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COMPUTERS—Operating Systems Vie for Film Special Effects Business

Linux, the upstart free computer operating system, is gaining a following among production and post-production companies. Thanks to a major marketing push, it is bumping two well-established competitors, Microsoft’s Windows NT program, and SGI, formerly Silicone Graphics Inc., in some cases to second-place status in the market. “People are ripping out their NT file servers and putting in Linux all over town,” said Demian P. Sellfors, CEO of Glendale-based Media Temple Inc., a firm that manages Web sites for production companies. Studios, post-production firms and other effects companies that had previously relied on SGI and Windows for their computer operating systems have been moving toward Linux. Among those making the switch are Pixar Animation Studios Inc., producers of 1998’s computer-animated “Toy Story,” and George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. Typically, production houses use Windows NT and SGI for the most complicated computer animation in movies such as “Toy Story” and “Shrek.” Linux, however, may allow them to run systems faster and with less likelihood of crashing at inconvenient moments. Unlike Windows NT, Microsoft’s business operating system, Linux is “open-sourced,” meaning its source code and workings can be accessed and reprogrammed to suit a user’s needs. Created 10 years ago by Linus Torvalds, the program, the so-called “Linux kernel,” was made available to anyone for free. Torvalds invited programmers to add to the “kernel” as long as they did not charge customers anything for it, thus prompting thousands of programmers to enhance Linux and advance it to its current stage. Beginning with 1998’s blockbuster “Titanic” and moving on to this summer’s “Shrek,” Linux is responsible for a growing number of effects-laden films. Experts like Sellfors say the trend won’t soon end. IBM Corp., whose presence in Hollywood has been negligible in recent years, is banking on its new Linux Digital Studio package to break SGI’s tech stranglehold. Big Blue’s Digital Studio package features workstations, server computers and data storage equipment, meant to give technicians a Linux-powered tech “solution” in one package. IBM’s push into Hollywood was to be expected, said Greg Estes, SGI’s vice president of corporate marketing. “Every 18 months or so, IBM is targeting the entertainment industry,” he said, “and we’re able to beat these guys in a fair fight. I’m not surprised to have IBM pitching Linux now. We still expect to be able to win.” Like their competitors, SGI has made the move to Linux for customers who demand it, but the company continues to use its IRIX operating system for most of its computers. While many of the smaller post-production companies have gone to Linux, the big studios have remained with SGI’s IRIX-based computers. Sony Pictures, Universal Studios, the Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. Studios continue to use SGI and their state-of-the-art computers and equipment. “But there are a lot of people who use SGI who want to investigate Linux, and our strategy is to provide Linux if they want it and to continue to be the computer company for the entertainment industry,” Estes said. Charles McCaskill, director of information technology for Burbank-based Film Roman Inc., said Linux is popular because it offers a lower cost, flexibility and reliability. “You want that reliability because you don’t want it to crash when you’re in a critical period in your work. And you can customize it to your needs,” he said, adding that he left Windows NT for Linux two years ago. “It doesn’t surprise me that all our major customers say they’re going to switch to Linux,” said Karina Bessoudo, marketing director for Burbank-based software firm Toon Boom Technologies Inc., which supplies animation software for area postproduction firms. Because the system is free and no single company owns a patent on the system, it is easily accessible and its functions can be continuously customized, said Todd Laclair, a computer effects technician with Dream Theater in Sherman Oaks. As a version of the UNIX operating system, Linux is more difficult to manage than Microsoft Windows, but is easier to customize and configure, Laclair said. “Linux is a more difficult platform to administer. With Windows, it’s much more intuitive and you can fudge your way around it and figure something out,” he said. Andrew Neff, an analyst with Bear Stearns, says IBM’s move into Hollywood could prove successful given Linux’s popularity among smaller post-production firms. Neff said IBM’s commitment to spend $1 billion on Linux initiatives for Hollywood and other markets this year and SGI’s declining market share could give Big Blue an opportunity to seize a chunk of the entertainment market. In March, SGI reported that revenue last year for workstations used by post-production and other firms dropped by 23 percent, with the company posting an overall net loss of $829.5 million on revenue of $2.33 billion, compared to a $53 million net profit on $2.73 billion in revenue a year earlier. IBM’s workstation director, Doug Oathout, says Linux’s ability to link a slew of computers in a cluster that works at fast speeds is one of its greatest advantages. Such a cluster of Linux computers created many of the images of the doomed ship in the film “Titanic,” along with a number of special effects images for “The Perfect Storm” and “Jurassic Park.” “It’s not the perfect program, though it’s close,” Oathout said. “Animators who work with 3-D graphics just love Linux.”

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