3-D movie 'Despicable Me' finds hero in behind-the-scenes technology

Skype, IBM iDataPlex among technologies used by international cast of artists, production experts and other movie personnel

The 3-D movie "Despicable Me" opens Friday in theaters, and what you'll see on the screen is the story an arch-villain named Gru who is out to steal the moon to prove his badness. What most movie goers won't realize is that behind the scenes of this family-friendly film was a two-year effort blending animation art, music and digital technology in a non-stop and massive flurry of files sent between artists and production teams in Paris and Hollywood.

The 3-D movie "Despicable Me" opens Friday in theaters, and what you'll see on the screen is the story an arch-villain named Gru who is out to steal the moon to prove his badness. What most movie goers won't realize is that behind the scenes of this family-friendly film was a two-year effort blending animation art, music and digital technology in a non-stop and massive flurry of files sent between artists and production teams in Paris and Hollywood.

"Despicable Me," featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Julie Andrews and others, is the first film from Los Angeles-based Illumination Entertainment with backing from Universal.

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Founded in 2007 by Chris Meledandri, former president of 20th Century Fox Animation, Illumination Entertainment turned to Paris-based digital production studio Mac Guff Ligne for the graphics and 3-D animation rendering. French artists and production experts in the studio created about 500,000 frames per week, for a total of 120 million online files that were shared for review across the Atlantic with help from the Internet, private lines and communications methods such as Skype.

Meledandri today calls the making of "Despicable Me" a process involving "literally hundreds of thousands of individual images that are created by hand and rendered through digital animation to effectively build each individual frame of the film, all of which requires intensive computing power."

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He says the process brought together "creative talent from the U.S., France and other locations around the world via technology" and has been the kind of "massive production undertaking that is often left to larger single-location Hollywood Studios." 

"It was a relatively complicated process," says Paul Beck, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at illumination Entertainment. "Despicable Me"is the collaborative effort not only between Parisian artists as well as writers that include Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio but also dozens of musicians and others who could do their work from studios or even their homes in places such as Red Bank, N.J. "It was literally all over the world."

Coordinating the work of about 300 artists meant striving to keep to a round-the-clock 24-hour production cycle, Beck says, noting that with time-zone differences, when the Paris studio completed a day of work, a coordination team in America would start its day by reviewing it.

Technologies such as iChat and Skype were used internationally for messaging, voice and video-conferencing over the Internet. "But we don't consider our artists technologists -- we consider them artists," Beck emphasizes.

"The design process starts in the early stage with a rough drawing," Beck says, but would blossom into fully rendered files of animated characters. An Intel-based dedicated server farm from IBM installed at the Mac Guff Ligne location in Paris was used to store and process the massive amount of data. For the "Despicable Me" 3-D rendered animation content, Mac Guff Ligne generated 142TB of data that comprise the finished film.

Based on the IBM iDataPlex system running in a single IBM rack, the data center storing and processing the raw film content was housed in what had been four parking spots in the garage of the Paris production facility. There was a liquid-cooled wall behind the data center, but no air conditioning, which held down energy use about 40% more than expected, according to IBM.

While not going into too much detail about the data security involved in making the 3-D feature film, Beck says technologies used included fully encrypting content and use of digital watermarking.

As "Despicable Me" makes its debut Friday in theaters in both the United States and Russia, with a rollout elsewhere around the world over the next six months, there's also a complex process involved in ensuring each theater gets the appropriate digital format. That's because although the movie is 3-D, not every theater is. "We have to have prints for 3-D and non-3-D and different versions of 3-D," Beck says. "Movie houses have different levels of sophistication about what they can do.

While declining to give an exact tally of how expensive it was to create "Despicable Me," Beck will allow that it ran into "tens of millions of dollars." Illumination Entertainment expects to be working on additional films in the future.

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