Storage Workflows for 4K and Beyond

Technicolor-Postworks and Deluxe Creative Services share their stories.

By Beth Marchant

Once upon a time, an editorial shop was a sneaker-net away from the other islands in the pipeline archipelago. That changed when the last phases of the digital revolution set many traditional editorial facilities into swift expansion mode to include more post production services under one roof.

The consolidating business environment in the post industry of the past several years then brought more of those expanded, overlapping divisions together. That’s a lot for any network to handle, let alone one containing some of the highest quality and most data-dense sound and pictures being created today. The networked storage systems connecting them all must be robust, efficient and realtime without fail, but also capable of expanding and contracting with the fluctuations of client requests, job sizes, acquisitions and, of course, evolving technology.

There’s a “relief valve” in the cloud and object storage, say facility CTOs minding the flow, but it’s still a delicate balance between local pooled and tiered storage and iron-clad cloud-based networks their clients will trust.

Technicolor-Postworks
Joe Beirne, CTO of Technicolor-PostWorks New York, is probably as familiar as one can be with complex nonlinear editorial workflows. A user of Avid’s earliest NLEs, an early adopter of networked editing and an immersive interactive filmmaker who experimented early with bluescreen footage, Beirne began his career as a technical advisor and producer for high-profile mixed-format feature documentaries, including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and the last film in Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQATSI trilogy.

Joe Beirne

Joe Beirne

In his 11 years as a technology strategist at Technicolor-PostWorks New York, Beirne has also become fluent in evolving color, DI and audio workflows for clients such as HBO, Lionsgate, Discovery and Amazon Studios. CTO since 2011, when PostWorks NY acquired the East Coast Technicolor facility and the color science that came with it, he now oversees the increasingly complicated ecosystem that moves and stores vast amounts of high-resolution footage and data while simultaneously holding those separate and variously intersecting workflows together.

As the first post facility in New York to handle petabyte levels of editorial-based storage, Technicolor-PostWorks learned early how to manage the data explosion unleashed by digital cameras and NLEs. “That’s not because we had a petabyte SAN or NAS or near-line storage,” explains Beirne. “But we had literally 25 to 30 Avid Unity systems that were all in aggregate at once. We had a lot of storage spread out over the campus of buildings that we ran on the traditional PostWorks editorial side of the business.”

The TV finishing and DI business that developed at PostWorks in 2005, when Beirne joined the company (he was previously a client), eventually necessitated a different route. “As we’ve grown, we’ve expanded out to tiered storage, as everyone is doing, and also to the cloud,” he says. “Like we’ve done with our creative platforms, we have channeled our different storage systems and subsystems to meet specific needs. But they all have a very promiscuous relationship with each other!”

TPW’s high-performance storage in its production network is a combination of local or semi-locally attached near-line storage tethered by several Quantum StorNext SANs, all of it air-gapped — or physically segregated —from the public Internet. “We’ve got multiple SANs in the main Technicolor mothership on Leroy Street with multiple metadata controllers,” says Beirne. “We’ve also got some client-specific storage, so we have a SAN that can be dedicated to a particular account. We did that for a particular client who has very restrictive policies about shared storage.”

TPW’s editorial media, for the most part, resides in Avid’s ISIS system and is in the process of transitioning to its software-defined replacement, Nexis. “We have hundreds of Avids, a few Adobe and even some Final Cut systems connected to that collection of Nexis and ISIS and Unity systems,” he says. “We’re currently testing the Nexis pipeline for our needs but, in general, we’re going to keep using this kind of storage for the foreseeable future. We have multiple storage servers that serve that part of our business.”

Beirne says most every project the facility touches is archived to LTO tape. “We have a little bit of disc-to-tape archiving going on for the same reasons everybody else does,” he adds. “And some SAN volume hot spots that are all SSD (solid state drives) or a hybrid.” The facility is also in the process of improving the bandwidth of its overall switching fabric, both on the Fibre Channel side and on the Ethernet side. “That means we’re moving to 32Gb and multiple 16Gb links,” he says. “We’re also exploring a 40Gb Ethernet backbone.”

Technicolor-Postworks 4K theater at their Leroy Street location.

This backbone, he adds, carries an exponential amount of data every day. “Now we have what are like two nested networks of storage at a lot of the artist workstations,” he explains. “That’s a complicating feature. It’s this big, kind of octopus, actually. Scratch that: it’s like two octopi on top of one another. That’s not even mentioning the baseband LAN network that interweaves this whole thing. They, of course, are now getting intermixed because we are also doing IT-based switching. The entire, complex ecosystem is evolving and everything that interacts with it is evolving right along with it.”

The cloud is providing some relief and handles multiple types of storage workflows across TPW’s various business units. “Different flavors of the commercial cloud, as well as our own private cloud, handle those different pools of storage outside our premises,” Beirne says. “We’re collaborating right now with an international account in another territory and we’re touching their storage envelope through the Azure cloud (Microsoft’s enterprise-grade cloud platform). Our Azure cloud and theirs touch and we push data from that storage back and forth between us. That particular collaboration happened because we both had an Azure instance, and those kinds of server-to-server transactions that occur entirely in the cloud work very well. We also had a relationship with one of the studios in which we made a similar connection through Amazon’s S3 cloud.”

Given the trepidations most studios still have about the cloud, Beirne admits there will always be some initial, instinctive mistrust from both clients and staff when you start moving any content away from computers that are not your own and you don’t control. “What made that first cloud solution work, and this is kind of goofy, is we used Aspera to move the data, even though it was between adjacent racks. But we took advantage of the high-bandwidth backbone to do it efficiently.”

Both TPW in New York and Technicolor in Los Angeles have since leveraged the cloud aggressively. “We our own cloud that we built, and big Technicolor has a very substantial purpose-built cloud, as well as Technicolor Pulse, their new storage-related production service in the cloud. They also use object storage and have some even newer technology that will be launching shortly.”

The caveat to moving any storage-related workflow into the cloud is thorough and continual testing, says Beirne. “Do I have more concern for my clients’ media in the cloud than I do when sending my own tax forms electronically? Yea, I probably do,” he says. “It’s a very, very high threshold that we need to pass. But that said, there’s quite a bit of low-impact support stuff that we can do on the cloud. Review and approval stuff has been happening in the cloud for some time.” As a result, the facility has seen an increase, like everyone else, in virtual client sessions, like live color sessions and live mix sessions from city to city or continent to continent. “To do that, we usually have a closed circuit that we open between two facilities and have calibrated displays on either end. And, we also use PIX and other normal dailies systems.”

“How we process and push this media around ultimately defines our business,” he concludes. “It’s increasingly bigger projects that are made more demanding from a computing point of view. And then spreading that out in a safe and effective way to where people want to access it, that’s the challenge we confront every single day. There’s this enormous tension between the desire to be mobile and open and computing everywhere and anywhere, with these incredibly powerful computer systems we now carry around in our pockets and the bandwidth of the content that we’re making, which is high frame rate, high resolution, high dynamic range and high everything. And with 8K — HDR and stereo wavefront data goes way beyond 8K and what the retina even sees — and 10-bit or more coming in the broadcast chain, it will be more of the same.” TPW is already doing 16-bit processing for all of its film projects and most of its television work. “That’s piles and piles and piles of data that also scales linearly. It’s never going to stop. And we have a VR lab here now, and there’s no end of the data when you start including everything in and outside of the frame. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Deluxe Creative Services
Before becoming CTO at Deluxe Creative Services, Mike Chiado had a 15-year career as a color engineer and image scientist at Company 3, the grading and finishing powerhouse acquired by Deluxe in 2010. He now manages the pipelines of a commercial, television and film Creative Services division that encompasses not just dailies, editorial and color, but sound, VFX, 3D conversion, virtual reality, interactive design and restoration.

MikeChiado

Mike Chiado

That’s a hugely data-heavy load to begin with, and as VR and 8K projects become more common, managing the data stored and coursing through DCS’ network will get even more demanding. Branded companies currently under the monster Deluxe umbrella include Beast, Company 3, DDP, Deluxe/Culver City, Deluxe VR, Editpool, Efilm, Encore, Flagstaff Studios, Iloura, Level 3, Method Studios, StageOne Sound, Stereo D, and Rushes.

“Actually, that’s nothing when you consider that all the delivery and media teams from Deluxe Delivery and Deluxe Digital Cinema are downstream of Creative Services,” says Chiado. “That’s a much bigger network and storage challenge at that level.” Still, the storage challenges of Chiado’s segment are routinely complicated by the twin monkey wrenches of the collaborative and computer kind that can unhinge any technology-driven art form.

“Each area of the business has its own specific problems that recur: television has its issues, commercial work has its issues and features its issues. For us, commercials and features are more alike than you might think, partly due to the constantly changing visual effects but also due to shifting schedules. Television is much more regimented,” he says. “But sometimes we get hard drives in on a commercial or feature and we think, ‘Well that’s not what we talked about at all!”

Company 3’s file-based digital intermediate work quickly clarified Chiado’s technical priorities. “The thing that we learned early on is realtime playback is just so critical,” he says. “When we did our very first file-based DI job 13 years ago, we were so excited that we could display a certain resolution. OK, it was slipping a little bit from realtime, maybe we’ll get 22 frames a second, or 23, but then the director walked out after five minutes and said, ‘No. This won’t work.’ He couldn’t care less about the resolution because it was only always about realtime and solid playback. Luckily, we learned our lesson pretty quickly and learned it well! In Deluxe Creative Services, that still is the number one priority.”

It’s also helped him cut through unnecessary sales pitches from storage vendors unfamiliar with Deluxe’s business. “When I talk to them, I say, ‘Don’t tell me about bit rates. I’m going to tell you a frame rate I want to hit and a resolution, and you tell me if we can hit it or not with your solution. I don’t want to argue bits; I want tell you this is what I need to do and you’re going to tell me whether or not your storage can do that.’ The storage vendors that we’re going to bank our A-client work on better understand fundamentally what we need.”

Because some of the Deluxe company brands share office space — Method and Company 3 moved into a 63,376-square-foot former warehouse in Santa Monica a few years ago — they have access to the same storage infrastructure. “But there are often volumes specially purpose-built for a particular job,” says Chiado. “In that way, we’ve created volumes focused on supporting 4K feature work and others set up specifically for CG desktop environments that are shared across 400 people in that one building. We also have similar business units in Company 3 and Efilm, so sometimes it makes sense that we would want, for artist or client reasons, to have somebody in a different location from where the data resides. For example, having the artist in Santa Monica and the director and DP in Hollywood is something we do regularly.”

Chiado says Deluxe has designed and built with network solution and storage solution providers a system “that suits our needs. But for the most part, we’re using off-the-shelf products for storage. The magic is how we tune them to be able to work with our systems.”

Those vendors include Quantum, DDN Storage and EMC’s network-attached storage Isilon. “For our most robust needs, like 4K feature workflows, we rely on DDN,” he says. “We’ve actually already done some 8K workflows. Crazy world we live in!” For long-term archiving, each Deluxe Creative Service location worldwide has an LTO-tape robot library. “In some cases, we’ll have a near-line tier two volume that stages it. And for the past few years, we’re using object storage in some locations to help with that.”

Although the entire group of Deluxe divisions and offices are linked by a robust 10GigE network that sometimes takes advantage of dark fiber, unused fiber optic cables leased from larger fiber-optic communications companies, Chiado says the storage they use is all very specific to each business unit. “We’re moving stuff around all the time but projects are pretty much residing in one spot or another,” he says. “Often, there are a thousand reasons why — it may be for tax incentives in a particular location, it may be for project-specific needs. Or it’s just that we’re talking about the London and LA locations.”

With one eye on the future and another on budgets, Chiado says pooled storage has helped DCS keep costs down while managing larger and larger subsets of data-heavy projects. “We are always on the lookout for ways to handle the next thing, like the arrival of 8K workflows, but we’ve gained huge, huge efficiencies from pooled storage,” he says. “So that’s the beauty of what we build, specific to each of our world locations. We move it around if we have to between locations but inside that location, everybody works with the content in one place. That right there was a major efficiency in our workflows.”

Beyond that, he says, how to handle 8K is still an open question. “We may have to make an island, and it’s been testing so far, but we do everything we can to keep it in one place and leverage whatever technology that’s required for the job,” Chiado says. “We have isolated instances of SSDs (solid-state drives) but we don’t have large-scale deployment of SSDs yet. On the other end, we’re working with cloud vendors, too, to be able to maximize our investments.”

Although the company is still working through cloud security issues, Chiado says Deluxe is “actively engaging with cloud vendors because we aren’t convinced that our clients are going to be happy with the security protocols in place right now. The nature of the business is we are regularly involved with our clients and MPAA and have ongoing security audits. We also have a group within Deluxe that helps us maintain the best standards, but each show that comes in may have its own unique security needs. It’s a constant, evolving process. It’s been really difficult to get our heads and our clients’ heads around using the cloud for rendering, transcoding or for storage.”

Luckily, that’s starting to change. “We’re getting good traction now, with a few of the studios getting ready to greenlight cloud use and our own pipeline development to support it,” he adds. “They are hand in hand. But I think once we move over this hurdle, this is going to help the industry tremendously.”

Beyond those longer-term challenges, Chiado says the day-to-day demands of each division haven’t changed much. “Everybody always needs more storage, so we are constantly looking at ways to make that happen,” he says. “The better we can monitor our storage and make our in-house people feel comfortable moving stuff off near-line to tape and bring it back again, the better we can put the storage where we need it. But I’m very optimistic about the future, especially about having a relief valve in the cloud.”

Our main image is the shared 4K theater at Company 3 and Method.


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