arien writes: Thought you might be interested in this recent article from the Australian Financial Review about the OS(s) used for handling the animation in LOTR.

by Katrina Nicholas With Tony Boyd

Tolkien’s weird and wonderful cast of Middle-earth creatures will be vastly enhanced in parts two and three of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy using software that runs on a free operating system.

But while the improvement in computer-generated fantasy figures may wow audiences, their production is hurting high-performance computing giant Silicon Graphics Inc.

That’s because Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based company contracted to handle the trilogy’s animation, rendering and compositing requirements, is gradually moving away from using SGI’s operating system, Irix, in favour of open-source operating system Linux. Weta Digital’s chief technical officer, Mr Jon Labrie, said last week that the company, which will soon increase artist numbers to 200 to ensure the second film is ready by October, operated about 125 SGI and 70 Linux workstations.

Those numbers would reverse within six months, he said.

Mr Labrie said now that Maya and Shake the two primary applications Weta needs to do the 3D modelling and compositing required for the films were available on Linux, it made better dollar sense to use the platform.

(Although Maya and Shake are also available on NT, Mr Labrie said Microsoft’s system did not scale very well.) Linux was better because it was easier to administer and more robust, he said.

Furthermore, as it costs three times as much to operate with SGI, Linux is a very compelling option. Infrastructure costs have been dropping rapidly.

Demonstrating the price differential, Mr Labrie said that it cost more than $NZ40,000 ($32,670) to operate a SGI workstation and just $NZ15,000 for a Linux.

Weta’s shift away from SGI has sparked an outburst from that firm’s chief executive, Mr Bob Bishop. He said, while attending last week’s world congress on information technology, that “Linux is not ready to build professional-quality, broadcast-quality animation”.

“It’s on the way, but at the moment, you cannot truly finish at a professional level, at the broadcast-quality level, animated product on Linux.

“You can get 60 to 70 per cent of the way there, but that final gap will prevent you bringing the product to market. Our Irix operating system is so loaded with real-time, low-latency features which are not available on Linux.”

Mr Bishop also said the reason Weta Digital got its films out on time was because it used the Irix operating system.

But even though operating using Linux was cheaper, Mr Labrie said budgets for the second and third Lord of the Rings films had not been reduced. The computer effects would always expand to fill the available budget, he said.

The increase in available computing power would mean audiences could expect to see richer graphics, especially in scenes involving digitally generated water and fire, Mr Labrie said.

He also said crowd simulation could be dramatically improved. The Fellowship of the Rings, the first Lord of the Rings film, for example, features battle sequences that involved about 50,000 computer-generated warriors in the background.

Those background warrior figures would be increased to 300,000 by film number three, he said.