Digital video quality is getting richer all the time, as are some lucky producers who hit the jackpot with movies that are box-office smashes.
As video continues to be rendered with more multiple images and as more bits per second are jammed onto disks, storage and accurate recall of all that data becomes an increasingly strategic part of the overall production picture-especially when it comes to stereoscopic 3D movies, which are having a rebirth right now.
Stereoscopic three-dimensional movies that required two analog projectors and red-and-blue glasses to view them were a fad in the 1950s that eventually petered out due to lack of standards, quality controls and other factors.
But now 3D movies are back in digital form, and they come with a much higher quality quotient. They’re also taking up much more capacity in studio data centers; studio IT administrators are well aware of the insatiable nature of the content monster.
DreamWorks Animation, one of the busiest and most successful studios of its kind in the world, is continually buying new storage. “Storage isn’t a buying decision anymore,” DreamWorks Animation Senior Technologist Skottie Miller told eWEEK in 2008. “It’s a way of life.”
Here’s a stark example of this dilemma: When DreamWorks’ first “Shrek” movie debuted in May 2001, it required about 6TB of capacity in DreamWorks’ data centers. Eight years later, the studio’s most recent release, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” requires a bit more elbow room-as in 93TB of capacity.
Both movies took more than four years to create and produce. Both have about the same running time: “Shrek” is 90 minutes, “Monsters vs. Aliens” is 94 minutes. There’s simply a lot more depth of field, colors, action and special effects as the movies get increasingly sophisticated.
The bottom line: If you’re going to have a quality product, you have to make a home for it. With all the new content pouring into its coffers on a 24/7 basis from its artists, DreamWorks Animation had to figure out how to classify and store all those terabytes of video-and in an easily accessible archiving system.
DreamWorks Animation’s storage systems, located in data centers in Northern and Southern California and in Bangalore, India, use products from Hewlett-Packard, NetApp and Ibrix for different duties. Extremely powerful dual-core Intel “Woodcrest”-powered workstations have been supplied by HP for the last eight years.
In April 2009, the studio-which has a longstanding relationship with HP-added the company’s newest package, the HP StorageWorks 9100 Extreme Data Storage System. This scale-out system acts as an online reference library for “Monsters vs. Aliens” and previous films, such as “Madagascar,” “Bee Movie” and “Kung Fu Panda.”
“Scale-out” is a relatively recent data center industry buzzword referring to architectures for systems running thousands of servers that are required to scale nearly ad infinitum in order to comfortably handle massive workloads.
Production isn’t going to be slowing down any time soon, with all the potential profits to be made. As of June 15, “Monsters vs. Aliens” had banked $195,246,609, according to industry researcher Box Office Mojo.
“Not only are we making more 3D-type movies, but we’re ramping up our production schedule from four movies every two years to five movies in two years,” Derek Chan, head of digital operations for DreamWorks Animation, told eWEEK.
Streamlining the Production Process
It makes sense for a director to reuse footage-such as a background, a particular attribute of a character or some other element-whenever possible. Using the StorageWorks 9100 ExDS system, Chan said, DreamWorks Animation’s artists now have much better access to archived content because it’s all available in a fast, virtualized storage system and not stored on tape or on a disconnected disk.
“Our goal of delivering two to three CG-animated films per year means that DreamWorks Animation must keep finding ways to streamline the process of creating and delivering great stories for our audience,” Chan said. “The new HP system gives us easier access to archived content in a easy-to-manage, highly scalable architecture.”
Chan means what he says when he talks about “easy to manage.”
“Believe it or not, we only have three administrators handling all of this storage,” Chan revealed. “Everything is automated.”
The ExDS9100 consists of three primary components:
- Performance block: The HP BladeSystem chassis with blade servers is designed for extreme capacity requirements. Each blade can deliver up to 200MB per second of processing performance. This can scale up to a maximum configuration of 16 blades with up to 12.8 cores per unit for a 3.2GB-per-second performance.
- Capacity block: Base configuration starts with one high-availability “storage block” and 82TB of capacity. The maximum configuration supports up to 10 storage blocks and 820TB of capacity.
- Software: The system uses HP scalable file-serving software needed for digital content environments. To reduce system complexity, applications can be run directly on the performance block. A single graphical management interface and simple commands allow the storage to be managed by fewer administrators.
Before adding the ExDS9100 into its existing storage architecture, DreamWorks Animation staff were forced to search through backup tapes one by one to find the archived materials needed to start a new project. This slowed up production schedules, causing additional expense.
In addition to the archiving function, DreamWorks Animation will ultimately use the ExDS9100 as an online backup solution for ongoing projects. This provides artists with a real-time platform for sharing content-a very important factor in producing high-quality movies, Chan said.
For more information on the HP ExDS9100, go here.