Breaking Down the Silos


Functional silo thinking is perhaps the biggest barrier to improving things, including processes. This article by Quentin Hardy titled “Making Movie Magic More Efficient” highlights not only how DreamWorks Animation is breaking down the silos in its business, but how it is also utilizing knowledge management and advanced analytics. It also is an example of how rigour, process and analytics is applicable in even the most creative of environments.

“The Croods” is a caveman movie from DreamWorks Animation that comes out March 22. The subject may be paleolithic, but the technology approach may well be cutting edge.

“Croods” is a digital product of about 250 billion pixels, with high-definition sound that, along with the images and story, is designed to maximize emotional manipulation of the audience. It is the end point of a process involving hundreds of artists and engineers working in a closely organized system that DreamWorks has been working on for years.

Making a movie with a half-million digital files, containing things like hair waving in the wind or cliffs crumbling into dust, took several years of planning, writing and drawing. It also meant searching for efficiency in the face of escalating costs. Since 2006, DreamWorks Animation has released more than a dozen movies costing at least $130 million. “We’re hoping to reduce that expense while adding more to the experience,” says Lincoln Wallen, the chief technical officer at DreamWorks Animation. “A modern digital environment, whatever the business, has to be distributed and agile.”

While each film needs its own uniquely realized look, the company also keeps a digital catalog of every table, flame and character, so parts might be modified or retouched in a future film. More important savings come by rethinking how things are made. In 2009’s “Monsters Versus Aliens,” the relatively simple-looking destruction of a spaceship used 4 terabytes of data about pixels. In “Croods,” the same amount creates a far more detailed and longer destruction of a mountainside.

Instead of a straightforward pixel stash, DreamWorks hired a former quantum chemist and a former specialist in fluid dynamics to create a series of mathematical instructions about how different parts of the image should affect their neighbors once motion commences. That way the same amount of data is creating a more complex outcome.

The company has also worked to tighten the relationships between artists trying out different angles, through custom software that changes the angle of a character with the touch of a pen. Elsewhere, Wall Street trading software has been adapted to speed communication of changes in digital files among different groups of artists. A dancer wearing a special body suit generates an image of her as a cartoon character that many artists can look at together, and figure out how a scene should be structured.

“Siloed systems are too brittle,” says Mr. Wallen. “The key is a knowledge and management of all the interrelationships.” He and others at DreamWorks are now considered proficient enough at managing these big cloud systems that Intel and Hewlett-Packard, suppliers of much of DreamWorks’ technology, have them speaking to customers in such seemingly unrelated fields as energy and finance.

Viewed as a manufacturing process, what DreamWorks is doing is also a little like the old Six Sigma idea, practiced by General Electric and others, that problems are most easily fixed when they are approached as early as possible. There is also a “just in time” digital customization plan in the works, Mr. Wallen says, to shift the final product so characters’ facial reactions mimic those of, say, a Chinese person when the movie is playing in China. In both cases, the idea is to make high-cost enchantment more efficient.

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