No Production Pipe Dream
Vincent Brisebois
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 3: (Mar/Apr 2013)

No Production Pipe Dream

With films like The Hobbit creating worldwide excitement around new technologies and techniques like 3D, 4k, and high frame rates, the blockbuster bar has been raised once again. Directors seeking to wow an audience will begin to demand bigger, better, and bolder movies than ever before. As Hollywood (and Wellywood) pioneers continue to adopt new technologies to tell better stories on screen, the amount of data created in modern filmmaking will only continue to increase.

For many, this might seem like a great opportunity to test new ideas, but some studios and independent artists may be worried about how they can meet deadlines while still delivering effects that sell movie tickets.

This balance between creativity and capability has always been a challenge in digital production. The distance between the two always threatens to grow wider as technology advances. Today, many are finding that they can bridge the gap with flash memory acceleration for their workstations. With flash, even the independent contractor can manipulate 5k content in a world without proxies.

Hollywood’s Petabyte Era

The amount of data that is processed during the production of your average blockbuster has been a growing problem for years.

The era of the terabyte is long gone. Today’s films are reaching into petabytes of total data, as Weta Digital discovered while creating Avatar.

Just by shooting in 5k instead of 4k, the amount of data created is increased by 150 percent – or 600 percent when compared to 2k. If you add higher frame rates, like 48 frames per second (fps), that amount of data is doubled. Add 3D to the mix and it doubles again. Then, with multiple camera angles and takes, it becomes enormous. That means a film like The Hobbit can generate 24 times the data per second when compared with a 2k film – and this is before any visual effects are added to the mix.

To work around these huge file sizes, studios often use proxies in order to work on movies more easily. However, in 3D compositing, editing, and digital intermediates (DI), where every pixel counts, many effects must be worked on and reviewed in full resolution, meaning proxies are out of the question. The performance requirements can quickly bring an unprepared studio to a screeching halt, or require corners to be cut in order to meet deadlines.

The Effect of VFX on Data

As if the amount of raw data in a film wasn’t enough to satisfy the appetite, special effects add layers and layers of pixelated data to pipelines, further bottlenecking the production process. And this is before the film even gets to color grading. The data added by modern special effects can easily dwarf a film’s raw footage.

The layered footage created by digital artists is so data-intensive, it usually has to be uploaded to a massive array, and then reviewed in a centralized location with enough throughput to effectively composite footage into one semi-final product.

Flash memory, the same memory that powers smartphones and tablets, is now helping digital artists accelerate their pipelines by providing the power and throughput needed to work on 2k, 4k, and 5k content interactively from their workstations, even in full resolution.

With the ability to achieve reads up to 6GB/ sec – as in gigabytes, not gigabits – flash is more than capable of delivering the performance needed to manipulate 5k content. And as more films begin to jump on the 48 fps bandwagon, the industry will need to shift to new solutions, like flash application acceleration, to meet deadlines.

The beauty of flash-based solutions is that digital artists won’t have to change the way they do anything. Flash acceleration just means that artists will spend a lot less time sitting around, waiting for applications to load files and process changes. It will also mean artists can edit stereoscopic content in real time, so they won’t have to upload shots to a shared storage appliance to be viewed in a review room. Your own machine can now have the power to process even the most data-intensive tasks.

There was a time when it was too costly for independent artists to incorporate powerful solutions like this into their home studios, let alone for larger facilities to deploy application acceleration across the studio. Today, solutions can be affordably incorporated to allow any device – even a tablet – with a PCIe or Thunderbolt connection to gain the throughput needed to work in 5k.

Making great movies is about telling better stories. With powerful flash memory platforms, artists can focus on the most important part of their job, instead of worrying whether their systems can keep up with their creativity. As a lifelong fan of VFX blockbusters and the creativity of our industry’s artists, I can’t wait to see what visual magic is unleashed by the power of flash.