Tippett Studio

How one studio uses a SAN to add special effects to Hollywood movies

March 3, 2004

3 Min Read
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Hollywood projects are legendary for being behind schedule and over budget, right? But the technology director of Tippett Studio swears that doesnt apply to the post-production phase of movie work -- and he's put in a SAN to cope.

“Our deadlines are completely inflexible,” Tippett’s Christian Rice says. Running behind deadline is an expensive proposition for the Berkeley, Calif., special effects studio, which is currently doing post-production work for movies including The Stepford Wives, Catwoman, and Hellboy. If a deadline were missed (it doesn't seem to have happened too often), the studio would have to pay editors overtime to catch up. There are also late fees. At worst, Tippett would have to “buy the lab,” which means paying around $7,000 a night to keep a lab open to finish digitizing frames.

So last year, Tippett installed an InfiniteStorage SAN from Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) (NYSE: SGI) to speed along the post-production process. The studio is hardly alone there. Many production facilities have installed SANs and NAS systems to deal with blossoming storage needs due to digitized film and HDTV. (See Storage Vendors Watch Video, BlueArc Says Hello to Hollywood, and SGI Gains Hollywood Clout.)

Rice says the SAN helps reduce backup times and avoid costly and often embarrassing delays caused by servers choking on massive digital image files.

“Sometimes we have directors, producers, and everybody else waiting at the editor’s station to watch the edits,” Rice says. “That’s not the time and place to be waiting for a server.”Tippett’s SAN includes an SGI storage array, five file servers, a tape backup system, two film recorders, edit workstations, and Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) Fibre Channel switches.

Expensive, yes. But Rice says the SAN cuts backup time from a week or two to a day or two.

Tippett’s servers hold 16 terabytes of data, and storage requirements are growing rapidly for its 200-plus artists and technicians. So with all that data and the need to avoid making deadline-crazed directors wait, why did it take Tippett until last spring to install a SAN?

Rice says SANs were missing one key piece he needed. “I stayed away from a SAN because it had no file locking mechanism. How do you know if two people are writing to the system at the same time? Do we need to spend $50,000 on something that doesn’t cut it? I waited until the file locking mechanism could be trusted -- that’s when I pulled the trigger.”

File locking is important because the post-production process consists of editors and other effects gurus working on the same project simultaneously. SGI’s clustered extended file system (CXFS) allows any server on the SAN to read and write files as if they were local. That eliminates the need to copy files over the network. To make sure two clients can’t alter a file at the same time, a metadata server grants OKs to clients to read and write CXFS files. If a metadata server fails, a backup automatically takes over management of the CXFS.“I can assign a virtual sever to a physical server without the client knowing something happened,” Rice says. “It allows me to reconfigure the system quickly and deal with servers that misbehave. I can shut them out of the group and reconfigure them.”

SGI isn't alone in offering file locking, which has gotten to be fairly standard among SAN vendors. Rice acknowledges his choice of SGI was based on factors other than the availability of file locking. "I had quite a lot of SGI equipment on our network. I just had to plug in Brocade Fibre Channel and some software."

Rice says he plans to add Mac-based editing systems from Avid Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: AVID) to the SAN to further streamline the process. “This will cut importing time by a factor of four or more. The edit department will no longer have to come in an hour early to do dailies.”

Then again, while editing effects for Nicole Kidman or Halle Berry, some editors might appreciate the extra time in front of their workstations.

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch0

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