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DreamWorks Animation, which this week releases Madagascar, has set a fast-paced production schedule and uses homegrown software to pull it off

Aaron Ricadela

May 21, 2005

6 Min Read

After winding around a barren road lined by construction equipment and a giant scrap heap 25 miles south of San Francisco, DreamWorks Animation SKG's Northern California studios gleam like an oasis of glass on the lowlands along the San Francisco Bay. Once inside, the oasis gives way to a high-tech fortress, with paperwork at every turn. In the airy lobby, the receptionist promptly proffers a nondisclosure agreement. Then visitors are asked to sign a log book, which upon inspection turns out to also contain an NDA.

In DreamWorks' new film, "Madagascar," New York zoo animals go to Africa.

In DreamWorks' new film, "Madagascar," New York zoo animals go to Africa.

Photo by DreamWorks

Why all the secrecy? It could be because DreamWorks Animation, which this week is releasing its latest computer-animated film, Madagascar, is banking on its homegrown technology to help meet a self-imposed production schedule of two animated movies a year--a grueling pace no one's ever tried before--to gain an edge in the hotly competitive market for computer animated films. Madagascar, opening May 27, tells the tale of four New York zoo animals who go out for a night on the town and end up getting shipped to Africa and features the voices of Ben Stiller and Chris Rock. DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg is pulling out all the stops to promote it, including press conferences on both coasts featuring his stars. Meanwhile, archrival Pixar Animation Studios over the last decade has released a string of six computer-animated blockbusters--including last fall's The Incredibles--and has become the industry's toast of the town.

DreamWorks Animation went public in October and saw its stock soar, but first-quarter earnings disappointed investors. "It's tough. Nobody else has ever released two animated features in a year," says Andy Hendrickson, DreamWorks' head of production technology, who joined the company three years ago after a dozen years at George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on the early '90s special-effects-laden blockbuster Jurassic Park. "Now, we're working on many [movies] at the same time. That sharing of technology among the projects is what we've focused on the last two years--being able to scale the shop up to work on multiple features."

To pull it off, DreamWorks is linking three sets of animation personnel, one in Redwood City, Calif., and two in L.A., by networking their high-powered computers with gigabit-per-second connections. An elaborate videoconferencing system keeps the locations in touch, projecting nearly life-size images on the wall, such as one of chief technology officer Ed Leonard talking from the company's headquarters in Glendale, Calif. DreamWorks also has licensed the technol- ogy to Hewlett-Packard as part of a broad sales and marketing deal between the companies, and HP plans to release a product that uses the system.

Unlike Pixar, whose commercial RenderMan software is an industry standard and was used in other studios' hits, such as Spider-Man 2, DreamWorks keeps its technology close to the vest. Animators use in-house-developed software called e-motion for nearly every stage of their work, which starts off by turning hand-drawn storyboards, paper sketches, and clay models of characters into computerized "puppets," which then get animated, while obeying their own laws of physics. In Madagascar, the starring quartet of a lion, a zebra, a hippo, and a giraffe leap, stretch, and squish themselves into all sorts of unlikely poses. Animators set the cartoon animals against more realistic-looking city, ocean, and jungle backgrounds, and "lit" each scene using virtual lamps positioned at different angles.

DreamWorks' animators set cartoon animals against realistic-looking backgrounds.

DreamWorks' animators set cartoon animals against realistic-looking backgrounds.

Photo by DreamWorks

When creating a movie, technicians use a 2,500-CPU Linux cluster, distributed among the company's two studios and a facility at supplier HP's research labs in Palo Alto, Calif., to perform the nightly task of "rendering" the film, which involves turning the gigabytes of mathematical equations and data that describe each frame into watchable pixels. Rendering all of Madagascar took more than 11 million hours of CPU time, CTO Leonard estimates.

About half of Madagascar's budget, which is reportedly $90 million, paid for computer animation, Hendrickson says. Part of that heavy tech spending generates techniques that can be reused in other computer-animated films in DreamWorks' pipeline. In addition to Shrek 3, which will continue a megahit franchise, the company is working on features such as Bee Movie, an '07 release about a bee and a florist co-written and voiced by Jerry Seinfeld; Flushed Away, about rats in the London sewers; and Over The Hedge, featuring Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling as woodland creatures fighting suburban development.

The IT spending also helps to juggle multiple projects. "They need to deal with flexibly moving resources back and forth between those productions," says Gene Becker, a director at HP Labs and technical lead on the company's deal with DreamWorks. "There are hundreds of creative decisions which get made on these films, and many of those have a technical impact as well."

So far, the results have been mixed. Shrek 2, released a year ago, was the highest-grossing animated feature ever, raking in $436.7 million at U.S. box offices. But last year's Shark Tale only grossed $161 million. Pixar, founded by Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, grossed $261 million from The Incredibles, and Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. have been big hits as well. Pixar is outclassing DreamWorks in DVD sales of its movies, too. DreamWorks' first quarter profit of 44 cents per share missed analysts' expectations by 14 cents per share as DVD sales of Shrek 2 didn't materialize as the company had hoped.

Pixar isn't the only threat. Computer-generated animation house Blue Sky Studios showed its chops with Ice Age and Robots in the past few years, Disney has embraced the genre, and there are rumblings that Sony Pictures Entertainment and Lucasfilm might get in as well.

At a San Francisco press conference this month, Katzenberg marveled at how far computer-generated animation has come since his days as a Disney executive in the '80s and early '90s. Disney's Beauty And The Beast, released in 1991, and Aladdin in '92, used computer animation selectively, creating scenes and characters that would have been hard to draw by hand. But it wasn't until Pixar's Toy Story 10 years ago that Hollywood became convinced computer animation could carry an entire feature film.

"What we're able to do with technology was unimaginable when Aladdin came out," Katzenberg said. "We're almost at a place where, if you can dream it, you can make it," he said. "Almost." Madagascar, with its classic-cartoon characters and painstaking detail in each frame--right down to the animals' fur--looks like an IT milestone. "Technically, we couldn't have made this movie a year ago," Katzenberg said. Whether all the technology behind it translates into a sorely hoped-for hit will be clear in a few more weeks.

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