Intel goes to Hollywood

The epicenter of U.S. moviemaking is increasingly choosing to create its magic on Intel Corp's processors, according to the Santa Clara, California, chipmaker. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a division of Lucas Digital Ltd. LLC, Monday became the latest digital effects company to use Intel technology, announcing at SIGGRAPH in San Antonio that it has deployed 600 Intel-based workstations for use in future animation projects.

ILM's graphics work on the forthcoming movies "Star Wars: Episode III," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," and "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines," is being powered by Intel's Pentium 4 processor, which uses the NetBurst architecture. ILM has not released the name of the vendor of the workstations running the Pentium 4.

"The NetBurst architecture was specifically developed around handling media," said Ralph Biesemeyer, media and communications sector manager for Intel. "Hollywood has for the most part used RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) chips in the past" but studios have been switching to Intel chips since the mid 1990s, he said.

Companies such as Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) provided its proprietary technologies to most graphics creators before Intel's chips gained popularity, Biesemeyer said.

SGI is still very much involved with the technology of producing movies, said Louise Ledeen, senior industry manager for the media industry at SGI. The Mountain View, California, company now focuses more on high-end graphics problems, she said, such as managing complex graphics data throughout the image creation and editing process.

"We are now more interested in high-end, high-performance computing, as well as tackling the unique challenges of digital cinematography," Ledeen said.

The emergence of PCs as a commodity product has driven much of Hollywood's move to Intel, but the rise of Linux is also seen as a reason to switch from proprietary systems and software.

"The use of Linux and Windows by major studios is increasing, and as they shift away from proprietary systems and software, they're moving to Intel," said Tom Gibbs, director of worldwide industry marketing for Intel.

That was the case at Sony Pictures Imageworks, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. The company had used workstations and software from SGI almost exclusively until about three years ago, said George Joblove, senior vice president of technology.

Two factors caused Imageworks to change their platform: the low cost and high performance of PCs as opposed to expensive graphics workstations, and the increasing number of graphics software programs developed in-house, said Joblove. Imageworks moved about 75 digital character artists to Intel machines running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT three years ago, and have since moved most of its other artists to Intel machines. The company has also moved two of its graphics applications on compute farms powered by Intel processors that run Linux.

"The price-performance capabilities of PCs were just too good to pass up, and we foresee using additional Intel workstations in the future," said Joblove.

Intel has also worked with a number of different graphics software makers, such as Adobe Systems Inc., Alias|Wavefront, Macromedia Inc., and Digital Domain Inc. to make sure Intel's processors are tuned to their graphics applications.

Dreamworks LLC, Weta Digital Ltd., and The Walt Disney Co. also use Intel processors for their computer-generated effects in recent films, said Intel.

With an uncertain PC market forecast for the rest of 2002, and Itanium 2 just getting off the ground, part of Intel's future looks to be in movies.

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Tom Krazit

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