By Karen Moltenbrey
At nearly every phase of the content creation process, storage is at the center. Here we look at two post facilities whose projects continually push boundaries in terms of data, but through it all, their storage solution remains fast and reliable. One, Light Iron, juggles an average of 20 to 40 data-intensive projects at a time and must have a robust storage solution to handle its ever-growing work. Another, Final Frame, recently took on a project whose storage requirements were literally out of this world.
Light Iron provides a wide range of services, from dailies to post on feature films, indies and episodic shows, to color/conform/beauty work on commercials and short-form projects. The facility’s clients include Netflix, Amazon Studios, Apple TV+, ABC Studios, HBO, Fox, FX, Paramount and many more. Light Iron has been committed to evolving digital filmmaking techniques over the past 10 years and understands the importance of data availability throughout the pipeline. Having a storage solution that is reliable, fast and scalable is paramount to successfully servicing data-centric projects with an ever-growing footprint.
More than 100 full-time employees located at Light Iron’s Los Angeles and New York locations regularly access the company’s shared storage solutions. Both facilities are equipped for dailies and finishing, giving clients an option between its offices based on proximity. In New York, where space is at a premium, the company also offers offline editorial suites.
The central storage solution used at both locations is a Quantum StorNext file system along with a combination of network-attached and direct-attached storage. On the archive end, both sites use LTO-7 tapes for backing up before moving the data off the spinning disc storage.
As Lance Hayes, senior post production systems engineer, explains, the facility segments the storage between three different types of options. “We structured our storage environment in a three-tiered model, with redundancy, flexibility and security in mind. We have our fast disks (tier one), which are fast volumes used primarily for playbacks in the rooms. Then there are deliverable volumes (tier two), where the focus is on the density of the storage. These are usually the destination for rendered files. And then, our nearline network-attached storage (tier three) is more for the deep storage, a holding pool before output to tape,” he explains.
Light Iron has been using Quantum as its de facto standard for the past several years. Founded in 2009, Light Iron has been on an aggressive growth trajectory and has evolved its storage strategy in response to client needs and technological advancement. Before installing its StorNext system, it managed with JBOD (“just a bunch of discs”) direct-attached storage on a very limited number of systems to service its staff of then-30-some employees, says Keenan Mock, senior media archivist at Light Iron. Light Iron, though, grew quickly, “and we realized we needed to invest in a full infrastructure,” he adds.
At Light Iron, work often starts with dailies, so the workflow teams interact with production to determine the cameras being used, the codecs being shot, the number of shoot days, the expected shooting ratio and so forth. Based on that information, the group determines which generation of LTO stock makes the most sense for the project (LTO-6 or LTO-7, with LTO-8 soon to be an option at the facility). “The industry standard, and our recommendation as well, is to create two LTO tapes per shoot day,” says Mock. Then, those tapes are geographically separated for safety.
In terms of working materials, the group generally restores only what is needed for each individual show from LTO tape, as opposed to keeping the entire show on spinning disc. “This allows us to use those really fast discs in a cost-effective way,” Hayes says.
Following the editorial process, Light Iron restores only the needed shots plus handles from tape directly to the StorNext SAN, so online editors can have immediate access. The material stays on the system while the conform and DI occur, followed by the creation of final deliverables, which are sent to the tier two and tier three spinning disk storage. If the project needs to be archived to tape, Mock’s department takes care of that; if it needs to be uploaded, that usually happens from the spinning discs.
Light Iron’s FilmLight Baselight systems have local storage, which is used mainly as cache volumes to ensure sustained playback in the color suite. In addition, Blackmagic Resolve color correctors play back content directly to the SAN using tier two storage.
Light Iron continually analyzes its storage infrastructure and reviews its options in terms of the latest technologies. Currently, the company considers its existing storage solution to be highly functional, though it is reviewing options for the latest versions of flash solutions from Quantum in 2020.
Based on the facility’s storage workflow, there’s minimal danger of maxing out the storage space anytime soon.
While Light Iron is religious about creating a duplicate set of tapes for backup, “it’s a very rare occurrence [for the duplicate to be needed],” notes Mock, “But it can happen, and in that circumstance, Light Iron is prepared.”
As for the shared storage, the datasets used in post, compared to other industries, are very large, “and without shared storage and a clustered file system, we wouldn’t be able to do the jobs we are currently doing,” Hayes notes.
With offices in New York City and London, Final Frame is a full-featured post facility offering a range of services, including DI of every flavor, 8mm to 77mm film scanning and restoration, offline editing, VFX, sound editing (theatrical and home Dolby Atmos) and mastering. Its work spans feature films, documentaries and television. The facility’s recent work on the documentary film Apollo 11, though, tested its infrastructure like no other, including the amount of storage space it required.
“A long time ago, we decided that for the backbone of all our storage needs, we were going to rely on fiber. We have a total of 55 edit rooms, five projection theaters and five audio mixing rooms, and we have fiber connectivity between all of those,” says Will Cox, CEO/supervising colorist. So, for the past 20 years, ever since 1Gb fiber became available, Final Frame has relied on this setup, though every five years or so, the shop has upgraded to the next level of fiber and is currently using 16Gb fiber.
“Storage requirements have increased because image data has increased and audio data has increased with Atmos. So, we’ve needed more storage and faster storage,” Cox says.
While the core of the system is fiber, the facility uses a variety of storage arrays, the bulk of which are 16Gb 4000 Series SAN offerings from Infortrend, totaling approximately 2PB of space. In addition, the studio uses 8GB Promise Technology VTrak arrays, also totaling about 1PB. Additionally installed at the facility are some JetStor 8GB offerings. For SAN management, Final Frame uses Tiger Technology’s Tiger Store.
Foremost in Cox’s mind when looking for a storage solution is interoperability, since Final Frame uses Linux, Mac and Windows platforms; reliability and fault tolerance are important as well. “We run RAID-6 and RAID-60 for pretty much everything,” he adds. “We also focus on how good the remote management is. We’ve brought online so much storage, we need the storage vendors to provide good interfaces so that our engineers and IT people can manage and get realtime feedback about the performance of the arrays and any faults that are creeping in, whether it’s due to failed drives or drives that are performing less than we had anticipated.”
Final Frame has also brought on a good deal more SSD storage. “We manage projects a bit differently now than we used to, where we have more tiered storage,” Cox adds. “We still do a lot of spinning discs, but SSD is moving in, and that is changing our workflows somewhat in that we don’t have to render as many files and as many versions when we have really fast storage. As a result, there’s some cost-savings on personnel at the workflow level when you have extremely fast storage.”
When working with clients who are doing offline editing, Final Frame will build an isolated SAN for them, and when it comes time to finish the project, whether it’s a picture or audio, the studio will connect its online and mixing rooms to that SAN. This setup is beneficial to security, Cox contends, as it accelerates the workflow since there’s no copying of data. However, aside from that work, everyone generally has parallel access to the storage infrastructure and can access it at any time.
More recently, in addition to other projects, Final Frame began working on Apollo 11, a film directed by Todd Douglas Miller. Miller wanted to rescan all the original negatives and all the original elements available from the Apollo 11 moon landing for a documentary film using audio and footage (16mm and 35mm) from NASA during that extraordinary feat. “He asked if we could make a movie just with the archival elements of what existed,” says Cox.
While ramping up and determining a plan of attack — Final Frame was going to scan the data at 4K resolution — NASA and NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) discovered a lost cache of archives containing 65mm and 70mm film.
“At that point, we decided that existing scanning technology wasn’t sufficient, and we’d need a film scanner to scan all this footage at 16K,” Cox adds, noting the company had to design and build an entirely new 16K film scanner and then build a pipeline that could handle all that data. “If you can imagine how tough 4K is to deal with, then think about 16K, with its insanely high data rates. And 8K is four times larger than 4K, and 16K is four times larger than 8K, so you’re talking about orders-of-magnitude increases in data.”
Adding to the complexity, the facility had no idea how much footage it would be using. Alas, Final Frame ultimately considered its storage structure and the costs needed to take it to the next level for 16K scanning and determined that amount of data was just too much to move and too much to store. “As it was, we filled up a little over a petabyte of storage just scanning the 8K material. We were looking at 4PB, quadrupling the amount of storage infrastructure needed. Then we would have had to run backups of everything, which would have increased it by another 4PB.”
Considering these factors, Final Frame changed its game plan and decided to scan at 8K. “So instead of 2PB to 2.5PB, we would have been looking at 8PB to 10PB of storage if we continued with our earlier plan, and that was really beyond what the production could tolerate,” says Cox.
Even scanning at 8K, the group had to have the data held in the central repository. “We were scanning in, doing what were extensively dailies, restoration and editorial, all from the same core set of media. Then, as editorial was still going on, we were beginning to conform and finish the film so we could make the Sundance deadline,” recalls Cox.
In terms of scans, copies and so forth, Final Frame stored about 2.5PB of data for that project. But in terms of data created and then destroyed, the amount of data was between 12PB and 15PB. To handle this load, the facility needed storage that could perform quickly, be very redundant and large. This led the company to bring on an additional 1PB of Fibre Channel SAN storage to add to the 1.5PB already in place — dedicated to just the Apollo 11 project. “We almost had to double the amount of storage infrastructure in the whole facility just to run this one project,” Cox points out. The additional storage was added in half-petabyte array increments, all connected to the SAN, all at 16Gb fiber.
While storage is important to any project, it was especially true for the Apollo 11 project due to the aggressive deadlines and excessively large storage needs. “Apollo 11 was a unique project. We were producing imagery that was being returned to the National Archives to be part of the historic record. Because of the significance of what we were scanning, we had to be very attentive to the longevity and accuracy of the media,” says Cox. “So, how it was being stored and where it was being stored were important factors on this project, more so than maybe any other project we’ve ever done.”
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.