Storage for Visual Effects
By Christine Bunish
October 17, 2014

Storage for Visual Effects

VFX studios have heavy-duty storage needs for complex shots and 24/7 workloads. They require both speed and performance to get the job done. Fortunately, the market offers myriad choices for building storage solutions, which are robust, reliable, fast, and high performance — and even more choices are on the way.

Here are three studios that have found storage solutions fitting their needs. Meanwhile, see "Storage Essentials" in the September/October 2014 issue of CGW for a look at several other case studies.


Minneapolis-based Splice ( has used Apple Xsan storage for the last six or seven years. Its Xsan currently has about half a petabyte of storage for fast access by 35 employees working on feature films, commercials, and corporate projects.  

Postproduction Supervisor Carl Jacobs says the Xsan’s no-cost expansion capability has been a real asset. “Once you put in all the hardware, adding another client machine costs nothing,” he explains. “We added three more machines the other day. We just attached them, turned them on, and got to work. Adding machines without incurring extra cost trumps about every other consideration.”

Jacobs also likes that Xsan will accept “whatever storage you want to put in it. We’ve had three generations of storage: We started with [Apple] Xserve RAIDs, then Promise, then Rorke. Now we have a combination of the latter two.”

Unlike many who are looking for “exciting” storage solutions, Jacobs says he just wants “fast, dumb, reliable storage. I think storage should be boring. I want it to sit there and work, like electricity coming out of the wall; not be exciting.”

Splice “hangs a lot of servers” from its Xsan and shares files with clients via wireless AFP and FTP. Three Tandberg LTO-6 tape libraries provide nightly backup, archiving, and restoration.

Recently, Splice provided VFX, color, editing, finishing, and audio post for Director Eric Howell’s short film, “Strangers,” which was shot in 4K with Red cameras and anamorphic lenses. “With Xsan, every operator in every department had access to the same files,” Jacobs explains. “There were no moving files around. [Apple] Final Cut Pro X, [Blackmagic Design] DaVinci Resolve, [The Foundry’s] Nuke, and [Side Effects’] Houdini all accessed the Xsan directly at 4K. We had sort of future-proofed the system for 4K work with 8-gig fiber, and everything worked fine.”

Splice had previously worked with Howell on “Ana’s Playground,” which was short-listed for an Academy Award, and a PSA campaign for the American Cancer Society. The company will be partnering with the director again for his feature-film debut on Voice from the Stone, which is shooting this fall in Italy with star Emilia Clarke.

Jacobs says a lot of manufacturers contact him with new storage options, and he’s always looking at and evaluating new systems. But so far, “we really haven’t found anything that matches the advantages of Xsan, especially in terms of total cost of ownership and flexibility,” he adds.

The film plate (top) and the VFX added (bottom).

Legion Studios

Legion Studios LLC ( is a creative collective with a hub in Burbank, California, and a cadre of artists around the world who work remotely from their own locations. Legion’s distributed work environment has successfully completed shots for many clients, including The Purge: Anarchy, the independent feature Swelter, and an episode of NBC’s Revolution

The company platform can support five to 10 midsize television shows at any one time, plus multiple features, including a 400-shot film currently under development. The Burbank hub needs larger-scale storage than do any of the individual artists. Legion’s primary storage system is a 20TB Drobo 5D array with Thunderbolt into a file server; on-site mirrored backup with dual-disk redundancy makes the system fault tolerant. Additional storage is provided by a Drobo 5N and an older-model Isilon system that serves out files for rendering. Enterprise drives from Western Digital and Hitachi are used as well.

Some artists have Synology NAS systems at their locations with dual gigabit Ethernet connections. The BitTorrent Sync tool enables Legion to synchronize shows to the artists and allows them to work at drive speeds. A small Apple Mac Mini renderfarm handles incoming Nuke (The Foundry) composites for rendering in Burbank.

Even though all Legion’s artists are “high-tier” talent who typically wouldn’t deal with prosumer-level gear, Legion Creative Director/VFX Supervisor James David Hattin says the Drobo-Synology storage solution is serving them well. “I’m comfortable staying with this configuration through next TV season,” he says. “We’ll be looking for larger office space in the next few months, but we’ll probably just expand our number of Drobos and maybe add Synology to the mix here. The ability to mix and match drive sizes makes the Drobo an economical choice. The Drobos have been robust and bulletproof; we’ve experienced no drive failures.”

Hattin says the Drobos are easy to expand and fast. “The 5D has a 256GB cache drive, so commonly used files get served up quicker than from a RAID proper,” he explains. “We put Enterprise drives in them because they are driven hard 24 hours a day. Synology, too, is a fire-and-forget system.”

Last season Legion worked on live-action plates from an episode of Revolution that required matte paintings for set extensions and exteriors. New Zealand-based Matte Painter Yvonne Muinde, who has worked with Weta on feature films and is on the Legion talent roster, was the ideal artist for the job. 

Using custom-built Python tools, Legion ingested onto Drobo plates received online from the client and synched them for the artists with BitTorrent Sync. The matte painter simply saved her work locally, where Compositor Kyle Spiker in Hollywood comp’d elements into shots, and Roto Artists Huey Carroll and Kevin Shawley, in LA and Boulder, Colorado, respectively, supported him by rendering mattes into the Sync network. Legion sent completed, full DPX frames to the client for review via Aspera. The project was turned around in less than two weeks. 

Rising Sun Pictures

Adelaide, Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures ( delivers complex VFX for high-profile feature films and television shows, including X-Men: Days of Future Past, Gravity, The Seventh Son, The Wolverine, The Great Gatsby , and the last five Harry Potter films.

According to Mark Day, director of engineering, fast, reliable, and scalable storage solutions are a necessity. “The VFX world does not sleep, and renders are happening 24/7, so robust solutions are required,” he says. For Rising Sun Pictures, that means a performance storage layer comprising Avere Systems’ FXT3200 Edge Filer, which executes hundreds of thousands of operations per second. A storage layer consists of an Isilon NL400 Scale Out NAS, which is growing to half a petabyte.

“The Avere FXT cluster separates storage performance from capacity, optimizing response time to artists and our renderfarm,” says Day. “The Isilon provides robust and scalable storage capacity at a cost-effective price.”

Rising Sun Pictures has had this tiered storage solution in production for three years and plans to scale up both as production demand and complexity increase. “That’s the simplicity of these solutions,” Day points out. “New nodes are added to either performance or storage clusters in minutes, and the [clusters] rebalance the data behind the scenes.”

In selecting the Avere and Isilon solutions, reliability was key. “It’s extremely important when considering deadlines for projects and huge demands on the file system,” Day notes. Minimizing production downtime was essential.  

“We also needed the ability to scale with a minimum of hassle,” says Day. The systems give Rising Sun Pictures the ability to “bolt on additional hardware in minutes. And maintenance is a breeze — you can take one or more nodes offline and not disrupt production.”

These two solutions form the backbone for storing VFX information from every department, from live-action plates turned over by clients through setup files saved by the artists. “For the Quicksilver Pentagon Kitchen sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, our look development and effects artists were rendering stereo images for deep compositing that stored color and depth information for every pixel in the scene for all the CG elements — this involved the creation of a lot of data, in addition to the simulation and caching that allowed us to create thousands of water droplets, hundreds of props, and additional effects,” Day explains.

Rising Sun Pictures has additional storage requirements for high-performance databases, home directories, and supporting the business environment. The company employs a disk-to-disk-to-tape strategy, so it’s extremely quick to pull a file from backup in minutes, says Day. “We can produce terabytes of data per hour, so you need a strategy to move ‘cold data’ offline. Online storage is not endless, and we have built strategies to achieve this.” 

Day further notes that all production data gets written to tape in duplicate. Tapes are still cheap, and capacity is increasing every year, he adds. “Tape is a tried and tested technology; we can have confidence that all data can be restored from tapes within hours and have integrated systems into our production environment leveraging this functionality.”

Looking ahead, Day says Amazon Web Services’ Glacier is “exciting, as is the pricing model. ‘Cold’ storage like Glacier is definitely something we are following. Watch this space.” He adds, “As the price of flash drops, new and exciting products are entering the market, [such as] PureStorage, Nimble, and Panzura, either utilizing all flash or hybrids hooked into cloud storage. It’s an exciting time with new storage startups all vying for our storage dollar. The competition is healthy and pushes everyone to innovate.”

Christine Bunish is a veteran writer and editor for the film and video industry.  She can be reached at .