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Jen Becker '00 and her animated world at Pixar

August 14, 2007

BY BEN KENNEDY '05 AND ERIC PESOLA

As recently as 15 years ago, animation meant pen and ink on clear acetate cels. Now it's full of render farms, networks and plumbers. Jen Becker '00 is one of the "Render Plumbers" for Pixar Animation Studios. She and a few other graduates recently helped bring a talking rat with a passion for French food to life in the film Ratatouille. We caught up with Jen and asked her to explain the intricacies of creating a 3-D animated feature.

Explain rendering and the final steps of a film production, as it relates to what you do
Most of the artists on a film work on creating a three dimensional world in the computer. They create characters and set pieces, animate the characters, place lights, and otherwise create a world. To make a film, though, we have to generate a 2-D view of the 3-D world. To do this, artists place a virtual camera for each shot and computers calculate what the camera would see. This process of creating a view of the world is rendering, and it's a complex process that takes a lot of computing power.

I'm part of a group that maintains the renderfarm, which contains a large number of very powerful computers that do the rendering. This includes the hardware, the software that monitors the renderfarm computers and the work that they're doing, and the software that schedules the work that needs to be done onto the available resources. My team also provides a central location for the artists to ask any question regarding rendering and rendering problems.

During Ratatouille, the renderfarm consisted of about 850 machines with nearly 3200 processors between them. When rendering the final Ratatouille film frames on a 2.66 GHz processor, each frame took an average of six hours. It took about 1532 CPU-years to render Ratatouille, including the lower-resolution renders done at various points in the pipeline and working iterations. That means that if we only had one CPU in the renderfarm, Ratatouille wouldn't have been released until the year 3539. To store the images generated while making the movie, we used 12 terabytes of disk space.

There are a lot of issues that we face besides failed hardware or software bugs. There's always more work to be done than there are resources to do it; how do you make sure that the work that needs to be done gets priority? How do you track down jobs that may be running amok and taking more resources than they should need? How can we optimize our resources for the demands that a show is placing on the renderfarm? Also, there's all of the problems implicit in pointing a very powerful computing cluster at servers and network gear that may never have faced such an onslaught. We are often de-facto beta testers for new technologies; installing them here and using them in production often brings to light scalability issues that could never have been triggered in normal testing.

How do you think William and Mary informed your career path and work at Pixar?
When I came to William and Mary, I spent my freshman year flipping between nearly every possible major. I had initially chosen W&M for international studies, but then I thought I'd major in English, then physics, then math ... I had no real direction. I was, however, spending a lot of my time fixing other people's computers. Near the end of my freshman year I was flipping through the catalog, trying to decide what classes to take, when I stumbled across the computer science section. It had never occurred to me that I could major in -- and make a living at -- what I was enjoying doing in my free time. I started down the computer sciences path and never looked back.

The great thing about the computer science program at William and Mary is the emphasis on theory and history. What I do at Pixar isn't something that can be taught in college classes -- the software we work with is written in-house, the hardware is on the cutting edge. The William and Mary computer science program gave me a foundation to learn and understand things that aren't your everyday problems.

What is your favorite part of the process and why?
I love working at the end of the pipeline because you're the first to see the work all of the previous artists have created being put together. Up to the final rendering step, the artists are working with lower-resolution or incomplete representations of each shot. When you finally pull everyone's work together at the end, you're the first person to see the result of a lot of long hours and hard work. For a while, it's like a special secret that only you know.

Ian Steplowski '01 is a character modeler and articulator at Pixar, and you and Ian have worked together for quite a while. Tell the story of how you and Ian realized you were both W&M alumni
Ian and I worked on the render team for The Incredibles. The render team for a film makes sure that the final images are correct and does any little tweaks that make the film look perfect -- fixing an arm that pokes through a shirt, things like that. To make sure we caught everything, all eight or nine members of the team would crowd into our lead's very small office and watch a shot over and over again. Doing this for a few hours a day for months on end lead to some strange conversations.

At one point, I was reminded of the incident at Busch Gardens where Fabio was riding the new "Apollo's Chariot" roller coaster for publicity. The coaster car went right through a flock of geese, one of which hit him in the face, and he came back to the station with a broken nose.

Ian recognized the story because he was also at William and Mary when that happened. That triggered his memory as to why I looked familiar; being computer science majors in the same year, we'd been in some of the same classes although we'd never interacted more than a shared printout in Kearns' Systems Programming class.

What sort of advice would you give a student who wanted to get into the world of animation?
I have to say, I fell into the animation industry by accident. My advice is more for finding a job that you enjoy. I believe that the environment that you work in has a lot more to do with your happiness in your job than your specific responsibilities.

Make a list of the companies that you think it would be neat to work for and send them your resume and a great cover letter emphasizing your flexibility, whether they're advertising the specific position you want or not. In fact, the position I was hired for at Pixar doesn't exist in most companies, and the opening hadn't been announced externally!

What was your favorite study spot on campus?
My freshman year I found this place, and I came back to it throughout my time at William and Mary. If you head out of Monroe, take a left, and walk over toward the brick wall, you'll run into a wide, spreading tree. I loved to visit the tree in the fall and spring. The roots weren't too comfy to sit on, but the sun coming through the leaves overhead was very calming.

When it was cold, I would go to the lounge in Swem. This was during the expansion, so I would watch the construction workers, the cranes, and the earth moving equipment while my brain churned over some problem. Somehow the slow and deliberate progress helped me concentrate.

What do each you miss most about Williamsburg? How often have you been able to return?
I come back to Williamsburg every few years. I love the sense of stability and history. Living in California, where most "history" starts 100 years ago, visiting a place where the buildings have been around for hundreds of years is very reassuring.

What book are you reading now?
I just finished Harry Potter; I raced through it in order to read it without being exposed to spoilers. I'm also always in the middle of some crazy number of books. Right now I think I have active bookmarks in What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, since I'm a new parent, and I'm trying to make sense of the crazy things my daughter does. I love to cook and to read about the professional world of food, and I'm working on Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, and any number of short science fiction anthologies.

Now that the deal is done between Disney and Pixar, do you get passes to Disneyland or a free mouse ears hat?
No mouse ears or cast member nametags, but we do have passes that get us into the parks on most days during the year.

Look for the Fall 2007 issue of the Alumni Magazine to read more about W&M graduates who worked on Ratatouille.


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