IT all showbusiness for Animal Logic

Animation company steps up to storage challenge
Reverse view of the Animal Logic render farm including HP BladeSystem c7000 enclosures with HP BL2x220c blade servers.

Reverse view of the Animal Logic render farm including HP BladeSystem c7000 enclosures with HP BL2x220c blade servers.

While it only takes two hours for movie goers to watch the latest computer generated image (CGI) film, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, few would appreciate that what is flashing by in rich 3D took some three years to put together.

One person this massive labour of love is not lost on is Alex Timbs, head of IT at the Sydney-based animation and visual effects studio responsible for animating the film, Animal Logic.

It’s little wonder that with 25 meticulous digital images needed per second, managing the film’s data and storage requirements was a major challenge for Timbs.

“You need to be able to cope with the huge amount of data,” he said. “We had around 400 terabytes for this film and we were generating up to 24 terabytes a week of unique data.”

Unfortunately for Animal Logic, the types of data used in the production of Legend of the Guardians meant that data deduplication couldn’t be actively used to manage storage requirements.

“Because a production goes for six months you can go from needing 70 terabytes of storage to 200,” Timbs said. “The challenge is around a cost effective way of managing that. You don’t want to spend a lot of capital on things in the next six months.”

Animal Logic was also unable to turn to the cloud – chiefly due to the large data sets used in the film production process – as a means of managing its storage and rendering requirements.

“As an IT department we started looking more actively at the cloud but haven’t seen a model that works for us financially or otherwise,” Timbs said. “Given most cloud solutions are based in the US, trying to get a reasonable amount of bandwidth over to the US is cost prohibitive.

“We are keeping an eye on it and I think there will be a role for cloud in the near future but I don’t know if it will be used on the next production.”

Instead, the company chose Isilon for most of its storage needs while its administration storage was run on NetApp gear. The cost was addressed through what Timbs called “creative financing.”

“The production storage is scaled in a very granular fashion so we could scale up in blocks at a reasonable cost,” he said.

“This was through lease schedules and looking at renting options for storage because you’re only going to need it for a short period of time.”

Harnessing the huge compute power required to render and compile the imagery for Legend of the Guardians, was also a major task, with Animal Logic opting to use HP’s 220c Blade, DL and ProLiant server blades.

“That density offered us a lot of CPU (central processing unit) bang for buck,” Timbs said. “The film takes three years to make so the need to leverage more of that processing power happens at a faster rate.”

The film’s requirement that shots be reviewed between the director and Warner Bros. executives was done via a networking connection between Sydney and Hollywood.

“We had a remote set up on the Warner Bros. lot with a networking connection so we sent over colour correction monitors,” Timbs said.

“We would have a constant stream of data trickled in so the director, Zack Snyder, could look at the data in the afternoon (in Hollywood) so we could do real time reviews with him.”

With production on the film running 24/7, support and uptime were also major consideration in the project’s lifecycle.

“You have to make sure you’re maximising that investment in server farms and data. There is no such thing as a weekend when you’re on that type of project,” he said.

“It’s like building a Formula One car and getting it across the finish line in one piece.”

Looking at future ICT initiatives, Timbs said Animal Logic would likely make use of containerised data centres as a means to cut down on power costs associated with cooling.

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More about: CGI, Hewlett-Packard, HP, Legend, NetApp, NetApp, Warner Bros
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