Movie animators face Interesting challenge with 4K technology

by on November 18, 2014

by Stephan Jukic – November 18, 2014

Rendering digital animation has always been a computer intensive task that often involved the cutting edge of digital visual technology and 4K resolution and its accompanying high frame rates in theater projectors and UHD TVs has only made the animation process even more difficult. In fact, according to experts in the animation industry, 4K has made computer based the process into a “huge challenge”.

The basic issue is that the resolution of animated films under 4K will have to be increased by roughly 2.5 times and that the time needed to create such highly detailed, high resolution moving imagery could affect production schedules unless animators get used to working with it.

In other words, studios might be forced to rethink the way they make digitally animated movies in certain ways, according to Bruno Mahe, technical head at digital animation production firm Illumination Mac Guff.

Currently existing animated movies are designed to be normally viewed at 24 frames per second at 2K resolutions, but the advent of 4K resolution and frame rates of 48 fps or even more will mean that the overall resolution of animated films themselves will have to be augmented considerably.

Given how much computing the already famous clarity of power digital animation requires, these increases in resolution and frame rates will create a much more difficult and time consuming task for animators across the board. And simply scaling existing graphics up to fit into a 4K screen and its higher frame rates doesn’t work, according to Mahe, “that just looks horrible, no one wants that”.

What animators will have to do instead is create characters and scenes that are much more richly detailed in not only their visual aspect but also in the quantity and depth of movements they make at both the large and small levels. This is the only solution for making digitally animated films look good on 4K theaters and projector generated screens in general and, given the computing power already needed for conventional 2K animation, the jump to 4K and higher fps will dramatically extend the effort needed to make a visually rich animated movie that also presents depth of motion.

Powerful Rendering server farms like this one will have to expand still further to capture the detail that comes with 4K animation

Powerful Rendering server farms like this one will have to expand still further to capture the detail that comes with 4K animation

So far, the result of this challenge has been many directors of animated movies taking specific and tough decisions about how exactly they tell a digital animation story so that the time-frame for creating all the images can be kept manageable.

With the arrival of higher computer processing power and faster computers, some of this scheduling pressure has been decreased but the time it takes to create and render numerous frames for higher resolution is still a major limiting factor on speed of production.

The simple fact that resolution in an animated film has to be doubled while at the same time the number of different movements per second has to also increase nearly two-fold creates an enormous time cost on even the best equipped animation studios.

Mahe’s company Illumination already utilizes over 20,000 computers in a massive render farm that can process and produce the individual images and scenes which come together to eventually make a smoothly flowing and highly detailed animated movie.

However, even seemingly simple tasks like shipping images back and forth between animators use up huge amounts of memory with the new frame rates and levels of detail for each of these frames.

To give an example of what kind of memory requirements 4K is going to involve, the total memory used by Illumination’s studios in 2007, during the age of normal 2K animation for HD presentation, amounted to just 12 terabytes. More recently, with the company’s latest movie animated at 4K levels of resolution and frame rate, the total memory used was a whopping 680 terabytes.

This is very cost prohibitive even now and many animators are counting on new computing technologies such as Flash memory becoming more affordable. Flash would allow for much faster processing and rendering but so far at least, the sheer cost of 680 terabytes of Flash memory is simply enormous.

While 4K may inevitably be coming to the animated movie front as well, it’s definitely going to take a bit more innovation than has been the case with real-life movies so far.

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