“We were able to composite, review and render simultaneously to the point where manpower actually became the limitation!’
– Michael Thalmann, Pixomondo
Pixomondo is renowned as one of the world’s leading visual effects studios. The company has garnered an impressive array of industry accolades, among them a Best Visual Effects Oscar at the 86th Academy Awards in 2012 for Martin Scorcese’s Hugo and a 2013 Visual Effects Society gong for its work on HBO’s Game Of Thrones.
A global company with studio locations on three continents, Pixomondo’s work has thrilled television and film audiences worldwide, immersing them in everything from the dynastic struggles of mythical kingdoms to the cockpit of a 1970s Formula One racing car. However, achieving this acclaim has required a technology strategy that’s every bit as innovative as its visual effects.
Prior to this international recognition, Michael Thalmann, global head of technology at Pixomondo, was faced with an infrastructure problem. The company had several large projects that needed to be delivered simultaneously and the impact on data and workflow meant its existing infrastructure needed evaluating.
“At that time in our Stuttgart studio we had three Windows servers, each carrying a limited amount of shared storage,” says Thalmann. “Its limitations started to show as the company grew and we expected the workload to increase for Oblivion and Game Of Thrones. We needed to find a far more scalable, collaborative solution. Performance was my primary concern but I was also interested in being able to grow in whichever direction projects took us.”
Thalmann initially looked at the system used at Pixomondo’s Los Angeles studio – a scale-out NAS solution from one of the leading manufacturers – but had reservations. “We had more artists in LA and for standard file-sharing the performance was fine, but we couldn’t play back from the central store,” he says. “For each review session, we’d have to publish the shot and then waste time copying the data to a machine in one of our review suites. There were some acceleration options to deal with this but in general for everything extra we wanted to do, we needed another licence. So the costs of scaling were prohibitive.”
Thalmann was interested in something more flexible and open-standards based. Pixomondo had relied upon Dell for much of its workstation and render hardware, and found its support, reliability and pricing appealing. “I wanted to use Dell for a central storage infrastructure,” says Thalmann. “But without a scalable file system proven for media production, it wasn’t viable – until we were introduced to Pixit Media.”
Following an initial discussion with Pixit Media technical director Barry Evans, Thalmann and his team were invited to London to see PixStor deployed in production first-hand. “Our approach was unique, in that we had broken the traditional appliance-based model for high-end scaleout storage,” says Evans. “So from a confidence point of view, it was going to be necessary for Michael to see PixStor in order to believe it.” The London field trip proved a success, with Pixomondo able to see PixStor supporting several customer workflows in VFX and post-production. “We spoke to a number of well-known and highly regarded studios and I was intrigued as to why they had chosen a small, newer company as the provider for such a critical element of their infrastructure. Every customer I met mentioned the outstanding support before I’d asked,” recalls Thalmann. “This gave me considerable confidence.”
Pixit Media’s team worked with Pixomondo to design a PixStor system to meet their requirements, in particular the ability to play back directly from the central asset repository. The final PixStor architecture provided Pixomondo with nearly 120TB of addressable storage capacity, offering 5GBp/s of aggregate file-sharing performance, as well as several continuous, sustained streams of uncompressed 2K streams for review. The entire solution was built upon commodity hardware components from Dell and powered by IBM’s GPFS File System.
PixStor was installed at Pixomondo’s Stuttgart facility and proved to be a turning point for the studio. The improvements it brought to the facility’s workflow on a project narrowed the separation between the IT and pipeline departments to great effect.
“We had around 60TB of data on Oblivion,” says Thalmann. “And we were modifying huge files, with five-minute sequences that included 4K background projections.”
PixStor’s intelligent asset handling and ability to assign high-performance to specific user sets allowed Pixomondo to play back sequences from the central store without interrupting work elsewhere. “We were able to composite, review and render simultaneously to the point where manpower actually became the limitation,” he says.
Performance was guaranteed and unnecessary replication of data was eradicated, as was the need for multiple islands of storage to support various portions of the pipeline. Ultimately, this has provided Pixomondo with an IT infrastructure powerful and flexible enough to support the demands of its project workflows, rather than the other way around.
“Performance with PixStor comes as standard, it’s not a value-add feature, “says Evans. “PixStor scatters data across disks in a way that replicates the characteristics of multiuser workloads in post-production, allowing us to guarantee performance for our customers. In addition, PixStor can present multiple pools of storage as part of a single namespace or drive location. These can be mapped to customer’s project directories or file structures, meaning their performance effectively becomes software-defined.”
PixStor has proved such a success in Stuttgart for Pixomondo that it has installed the solution in three additional facilities, including Beijing and Frankfurt, where it was used to support the teams creating a variety of scenes, including the dragons for HBO’s Game Of Thrones.
For Thalmann, this represents a turning point for how studios might think about their file-based storage needs and a move away from traditional closed, manufacturer-driven platforms.
“As a young media company, we are very keen on innovation and are always looking at how we can exploit open standards for the benefit of our company,” he says. “The problem with many of the established scale-out NAS vendors in our space is that you are essentially getting married to their hardware. It is important that we can modify the systems we use and retain the flexibility, from a technology point of view, to adapt to future projects. Pixit Media have given us this.”