DreamWorks: The tech bringing animation to life

DreamWorks is one of the most technologically advanced companies in the world of film. With titles such as Shrek, How to Train your Dragon 2 and Kung Fu Panda under its belt, its feature films have grossed more than $13 billion (£9.95bn) worldwide – and several rank among the highest grossing movies of all time. When it comes to CGI and animation, the company’s tech pedigree is simply world class.

DreamWorks: The tech bringing animation to life

Alphr caught up with Kate Swanborg, DreamWorks’ head of technology, communications and strategic alliances, at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, to talk about the technology behind the company’s latest films, find out what the future holds for Hollywood’s visual effects industry, and discover the biggest challenges behind making the latest animated movies.

What does it take to make an animated movie today?

Digital has killed celluloid. It’s been some time since movies routinely arrived at the cinema in metal cans – films printed on 35mm reels of celluloid that had to be threaded carefully through the mechanical jaws of a projector – but that’s nothing new. We’ve all been consuming media digitally since DVDs first arrived on the scene.

But digital means something slightly different to a filmmaker like DreamWorks, which deals with vast quantities of data every day. “By the time we are done making one movie – just one of the films in production – we have crafted half a billion digital files. That’s 500 million files per film and with as many as ten films in production at any given time, that makes five billion active files.”

That’s one hell of a lot of data: 200TB per feature film, not counting backup or disaster recovery.


And that’s just storage. The processing requirements of rendering a DreamWorks Animation movie are equally astronomical: “Ten thousand cores of our 20,000-core render farm will be used for one film, 24/7 for about six months straight. Those rendering hours will equate to around 75 million CPU hours over the lifetime of the film,” says Swanborg.

READ NEXT: How VHS is bringing the lost pages of teletext back from the dead

It’s not just the number of files actively being worked on that prove the biggest technical hurdle, but managing the different versions of those files. “The vast majority of that data [is stuff] you don’t need,” says Swanborg. Managing those many different file revisions and deciding what to throw away is just as big a challenge.

As a result, one of the next big step forwards in animated movies is likely to be big data analytics. As the data and processing demands increase, analytics will need to play its part, whether that’s by helping to reduce the vast storage requirements, or performing in-depth analysis of the rendering times involved.

What kind of desktop PC does an artist get on their desk?

At DreamWorks, it seems, technology is everything. If the numbers above don’t drive that home, then consider this. If the artists creating the scenes, animating the characters and lovingly crafting every frame don’t have fast, responsive machines to work on, and the server farm can’t compute the frames fast enough, the film-making process would simply take too long. The sorts of animated films families take for granted today would be impossible without top-flight PCs and servers – and the faster, the better.

We’re not talking iPads and MacBooks here. Most of the people who work at Dreamworks need serious amounts of processing oomph and with the best will in the world, a tablet or normal laptop just can’t cut it. For this sort of work, only a high-end workstation will do.


The company is currently in the throes of rolling out HP Z840 workstations across the business, which Swanborg says are 40% faster than the PCs they’re replacing. Each one has a 20-core 3.1GHz Ivy Bridge Xeon E5 CPU, 96GB of RAM, twin 480GB SSDs and an Nvidia Quadro K5000, as well as twin 24in HP DreamColor displays and a high-end graphics tablet. Every artist in the company gets one.

That’s some serious power, right there. Do the Dreamworks artists really need all this power? Swanborg says that the 40% performance boost delivers a huge knock-on benefit to creativity and efficiency: “Artists can feel that [benefit], that’s meaningful; it’s material.”

How might VR impact filmmaking in the years to come?

“DreamWorks doesn’t see VR as a big thing for the film industry. Not yet, anyway.”

It may come as some surprise to hear that one of the most technologically advanced film companies around doesn’t think much of the hot technology of the moment, but DreamWorks doesn’t see it as being a big thing for the film industry. Not yet, anyway.

“We’re hanging tight on VR,” said Swanborg. “We definitely see the applications for it in terms of gaming. [But] our audiences are really family audiences, and what that means is you have to think about the kids as much as the adults.

“Right now, the technologies around VR are very adult oriented. Most of [the headsets] aren’t great for kids yet. And so until the technologies [become] kid appropriate, from a DreamWorks Animation standpoint we’ll probably hang tight on doing a lot of exploration in that space.”

That’s understandable, since most of the hardware hasn’t been approved for use by children yet, but what might a DreamWorks VR film look like, if the technology does reach the stage where the younger generation can use it safely?


The ultimate goal, says Swanborg, would be the idea that moviegoers could “feel like [they] were interacting with the characters” as they were watching – turn around and smile at a character, and get a smile back, or a knowing wink.

Even then, the inherent limitations of VR as a storytelling tool would likely get in the way. “Telling a good story is kind of hard and to have audience members interacting and doing it on the fly – it’s almost impossible to imagine that creating a compelling story every time,” says Swanborg.

“My suspicion is that … animation is going to become the predominant way in which [all] movies get made.”

But the biggest advance, and one that’s probably just around the corner, may be one that you don’t notice at all. “My suspicion is that … the world of animation is going to start becoming the predominant way in which [all] movies get made. Look at films like the Marvel films – they’re half animated right now, at least, maybe more. The Hulk is largely an animated character, Iron Man is largely an animated character. One of the next big trends we’re going to see is that the world of animation is actually going to become pervasive.”

What does that mean? With movies such as the 2016 remake of The Jungle Book rewriting the rulebook on what an animated movie can look like, and TV shows such as Game of Thrones routinely bringing high-end animation to the small screen, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not. In short, the world of live action movies is going to fade away and take a back seat to an all-digital movie world.

Disclaimer: Some pages on this site may include an affiliate link. This does not effect our editorial in any way.

Todays Highlights
How to See Google Search History
how to download photos from google photos