Godzillas Best Friend: High-Speed Storage at Centropolis

Posted on February 01, 1998

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Godzilla`s Best Friend: High-Speed Storage at Centropolis

A DST tape system may have a higher buy-in cost than some competing technologies, but it quickly pays for itself in increased productivity.

By Heidi Biggar

Making Hollywood motion pictures has become a storage nightmare for many in the digital effects business. Today, a typical film creates more than one terabyte of data. But that`s not all. Animation and over-the-top special effects have translated into an increasingly large number of gigabyte-size files that must be moved seamlessly to and from storage systems.

For Centropolis Effects, a digital effects studio in Santa Monica, CA, moving files of this size was an immediate problem. In fact, when the company, an affiliate of Centropolis Entertainment, opened its doors in January 1997, its greatest concern was not getting business, but selecting the right equipment to avoid bottlenecks between the server and backup storage.

As a start-up, Centropolis had a unique advantage: the opportunity to start from scratch and do it right. First, "we pooled our collective experiences, including past mistakes, to make sure the system we installed would avoid process bottlenecks," says Robert Mance, Centropolis` director of technology. Then, "we went through a number of vendors trying to find the right system," continues Steven Puri, president of Centropolis and the digital effects co-producer of Independence Day.

Centropolis knew it needed a high-capacity storage system with the highest transfer rate possible. But it also wanted a system that would integrate easily into its network and one that was able to handle multiple file formats so data could be easily interchanged with other design studios.

All signs pointed to Ampex`s DST 410--a 1.2TB automated tape library system with a blazing 15MBps sustained transfer rate. Other features include an 800MBps search speed and a DD-2 19mm tape format with system zones and partitioning, which allows cartridges to be unloaded at multiple locations along the tape and to be partitioned like hard drives.

As for software, Centropolis, like many high-end digital effects companies, uses Discreet Logic Inferno and Kodak Cineon, which are connected to Silicon Graphics` R10K Onyxes, R10K Challenges, and R10K Origin 2000s. The integration of DST tape drives and libraries with Inferno and Cineon software packages enables images to be stored and retrieved at very high speeds without leaving the software programs.

A "Godzillian" Task

To understand the enormity of the file-moving task that Centropolis Effects faces, consider one of its current projects: the feature-film Godzilla, scheduled to be released on Memorial Day this year. With somewhere between 300 to 400 shots, this film easily created more than a terabyte of data. In fact, a single shot was made up of as many as 150 to 200 frames (20MB per frame), with each shot containing an average of 5 to 10 layers of film and computer-generated elements.

But it isn`t the size of the film that makes this project special for Centropolis. It is the vast number of 40GB-odd files that have to be moved at the end of each day. Because Godzilla involves many more special effects than the typical non-event film, the amount of compositing that Centropolis has to do is tremendous. Each iteration means yet another file that has to be saved, retrieved, and tracked. And Centropolis only has a year--as opposed to the usual 18 to 24 months--to process the whole movie.

As the project moves along, off-line storage and retrieval speeds become more critical. Centropolis reads and writes to the Ampex system up to 12 hours each day and performs hundreds of storage and retrieval functions. The DST 410 is hooked up to one of Centropolis` servers and services a group of three or four people.

In addition to being able to get shots on and off the storage system quickly and to partition the tapes for easy tracking, the library is easy to use and reliable. "The beauty of the Ampex system is its simplicity," says Mance. "Despite the technology involved, the operation is so transparent to the user that it is actually easy to use. It doesn`t seem to be a technician`s dream and doesn`t become a renderer`s nightmare-- it just does its job quickly, easily, and reliably."

Compatibility Is Key

Another key consideration when selecting a storage system is file compati- bility. On the movie Godzilla, for example, Centropolis interchanges files with Santa Monica-based VisionArt Design & Animation, the digital effects arm of Santa Monica Studios. VisionArt creates a scene, and Centropolis composites it.

Because both outfits are equipped with Ampex 410 library systems, they are able to transfer very large files quickly and reliably. So easily, in fact, that Ted Fay, senior technologist at VisionArt, "would like to see DST tape cartridges become the interchange format for production file exchange in the movie business."

Fay acknowledges that DST has a significantly higher buyer-in cost (although the tape cost per MB is actually lower) than some competing technologies, but he believes the return on investment is rapid enough to justify the expense--especially if you`re working on films like Godzilla or Independence Day where the data alone is worth millions of dollars.

VisionArt has used other tape technologies, including DAT, Exabyte 8mm, and DLT. The company has not used Sony DTF, but has used Sony`s video digital betacam products, which have the same transport mechanism as DTF products. But, in the end, performance (up to 20MBps with UltraSCSI), reliability, and storage (165GB per single-density cartridge) considerations have steered VisionArt almost exclusively to the Ampex 410. The company does occasionally use DLT4000 products with lower-end studios. However, many of the higher-end houses, such as Centropolis, Cinesite, and The Post Group use DST. VisionArt has one Ampex 410 system, which services about 50 people.

In addition to growing its composition business, Centropolis is rapidly increasing the size of its 3D animation department, which is even more demanding of the company`s storage systems. To keep pace, Centropolis is looking to upgrade to the DST 412. This next-generation DST library allows for twice the data recording capacity of 410 systems, with no change in form factor and without compression. Consequently, 25GB, 75GB, and 165GB DST cartridge capacities in-crease to 50GB, 150GB, and 350GB, while maintaining backward read compatibility with previous generations and effectively cutting the cost per megabyte in half. Both the 410 and the 412 are priced in the mid-$100,000s (5¢ to 7¢ per MB), depending on the configuration.

Centropolis and VisionArt expect to wrap up work on Godzilla sometime in early May.

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Robert Mance, director of technology, and John Duino, system administrator, of Centropolis Effects.

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Double-density DST 412 drives and libraries allow for twice the capacity per cartridge of DST 410 technologies.


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