No matter which film gets the Oscar for best visual effects at the Academy Awards this weekend, it's a guaranteed win for Autodesk and Nvidia.
The San Francisco Bay area companies provided the technology for all three of the category's nominees: "Avatar," ''District 9" and "Star Trek." As movies rely more on digital effects, Hollywood is looking north to Silicon Valley to enhance scenery, bring characters to life and even render whole worlds from scratch.
"Avatar," the highest-grossing film of all time, was also the most technologically demanding. Creating the effects required 35,000 computer processing cores and gobbled up as much storage as the three "Lord of the Rings" movies combined. The goal: make it look so real that viewers wouldn't think about the technology involved.
"Traditional filmmaking started in Hollywood, but digital filmmaking started in the Bay area," said Richard Kerris, chief technology officer of San Francisco's Lucasfilm, the production company behind the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies. "It kind of makes a whole lot of sense for people when you look at the hotbed of companies going on here."
Autodesk's software allowed "Avatar" filmmakers to see how actors would appear in digital environments right away. It was as if the computer displayed a live video game of each scene, giving directors the ability to make corrections immediately.
"We provide technology that allows people to essentially create real-world experiences digitally, which are accurate and as photo-realistic as possible, and in some cases, more than photo-realistic," said Maurice Patel, an executive at the San Rafael, Calif.-based company, the world's biggest maker of engineering-design programs.
Weta Digital, the New Zealand visual-effects company that worked on "Avatar," ran all of its computer processors simultaneously to create lifelike scenes in 3-D. Nvidia's graphics processors helped cut down on the time it took Weta to make the sequences.
"The scenes that were created for that movie were far more complex than anything Weta Digital had ever done before," Danny Shapiro, a director of marketing at Nvidia, said. "They just did not have the time to have that level of complexity and quality to make the release deadline."
The Santa Clara, California-based company developed a new computing engine, called PantaRay, that allowed Weta to create complex scenes quicker, while using less memory and fewer processors.
NetApp Inc., based in Sunnyvale, California, helps filmmakers store and manage all the terabytes of data generated. When "Avatar" filmmakers needed to focus on a certain element of the scene, such as the blue faces of the Na'vi people, it threatened to create an information bottleneck. That meant a scene could require hours or days to process.
Without NetApp's technology, "Avatar" would have taken years longer to produce and been much more expensive, said Patrick Rogers, a vice president at the company. The film wasn't cheap as it was: It cost about $237 million to make, according to the Internet Movie Database.