Lenovo and DreamWorks Animation: The Dream Team That’s Pushing the Boundaries of Animation Technology

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DreamWorks Animation brings bigger, bolder films to life, supported by Lenovo’s mastery of data center innovation. It’s a visionary partnership.

For DreamWorks Animation, staying on top of the business of animation means being in the business of data.

As DreamWorks creates unforgettable franchises like Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Trolls and The Croods, high performance computing plays a critical factor in supporting the content creation process. Producing a computer-generated animated feature typically takes 4 years, with hundreds of artists and engineers working in tandem to create half a billion digital files that require 200 Million compute hours to render (that’s more than 22,000 compute years!). It’s a scale of heavy computational loading and processing not unlike the supercomputing needs of researchers.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that when DreamWorks found itself needing to update its legacy data center earlier this year, it turned to the global leader in supercomputing systems to meet their needs: Lenovo.

DreamWorks animation still of two characters smiling at each other.
(from left) Eep Crood (Emma Stone) and Dawn Betterman (Kelly Marie Tran) in DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods: A New Age, directed by Joel Crawford.

Designing and installing a state-of-the-art, high-performance computing cluster at the height of a global pandemic is a considerable challenge. But Lenovo’s mastery of problem solving and navigating the supply chain, coupled with unparalleled collaboration and mutual trust between the two companies, enabled the seemingly impossible project to come off successfully.

Today, DreamWorks data center equipped with the Lenovo Neptune™ liquid cooling technology supports the animation leader’s passion for producing bigger, bolder films.

“I was joking that I couldn’t buy a roll of toilet paper during the pandemic, but I could buy and install a supercomputer,” said Skottie Miller, Fellow, Systems Architecture, DreamWorks Animation.

Lenovo rose to the challenge.

They worked with DreamWorks Animation’s contractors to alter the plumbing and integrate the cooling systems so the system could quickly go live and start adding value. With the Lenovo Neptune™ liquid cooling system, water from existing sources is harnessed to cut power consumption by a third, all while allowing more computing power to be packed into the walls of the legacy data center.

Additionally, the logistics team leveraged Lenovo’s global supply chain reach to pre-order components with long lead times, staged them in Europe until they could be shipped, and worked with suppliers world-wide to provide the systems and synchronize their arrival.

“It was a beautifully orchestrated logistical masterpiece,” added Miller.

For Lenovo, partnering with DreamWorks Animation offers a stage to showcase what high performance computing can achieve for industries outside scientific research, especially when paired with the right expertise and support.

“It has to do with our confidence that not only can they understand our technology environment and help us with our infrastructural roadmap and strategy, but that they have the people that can appreciate our business and our culture,” said Kate Swanborg, SVP Technology Communications and Strategic Alliances, of the decision to partner with Lenovo.

With Lenovo's Neptune liquid cooling system, water from existing sources is harnessed to cut power consumption by a third.
With Lenovo’s Neptune liquid cooling system, water from existing sources is harnessed to cut power consumption by a third.

“The data center really is the heart of our environment,” said Jeff Wike, Chief Technology Officer, DreamWorks Animation. “As it beats and as it grows, it has to support all these different creative and operational ambitions.”

Animation is a field where the state of mind reflects “what’s impossible today is inevitable tomorrow.” Complexity is ever-increasing. The smooth, simple reflective surfaces on bugs and fish of early films like Antz and Shark Tale have been replaced by heroes whose complex fur, hair, and detailed expression make them much more computationally demanding to create.  Technology is constantly evolving, outdoing itself to match the ambitious vision of the studio’s creatives.

“We strive really hard to use technology to optimize for one of the most valuable resources on our campus which are the artists,” explained Miller. “To the degree that we can automate away tasks so that our engineers can focus on strategies that allow the artist to focus on art, that’s really one of the things we’re striving for.”

With people sheltered at home due to the pandemic, the demand for new animated content has skyrocketed, but the number of artists working on any given film stays the same, as do time constraints.  Meeting this demand calls for more efficiency and for powerful technological innovation.

Lenovo technician installing a large data center rack.

“We’re currently at capacity in our data center, running at a 98% utilization rate. Any advancements we can add that optimize the efficiency of our on-premise resources will have a material impact on achieving our creative and business ambitions,” said Wike.

It certainly helps that Lenovo pairs the technology with white-glove customer support, allowing DreamWorks Animation to navigate the IT complexity. “Having really good professional services and support behind the partnership allows you to tune things with confidence,” said Wike.

“Really, our goal is to be a living laboratory as well as a sounding board for anything the Lenovo engineers want to try with a company interested in applying exascale-level technologies,” said Miller.

The real results will show up in DreamWorks Animation’s everlasting mission to push the frontier of technological innovation in CG. So, if you’re wondering what you’ll see next from the partnership, it might be something you’ve never seen before – and that’s the whole point.

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