Snake film prompts storage upgrade for studio

With archiving demands slithering out of control, a Hollywood production house was forced to re-think how it manages images and graphics

One of the current most talked-about movies, Snakes on a Plane, required serious silicon in addition to Samuel L Jackson and all those reptiles.

Pacific Title & Art Studio, which created the end credits and some of the movie’s visual effects, spent more than US$1 million (NZ$1.5 million) this year upgrading its storage systems so it can better work on films such as the high-flying horror flick.

The Hollywood company, which has been in business since 1919, has converted to all-digital facilities in the past couple of years. The company creates, among other things, about half the theatrical trailers for US films, according to Andy Tran, its chief technology officer. In addition, it offers visual-effect product and digital conversion, as well as other post-production work, he says.

All those images require a lot of storage. Each 2,048-by-1,556-pixel frame of a movie is 13MB and a movie plays back at 24 frames per second, meaning that a typical feature-length film takes up 2TB, Tran says. That’s manageable if he has just one person working on a movie at a time, but sometimes there may be six or seven people working on a film concurrently, he says.

That’s why in the past year Tran has upgraded the company’s Silicon Graphics-labelled LSI Logic InfiniteStorage TP9700 fibre channel storage arrays and their Brocade SilkWorm 24000 switches from 2Gbit/s to 4Gbit/s. In addition, Tran has purchased two 42TB DataDirect Networks S2A9500 series racks, which are also 4Gbit/s fibre-channel devices, because they support concurrent users better than the LSI devices — twice the performance, in fact — even after the upgrade, he says. “I’m not saying anything bad about LSI, but it was not able to perform at this particular level,” he says. Now, five or six users can each read and write data without skipping a beat, he says.

Tran chose the DataDirect devices after testing products from a wide variety of vendors, including EMC, Network Appliance and Pillar Data Systems, but none of them could provide reliable playback without dropping frames, he says. The LSI devices continue to work well enough for other functions, and replacing them all would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he says.

The DataDirect systems can also handle more post-production digital intermediate work, Tran says, allowing artists to do colour correction and add special effects in real-time. Altogether, the upgrade to 4Gbit/s cost between US$1.2 million and US$1.3 million, he says.

Other recent or forthcoming films the company is working on or has recently completed include The Wicker Man, John Tucker Must Die and the next Sylvester Stallone Rocky movie. Ironically, making movies happen doesn’t mean getting to sit down with the end product. Tran says he can’t remember what he saw the last time he went to the movies, which was several months ago.

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