Animoto, with Boost from Amazon GPUs, Goes High-Definition

2/8/11Follow @wroush

Animoto would have knocked my grandfather’s socks off. A freelance photographer, he spent countless evenings assembling his Ektachrome transparencies into multimedia slide shows—but back in the 1970s and 1980s, “multimedia” meant a pair of carousel slide projectors with a dissolve unit controlled by time codes embedded on a musical cassette tape. At Animoto’s site, by contrast, you can upload a few dozen digital photos and video clips to the Web, select some music, get back a professional animated video within minutes, then share it with your friends via e-mail, Facebook, or YouTube. It’s one of the slickest and easiest ways to package and share all those photos and clips from your last trip or party—and sharing, after all, is what photography is all about.

“It really is digital storytelling,” says Brad Jefferson, co-founder and CEO of the New York- and San Francisco-based startup, which is expanding into a gleaming new office on Kearny Street. “My co-founders come from the film and TV industry, and at the end of the day what we are trying to do is help people create short-form documentaries from the photos on their SD cards and computers. We like to call it ‘Hollywood production with the click of a button.’”

And just as in Hollywood, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. It was around 2007, when Animoto was founded, that cloud-computing platforms like Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) were beginning to make it possible for companies to offer such services online without having to build their own huge data centers. In fact, Animoto has always used EC2′s computing power for most of its hard-core rendering work—taking users’ photos, adding fancy motion graphics, dissolves, and other effects, and putting it all to music. But it was always a bit of a stretch, because Animoto was trying to get Amazon’s plain-vanilla CPUs to act like graphical processing units (GPUs), which are specially designed to speed the mathematical operations behind 2D and 3D rendering.

Now there’s an alternative: in November, Seattle-based Amazon Web Services announced that EC2 users could rent access to actual GPUs as well as CPUs. And that has allowed Animoto to take a big leap forward. Starting yesterday, Animoto upgraded its standard videos from 240p or pixels of height—the size of a small embeddable box on a blog page—to 360p, the size of a standard YouTube video.

Premium users previously had the option of upgrading their videos beyond that to 480p, which is DVD quality. But now they can also scale beyond that to 720p, or HD quality. And on top of all that, videos handled by Amazon’s GPUs are rendered about 10 times faster than before—and at lower cost.

“We knew that the direction our video rendering had to go was GPU, but the problem was that [until recently] there were no cloud providers with GPUs,” says Jefferson. “We looked at buying a bunch of servers and putting them in a colo [a colocation center]. But it was not having to invest in hardware that made us very nimble and allowed us to focus on what we’re good at, and we still don’t want to. Using Amazon GPU instances is the next evolution of that vision.”

There’s one caveat: Animoto offers 24 styles of videos, from abstract to cutesy, and so far HD videos and faster rendering are available for just one of them, the “Animoto Original” style. (For a look at that style, see the 2-minute Animoto video below, which I created last night using photos from a trip last weekend to California’s Sonoma County.) The reason is that Animoto has, in essence, …NEXT PAGE>

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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