An initial implementation of 500 blade servers soon grew to 2,000 to meet the processing capacity requirements for creating the Oscar-winning animated film Happy Feet.

The 108-minute computer-generated animated feature, which recently won an Academy Award, was put together by digital production company The Animal Logic Group.

IBM helped the Australia-based company find a combination of technologies that allowed the entire infrastructure of more than 2,000 servers to be managed by a single person. Production began in early 2003 and was completed in October 2006.

Xavier Desdoigts, director of technical operations at Animal Logic, said Happy Feet was its first full-length computer-generated feature.

"We needed huge numbers of processors in a form factor and price level that would work for our business," he said. "We had to render 140,000 frames, and each frame could take many hours to render. The photorealistic look of the movie made our computational requirements soar to new heights."

For example, Mumble, the main character in the movie, had up to six million feathers.

"There were six shots in the movie that had more than 400,000 penguins in them," Desdoigts explained.

This added up to over 17 million of CPU hours used throughout the last nine months of Happy Feet production. "We were initially concerned about our ability to build and manage a processing capacity of that scale," Desdoigts said.

Animal Logic and IBM built a rendering server farm using BladeCenter HS20 blade servers, each with two Intel Xeon servers.

An initial implementation of 500 blade servers grew to 2,000, for a total of 4,000 processors, during the last six months of the project.

Rendering was completed in October 2006, and the film was released in the U.S. the following month. "Our rendering capacity is the largest in Australia by far, and well within the top 100 in the world," Desdoigts said. "It put us in the same class as industry leaders like Pixar and Weta Digital."

Management tools to deploy and control the servers while in production included an open-source package for administering computing clusters. For Animal Logic, the biggest sign of success from an IT perspective was that the entire server farm was managed by a single person.

"We have to make sure we choose solutions that aren't overly complex to set up or manage, so our focus can stay on realizing the creative visions of our clients," Desdoigts said. Happy Feet quickly became one of the Australian film industry's greatest box-office successes, taking the No. 1 spot in the US for three consecutive weeks. It made more than US$41 million on its opening weekend and showed on 3,800 cinema screens.