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AMD and Lucasfilm: Making Episode III

AMD and Lucasfilm: Making Episode III AMD and Episode III
With Episode III now in theaters across the world, many of you will have had a chance to be blown away by the final part of the Star Wars saga. Rest assured that, for those of you who haven't had a chance to experience the film yet, this article won't contain any spoilers. Rather, we're taking a close look at the work that AMD have done with Lucasfilm to bring the film from the mind of George Lucas to your cinema screen.

AMD and Lucasfilm: Making Episode III AMD and Episode III
We caught up with Charlie Boswell, Director of AMD's Digital Media and Entertainment group and Dan Gregoire, Pre-Visualization Effects Supervisor at JAK Films, a division of Lucasfilm.

It's time for Animaniacs

So what does AMD have to do with Episode III? Well, many of you will by now be familiar with the term Animatics. Effectively invented for Episode I, Animatics are computer-generated pre-renders of a film scene. By creating a version of the scene in a computer before filming, the Director can get an idea of what shots work well, the pacing of the scene, ideas of camera angles and suchlike. This can save time and money when it comes to actually filming.

Animatics can also be used to pre-render all-CGI sequences, with simpler realisations of space battles and other similar sequences giving an idea to the Director of how he wants the sequence handled.

Of course, all this computer pre-rendering requires some pretty spiffy computers. Animators require fast machines to work on, and even faster machines to render some of the bigger segments. This is where AMD step in.

"Star Wars Producer, Rick McCallum's secretary called me and asked to arrange a meeting," Charlie told bit-tech. "I was straight up there the next day."

Dan elaborates, "Our relationship started a few years ago, with our original Athlon MP systems. They came in at the end of Episode II, when we had the end battle and the Droid Factory sequences to deal with. These were scenes that were really going to take a lot more horsepower than we had at the time. They kitted us out with Athlon MP systems... we were very impressed with their performance."

AMD and Lucasfilm: Making Episode III AMD and Episode III
Dan admires his Opteron systems. Nice rack, eh?
For Episode 2, JAK pre-rendered 4400 shots, of which 2200 were used. For Star Wars 3, 6500 shots were pre-rendered, of which 2200 were used. What enabled them to add to their output so significantly?


The 64-bit Question

"For Episode III, AMD set us up with all new systems," continues Dan. "Sometime during Episode III - we had always been on this track - we moved over to 64-bit chips and dabbling with 64-bit Windows. We hacked some of our apps to be large address aware."

If you've been wondering just how long it's going to be before the average punter sees a decent increase in performance through 64-bit technology in everyday system usage, rest assured that these guys are already seeing it. "We're putting such a huge amount of data through the system, AMD64 is so much faster at handling this stuff."

Which specific technologies in the platform enabled the performance increase that JAK needed? "Even before we had the 64-bit aware software, HyperTransport was delivering a performance increase. It's just so much of a stronger connecting force than other platforms out there. We're working with such huge amounts of data, and it's all about getting the data through the architecture."

Charlie expands: "HyperTransport is really one of the key performance enablers for the platform. We designed AMD64 from the ground up to be an efficient architecture, putting a memory controller on each chip. With the (Intel) Xeon architecture, the two chips share a single connection to the memory controller and the rest of the system. It's a bottleneck. Even now, when Intel have upgraded their chips to 64-bit, putting 64-bits of data across that bottleneck just exacerbates the problem."

The net result? Media intensive applications slow-down like crazy on Xeon workstations, and fly on Opteron workstations, according to Charlie. Rather than going straight to Apple Macs, the previous choice of the media-savvy, "AMD technology makes doing this stuff on Windows a possibility. A few years ago, we would have been flogged for even suggesting Windows workstations to these guys. Now, they're the fastest systems out there."

Hacking 64-bit applications? Dan: "The software was in a chicken-and-egg situation. Companies were slow at updating their software for 64-bit until the hardware was out there, and people weren't buying the hardware because of the lack of software support.

"We went straight in and hacked our apps so that they were large address aware. That gave us an extra tool in our arsenal. Even under 32-bit, our Opteron systems kicked ass, we were seeing render times dropping in half from our previous setups. But if we had a really intense scene that caused us to run into problems, we could move to 64-bit rendering to help with that and increase the performance."