Amusing Children With Supercomputers

Yesterday I saw the new animated movie “Madagascar 3” at a special preview with my son.  It doesn’t open for a week, but the studio, Dreamworks, held a preview for the staff of Red Hat, a Linux software services company who helped them greatly with the computer animation, mainly with task-dispatching software called MeshGrid.  My son has a friend whose dad works at Red Hat, and so we got in.

Before the movie started, a Dreamworks person came out to say a bit about it.  It was rendered on a farm of 24,000 processor cores.  Even that wasn’t enough – they had to rent cloud time as well.  Individual scenes took millions of CPU hours, and had tens of thousands of animated characters.  The whole movie probably took 50 million CPU hours.  That’s about 6 CPU-millenia!

So making a modern animated movie takes a supercomputer.   Pixar has a similar system of about 15K cores.   However, a 24K-core system isn’t all that big by supercomputer standards – it would be 27th of the list of the Top 500 Supercomputers.  The world’s largest is the 700K-core K Computer at the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science in Kobe, Japan.   Still, the Dreamworks system would be one of the largest non-military machines in the US.   That’s what we do in the US – movies and bomb simulations.

Dreamworks uses HP Proliant Blade servers, where each board holds one or two Xeon 2.0 GHz 6-core processor chips, 64 GB of RAM, and many 10 Gb network ports.   HP now builds these in shipping-container-sized units for cloud servers.    Oddly enough, Dreamworks does not appear to use GPUs at present.  Ten years ago they used ATI chips, but I suppose modern renderers are too complex to optimize for specialized hardware.

As for the movie, well, that poster is actually a pretty accurate summary of it – lots of colors and lots of yelling.   I’m afraid that even CPU-millenia can’t make up for over-frenzied scripts.   The kids liked it, though, so if you have to go, do what we did and have a high kid-to-parent ratio!

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