DreamWork’s Paul DiLorenzo on Animating with Premo

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Paul DiLorenzo, Premo Project Manager for DreamWorks Animation, shares how Premo is pushing the bounds of animation. In this interview from SIGGRAPH 2014, Paul and Steve Waskul first discuss how Premo has enabled animators to create more realistic visual effects, and later explore the contributions of the technology partners that have helped take Premo to this level.

As the conversation begins Paul shares that Premo has been five years in the making. This year, he is excited to showcase some of the architecture that has made the animation process a more interactive experience. Essentially, he asserts, Premo has changed the way they animate at DreamWorks. First utilized for “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” Premo gives animators an immersive experience that allows them to create better emotional expression for their characters.

Having spoken with a lot of people in the visual effects industry, Steve had wondered if more powerful processors would allow for reduced work time. “I understand know,” he continues, that this is typically not the case- most artists utilize extra time to do more iterations until they love the result. Is this the case with DreamWorks as well? Yes, Paul replies, although this is a new, efficient tool, the animation process is still very much the same. Animators still block scenes, finesse the product and really spend time trying to understand their characters.

“But by giving them better tools,” Steve inquires, you can really create more life-like animation, right? A lot of people watching these films, he resumes, have no idea how much effort is devoted to each second. Yes, Paul agrees, “It’s a massive undertaking.” Stepping into an animation studio for the first time, he explains, just overwhelms you. The immense talent and effort that goes into these productions is incredible- these are all top of the class people working passionately day to day on a given project.

Moving the conversation forward, Steve inquires if Premo is still DreamWorks proprietary. Yes, Paul confirms, at this time they are evaluating but not selling it. “SIGGRAPH is very collegial,” he continues, and they are proud to showcase the technology they’ve developed. Steve agrees, “I love that the people at SIGGRAPH are here to learn from and help their colleagues.” Nodding, Paul shares that earlier that day he was on a panel with representatives from Pixar, Disney, Rhythm & Hues, and Autodesk. He divulges that he is fascinated by how different tools seem to emerge from different environments, or perhaps are driven by different market forces. It’s amazing, he comments, how the advances in animation just over the past 20 years have truly pushed the boundaries.

Switching gears, Steve asks what kind of new technologies Premo utilizes to enable such an interactive experience for its users. Well, Paul responds, DreamWorks has a strategic alliance with both Intel and HP. Intel has great engineers that really helped fine- tune some of the algorithms and deformation techniques – they were very much part of the team. Yes, Steve interjects, having interviewed a few of them, they are obviously very proud to have been a part of your team. Smiling, Paul says that his goal has always been to create as collaborative an environment as possible. A variety of perspectives and talents are almost certain to deliver a better overall product.

On that note Steve wonders what role HP has played in Premo’s development. Because HP supplies all the hardware, Paul replies, most interactions between his team and HP concern technical issues or the exploration of advancing the technology. They are always looking for potential hardware advances, he explains. Yes, Steve laughs, “It’s come a long way since typing in the code to change the pixels.” Laughing in agreement, Paul mentions that their CTO always comments that Premo is really “a change from a discrete, pushing a key on the keyboard, to a more analogue experience” where animators really feel like they are drawing on paper.

With the understanding that something like color has to be exact across DreamWorks’ entire production pipeline, Steve inquires, “Have you utilized the new HP DreamColor professional displays?” The monitors were a collaborative project, Paul believes, which is why they are called “DreamColor.” They were one of the first teams to use them. Steve comments on the new features HP is delivering and how they are doing so at around half the cost of the previous generation, but admits that color management has always been somewhat of a mystery to him. “It’s a mystery to me too!” Paul laughs. He does know, however, how instrumental color adjustments are when you’re considering different environments, such as a movie theater. Yes, Steve nods, it’s critical when we’re talking millions of dollars invested in these projects. Definitely, Paul finishes, “You want the experience for the audience to be exactly the experience you developed inside the studio.”

Returning to the HP collaboration, Steve asks about the integration of HP Z Workstations, like the HP Z820 into the DreamWorks workflow. Paul explains that they are always looking closely at the applications to determine which of the Intel® Xeon® processors will deliver best for the HP Z Workstations. Some applications benefit most from higher clock speed and others that can handle lots of threads benefit more from having additional cores. So there’s a trade-off in choosing just the right Intel® Xeon® processor for the task at hand. Paul confirms, they’re constantly evaluating how many cores they want versus clock speed to create just the right balance for the application workloads.

As the interview draws to a close Paul shares that the tools they utilize are historically proprietary for a couple main reasons. First, the ability to control the whole software stack eliminates frustrations with bugs and incompatibilities. “Owning the complete stack means that when we want to implement something” that requires change to lower level architecture, they can more easily make that change. Second, he explains, “we can kind of control our own destiny.” Essentially, they can control the road-mapping of the software based on the current production lineup, as well as their own vision for the tool.

Congratulating Paul on a tool that animators are excited to be using, Steve wraps up the conversation with well wishes for the Premo team on their continued development.