Vertical Focus: Movie Studios Meet 3D Storage Challenge

IT managers discuss the data strain of new 3D movies

February 23, 2008

4 Min Read
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Movie studios are bracing for a storage explosion tied to the launch of new 3D technologies that could revolutionize film-making.

Users, particularly in the animation sector, are facing a major storage challenge with the advent of "stereoscopic 3D," a high-definition version of the filming method that provides a three-dimensional view of objects and landscapes.

"It's quite exciting -- it's being able to see three-dimensional depth in the movies," explains Ed Leonard, CTO of Dreamworks. "All the big filmmakers, all the big talent, like Spielberg and Zemeckis, are working in stereoscopic."

Dreamworks is already planning its first stereoscopic 3D release, a movie called Monsters vs. Aliens, which is scheduled for release in the summer of 2009. This will be followed by another stereoscopic offering, called How to Train Your Dragon.

The CTO expects these films to have a serious impact on his storage infrastructure, particularly when it comes to rendering, or building, detailed 3D images. "It will double everything," he explains. "With stereoscopic 3D, you have two eyes to render at the same time. That one Pbyte of storage could be two and a half Pbytes."Dreamworks has already overhauled its IT infrastructure in preparation for this data explosion, recently deploying hardware from Ibrix, which is also widely used at rival Pixar, to boost its rendering capabilities.

The studio already faces a major challenge rendering its releases, according to Leonard, even for 2D movies such as Kung Fu Panda, which will be launched this summer. "The first Shrek in 2001 was 5 million render hours, Shrek 2 was about 10 million, Shrek 3 was 25 million," says Leonard, explaining that Kung Fu Panda will "go north" of 30 million render hours.

This prompted Dreamworks to roll out Ibrix's Fusion file servers in front of its largely HP-based server and storage infrastructure.

"We have two or three different Ibrix clusters -- this allows us to scale the performance of the storage without having I/O as a limiter," says Leonard, explaining that the Ibrix file system sits in front of Proliant DL385 servers and HP StorageWorks MSA70 disk systems, along with some NetApp hardware.

Other animation specialists are also gearing up for the shift to stereoscopic 3D, such as Toronto-based C.O.R.E Digital Pictures, which produced Disney's The Wild in 2006 and also provides animation for children's TV series such as Angela Anaconda."It's definitely on the rise," says John Shaw, C.O.R.E's rendering and data management supervisor. "I see a lot of it coming on the horizon -- it seems that a lot of producers are including that with their animations. It does have a hit on storage because it doubles the frames in the movie," adds the exec, whose firm relies on IBM BladeCenter hardware within its render farm.

Ultimately, IT managers will be forced to either throw hardware at the problem or find a more efficient way to structure their storage, Shaw asserts.

"Personally, I would look for a more effective way of doing this first, and more storage second," he says. But he refused to reveal exactly how he would deal with this. "[Our process] is the thing we can't discuss."

It's not just animation firms that are diving head-first into 3D, as evidenced by the recent premiere of U23D, the world's first live-action 3D movie.

Featuring footage of rock group U2's recent Vertigo tour, U23D was produced by Burbank, Calif.-based 3ality Digital using 375 Tbytes of Isilion hardware within its 1-Pbyte storage infrastructure.Unlike Dreamworks, where data needs to be rendered into a finished 3D image, 3ality's storage crunch is tied to the use of 3D cameras, which capture images from different angles and dimensions.

By running specialized software on high-resolution digital cameras, 3ality shot what it describes as "true 3D video" by producing simultaneous 2D images for each eye as shooting occurs. This data was then stored on the Isilon IQ systems.

"There's a lot of unique things that happen in 3D that we have to be careful of," says Howard Postley, 3ality's CTO. "We had to have an entirely file-based, tapeless, uncompressed digital workflow [because] every frame is a discrete file."

In addition to ensuring that each file from a 3D camera is treated as a separate entity, Postley must also ensure that this data can be quickly accessed on his firm's workstations, hence the emphasis on uncompressed data.

"Any workstation has got to be able to open and read 48 files a second," he explains. "Which basically means that we have to be able to sustain throughput on the entire file system greater than 400 Mbytes a second."The next stage for 3D could even see this technology make the leap from the movie theater to home entertainment. "There is talk of using this technology to transform the experience of watching live action sports," says Brett Goodwin, vice president of marketing and business development at Isilon. "Imagine watching the SuperBowl, the World Series, or the Olympics in fully immersive 3D."

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  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Ibrix Inc.

  • Isilon Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: ISLN)

  • NetApp Inc.

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