Pacific Title & Art builds a SAN-based workflow

The 86-year history of Hollywood-based Pacific Title & Art Studio harks back to film titling for the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer. In the late 1980s, the focus shifted to the emerging computer-generated visual effects market-a move that transformed this 150-person firm into a post-production house that now provides digital intermediate (DI), titling, and visual effects services to most major motion picture studios. (Recent credits have included work for Constantine, Elektra, and War of the Worlds.)

Accustomed to juggling multiple projects, Pacific Title’s back-end networks and storage systems have had to expand at a rapid pace to keep up with the increased demand placed on them. One of the key lessons learned along the way has involved minimizing data movement around the network, according to Andy Tran, Pacific Title’s CTO.

Doing the math for the storage required to digitize an average feature-length film (at either 2K or 4K film resolution) begins to tell Tran’s story. When scanned from film, each 2K frame consumes 13MB of storage (a 4K frame consumes 53MB). When multiplied by the number of minutes in a feature-length film, the storage quickly mounts to 2TB (for 2K) or 8TB (for 4K).

Pacific Title & Art Studio uses a SAN based on storage systems from SGI for a variety of digital intermediate, titling, and visual effects services, including work on Elektra.
Click here to enlarge image

But that’s not the end of the equation. “When you work on a movie, you have multiple versions of it. A 2K movie could end up with 8TB or more. A 4K movie could end up with 32TB,” says Tran. “With that much data, you can’t move the storage. If you try to move large quantities of data from one file server to another, it could take days.”

Minimizing this type of data movement was the main reason for the company’s move to a clustered storage network architecture from Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI). Pacific Title has a 200TB+ SAN cluster that allows film to be scanned directly into the SAN. It also enables many of Pacific Title’s artists to work directly from the SAN simultaneously, saving the time they might otherwise spend waiting for data. Most of Pacific Title’s servers and storage arrays are from SGI, running SGI’s CXFS distributed file system.

“Because we were an early adopter of a SAN, we basically allowed people to work directly from the SAN-for compositing and 2D and 3D work,” says Tran. “When we migrated to a digital intermediate workflow a year ago, we just plugged that directly into the SAN as well.”

To allow parts of the digital intermediate workflow to take place from the SAN, Tran says the studio first had to figure out how to get 2K film to be played back from the SAN in real-time-a feat that would require 274MBps of data throughput. The answer turned out to be simpler than anticipated and involved adding just a few extra SGI storage controllers to the SAN, along with some minor modifications and integration steps.

Pacific Title hasn’t been able to eliminate data movement completely around the network, however. Some viewing bays and digital intermediate tasks still require some data to be transferred to workstations. To accommodate this type of data transmission, Tran and his IT team have learned how to grow the systems surrounding the storage to avoid network bottlenecks and unacceptable slowdowns.

“Our system is very customized to our SAN environment,” Tran explains. “Every time we buy a SAN we buy a server, so we are basically expanding multi-dimensionally. We expand our SAN, our network capacity, and our servers at the same time. That way we don’t bog down our servers.”

What are the benefits of this SAN-centric approach? According to Tran, it’s “the ability to play back directly from the SAN [that] gives us a leg up in the industry. Even though we’re a smaller company,” he adds, “the SAN now allows us to finish digital intermediates much faster than some larger studios. The SAN is also much faster for accessing data. The artists don’t have to spend time looking for their data now. They can just continue working.”

Michele Hope is a freelance writer. She can be reached at mhope@thestoragewriter.com.

This article was originally published on March 01, 2005