by Mark Priscaro

This post is an entry in The World Isn’t Flat, It’s Parallel series running on nTersect, focused on the GPU’s importance and the future of parallel processing. Today, GPUs can operate faster and more cost-efficiently than CPUs in a range of increasingly important sectors, such as medicine, national security, natural resources and emergency services. For more information on GPUs and their applications, keep your eyes on The World Isn’t Flat, It’s Parallel.

The World Is Parallel has covered serious ground so far, discussing the impact of parallel computing on municipalities planning for natural disasters and on oil and gas companies deciding where to sink $100 million wells.

Now, we’re going to touch on how the film industry is tapping into parallel computing to create the next generation of stunning films.


Director James Cameron has said repeatedly that “Avatar” represents for him his life’s achievement. And it was no less an undertaking for the visual effects vendors that were tasked with creating the stunningly realistic 3D world of Pandora.

Wellington, NZ-based Weta Digital served as the primary visual effects vendor on “Avatar,” building scenes with as many as 800 computer-generated characters in lush, rich environments. In a first for the film industry, certain visual effects for “Avatar” took billions of polygons (the surfaces of the shapes that make up a 3D world). The unprecedented complexity of the visual sequences required the development of a proprietary ray-tracing program to handle the bulk of calculations before final rendering.

The pre-computation engine that NVIDIA Research and Weta came up with is dubbed PantaRay. Weta discovered that by using PantaRay on GPU-powered systems, they could render effects up to 25 times faster than on a CPU-powered system. The engine’s decisive speed advantage has convinced Weta to use PantaRay for the upcoming Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson film, “Tintin.” (Read more about Weta, NVIDIA and “Avatar” here.)

Cloudy Tornado

Sony Picture Imageworks created elements of the spaghetti tornado in “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” with a rendering application running on NVIDIA Quadro GPUs, accelerating scene renders to just 20 seconds compared with the 45 minutes it would have taken on a CPU-based system.

Increases in rendering speed give artists more time to make changes and improvements, resulting in visual effects that wow audiences with their detail and photorealism. From worldwide blockbusters like “Avatar” to the next crop of 3D and motion-capture films, parallel processing is changing not only how movies are created, but how they’re experienced as well.