Multicore taking the film industry back to the future

Panelists at the Jon Peddie Research Siggraph press luncheon found much to cheer about in the rise of powerful multicore processors, even if the gains are not being uniformly embraced.

When James Cameron talks about the technology behind his block­buster film “Avatar,” he often says he had to wait to make the film until the technology was ready. Today the technology Cameron waited for—and in some cases, helped to in­vent—is commercially available, all of it powered by massive multicore CPU and GPU processors. In a panel discus­sion at Siggraph 2012 in Los Angeles sponsored by Jon Peddie Research, five CG technologists and creators dis­cussed the pros and cons of life in the multicore era.

Jacob Rosenberg of Bandito Bros. (right) talks about his group’s use of off-the shelf cameras and workstations to create the action film Act of Valor while Phillip Miller of Nvidia listens in at the Jon Peddie Research Siggraph press luncheon August 8, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Source: JPR)

In the first years of digital media, creative processes had to take a back­seat to the requirements and rhythms of working in silicon instead of cellu­loid. But today’s processor power not only makes possible special effects never before possible, it is also accelerating production time. Rob Powers, president of a new division of NewTek devoted to 3D technology, says the lag time be­tween a director’s change request and a review of the result is disappearing. “We are getting back to the way film was made 20 years ago,” he says.

Jacob Rosenberg says today’s GPU technology is accelerating tasks that have been a bottleneck to film crews in the digital era. As CTO of Bandito Bros.—best known for their recent hit film Act of Valor—Rosenberg says one of the big benefits is that it levels the playing field for small production firms like his. Bandito Bros. now can color-correct in the stu­dio instead of sending it out to a specialty house. Ren­dering that took hours or days in the past have been cut down significantly, allowing “as final” viewing of scenes during production.

Faster production is not the only by-product of mul­ticore technology. James Mc­Combe of Caustic Graphics/ Imagination Technologies says the ability to move pro­duction work from “towers to laptops” is having an im­mense impact on film and game production. Caustic is a ray-tracing specialist, and McCombe notes the very best effects in ray tracing are the product of “power and size.” For those willing to move ray tracing to the cloud, the power is now available from an iPad. But in the secre­tive world of high-stakes film and game production, many users are not ready or willing to send projects to the cloud. For these users, the challenge remains of scaling down high-end ray-tracing tech­nology to the laptop; McCombe says it is a work in progress and notes that next-generation smartphones will come with 100+ cores—albeit simple ones.

The JPR panelists were split on the desirability of cloud computing. Phil­lip Miller of Nvidia notes that power­ful graphics processing is now avail­able on “any device, anywhere” and says “latency is the last enemy to be conquered.” David Forrester, managing director of rendering software vendor Lightworks, sees the same issues as Mc­Combe. “Our customers are not request­ing cloud services,” says Forrester. “Until intellectual property issues are addressed they won’t use it.” Many Lightworks customers are extremely protective of their data and only use internal render farms. “We are skeptical,” he says.

Engineering has different issues

The compute-intensive tasks required to create CG for film and gaming are highly iterative in nature and easily par­allelized for processing on multiple CPU and GPU cores. But CAD graphics rely on intensive, proprietary algorithms and complex interrelationships that operate in serial fashion and are not easy to dis­tribute in parallel to a cluster of process­ing cores. Current hardware designs are not helping the problem, notes Nvidia’s Miller: “The pipe between CPU and GPU has not increased in size; there are too many ‘touches’ between the two.” Miller says Nvidia recently consulted with one CAD vendor and helped it decrease large assembly display regen­eration by 15% “just by cleaning up the graphics pipeline.”

Caustic’s McCombe also sees the serial nature of CAD al­gorithms as a big part of the problem. “New algo­rithms are needed; there are [too many] serial dependen­cies. The research has not been done to evolve this. This isn’t about adding even more cores, but optimizing code to use what is avail­able now.”

Powers of NewTek has a different perspective. Opti­mization is coming to CAD software, he says, and users will see “crazy performance increases” coming soon to many CAD products as ven­dors release new versions optimized for multicore technology.

Clearly split

The comments on cloud computing and the strong algorithmic distinctions between ren­dering images and calculating geom­etry show there is still much work to be done to make professional computer graphics work possible anytime, any­where, on any platform. We are in an unusual place in the computer revolu­tion: we trust banks with holding our money in a digital vault we can access from a browser, but many will not let a cloud services vendor touch their car­toon images or product designs.