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IBM brings Charlie the Tuna to Tinseltown

IBM brings characters like Charlie the Tuna and Twinkie the Kid to the big screen with on-demand tools used by a Hollywood digital animation and visual effect production studio.

IBM just couldn't resist and got itself involved in a major food fight.

Foodfight! the movie, that is.

Big Blue is pairing up once again with digital animation and visual effects production studio Threshold Digital Research Labs. At the heart of the deal is IBM's on-demand technology, which gives animators the computer horsepower and flexibility they need to turn one-dimensional stick drawings into lifelike characters.

Threshold, which has been involved with the development of special effects in a number of major movie productions, including Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss and The Mask, also creates digital visual effects and animation for television, Web sites, games, IMAX movies, theme parks and location-based entertainment for major studios, networks and advertisers.

Threshold is currently in production on Foodfight, its first full-length digitally animated feature film. The $50 million computer-generated (CG) project takes place in a grocery store. At night, when the humans go home, the store transforms into a teeming metropolis where the Chinese food aisle looks like Chinatown, the Italian food aisle looks like Venice and emerging from all the packaged products are the character icons we've known for nearly 40 years, like Charlie the Tuna, Mr. Clean, and Twinkie the Kid, plus a whole cast of new characters, including Dex Dogtective and Daredevil Dan.

In order to bring the script to life, said Patti Fry, a digital media executive with IBM, Threshold will deploy the IBM Digital Content Creation line, a suite of IBM workstations, servers, storage and services designed to support the animators, special effects wizards and digital media producers. The solution customized for Threshold includes IntelliStation workstations running on Linux, as well as eServer BladeCenter and xSeries 440 systems.

In order to bring an animated character to life, a line drawing has to be rendered. Rendering -- the process of determining color, shape, light source, shading and movement -- gives the image the look and feel of being real.

"It's an intensive process and has to be done for every frame, which creates a huge set of computational needs," Fry said. "They'll do this a number of times -- it's as much an art as it is a science."

The culmination of hardware, software, graphics and on-demand capabilities is what gives the artists flexibility. "The on-demand piece comes in the rendering area," Fry said. "There will be huge peaks as the project gets closer to deadline. Artists and producers can tap into other machines as needed."

"Scale is no longer an issue," said George Johnsen, Threshold's chief animation officer. "It's horsepower on demand, and with it we can either power one building or light up a whole city. And in a world of 'I want it better, faster and more cost effectively,' it allows us to deliver on that statement."

Foodfight! is the first of a slate of several digitally animated feature films planned for release every year. Threshold will release the film through a major studio, but the company will remain independent.

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