by other studios, and the pressure increased after Apple purchased industry-leader Shake. Studios became concerned when Apple dallied with announcing future Linux support.
“We've founded the D2 Software Company to sell and market NUKE and other applications that currently exist or don't exist within the studio”, says Digital Production and Technology VP Michael Taylor. He continues:
Taylor says Linux, Windows and IRIX versions will be available in early 2003. There are no plans yet for Mac OS X. Pricing starts under $10K US, which is comparable to Shake. For students, there will be a free-of-charge or inexpensive version, comparable to the apprentice versions of Maya and Houdini.
Digital compositor Brian Begun describes working on a scene in NUKE for Star Trek Nemesis:
Begun walks us through setting up a typical effect in NUKE—moving the Enterprise across a star field:
$ job trek [sets show variables]
Technical Director Jason Iversen is responsible for energy beam effects and debris for Star Trek:
As we're talking, one of his SGI machines is being taken away for use on the renderfarm. At D2, workstations are being upgraded to dual-Pentium PCs.
Star Trek work at D2 was previously all done in Houdini on Linux, but most of the Maya artists are on Windows NT because of Maya plugins not being available on Linux. “One of the largest sequences we've got is the avalanche sequence, all in Linux Houdini plus our own internal tool called VoxelB for doing volumetrics”, notes Iversen. He continues:
“Terragen is our terrain-generating program that was used in Time Machine for planet shots”, says Iversen. He adds:
Although Linux supports popular 3-D packages such as Houdini and Maya, Crow says she feels frustrated by a dearth of Linux paint packages. “There's a depth to Photoshop that Film GIMP doesn't have. Film GIMP isn't mature enough.” Crow says a promising development is Amazon16, a 16-bit paint package that maker Interactive Effects is porting to Linux. Amazon has a long history on IRIX. “It was layer-based before Photoshop, supports user-defined macros, provides 3-D texture paint capabilities, and most importantly, supports HDR formats like Cineon that are critical for film work”, says Crow. “Another promising development is the 32-bit Linux paint package Photogenics by Idruna, currently in beta.”
According to Crow, porting D2's IRIX-based applications to Linux went rapidly, especially with their compositing software NUKE. The Linux conversion at D2 happened in stages, first the renderfarm that performs batch processing of movie effects, then the desktops where artists work. “When Linux was ready for the desktop we were eager to adopt it”, says Crow. “As soon as we got an OS like Linux supporting the features we relied on we were excited to move to it.”
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