Videography – July 1998

Managing a Networked Project
By Sheldon Liebman

For the past few years, Videography has devoted a lot of time and space to networking production facilities. We've covered products, we've covered technologies and we've covered installations, all with the purpose of helping you to decide how to bring high-speed networking and storage to your company.

If you're looking for the perfect solution, you're probably still evaluating all the choices that are available. Today, much of this technology is still being developed and almost everything you buy, whether advertised this way or not, is a little bit "beta." Even so, it may be worth taking the leap, as the benefits of installing this technology are significant. This month, we're going to look at four different facilities, all of which decided to install different solutions. The important thing here is not necessarily which solution they chose, but how the choice is affecting the way they do business.

You can always wait for the "next great thing," but that prevents you from enjoying the benefits of the current crop of products. And, as you'll see below, those products can provide tremendous benefits that may justify their cost and even some uncertainty about where this is all going to end up.

Ameritech Creative Media - Transoft FibreNet Pro
At Ameritech Creative Media, they specialize in cross-media production, which means that they develop materials that are not only destined for video, but for print and the Internet as well. In order to address the needs of these different types of media, Ameritech uses Macs, SGIs and Windows machines running just about every high-end software package imaginable. Dino Eliopolis is the Chief Engineer for Ameritech Creative Media and he's been given the task of setting up and managing their new system.

In addition to the Transoft software, Ameritech purchased a Brocade Fibre Channel switch and storage from DataDirect Networks (formerly MegaDrive systems). Initially, a dozen or so workstations are being connected to the network with shared storage of approximately 500 GigaBytes (GB). Each of the workstations also has local storage that will continue to be used.

With this system, says Eliopolis, "You get the benefits of shared access with the speed of directly connected differential SCSI drives." Using the new system, everything is in a central storage location but the users feel like it's in the room with them. Ameritech is even creating a connection between the new system and Discreet Logic's STONE and WIRE systems to provide fast communications between SGI workstations and shared access to the Discreet disk storage.

Before installing the system, data could be shared at Ethernet speeds using emulation software running on their SGI Origin server. This allowed elements to be moved between Media100 editing systems on Macs, Web authoring tools on Windows and Discreet software running on SGIs. Every time a piece of material needed to be used in a different venue, however, another copy was created, clogging up storage resources.

With the new system, some cloning is still necessary, but it happens a lot more quickly and in a more organized manner. For example, says Eliopolis, "If you bring an image into (Discreet Logic's) Smoke, it gets resampled into RGB. With the (DataDirect) EV1000, there is a central repository to store (multiple versions) in the same place."

By giving everyone a single place to store their work, people can always start with the latest version of a file, make their changes and then put the new version where everyone else can find it. This was a big concern to Eliopolis and he's spent a great deal of time designing a relational database to handle it. "We want to build into the process a way for everyone to collaborate and take advantage of the effort. When a designer works hard and the client likes it, we need to make sure we know which version is the right one."

The real answer, concludes Eliopolis, is asset management. "The topology of the network is irrelevant. Everything gets cluttered if you don’t address the asset management issue." And, adds Eliopolis, in the new digital world, "Everything is a digital asset. In the past, we'd have a still store in a suite, fill the buffer, put it on tape, and what's left in the still store buffer is irrelevant. We can't work that way any more. Clients are coming to us with integrated communications needs, not just in the still store, but on the Web, as the cover of a mailing, and on interactive CD-ROM. Everything is being created digitally by a revolving talent pool, sometimes by people you don't work with on a regular basis." Organizing the work in this type of environment is critical to the success of the projects.

Eliopolis is working hard to create an appropriate database system that will allow Ameritech to find and use all of its assets with a minimum of duplication. What he's found in the process is that not only are they creators of database systems, but consumers of them as well. "I need different types of information for different types of files - audio, video and print. Since nothing that we found can do all that, we're doing it ourselves." When they're finished, Ameritech Creative Media will be a well-organized machine, with a place for every asset and every asset in its place.

FilmCore Editorial - Mercury SuiteFusion
When companies need to cut commercials in Los Angeles, they often end up at FilmCore Editorial. This specialized facility uses high-end Macintosh systems running Avid non-linear software as well as Adobe PhotoShop and After Effects. Until very recently, every workstation was an island and every job was saved using removable disks. With the recent installation of a SuiteFusion network and storage, that's all changing.

Rick Breniser is Technical Director at FilmCore Editorial and is managing the transition to SuiteFusion at the company's Santa Monica office. Once he feels that everything is set in this location, he'll be doing the same to FilmCore's other office in San Francisco.

The initial configuration is designed to handle eight editing suites, each with its own workstation, connected through a single server which does all the administration for the network and has 180 GB of storage attached to it. "We don't need a lot of storage at first," explains Breniser, "because each workstation can still use its local storage. Eventually, I want to have double the storage I have now." To make sure all the data is protected, FilmCore installed an ATL T1000 automated tape backup with a robotic arm. "We back up the data every night," says Breniser.

Eliminating the use of removable media was an important priority because FilmCore's systems aren't hot swappable. To change from one job to another, you needed to shut down the system, swap drives, then boot back up, a process which could take as long as a half hour, according to Breniser.

Another priority was to eliminate duplicate media like sound effects libraries and stock shots. With the new system, these can be kept on the centralized storage and accessed by at any time from any edit suite. "It also eliminates having to move drives from room to room" during a project, says Breniser. "I'm also setting it up so that each editor will have their own login. Whatever room they go into, their preferences will be set and they'll have access to the project on central storage."

Using centralized storage has provided another benefit for FilmCore. They've added a screening room with an Avid system. Now, when they watch the dailies, the footage is being digitized at the same time and placed into a project bin. Once the editor has the name if the bin, work can begin immediately on the project. "On the flip side," comments Breniser, "if we are working on a spot and the client shows up, the assistant takes them up to the screening room and show them the project while it's being worked on, without disturbing the editor."

Because FilmCore specializes in cutting commercials, organizing the storage is a relatively straightforward process. Breniser has a pretty good idea of how much storage needs to be available for a 30- or 60-second spot. There are separate drive partitions for effects, audio and working storage, all of which are assigned to particular editors based on the projects they are doing. While only one person is likely to be writing to any partition, other people can be reading from it to assist in a project.

Rather than relying on a large database system, Breniser is relying very heavily on the assistants. "People think the assistants just digitize the footage, but they do a lot more than that. They handle all the material, keep logbooks and have to know where everything is that's related to a specific project. The asset management is based on the assistants and how good they are."

Through the use of centralized storage that can be shared among all the Avid suites, FilmCore hopes to increase their flexibility, which will allow them to more easily meet the needs of their clients. Improved access will allow editors to spend more time being creative and less time dealing with the computer side of the business. As a result, they'll be able to be more efficient and ultimately, make their clients happier.

Digital FilmWorks - MountainGate CentraVision
There aren't very many film houses that can take your original negative, work on it and hand you back a duplicate negative, all without leaving the house. Digital FilmWorks, however, is such a facility. The handle the scanning and recording in-house as well as the image processing. They also offer scanning and recording services to other film houses.

In order to be competitive, the company has been a pioneer in a number of areas. The latest pioneering they've done, says President Peter Moyer, is to install the MountainGate CentraVision Fibre Channel Network and CentraVision MPIRE (Multi Purpose Image Resource Engine).

With CentraVision, Digital FilmWorks has tied together almost a dozen SGI workstations and hopes to tie in some NT workstations later. The system has 174 GB of disk storage striped together in a variety of ways for different performance levels. To get the fastest connection possible, everything runs through a 16 port Brocade switch.

Before CentraVision, film was scanned to a central drive, then copied onto a local machine for each process that was needed and archived to tape. The rotoscoping department made a copy, the 3D guys made a copy and the compositor made a copy. "Everyone worked on it," says Moyer, "and when they were all done, they had to see who had what ready and then incorporate each other's changes. If there were other changes later on, the whole process had to start all over again." Not only did this take a lot of time for copying material back and forth, it also resulted in many copies of every job being spread around on all the machines.

That has all changed with the CentraVision system, explains Moyer. "Now, we scan it to the CentraVision file system and everyone sees it as a local disk. The moment we scan it, we make a DTF copy of it. At that point, the guys that are doing 3D or roto work will make a directory on that drive and suck in one frame at a time. After they've finished a frame, they put it in the same directory." Since everyone is working on only a single frame at a time, the same images are constantly being updated. Nobody needs to worry about having the wrong version. Moyer makes sure that the workflow is budgeted so that people are working on different shots to avoid two people trying to work on the same frame.

Digital FilmWorks uses Avid's Media Illusion and Matador products for editing and image processing. For the Illusion in particular, a low-resolution proxy image can be used to set up edit points that are later applied to the full resolution film. The scanner they use at Digital FilmWorks is capable of scanning a proxy at the same time as it scans the original. With the new system, the company can turn this feature on because there's enough bandwidth to support writing both data streams at the same time. This lets the Illusion operator get started almost immediately after the film scanning is completed.

"With CentraVision," states Moyer, "we can do things more efficiently, the workflow is faster and changes are a lot easier. On a recent project, the visual effects supervisor needed the rotoscoper to make some changes at the end and 'Bang,' it was done." The system has also increased Digital FilmWorks' flexibility. "Because we are a service bureau, we take other people's material into our system and some of this is on multiple Exabyte tapes. I can now feed multiple source tapes into the CentraVision in a single pass, loading the data in parallel."

Since they're using a switch, Digital FilmWorks can move data much more quickly than if they only had a hub. "We've clocked the thing at 55 MegaBytes per second (MBps)," claims Moyer. At sustained speeds like that, almost anything is possible.

Rocky Mountain Recorders - Rorke Data StudioNet-FC
If you're looking for a "Colorado Rocky Mountain High," be sure to visit Rocky Mountain Recorders next time you're in Denver. This multi-room postproduction audio facility has four DigiDesign ProTools|24 systems, all connected together using Rorke Data's new StudioNet-FC, which was introduced at this year's NAB. StudioNet-FC includes storage, networking and volume management software.

Before installing the Rorke system, Rocky Mountain had four independent workstations that were generating their own content. Each system needed to be backed up separately and the engineers were responsible for their own backups. "We also make redundant tapes," says Gannon Kashiwa, President and Co-Owner of the company, "so they had to do it twice."

Now that StudioNet-FC is installed, explains Kashiwa, "One guy backs up the whole facility and sneaks it in during the day." The studio uses high-speed drives and software that are capable of backing up 10 GB of data per hour and can also make the master tape and safety copy tape at the same time. "Two people job share that task now," says Kashiwa, "and we coordinate with scheduling to make sure the jobs are restored by the time each room is booked."

In addition to the time saved avoiding backups and restores, the facility also has a ProTools|24 system in the backup and restore room that can be used to preload effects and other library material that's needed for a job. "Each person now has two hours per day free," explains Kashiwa. "The amount of manpower we were wasting was enormous."

Another big advantage to using StudioNet-FC is that multiple rooms can be used to work on a single project. "The same session can be open in more than one room," says Kashiwa. "We can cut the voiceover in room A, sound effects in room B and final mix and layback in another room. When we do album work, we need to track in Studio A, which is larger, but there's more mixing equipment in Studio B, so now we can mix in there. I can't believe we've been waiting so long for this to happen. Best of all, you just turn it on and it works."

Since each job is handled more easily using the fast network and shared storage, Kashiwa gets to go home earlier, which is something we can all appreciate. He is also finding that he has a happier engineering staff, since they don't have to spend all their time doing backups and restores. As a result, Rocky Mountain Recorders is in a position to expand and will probably need to add another DigiDesign station soon.

Even though their network is running smoothly and quickly, there are still some issues that Kashiwa has to deal with. Like many companies that install these systems, Rocky Mountain now has a capability that their underlying software tools can't truly use to their full advantage. ProTools|24 is not currently a multi-user program, so you can't have multiple rooms making changes to a single project at the same time. Hopefully, that is something that can be built into a future version of the software.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
Overall, these four companies all agree that having access to a fast network and fast storage provides a lot more benefits than problems. Even though they've chosen different tools, they're all headed down the same very fast path.

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