Alex Timbs Takes Us Behind the Scenes with the Technology Powering Production Studio Animal Logic


You’re probably familiar with the most recent iteration of Coca-Cola’s iconic polar bear, the Oscar-winning penguins of “Happy Feet” or the adventurous animated pig Babe. What you may not be familiar with is the company responsible for bringing these creatures to life. Animal Logic, an internationally-regarded digital production company, has been creating Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) for the film, television and interactive markets since 1991.


Alex Timbs, the head of IT at Animal Logic, was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss his thoughts on technology in the film industry and how Animal Logic uses HP Workstations to tackle the unique challenges facing them as an animation and visual effects company. 


Jim Christensen: What are the biggest challenges you face as the head of IT for Animal Logic?


Alex Timbs: Animal Logic has anywhere from 200 to 600 employees depending on where we are in the production cycle. The largest challenge from an IT perspective is providing computing power and ramping up quickly for all of our employees.


Animal Logic Logo.jpgJC: What are the biggest technological shifts you’ve experienced in the film industry?


AT: The most fundamental shift, and one that HP was possibly the most responsible for, was the shift from being required to purchase very expensive enterprise-grade computing equipment to having access to lower cost hardware platforms that made the technology more accessible without losing the power we needed.


There’s been a tectonic shift from proprietary hardware platforms to more consumer, generic platforms. HP started producing workstations that were aimed at the sweet spot of reliable hardware, ISV certification and affordable prices. That takes a lot of the pain away from an IT department.


With open systems, we’re not locked in. We have more flexibility. And a lot of the value HP adds is the work they’ve done with software vendors to make sure everything is certified.


JC: What technological advancements are you most excited for in the film industry?


AT: Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) rendering is the buzz word right now. We see tremendous benefits from GPU acceleration and we’ve seen huge jumps with multicore systems, which enable us to reach densities in the server space that we couldn’t even fathom before. That means we need less cooling and less floor space. That reduces the costs, which translates into more creative opportunities—we can create more iterations of a particular shot, scene or image.


As the cost of technology comes down, it drives the creative side. We can try different techniques that we just couldn’t do before. And software vendors are writing software to tap into that. There’s just so much opportunity to push the creative limits.


JC: What tools do you use at Animal Logic to achieve your creative goals?


AT: By the nature of the work we do, we need very powerful workstations and servers. We use multiple HP platforms to meet those needs.


For less compute intensive applications such as finance, IT, HR, recruiting and some apprenticeships, we use entry-level HP Workstations. We’re looking at replacing them with the new all-in-one HP Z1 Workstation.


Our artists are currently using HP Z600 Workstations, which will soon be replaced with new Z620s. The compact profile of the platform makes it easier for IT to move it around, but it still includes plenty of memory, high-speed processors and professional graphics and expandability, all at the right price point.


HP Z820 Workstation and dual HP ZR2440w Displays with Autodesk Image.jpgFor real time stereo playback and grading, we use the powerful HP Z800, which will soon be replaced by the new Z820. It has what we need, from the I/O to the graphics capabilities that deliver high quality video and audio.


Finally, HP Mobile Workstations are used on shoots and on set. We recently trekked out to a remote Australian desert, where we used our HP Mobile Workstations for onsite playback and editing.


JC: What made you chose HP Workstations?


AT: Proven power and reliability, and everything from the aesthetics of the machine to the incredible industrial design.


In an industry such as ours, aesthetics still matter, and even more so now with the consumerization of IT. HP has a balance between form and function—you can have both at once.


In addition, HP’s serviceability is unbeatable. It makes IT’s lives so much easier. The ability to change a hard drive with just my fingers is impressive. And the cleanliness of the internals makes things a lot easier to maintain.


When it really comes down to it, HP is one of the only vendors that truly understands our business, and the unique challenges in our industry. HP continually shows that it is committed to the media and entertainment industry.


HP listens like no other vendor. For example, HP was thinking about removing the handle on the Z620 because the machine was getting pretty big. But the handle was incredibly important to us because we move between floors and buildings constantly. Having handles is crucial, not just to move the workstations around, but to be able to do so safely. We were very opinionated that the handle should remain, and HP listened. They re-engineered the handle and it can be found on the new line of workstations.


HP is truly a partner in making movies, not just a vendor wanting to sell you stuff. That’s the strongest, most potent factor for me.

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