Feature

Dream job: Lord of the Software

Scott Houston started out as a Cobol coder and is now chief technology officer for WETA, producer of the digital effects on The Lord of the Rings films. Karl Cushing reports

If you are looking for a challenging and rewarding IT career head for the silver screen. That is the advice of Scott Houston, who worked on the latest Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers.

"I have spent my entire 22-year career in the IT sector but the film industry has to be the most demanding and time-critical I have ever worked in," says Houston, who is chief technical officer at digital effects company WETA Digital in Wellington, New Zealand. Although being an IT professional on a movie like The Two Towers is high-pressured, challenging and demanding, Houston says it is also exhilarating and highly satisfying when the team delivers.

Houston says he became obsessed with The Lord of the Rings project when, as a salesman for Silicon Graphics, he began managing the WETA account. He finally got the chance to join the project team at the end of April. Luckily for Houston there was already a world class IT team in place and this helped to ease the transition into the new role. "Having a bullet-proof hide did come in handy from time to time," he adds.

A high-profile movie like The Two Towers, which is so heavily reliant on network-hungry digital effect production to bring all the orcs, elves and goblins to life, creates some major challenges for a chief technology officer - not least coping with the scale and speed of growth in the facility. In the last six months Houston's 30-strong team had to triple the online storage capacity and quadruple the processing power available to the facility. "This was all while we were in a 24x7 production environment," he says. "It was like changing the engines on a Boeing 747 whilst flying at 10,000 feet, at 900km/h, with 400 people on board. Thankfully the plane didn't crash, and neither did we, and the movie got made."

A lot of the key technical challenges Houston faced mirror those of chief technology officers in the commercial sphere. A key consideration was that the film's producer New Line wanted the project to follow the central structure of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings story, which is a trilogy. This meant building an IT platform that was sufficiently robust to last until the third movie, The Return of the King, and beyond. It also had to be scalable enough to meet the ever-increasing demands of visual effects production and to manage the integration of new technologies. Enabling future expandability to 10 Gigabit Ethernet was essential.

Houston didn't work on the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, but he says the increase in the technology used for The Two Towers has been "exponential", resulting in a massive overhaul of its IT infrastructure. For the first film, WETA used a high-speed network to handle its multiple gigabit throughputs and enable the digital effect production teams to analyse and cross-reference the digital film segments quickly and efficiently. WETA believes that infrastructure, based on technology from Foundry Networks, significantly helped to reduce production time and cost. However, for The Two Towers it has had to invest in some more powerful network switches and 450 new dual-processor servers.

Houston says working on the project represents one of the highlights of his 22-year IT career. He says his job is "immensely rewarding" and he would not hesitate to recommend the movie sector to IT professionals in other industries.

"The attraction of being on the leading edge of technology has always kept me in the IT sector and I can honestly say the work we are doing at WETA is right on the leading edge, using the latest technology to its maximum potential," he says. "The work is never boring, always challenging and if you are lucky enough to work on a project like The Lord of the Rings you get something to tell your grandchildren about."

WETA's networks
For The Fellowship of the Ring, WETA used a high-speed network based on technology from Foundry Networks, with storage from NetApps and StorageTek. For the latest installment, WETA added Foundry's Bigiron Layer 3 network switches, three Bigiron 15-slot chassis, and two Bigiron 8-slot chassis with multiple gigabit copper and fibre interfaces. WETA will test 10 Gigabit Ethernet between switches and high-end filters next year. Its dedicated render wall, which turns the special effects and footage into film sequences, now has 1,200 processors.

How Scott Houston's career developed
  • 1980 Began a data processing course in New Zealand

  • 1981-1983 Cobol programming using batch punch cards and systems design

  • 1984-1986 Cobol programming in London, where he designed, wrote and implemented supermarket chain Sainsbury's maternity pay system and worked on the computerisation of the London Stock Exchange

  • 1987-1990 Returned to New Zealand and set up a PC sales and services company with a friend

  • 1991 "I tried to sell IBM AS/400s and discovered virtual reality," says Houston

  • 1992-1995 London again. "Tried to find, write or discover the virtual reality killer app," he says

  • 1996-1998 "Marriage and young children meant safe, stable and secure channel management role for Compaq, back in New Zealand"

  • 1998-2002 "The old virtual reality bug bit again", resulting in a sales role at supplier Silicon Graphics, where he started to manage the WETA account and fell in love with the Lord of the Rings project

  • 2002 Got a chance to join the WETA project team.

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This was first published in December 2002

 

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