IBM sees starring roles for Canadian digital media firms

Although California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has made inroads to restore Canadian movie production to its American roots, IBM Corp. foresees no impact on Canadian software firms creating digital media content for Hollywood.

“”It’s really a free market now,”” said David Farrell, director

of digital media solutions for IBM’s Atlanta office. He said digital production can be done anywhere, and the winners of contracts to supply computer-generated graphics to movie studios will be firms who can bring the most innovative solutions to the industry.

This is why IBM views the portability of digital media technology as “”an enabler rather than a threat”” to Canadian technology providers, he said. Digital content creation touches on animation, game development, cinematic post-production, special effects, and new media.

Canadian software firms have an advantage, he argued at a digital media briefing held at Immersion Studios in Toronto: Two-thirds of the technology firms providing solutions to the the motion picture industry, including Alias, Discreet Logic and Softimage, call Canada home.

Although Farrell is unsure of the impact of the rising Canadian dollar on American attraction to Canadian digital content solutions, he said the issue is “”not just about cheap labour”” otherwise a lot of digital-content business would be shifting to Asia. He said more powerful factors include skills, leadership and experience, which Canada, dominant in this sector for the past 10 years to 15 years, has in abundance.

David Plant, director of business development at IBM partner Helios|Oceana Ltd., a digital solutions firm in Toronto, said 19 of the 20 “”all-time money-makers”” in the movie business extensively used computer-generated visual effects, which were “”possible because of Canadian technology”” from companies like Alias, Softimage, Houdini, Discreet, Kaydara and Toonboom.

Developed in either Toronto or Montreal, the technology was frequently spearheaded by “”math geniuses”” at the universities of McMaster and Waterloo in Ontario who had spent years writing the code, explained Plant.

Among the trends in digital media that he has witnessed: the migration from proprietary to open-source applications and infrastructure; the consolidation of storage to make workflow more efficient; and the development of industry-standard solutions based on reliability, service and support rather than speed.

IBM has focused strongly in recent years on digital media, earning more than US$2 billion worldwide on the sale of hardware, software and services, and experiencing 50 per cent annual growth, said Farrell. It has more than 200 partners in digital media, including new ones like Digital, Adobe and Apple, and counted in excess of 100 customers over the last year, he added.

The “”core, mothership IBM products”” are based on Linux software (IBM invests more than US$1 billion a year on Linux research and development), xSeries and Blade Center servers and IntelliStation workstations, he said.

Immersion Studios, which has developed digital media content for museums, aquariums and schools, said its greatest use of IBM equipment is on the distribution side.

It has tapped IBM IntelliStation graphics workstations with high-performance RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) to deliver immersive, uncompressed imagery to its worldwide interactive cinemas, explained Rodney Hoinkes, Immersion Studios’ chief technology officer.

It also uses IBM Pentium-M Thinkpads for its wireless classroom applications, which Hoinkes said provides performance, duration and critical battery options.

Immersion Studios’ current project using IBM technology is called Virtual Canada, a real-time 3-D visitor attraction for the Canada Pavillion at Expo2005 in Aichi, Japan. Allowing visitors to enter as avatars that can fulfill various quests in a computer-generated Canada, the project will connect major Canadian museums, individuals at home, and schools across the country.

Not to be outdone, Toronto-based C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures is working on a “”Nemo-class movie”” (the details of which cannot be divulged) with the help of IBM’s Blade technology —— 1008 2.8 GHz Xeon CPUs with 2GB of RAM.

It’s the fastest commercial supercomputer in Canada, and the 84th fastest worldwide according to the, said Tom Burns, director of special projects at C.O.R.E. He added that it would take approximately 40 years to make this kind of a movie, which is usually created in California, using only one computer.

Burns said greater computing power allows for more more iterations of a movie and higher realism that’s attuned to “”what the director had in mind.””

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