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Storage in the Studio: VFX Studios

By Karen Maierhofer

It takes talent and the right tools to generate visual effects of all kinds, whether it’s building breathtaking environments, creating amazing creatures or crafting lifelike characters cast in a major role for film, television, games or short-form projects.

Indeed, we are familiar with industry-leading content creation tools such as Autodesk’s Maya, Foundry’s Mari and more, which, when placed into the hands of creatives, the result in pure digital magic. In fact, there is quite a bit of technological magic that occurs at visual effects facilities, including one kind in particular that may not have the inherent sparkle of modeling and animation tools but is just as integral to the visual effects process: storage. Storage solutions are the unsung heroes behind most projects, working behind the scenes to accommodate artists and keep their productive juices flowing.

Here we examine three VFX facilities and their use of various storage solutions and setups as they tackle projects large and small.

Framestore
Since it was founded in 1986, Framestore has placed its visual stamp on a plethora of Oscar-, Emmy- and British Academy Film Award-winning visual effects projects, including Harry Potter, Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy. With increasingly more projects, Framestore expanded from its original UK location in London to North American locales such as Montreal, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, handling films as well as immersive digital experiences and integrated advertisements for iconic brands, including Guinness, Geico, Coke and BMW.

Beren Lewis

As the company and its workload grew and expanded into other areas, including integrated advertising, so, too, did its storage needs. “Innovative changes, such as virtual-reality projects, brought on high demand for storage and top-tier performance,” says NYC-based Beren Lewis, CTO of advertising and applied technologies at Framestore. “The team is often required to swiftly accommodate multiple workflows, including stereoscopic 4K and VR.”

Without hesitation, Lewis believes storage is typically the most challenging aspect of technology within the VFX workflow. “If the storage isn’t working, then neither are the artists,” he points out. Furthermore, any issues with storage can potentially lead to massive financial implications for the company due to lost time and revenue.

According to Lewis, Framestore uses its storage solution — a Pixit PixStor General Parallel File System (GPFS) storage cluster using the NetApp E-Series hardware – for all its project data. This includes backups to remote co-location sites, video preprocessing, decompression, disaster recovery preparation, scalability and high performance for VFX, finishing and rendering workloads.

The studio moved all the integrated advertising teams over to the PixStor GPFS clusters this past spring. Currently, Framestore has five primary PixStor clusters using NetApp E-Series in use at each office in London, LA, Chicago and Montreal.

According to Lewis, Framestore partnered with Pixit Media and NetApp to take on increasingly complicated and resource-hungry VR projects. “This partnership has provided the global integrated advertising team with higher performance and nonstop access to data,” he says. “The Pixit Media PixStor software-defined scale-out storage solution running on NetApp E-Series systems brings fast, reliable data access for the integrated advertising division so the team can embrace performance and consistency across all five sites, take a cost-effective, simplified approach to disaster recovery and have a modular infrastructure to support multiple workflows and future expansion.”

BMW

Framestore selected its current solution after reviewing several major storage technologies. It was looking for a single namespace that was very stable, while providing great performance, but it also had to be scalable, Lewis notes. “The PixStor ticked all those boxes and provided the right balance between enterprise-grade hardware and support, and open-source standards,” he explains. “That balance allowed us to seamlessly integrate the PixStor into our network, while still maintaining many of the bespoke tools and services that we had developed in-house over the years, with minimum development time.”

In particular, the storage solution provides the required high performance so that the studio’s VFX, finishing and rendering workloads can all run “full-out with no negative effect on the finishing editors’ or graphic artists’ user experience,” Lewis says. “This is a game-changing capability for an industry that typically partitions off these three workloads to keep artists from having to halt operations. PixStor running on E-Series consolidates all three workloads onto a single IT infrastructure with streamlined end-to-end production of projects, which reduces both time to completion and operational costs, while both IT acquisition and maintenance costs are reduced.”

At Framestore, integrating storage into the workflow is simple. The first step after a project is green-lit is the establishment of a new file set on the PixStor GPFS cluster, where ingested footage and all the CG artist-generated project data will live. “The PixStor is at the heart of the integrated advertising storage workflow from start to finish,” Lewis says. Because the PixStor GPFS cluster serves as the primary storage for all integrated advertising project data, the division’s workstations, renderfarm, editing and finishing stations connect to the cluster for review, generation and storage of project content.

Prior to the move to PixStor/NetApp, Framestore had been using a number of different storage offerings. According to Lewis, they all suffered from the same issues in terms of scalability and degradation of performance under render load — and that load was getting heavier and more unpredictable with every project. “We needed a technology that scaled and allowed us to maintain a single namespace but not suffer from continuous slowdowns for artists due to renderfarm load during crunch times or project delivery.”

Geico

As Lewis explains, with the PixStor/NetApp solution, processing was running up to 270,000 IOPS (I/O operations per second), which was at least several times what Framestore’s previous infrastructure would have been able to handle in a single namespace. “Notably, the development workflow for a major theme-park ride was unhindered by all the VR preprocessing, while backups to remote co-location sites synched every two hours without compromising the artist, rendering or finishing workloads,” he says. “This provided a cost-effective, simplified approach to disaster recovery, and Framestore now has a fast, tightly integrated platform to support its expansion plans.”

To stay at the top of its game, Framestore is always reviewing new technologies, and storage is often part of that conversation. To this end, the studio plans to build on the success it has had with PixStor by expanding the storage to handle some additional editorial playback and render workloads using an all-Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) flash tier. Other projects include a review of object storage technology for use as a long-term, off-premises storage target for archival data.

Without question, the industry’s visual demands are rapidly changing. Not long ago, Framestore could easily predict storage and render requirements for a typical project. But that is no longer the case, and the studio finds itself working in ever-increasing resolutions and frame rates. Whereas projects may have been as small as 3TB in the recent past, nowadays the studio regularly handles multiple projects of 300TB or larger. And the storage must be shared with other projects of varying sizes and scope.

“This new ‘unknowns’ element of our workflow puts many strains on all aspects of our pipeline, but especially the storage,” Lewis points out. “Knowing that our storage can cope with the load and can scale allows us to turn our attention to the other issues that these new types of projects bring to Framestore.”

As Lewis notes, working with high-resolution images and large renderfarms create a unique set of challenges for any storage technology that’s not seen in many other fields. The VFX will often test any storage technology well beyond what other industries are capable of. “If there’s an issue or a break point, we will typically find it in spectacular fashion,” he adds.

Rising Sun Pictures
As a contributor to the design and execution of computer-generated effects on more than 100 feature films since its inception 22 years ago, Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) has pushed the technical bar many times over in film as well as television projects. Based in Adelaide, South Australia, RSP has built a top team of VFX artists who have tackled such box-office hits as Thor: Ragnarok, X-Men and Game of Thrones, as well as the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises.

Mark Day

Such demanding, high-level projects require demanding, high-level effects, which, in turn, demand a high-performance, reliable storage solution capable of handling varying data I/O profiles. “With more than 200 employees accessing and writing files in various formats, the need for a fast, reliable and scalable solution is paramount to business continuity,” says Mark Day, director of engineering at RSP.

Recently, RSP installed an Oracle ZS5 storage appliance to handle this important function. This high-performance, unified storage system provides NAS and SAN cloud-converged storage capabilities that enable on-premises storage to seamlessly access Oracle Public Cloud. Its advanced hardware and software architecture includes a multi-threading SMP storage operating system for running multiple workloads and advanced data services without performance degradation. The offering also caches data on DRAM or flash cache for optimal performance and efficiency, while keeping data safely stored on high-capacity SSD (solid state disk) or HDD (hard disk drive) storage.

Previously, the studio had been using an Dell EMC Isilon storage cluster with Avere caching appliances, and the company is still employing the solution for parts of its workflow.

When it came time to upgrade to handle RSP’s increased workload, the facility ran a proof of concept with multiple vendors in September 2016 and benchmarked their systems. Impressed with Oracle, RSP began installation in early 2017. According to Day, RSP liked the solution’s ability to support larger packet sizes — now up to 1MB. In addition, he says its “exceptional” analytics engine gives introspection into a render job.

“It has a very appealing [total cost of ownership], and it has caching right out of the box, removing the need for additional caching appliances,” says Day. Storage is at the center of RSP’s workflow, storing all the relevant information for every department — from live-action plates that are turned over from clients, scene setup files and multi-terabyte cache files to iterations of the final product. “All employees work off this storage, and it needs to accommodate the needs of multiple projects and deadlines with zero downtime,” Day adds.

Machine Room

“Visual effects scenes are getting more complex, and in turn, data sizes are increasing. Working in 4K quadruples file sizes and, therefore, impacts storage performance,” explains Day. “We needed a solution that could cope with these requirements and future trends in the industry.”

According to Day, the data RSP deals with is broad, from small setup files to terabyte geocache files. A one-minute 2K DPX sequence is 17GB for the final pass, while 4K is 68GB. “Keep in mind this is only the final pass; a single shot could include hundreds of passes for a heavy computer-generated sequence,” he points out.

Thus, high-performance storage is important to the effective operation of a visual effects company like RSP. In fact, storage helps the artists stay on the creative edge by enabling them to iterate through the creative process of crafting a shot and a look. “Artists are required to iterate their creative process many times to perfect the look of a shot, and if they experience slowdowns when loading scenes, this can have a dramatic effect on how many iterations they can produce. And in turn, this affects employees’ efficiency and, ultimately, the profitability of the company,” says Day.

Thor: Ragnarok

Most recently, RSP used its new storage solution for work on the blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, in particular, for the Val’s Flashback sequence — which was extremely complex and involved extensive lighting and texture data, as well as high-frame-rate plates (sometimes more than 1,000fps for multiple live-action footage plates). “Before, our storage refresh early versions of this shot could take up to 24 hours to render on our server farm. But since installing our new storage, we saw this drastically reduced to six hours — that’s a 3x improvement, which is a fantastic outcome,” says Day.

Outpost VFX
A full-service VFX studio for film, broadcast and commercials, Outpost VFX, based in Bournemouth, England, has been operational since late 2012. Since that time, the facility has been growing by leaps and bounds, taking on major projects, including Life, Nocturnal Animals, Jason Bourne and 47 Meters Down.

Paul Francis

Due to this fairly rapid expansion, Outpost VFX has seen the need for increased capacity in its storage needs. “As the company grows and as resolution increases and HDR comes in, file sizes increase, and we need much more capacity to deal with that effectively,” says CTO Paul Francis.

When setting up the facility five years ago, the decision was made to go with PixStor from Pixit Media and Synology’s NAS for its storage solution. “It’s an industry-recognized solution that is extremely resilient to errors. It’s fast, robust and the team at Pixit provides excellent support, which is important to us,” says Francis.

Foremost, the solution had to provide high capacity and high speeds. “We need lots of simultaneous connections to avoid bottlenecks and ensure speedy delivery of data,” Francis adds. “This is the only one we’ve used, really. It has proved to be stable enough to support us through our growth over the last couple of years — growth that has included a physical office move and an increase in artist capacity to 80 seats.”

Outpost VFX mainly works with image data and project files for use with Autodesk’s Maya, Foundry’s Nuke, Side Effects’ Houdini and other VFX and animation tools. The challenge this presents is twofold, both large and small: concern for large file sizes, and problems the group can face with small files, such as metadata. Francis explains: “Sequentially loading small files can be time-consuming due to the current technology, so moving to something that can handle both of these areas will be of great benefit to us.”

Locally, artists use a mix of HDDs from a number of different manufacturers to store reference imagery and so forth — older-generation PCs have mostly Western Digital HDDs while newer PCs have generic SSDs. When replacing or upgrading equipment, Outpost VFX uses Samsung 900 Series SSDs, depending on the required performance and current market prices.

Life

Like many facilities, Outpost VFX is always weighing its options when it comes to finding the best solution for its current and future needs. Presently, it is looking at splitting up some of its storage solutions into smaller segments for greater resilience. “When you only have one storage solution and it fails, everything goes down. We’re looking to break our setup into smaller, faster solutions,” says Francis.

Additionally, security is a concern for Outpost VFX when it comes to its clients. According to Francis, certain shows need to be annexed, meaning the studio will need a separate storage solution outside of its main network to handle that data.

When Outpost VFX begins a job, the group ingests all the plates it needs to work on, and they reside in a new job folder created by production and assigned to a specific drive for active jobs. This folder then becomes the go-to for all assets, elements and shot iterations created throughout the production. For security purposes, these areas of the server are only visible to and accessible by artists, who in turn cannot access the Internet; this ensures that the files are “watertight and immune to leaks,” says Francis, adding that with PixStor, the studio is able to set up different partitions for different areas that artists can jump between easily.

How important is storage to Outpost VFX? “Frankly, there’d be no operation without storage!” Francis says emphatically. “We deal with hundreds of terrabytes of data in visual effects, so having high-capacity, reliable storage available to us at all times is absolutely essential to ensure a smooth and successful operation.”

47 Meters Down

Because the studio delivers visual effects across film, TV and commercials simultaneously, storage is an important factor no matter what the crew is working on. A recent film project like 47 Meters Down required the full gamut of visual effects work, as Outpost VFX was the sole vendor for the project. So, the studio needed the space and responsiveness of a storage system that enabled them to deliver more than 420 shots, a number of which featured heavy 3D builds and multiple layers of render elements.

“We had only about 30 artists at that point, so having a stable solution that was easy for our team to navigate and use was crucial,” Francis points out.

Main Image: From Outpost VFX’s Domestos commercial out of agency MullenLowe London.