By Karen Moltenbrey
The post industry relies heavily on storage solutions, without question. Facilities are jugging a variety of tasks and multiple projects all at once. And deadlines are always looming. Thus, these studios need a storage solution that is fast and reliable. Each studio has different needs and searches to find the right system to fit their particular workflow. Luckily, there are many storage choices for pros to choose from.
For this article, we spoke with two post houses about their storage solutions and why they are a good fit for each of their needs.
Sugar Studios LA
Sugar Studios LA is one-stop shop playground for filmmakers that offers a full range of post production services, including editorial, color, VFX, audio, production and finishing, with each department led by seasoned professionals. Its office suites in the Wiltern Theater Tower, in the center of LA, serve an impressive list of clients, from numerous independent film producers and distributors to Disney, Marvel, Sony, MGM, Universal, Showtime, Netflix, AMC, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and others.
With so much important data in play at one time, Sugar needs a robust, secure and reliable storage system. However, with diverse offerings come diverse requirements. For its online and color projects, Sugar uses a Symply SAN with 200TB of usable storage. The color workstations are connected via 10Gb Ethernet over Fibre with a 40Gb uplink to the network. For mass storage and offline work, the studio uses a MacOS server acting as a NAS, with 530TB of usable storage connected via a 40Gb network uplink. For Avid offline jobs, the facility has an Avid Nexis Pro with 40TB of storage, and for Avid Pro Tools collaboration, a Facilis TerraBlock with 40TB of usable storage.
“We can collaborate with any and all client stations working on the same or different media and sharing projects across multiple software platforms,” says Jijo Reed, owner/executive producer of Sugar. “No station is limited to what it can do, since every station has access to all media. Centralized storage is so important because not only does it allow collaboration, we always have access to all media and don’t have to fumble through drives. It is also RAID-protected, so we don’t have to be concerned with losing data.”
Prior to employing the centralized storage, Sugar had been using G-Technology’s G-RAID drives, changing over in late 2016. “Once our technical service advisor, Zach Moller, came on board, he began immediately to institute a storage network solution that was tailored to our workflow,” says Reed.
Reed, an award-winning director/producer, founded the company in 2012, using a laptop (running Final Cut Pro 7) and an external hard drive he had purchased on sale at Fry’s. His target base at the time was producers and writers needing sizzle trailers to pitch their projects — at a time when the term “sizzle trailer” was not part of the common vernacular. “I attended festivals to pitch my wares, producing over 15 sizzles the first year,” he says, “and it grew from there.”
Since Reed was creating sizzles for yet-to-be-made features, he was in “pole position” to handle the post for some of these independent films when they got funded. In 2015, he, along with his senior editor, Paul Buhl, turned their focus to feature post work, which was “more lucrative and less exhausting, but mostly, we wanted to tell stories – the whole story.” He rebranded and changed the name of the company from Sizzlepitch to Sugar Studios, and brought on a feature post producer, Chris Harrington. Reed invested heavily in the company, purchasing equipment and acquiring space. Soon, one bay became two, then three and so on. Currently, the company spans three full floors, including the penthouse of the Wiltern Theater Tower.
As Reed proudly points out, the studio space features 21 bays and workstations, two screening theaters, including a 25-seat color and mix DI stage with a Barco DP4K projector and Dolby Atmos configuration. “We are fully staffed, all under one roof, with editorial, full audio services, color correction/grading, VFX and a greenscreen cyclorama stage with on-site 4K cameras, grip and lighting,” he details. “But, it’s the people who make this work. Our passion is obvious to our clients.”
While Sugar was growing and expanding, so, too, was its mass storage solution. According to Zach Moller, it started with the NAS due to its low price and fast (10Gb) connection to every client machine. “The Symply SAN solution was needed because we required a high-bandwidth system for online and color playback that used Fibre Channel technology for the low latency and local drive configuration,” he says.
Moreover, the facility wanted flexibility with its SAN solution; it was very expensive to have every machine connected via Fibre Channel, “and frankly, we didn’t need that bandwidth,” Reed says. “Symply allowed us to have client machines choose whether they connected via Fibre Channel or 10Gb. If this wasn’t the case, we would have been in a pickle, having to purchase expansion chassis for every machine to open up additional PCI slots.” (The bulk of the machines at Sugar connect using the pre-existing 10Gb Ethernet over Fibre network, thus negating the need to use another PCI slot on a Fibre Channel card.)
At Sugar, the camera masters and production audio are loaded directly to the NAS for mass storage. Then, the group archives the camera masters to LTO for deep archival, for an additional backup. During LTO archival, the studio creates the dailies for the offline edit on either Avid Media Composer (where the MXFs are migrated to the Avid Nexis server) or Adobe Premiere (where the ProRes dailies continue to live on the NAS).
When adding visual effects, the artists render to the Symply SAN when preparing for the online, color and finishing.
The studio works with a wide range of codecs, some of which are extremely taxing on the systems. And, the SAN is ideal, especially for the raster image files (EXRs), since each frame has such a high density — and there can be 100,000 frames per folder. “This can only be accomplished with a premium storage solution: our SAN,” Reed says.
When the studio moved to the EXR codec for the VFX on the American Dreamer feature film, for example, its original NAS solution over 10Gb didn’t have enough bandwidth for playback on its systems (1.2GB/sec). Once it upgraded the SAN solution with dual 16Gb Fibre Channel, they were able to play back uncompressed 4K EXR footage without the headache or frustration of stuttering.
“We have created an environment that caters to the creative process with a technical infrastructure that is superfast and solid. Filmmakers love us, and I couldn’t be prouder of my team for making this happen,” says Reed.
Established in 2015, Postal is a boutique creative studio that produces motion graphics, visual effects, animation, live action and editorial, with the vision of transcending all mediums — whether it’s short animations for social media or big-budget visual effects for broadcast. “As a studio, we love to experiment with different techniques. We feel strongly that the idea should always come first,” says Mike Seabrooke, producer at New York’s Postal.
To ensure that these ideas make it to the final stage of a project, the company uses a mixture of hard drives, LTO tapes and servers that house the content while the artists are working on projects, as well as for archival purposes. Specifically, the studio employs the EditShare Storage v.7 shared storage platform and EditShare Ark Tape for managing the LTO tape libraries that serve as nearline and offline backup. This is the system setup that Postal deployed initially when it started up a few years ago, and since then Postal has been continuously updating and expanding it based on its growth as a studio.
Let’s face it, hard drives always have the possibility of failing. But, failure is not something that Postal — or any other post house — can afford. That is why the studio keeps two instances per job on archive drives: a master and a backup. “Organized hard drives give us quick access to previous jobs if need be, which sometimes can be quite the lifesaver,” says Seabrooke.
LTO tapes, meanwhile, are used to back up the facility’s servers running EditShare v7 – which house Postal’s editorial jobs — on the off chance that something happens to that precious piece of hardware. “The recovery process isn’t the fastest, but the system is compact, self-contained and gives us peace of mind in case anything does go wrong,” Seabrooke explains.
In addition, the studio uses Retrospect backup and restore software for its working projects server. Seabrooke says, “We chose it because it offers a backup service that does not require much oversight.”
When Postal began shopping for a solution for its studio three years ago, reliability was at the top of its list. The facility needed a system it could rely on to back up its data, which would comprise the facility’s entire scope of work. Ease of use was also a concern, as was access. This decision prompted questions such as: Would we have to monitor it constantly? In what timeframe would we be able to access the data? Moreover, cost was yet another factor: Would the solution be effective without breaking our budget?
Postal’s solution indeed enabled them to check off every one of those boxes. “Our projects demand a system that we can count on, with the added benefit of quick retrieval,” Seabrooke says.
Throughout the studio’s production process, the artists are accessing project data on the servers. Then, once they complete the project, the data is transferred to the archival drives for backup. This frees up space on the company servers for new jobs, while providing access to the stored data if needed.
“Storage is so important in our work because it is our work. Starting over on a project is an outcome we cannot allow, so responsible storage is a necessity,” concludes Seabrooke.
Karen Moltenbrey is a long-time VFX and post production writer.