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High-Tech Digs For A Digital Production Company

LucasFilm, owned by George Lucas, has built a $350 million, 23-acre digital campus that will serve as a development epicenter for movies, special effects, and digital gaming using state-of-the-art software and technology.
Steven Spielberg's remake of the H.G. Wells classic alien invasion War Of The Worlds, which raked in $77.6 million in ticket sales during the July 4 holiday weekend, is a showcase of technology-generated imagery--from ominous skies and aliens in long-legged war machines that emerge from within the earth--created by Industrial Light & Magic. Moviegoers and gaming enthusiasts can expect to see more of this high-impact visual imagery in the future, thanks to Industrial Light & Magic's newly built production studio.

The visual-effects production company, owned by George Lucas' LucasFilm Ltd., will move into its digs on July 11, as part of LucasFilm's new $350 million, 23-acre digital campus built on a decommissioned military base in San Francisco's Presidio national park. The digital campus will serve as a development epicenter for movies, special effects, and digital gaming using state-of-the-art software and technology. "While many visual-effects studios talk about convergence with game divisions, we will use similar tools and techniques in various production processes," says Cliff Plumer, chief technology officer at Industrial Light & Magic. "Working with Lucas Arts [the gaming division], we've integrated some of the game engines into our software-tool package, Zeno. It lets artists work with a director in real time by moving a camera in a synthetic environment to create a blueprint for scenes other artists can follow."

The decision to share software and tools between Industrial Light & Magic and Lucas Arts is strategic, Plumer says: the two can benefit from a faster network, increased processing power, and integrated tools, leading to a completely new way of working for Industrial Light & Magic. Software tools that had been developed for many years and once run separately are being integrated into a suite and shared between Industrial Light & Magic and Lucas Arts. For example, the software integrated into the pipeline will let Industrial Light & Magic 's production staff update schedules and share data in real time with artists. "Historically, we've had an army of coordinators with clipboards walking around with the information," Plumer says, emphasizing the collaboration between divisions. "Now everything will be done electronically."

Industrial Light & Magic's new office space claims to have the largest state-of-the-art high-performance data center in the industry, with 600 miles of cable that connect visual-effects artists' desktops via a 1-Gbit network to a 10-Gbit backbone network linked to the data center, 10 times more bandwidth than the former offices. At the former studio in San Rafael, Calif., artists had 100 Mbps to the desktop and 1-Gbit backbone. A new 13,500-square-foot data center will manage Industrial Light & Magic's digital images around the clock, using more than 3,500 high-end Advanced Micro Devices Inc. computer processors.

The network will support the more than 150 terabytes that will flow through the campus at the heart of a movie-production cycle. The added bandwidth is expected to eliminate any delays or bottlenecks caused by artists gaining access to data and information, and enable the facility to scale up as required.

AMD is at the core of computing resources at Industrial Light & Magic's new facility. There's a rendering farm powered by AMD Opteron processors where 3-D and 2-D geometries, textures, and lighting are composed into a sequence of images. Internally developed software manages the jobs. In the evening, artists' desktop workstations will expand the rendering farm in the server room from 3,500 processors to nearly 5,000, taking full advantage of the facility's processing power.

There are companies that went down the collaborative path without success. Digital Domain Inc. is one of them. Today's sophisticated technology that lets artists create cinematics using software and tools for the movie industry and apply it at a lower resolution for the gaming industry didn't exist when Digital Domain tried to share resources among gaming and visual-effects divisions, says Scott Ross, chairman and CEO at Digital Domain, with credits that include feature movies Stealth, Dark Water, and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. "The technologies that have been developed for the movie industry [are] about resolution and lighting issues that make sense in a high-resolution big screen. And when you get into video games on a smaller screen, while quality is important, it's not near as important as it is in the film industry," he says. "Some of the technologies for movies can be used for games."

Other obstacles still stand in the way though, says Ross, who once ran Industrial Light & Magic and left in 1992 to co-found Digital Domain with investors including IBM and Cable Entertainment Inc. Moviemaking is a high-cost business, much more so than the gaming industry, Ross says. For their talent, skill, and knowledge, artists working in the movie industry command higher salaries than those in the gaming industry, he says--about 25% to 35% more.