Linux’s Place in The Film Industry

—Authored by Shaun Swanson

Linux-logo-without-version-number-banner-sized

In 1991, a student named Linus Torvalds began developing a new operating system as a hobby. That hobby, which would later be called Linux, forever changed the world of computers. Since Linux is open source, anyone can license it for free and modify the source code to their liking. This has made Linux one of the most popular operating systems in the world.

Linux is everywhere. The web server maintaining this page is very likely Linux based. You may have a version of Linux in your pocket right now. Google’s Android operating system is a modified version of Linux. Several world governments use Linux extensively for day to day operations. And, many would be surprised to learn that Linux has become the standard for major FX studios.

In the early 90s, Hollywood studios relied on SGI and its Irix operating system to run animation and FX software. At the time, Irix was one of the best systems available for handling intense graphics. But a change was about to sweep through the computer industry. Windows began to dominate the business world, and Intel began making powerful chips at a lower price point. These market forces made expensive SGI systems hard to justify.

When studios began looking for a system to replace Irix, Windows wasn’t an option due to its architecture. The proprietary software in place at many studios was written for Irix. Since Irix and Linux were both Unix based, porting that software to Linux was easier than porting to Windows. Render farms were the first to be converted. In 1996, Digital Domain was the first production studio to render a major motion picture on a Linux farm with Titanic. DreamWorks, ILM, Pixar and others quickly followed. Workstations were next for Linux once artists realized the performance boost in the new operating system. Under pressure from studios, commercial software vendors got on board and started releasing Linux compatible versions. Maya, Houdini, Softimage and other popular 3D applications quickly became available for Linux.

By the early 2000s, most major studios were dominated by Linux. While Windows and Mac environments are still used for television and small independent films, practically all blockbuster movies are now rendered on Linux farms.

Linux has many advantages for render farms. The obvious benefits are cost and customization. Since Linux is free to license, startup costs are greatly reduced compared to commercial systems. And, since Linux is open source, completely customized versions of the operating system are possible.

There are other advantages. Linux machines can multitask well and are easy to network. But the single greatest advantage is stability. Unlike other operating systems, Linux doesn’t slow down over time. It is common for Linux machines to run for months, yes months, without needing a reboot.

With all these advantages, it’s surprising to learn many online render farms still haven’t embraced Linux. While a handful of farms like Rebus, Rendersolve and Rayvision support Linux, Windows is still the most common environment for cloud rendering services.

It’s not likely anything will replace Linux’s role in the film industry soon. Studios are heavily invested in Linux with millions of lines of custom code. While anything is possible, it would take another industry change akin to the PC revolution to shake Linux from its place in Hollywood.

The story of Linux is almost like a Hollywood movie itself. It shows us that anything is possible. It’s hard to believe that a simple student project forever changed the world of computers and became the backbone of the film industry.

About: The author, Shaun Swanson, has fifteen years of experience in 3D rendering and graphic design. He has used several software packages and has a very broad knowledge of digital art ranging from entertainment to product design.

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