The perennial goal of creative professionals working on animation and special effects for motion pictures and television -- as well as computer-aided design (CAD) professionals -- is to deliver top-notch work on time and under budget.
While production times might be expected to decrease in direct proportion to available processing power, the ambitions of creative professionals are outpacing Moore’s law, which says that transistor density will double approximately every two years. Evermore complex rendering algorithms deliver increasing levels of visual subtlety and devour advances in processing power as quickly as they become available.
Look at some popular CG- and visual-effects-intensive films released over the last 10 years. The production rendering for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings  trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) combined live action and highly realistic virtual characters. By the end of the trilogy, WETA , the visual effects firm, had upgraded its render farm to 3,200 processors. It reportedly took about four hours to render a single frame of Gollum  . Ratatouille  , released by Pixar Animation Studios  in 2007, was rendered on an arsenal of 850 computer servers, which housed nearly 3,200 processors. Average rendering time: 6.5 hours. And James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar  features animation and effects produced by WETA using a server farm of 4,000 blade servers hosting 40,000 processor cores. Rendering times ranged from 30 to 100 hours per frame.
In the design visualization world, no detail is too small to leave to the imagination, and the demand for high-quality visualization continues to grow in direct proportion to client expectations. The ability to render highly precise, photorealistic product designs and large-scale architectural plans, including exterior and interior walkthroughs, helps speed time to market. All these accomplishments are made possibly by multicore, multi-threaded processors, including Intel’s Xeon and Core i7 processors and AMD’s Opteron and Phenom processors.
Rendering at a Glance
Most popular rendering methods -- rasterization, ray tracing, ray casting and so on -- simulate light moving through a scene (also known as “light transport”) to produce photorealistic imagery or stylized non-photorealistic looks. At a basic level, renderers generally compute the visible geometry in a scene as triangles -- and paint them onto the virtual screen. Color and surface properties are computed by shaders, which commonly reference or sample texture maps.
Modern production rendering, however, is anything but basic -- motion blur, depth of field, deep shadows, subsurface scattering, color bleeding and caustics are just some of the myriad optical effects that can be simulated using one or more rendering methods.
Whether the goal is to achieve physical accuracy for things like medical imaging or product design, or to enhance reality for the sake of getting audiences to suspend disbelief as a story unfolds onscreen, the level of visual complexity is usually a balance between time, budget and hardware resources. Greater complexity usually equates with larger file sizes and heavier throughput computing workloads, because many rendering algorithms perform best when the entire scene file fits into physical memory, and main-memory-to-internal-memory transfers represent a critical performance bottleneck.
High-performance Processors Promote Speed, Complexity and Quality
While artists and designers rarely have to think about the code that enables their digital content creation tools, they reap the rewards of well-crafted code optimized to take advantage of the breakthrough performance offered by both Intel Xeon processor-based and AMD Opteron processor-based workstations and servers. The ever-increasing capabilities and performance of multicore, multithreaded processing from both Intel and AMD provide an optimal foundation for a wealth of software innovations and rendering improvements for artists and designers, including these tools:
Computer-generated imagery is more sophisticated than ever. Real-world production rendering involves enormous scene files, multiple high-resolution texture maps and highly complex shader models to produce high-impact imagery with exacting realism -- a visual feat that would be impossible without multicore processors like the Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron processor families.