A Time To Remember


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Apr 20, 2012 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

The Titanic is probably the most discussed ship of all times. Last weekend on the 100th anniversary of its sinking I went to see the 1953 classic movie “Titanic” with Clifton Web, Barbara Stanwyck and a very young Robert Wagner at our local “arts” theater, the Wilton Town Hall Theater. The movie was free (donations to local charities recommended), and a huge bucket of fresh-popped popcorn, with real butter, is only 5 dollars.

There are also the movies “A Night to Remember” in 1958, and James Cameron's Oscar-winning movie “Titanic” in 1997 which changed a disaster movie into a love story and the 3D version out this year.

The DEC Alpha version of GNU/Linux was first started as a project in January of 1995, and completed in the fall of 1995. At that time the Alpha was the worlds fastest microprocessor, and of course was a 64-bit processor instead of just 32-bit. Both of these facts interested a small company in California named “Digital Domain”.

In 1997 I was in Los Angeles attending a trade show when I met a young man named Daryll Strauss who was a software engineer at Digital Domain. At that time Daryll had been “hacking on Unix systems” for fifteen years, and was deep into visual effects for film.

Daryll invited me to Digital Domain's headquarters in Venice, California where they were just putting on the finishing touches to a new film by James Cameron (who along with two business partners founded Digital Domain in 1993) called “Titanic”.

Not being a real “film buff” I had never heard of Digital Domain before, and did not really know who James Cameron was, but I did understand the scope of what they were trying to do in the movie.

At that time most of the artists working at Digital Domain were using SGI workstations to do their individual work. A few were using Windows NT on Intel. Sometimes closed-source software packages only were found on SGI (which at that time was well known for its high-end computer graphics) and sometimes only on Windows NT, so the artists would use the platform that had the tools. However, Windows NT at the time did not have certain features that allowed it to fit into the Unix environment that was at the core of Digital Domain's network.

As the artists finished their detailed work, Digital Domain ordered 160 Alpha systems pre-installed with Red Hat 4.1 GNU/Linux, and set up their rendering and compositing farm. First they used the farm to render the water (water is very hard to render realistically), then used the farm to composite the movie, close to four hundred thousand frames over a period of three months with the systems running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There were a number of alternatives that Digital Domain could have followed. They could have used Digital Unix (DU) on the Alphas, but they needed support for some devices that DU did not support, and writing the device drivers for DU was difficult. Besides the number of licenses they would have needed would have boosted their costs considerably.

Digital Domain could have used SGI machines, but the DEC Alpha gave them a 2-3 times performance benefit due to the floating point performance, and about twice the performance over an Intel-based solution due to CPU speed and bus bandwidth. Not only was this a performance boost, but under the time constraints it was a price-performance benefit also, as they did not need to buy as many processors to get the work load completed in the time frame they needed it finished.

Of course this was in the early days of the Alpha/Linux port and not everything was peaches and cream. There were some bugs found by Digital Domain in various libraries, and some device driver work that had to be done, but by and large the systems were very stable, with some computers running for over a month at a time continuously. Pretty good for 1997 and a port that had been finished only a few months before they started work.

Titanic was released on December 19th, 1997 to theaters. I begged Digital Equipment Corporation's marketing department to play up the fact that Alpha and Alpha Linux were used in making the movie, but Digital held back. They were afraid that if the movie flopped at the box office that there would be the comparison of “A really big ship, a really big movie and a really big computer company all sinking.....”. Of course James Cameron's Titanic was (and remains today) a huge success and only the first and third parts of the “sinking” are true.

I went to an early showing of Titanic in 1997. While most people were riveted by the love story of Jack and Rose, I was fascinated by the glistening of the sun on the surface of the water and how they managed to put “live” people on the deck of this CGI ship.

In March of 1998 as Titanic lined up for the Oscars, DEC did (finally) make a big “splash” at CeBIT in Hanover, Germany. At the main booth of Digital they had some large posters made of the Titanic, and how Alpha had played a significant part in the production of the movie. However, GNU/Linux was not mentioned in the advertisements....only Alpha.

Now it is the year 2012. We are used to the graphics of Shrek, Toy Story, Lord of the Rings, Avatar and other classic CGI movies. Each generation brings about an evolution of techniques and greater CPU power at lower prices.

But “Titanic” was a step-function. In 1997 it set the bar so much higher than what had gone before, that even today people can appreciate what they did.

Next Sunday I will be going to see the new 3D version of Titanic. While I know the new 3D version was not rendered on Alpha systems, I will look in the credits to see if they mention GNU/Linux, and I will remember a different time.

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