By Karen Moltenbrey
When creating visual effects for a live-action film or television project, the artist digs right in. But not before the source files are received and backed up. Of course, during the process, storage again comes into play, as the artist’s work is saved and composited into the live-action file and then saved (and stored) yet again. At mid-sized Artifex Studios and the larger Jellyfish Pictures, two visual effects studios, storage might not be the sexiest part of the work they do, but it is vital to a successful outcome nonetheless.
An independent studio in Vancouver, BC, Artifex Studios is a small- to mid-sized visual effects facility producing film and television projects for networks, film studios and streaming services. Founded in 1997 by VFX supervisor Adam Stern, the studio has grown over the years from a one- to two-person operation to one staffed by 35 to 45 artists. During that time it has built up a lengthy and impressive resume, from Charmed, Descendants 3 and The Crossing to Mission to Mars, The Company You Keep and Apollo 18.
To handle its storage needs, Artifex uses the Qumulo QC24 four-node storage cluster for its main storage system, along with G-Tech and LaCie portable RAIDs and Angelbird Technologies and Samsung portable SSD drives. “We’ve been running [Qumulo] for several years now. It was a significant investment for us because we’re not a huge company, but it has been tremendously successful for us,” says Stern.
“The most important things for us when it comes to storage are speed, data security and minimal downtime. They’re pretty obvious things, but Qumulo offered us a system that eliminated one of the problems we had been having with the [previous] system bogging down as concurrent users were moving the files around quickly between compositors and 3D artists,” says Stern. “We have 40-plus people hitting this thing, pulling in 4K, 6K, 8K footage from it, rendering and [creating] 3D, and it just ticks along. That was huge for us.”
Of course, speed is of utmost importance, but so is maintaining the data’s safety. To this end, the new system self-monitors, taking its own snapshots to maintain its own health and making sure there are constantly rotating levels of backups. Having the ability to monitor everything about the system is a big plus for the studio as well.
Because data safety and security is non-negotiable, Artifex uses Google Cloud services along with Qumulo for incremental storage, every night incrementally backing up to Google Cloud. “So while Qumulo is doing its own snapshots incrementally, we have another hard-drive system from Synology, which is more of a prosumer NAS system, whose only job is to do a local current backup,” Stern explains. “So in-house, we have two local backups between Qumulo and Synology, and then we have a third backup going to the cloud every night that’s off-site. When a project is complete, we archive it onto two sets of local hard drives, and one leaves the premises and the other is stored here.” At this point, the material is taken off the Qumulo system, and seven days later, the last of the so-called snapshots is removed.
As soon as data comes into Artifex — either via Aspera, Signiant’s Media Shuttle or hard disks — the material is immediately transferred to the Qumulo system, and then it is cataloged and placed into the studio’s ftrack database, which the studio uses for shot tracking. Then, as Stern says, the floodgates open, and all the artists, compositors, 3D team members and admin coordination team members access the material that resides on the Qumulo system.
Desktops at the studio have local storage, generally an SSD built into the machine, but as Stern points out, that is a temporary solution used by the artists while working on a specific shot, not to hold studio data.
Artifex generally works on a handful of projects simultaneously, including the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark? “Everything we do here requires storage, and we’re always dealing with high-resolution footage, and that project was no exception,” says Stern. For instance, the series required Artifex to simulate 10,000 CG cockroaches spilling out of every possible hole in a room — work that required a lot of high-speed caching.
“FX artists need to access temporary storage very quickly to produce those simulations. In terms of the Qumulo system, we need it to retrieve files at the speed our effects artists can simulate and cache, and make sure they are able to manage what can be thousands and thousands of files generated just within a few hours.”
Similarly, for Netflix’s Wu Assassins, the studio generated multiple simulations of CG smoke and fog within SideFX’s Side Effects Houdini and again had to generate thousands and thousands of cache files for all the particles and volume information. Just as it did with the caching for the CG cockroaches, the current system handled caching for the smoke and fog quite efficiently.
At this point, Stern says the vendor is doing some interesting things that his company has not yet taken advantage of. For instance, today one of the big pushes is working in the cloud and integrating that with infrastructures and workflows. “I know they are working on that, and we’re looking into that,” he adds. There are also some new equipment features, “bleeding-edge stuff” Artifex has not explored yet. “It’s OK to be cutting-edge, but bleeding-edge is a little scary for us,” Stern notes. “I know they are always playing with new features, but just having the important foundation of speed and security is right where we are at the moment.”
When it comes to big projects with big storage needs, Jellyfish Pictures is no fish out of water. The studio works on myriad projects, from Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars to high-end TV series like Watchmen to episodic animation like Floogals and Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed! Recently, it has embarked on an animated feature for DreamWorks and has a dedicated art department that works on visual development for substantial VFX projects and children’s animated TV content.
To handle all this work, Jellyfish has five studios across the UK: four in London and one in Sheffield, in the north of England. What’s more, in early December, Jellyfish expanded further with a brand-new virtual studio in London seating over 150 artists — increasing its capacity to over 300 people. In line with this expansion, Jellyfish is removing all on-site infrastructure from its existing locales and moving everything to a co-location. This means that all five present locations will be wholly virtual as well, making Jellyfish the largest VFX and animation studio in the world operating this way, contends CTO Jeremy Smith.
“We are dealing with shows that have very large datasets, which, therefore, require high-performance computing. It goes without saying, then, that we need some pretty heavy-duty storage,” says Smith.
Not only must the storage solution be able to handle Jellyfish’s data needs, it must also fit into its operational model. “Even though we work across multiple sites, we don’t want our artists to feel that. We need a storage system that can bring together all locations into one centralized hub,” Smith explains. “As a studio, we do not rely on one storage hardware vendor; therefore, we need to work with a company that is hardware-agnostic in addition to being able to operate in the cloud.”
Also, Jellyfish is a TPN-assessed studio and thus has to work with vendors that are TPN compliant — another serious, and vital, consideration when choosing its storage solution. TPN is an initiative between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Content Delivery and Security Association (CDSA) that provides a set of requirements and best practices around preventing leaks, breaches and hacks of pre-released, high-valued media content.
With all those factors in mind, Jellyfish uses PixStor from Pixit Media for its storage solution. PixStor is a software-defined storage solution that allows the studio to use various hardware storage from other vendors under the hood. With PixStor, data moves seamlessly through many tiers of storage — from fast flash and disk tiers to cost-effective, high-capacity object storage to the cloud. In addition, the studio uses NetApp storage within a different part of the same workflow on Dell R740 hardware and alternates between SSD and spinning disks, depending on the purpose of the data and the file size.
“We’ve future-proofed our studio with the Mellanox SN2100 switch for the heavy lifting, and for connecting our virtual workstations to the storage, we are using several servers from the Dell N3000 series,” says Smith.
As a wholly virtual studio, Jellyfish has no storage housed locally; it all sits in a co-location, which is accessed through remote workstations powered by Teradici’s PCoIP technology.
According to Smith, becoming a completely virtual studio is a new development for Jellyfish. Nevertheless, the facility has been working with Pixit Media since 2014 and launched its first virtual studio in 2017, “so the building blocks have been in place for a while,” he says.
Prior to moving all the infrastructure off-site, Jellyfish ran its storage system out of its Brixton and Soho studios locally. Its own private cloud from Brixton powered Jellyfish’s Soho and Sheffield studios. Both PixStor storage solutions in Brixton and Soho were linked with the solution’s PixCache. The switches and servers were still from Dell and Mellanox but were an older generation.
“Way back when, before we adopted this virtual world we are living in, we still worked with on-premises and inflexible storage solutions. It limited us in terms of the work we could take on and where we could operate,” says Smith. “With this new solution, we can scale up to meet our requirements.”
Now, however, using Mellanox SN2100, which has 100GbE, Jellyfish can deal with obscene amounts of data, Smith contends. “The way the industry is moving with 4K and 8K, even 16K being thrown around, we need to be ready,” he says.
Before the co-location, the different sites were connected through PixCache; now the co-location and public cloud are linked via Ngenea, which pre-caches files locally to the render node before the render starts. Furthermore, the studio is able to unlock true multi-tenancy with a single storage namespace, rapidly deploying logical TPN-accredited data separation and isolation and scaling up services as needed. “Probably two of the most important facets for us in running a successful studio: security and flexibility,” says Smith.
Artists access the storage via their Teradici Zero Clients, which, through the Dell switches, connect users to the standard Samba SMB network. Users who are working on realtime clients or in high resolution are connected to the Pixit storage through the Mellanox switch, where PixStor Native Client is used.
“Storage is a fundamental part of any VFX and animation studio’s workflow. Implementing the correct solution is critical to the seamless running of a project, as well as the security and flexibility of the business,” Smith concludes. “Any good storage system is invisible to the user. Only the people who build it will ever know the precision it takes to get it up and running — and that is the sign you’ve got the perfect solution.”
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer, covering visual effects and post production.