Storage for VFX Studios

By Karen Moltenbrey

Visual effects are dazzling — inviting eye candy, if you will. But when you mention the term “storage,” the wide eyes may turn into a stifled yawn from viewers of the amazing content. Not so for the makers of that content.

They know that the key to a successful project rests within the reliability of their storage solutions. Here, we look at two visual effects studios — both top players in television and feature film effects — as they discuss how data storage enables them to excel at their craft.

Zoic Studios
A Culver City-based visual effects facility, with shops in Vancouver and New York, Zoic Studios has been crafting visual effects for a host of television series since its founding in 2002, starting with Firefly. In addition to a full plate of episodics, Zoic also counts numerous feature films and spots to its credits.

Saker Klippsten

According to Saker Klippsten, CTO, the facility has used a range of storage solutions over the past 16 years from BlueArc (before it was acquired by Hitachi), DataDirect Networks and others, but now uses Dell EMC’s Isilon cluster file storage system for its current needs. “We’ve been a fan of theirs for quite a long time now. I think we were customer number two,” he says, “back when they were trying to break into the media and entertainment sector.”

Locally, the studio uses Intel and NVMe drives for its workstations. NVMe, or non-volatile memory express, is an open logical device interface specification for accessing all-flash storage media attached via PCI Express (PCIe) bus. Previously, Zoic had been using Samsung SSD drives, with Samsung 1TB and 2TB EVO drives, but in the past year and a half, began migrating to NVMe on the local workstations.

Zoic transitioned to the Isilon system in 2004-2005 because of the heavy usage its renderfarm was getting. “Renderfarms work 24/7 and don’t take breaks. Our storage was getting really beat up, and people were starting to complain that it was slow accessing the file system and affecting playback of their footage and media,” explains Klippsten. “We needed to find something that could scale out horizontally.”

At the time, however, file-level storage was pretty much all that was available — “you were limited to this sort of vertical pool of storage,” says Klippsten. “You might have a lot of storage behind it, but you were still limited at the spigot, at the top end. You couldn’t get the data out fast enough.” But Isilon broke through that barrier by creating a cluster storage system that allotted the scale horizontally, “so we could balance our load, our render nodes and our artists across a number of machines, and access and update in parallel at the same time,” he adds.

Klippsten believes that solution was a big breakthrough for a lot of users; nevertheless, it took some time for others to get onboard. “In the media and entertainment industry, everyone seemed to be locked into BlueArc or NetApp,” he notes. Not so with Zoic.

Fairly recently, some new players have come onto the market, including Qumulo, touted as a “next-generation NAS company” built around advanced, distributed software running on commodity hardware. “That’s another storage platform that we have looked at and tested,” says Klippsten, adding that Zoic even has a number of nodes from the vendor.

There are other open-source options out there as well. Recently, Red Hat began offering Gluster Storage, an open, software-defined storage platform for physical, virtual and cloud environments. “And now with NVMe, it’s eliminating a lot of these problems as well,” Klippsten says.

Back when Zoic selected Isilon, there were a number of major issues that affected the studio’s decision making. As Klippsten notes, they had just opened the Vancouver office and were transferring data back and forth. “How do we back up that data? How do we protect it? Storage snapshot technology didn’t really exist at the time,” he says. But, Isilon had a number of features that the studio liked, including SyncIQ, software for asynchronous replication of data. “It could push data between different Isilon clusters from a block level, in a more automated fashion. It was very convenient. It offered a lot of parameters, such as moving data by time of day and access frequency.”

SyncIQ enabled the studio to archive the data. And for dealing with interim changes, such as a mistakenly deleted file, Zoic found Isilon’s SnapshotIQ ideal for fast data recovery. Moreover, Isilon was one of the first to support Aspera, right on the Isilon cluster. “You didn’t have to run it on a separate machine. It was a huge benefit because we transfer a lot of secure, encrypted data between us and a lot of our clients,” notes Klippsten.

Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Within the pipeline, Zoic’s storage system sits at the core. It is used immediately as the studio ingests the media, whether it is downloaded or transferred from hard drives – terabytes upon terabytes of data. The data is then cleaned up and distributed to project folders for tasks assigned to the various artists. In essence, it acts as a holding tank for the main production storage as an artist begins working on those specific shots, Klippsten explains.

Aside from using the storage at the floor level, the studio also employs it at the archive level, for data recovery as well as material that might not be accessed for weeks. “We have sort of a tiered level of storage — high-performance and deep-archival storage,” he says.

And the system is invaluable, as Zoic is handling 400 to 500 shots a week. If you multiply that by the number of revisions and versions that take place during that time frame, it adds up to hundreds of terabytes weekly. “Per day, we transfer between LA, Vancouver and New York somewhere around 20TB to 30TB,” he estimates. “That number increases quite a bit because we do a lot of cloud rendering. So, we’re pushing a lot of data up to Google and back for cloud rendering, and all of that hits our Isilon storage.”

When Zoic was founded, it originally saw itself as a visual effects company, but at the end of the day, Klippsten says they’re really a technology company that makes pretty pictures. “We push data and move it around to its limits. We’re constantly coming up with new, creative ideas, trying to find partners that can help provide solutions collaboratively if we cannot create them ourselves. The shot cost is constantly being squeezed by studios, which want these shots done faster and cheaper. So, we have to make sure our artists are working faster, too.”

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Recently, Zoic has been working on a TV project involving a good deal of water simulations and other sims in general — which rapidly generate a tremendous amount of data. Then the data is transferred between the LA and Vancouver facilities. Having storage capable of handling that was unheard of three years ago, Klippsten says. However, Zoic has managed to do so using Isilon along with some off-the-shelf Supermicro storage with NVMe drives, enabling its dynamics department to tackle this and other projects. “When doing full simulation, you need to get that sim in front of the clients as soon as possible so they can comment on it. Simulations take a long time — we’re doing 26GB/sec, which is crazy. It’s close to something in the high-performance computing realm.”

With all that considered, it is hardly surprising to hear Klippsten say that Zoic could not function without a solid storage solution. “It’s funny. When people talk about storage, they are always saying they don’t have enough of it. Even when you have a lot of storage, it’s always running at 99 percent full, and they wonder why you can’t just go out to Best Buy and purchase another hard drive. It doesn’t work that way!”

Milk VFX
Founded just five years ago, Milk VFX is an independent visual effects facility in the UK with locations in London and Cardiff, Wales. While Milk VFX may be young, it was founded by experienced and award-winning VFX supervisors and producers. And the awards have continued, including an Oscar (Ex-Machina), an Emmy (Sherlock) and three BAFTAs, as the studio creates innovative and complex work for high-end television and feature films.

Benoit Leveau

With so much precious data, and a lot of it, the studio has to ensure that its work is secure and the storage system is keeping pace with the staff using it. When the studio was set up, it installed Pixit Media’s PixStor, a parallel file system with limitless storage, for its central storage solution. And, it has been growing with the company ever since. (Milk uses almost no local storage, except for media playback.)

“It was a carefully chosen solution due to its enterprise-level performance,” says Benoit Leveau, head of pipeline at Milk, about the decision to select PixStor. “It allowed us to expand when setting up our second studio in Cardiff and our rendering solutions in the cloud.”

When Milk was shopping for a storage offering while opening the studio, four things were forefront in their minds: speed, scalability, performance and reliability. Those were the functions the group wanted from its storage system — exactly the same four demands that the projects at the studios required.

“A final image requires gigabytes, sometimes terabytes, of data in the form of detailed models, high-resolution textures, animation files, particles and effects caches and so forth,” says Leveau. “We need to be able to review 4K image sequences in real time, so it’s really essential for daily operation.”

This year alone, Milk has completed a number of high-end visual effects sequences for feature films such as Adrift, serving as the principal vendor on this true story about a young couple lost at sea during one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. The Milk team created all the major water and storm sequences, including bespoke 100-foot waves, all of which were rendered entirely in the cloud.

As Leveau points out, one of the shots in the film was more than 60TB, as it required complex ocean simulations. “We computed the ocean simulations on our local renderfarm, but the rendering was done in the cloud, and with this setup, we were able to access the data from everywhere almost transparently for the artists,” he explains.

Adrift

The studio also recently completed work on the blockbuster Fantastic Beasts sequel, The Crimes of Grindelwald.

For television, the studio created visual effects for an episode of the Netflix Altered Carbon sci-fi series, where people can live forever, as they digitally store their consciousness (stacks) and then download themselves into new bodies (sleeves). For the episode, the Milk crew created forest fires and the aftermath, as well as an alien planet and escape ship. For Origin, an action-thriller, the team generated 926 VFX shots in 4K for the 10-part series, spanning a wide range of work. Milk is also serving as the VFX vendor for Good Omens, a six-part horror/fantasy/drama series.

“For Origin, all the data had to be online for the duration of the four-month project. At the same time, we commenced work as the sole VFX vendor on the BBC/Amazon Good Omens series, which is now rapidly filling up our PixStor, hence the importance of scalability!” says Leveau.

Main Image: Origin via Milk VFX


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.


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