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Intricate Tech Brings 'Madagascar' to Life

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The ability of animators to turn an imaginary world into reality for millions of movie-goers rests solidly on the shoulders of technological advances, said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the co-founder and CEO of the DreamWorks SKG studio.

At a recent media conference about "Madagascar," the latest animated movie from DreamWorks, which opens at theaters around the country on Friday, Katzenberg answered an eWEEK question about technological advances by saying, "If you can imagine it, then we can pretty much make it happen."

He pointed to how technology has revolutionized animated filmmaking since "Aladdin" was produced in the early 1990s, and how it now affects every aspect of the animation process.

As an example, he cited the fact that the color palette has expanded from four colors to 250 over the past 13 years, while the "Madagascar" landscape has 150,000 objects moving at once.
On the technical front, all of the technical work, production design, animation and rendering for "Madagascar" was done on a complex system of Hewlett-Packard hardware running Linux as well as its own proprietary operating system known as e-motion.

The movie has taken about four years to complete, which sounds like a long time, but when all of the stages and components are considered, it's not really long at all. Consider that every detail of every person, creature, element, plant and background has to be painstakingly coded and then stored in the huge database of the e-motion operating system.

Also, every movement made by the foliage, background, elements such water, and the characters, in this case all animals, had to appear realistic to the design of the movie, which has gone back and adopted the "stretch and squash" technique along with the not-quite-real approach of cartoons and animations of the past.

Every hair on every animal represents a line of computer code, with lead character Alex the Lion having 1.7 million hairs on his head. The design team also developed five different kinds of lemurs with 12 variations of hair type, or 60 possible combinations, for characters. This would have been impossible just a few years ago.

DreamWorks moved to the AMD Opteron processors during movie production, which was risky given the possibility of disruption, but this turned out not to be the case. "The transition to the AMD Opteron processors was made midway through production and was amazingly smooth," Gluckman said.

Asked what some of the main rendering challenges were, he said getting the diverse foliage and the fur of the lemurs to render was very problematic at first, using up way too much memory.

The solution? Create something that represented the volume of fur and the edge breakup that real fur would give, and that had shades like the fur itself, but which was not the actual fur. This solved the problem, which was helped by the fact that the AMD processors on the Proliant servers gave an immediate 35 percent increase in performance and speed.

The company's e-motion operating system, which has all been written internally and is proprietary software, is continually updated and expanded, both to plan for long-term needs as well as to meet the shorter-term technical needs of every movie.

When asked what they planned to do next, many of those who worked on Madagascar said, "Take a long vacation." But given that as one movie is completed another is already in development, there will not be much downtime.

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