Avatar, Hollywood and the Data Center

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A look at some of the high-density serer and netwokring gear inside the Wwta Digital data center used to render the animation for the new James Cameron movie "Avatar."

A look at some of the high-density server and networking gear inside the Weta Digital data center used to render the animation for the new James Cameron movie "Avatar."

Back in December we shared some details about the powerhouse data center at Weta Digital, which is responsible for the digital effect featured in the 3D sci-fi epic “Avatar.” The stunning visual effects produced at Weta have won several awards in past years and Avatar is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects.

As the movie continues to generate awards and attention, IT vendors are sharing details of how their systems played a role in creating “Avatar.”  Last week NetApp outlined details of how its storage systems helped reduce Weta’s data management overhead by 95 percent and increased storage price-to-performance ratio by 40 percent.

The data challenges faced by Weta Digital came from Avatar being filmed with revolutionary new motion-capture techniques, which generated more data than any other movie in history (more than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy combined). To handle the massive storage requirements and provide fast access to that data, Weta worked with NetApp and Fujitsu New Zealand to develop a scalable storage solution.

NetApp SA600 FlexCache cluster units were selected to maintain high-speed access to texture files being demanded by the 35,000 rendering cores of the renderwall (the computer system used for real-time rendering). The FlexCache units were paired with FAS6000 series storage systems and then linked to the renderwall via two 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections.

HP was another major vendor in the Avatar project, with 4,000 HP BL2x220c blades providing compute power. The HP web page describing its role in the film’s production talks about selection of the new BladeServers used for rendering and how dramatic power and cooling savings were recognized through working with HP.

“Through water-cooled radiators, closed rack space, and passive rooftop heat exchangers, the data center stayed cool while running full time and often at full capacity, with no air conditioning,” HP says. HP has been involved with Hollywood before, working with DreamWorks on Shrek 2 in 2004, among other digital entertainment projects.

Also mentioned in our original article on Avatar’s data center was BluArc, a provider of high-performance unified network storage.  BluArc has provided more details on Weta’s use of a clustered system of 12 Titan servers to store and manage over 500 terabytes of data feeding thousands of render nodes.

“The project grew so big that we ended up doubling our BlueArc storage infrastructure in the last six months of production, and the integration and scalability of the new clusters were quick and painless,” said Paul Ryan, chief technology officer at Weta Digital. A BluArc storage solution was also utilized for the science fiction thriller “District 9,” developed by Canadian visual effects firm Image Engine.

London software firm The Foundry takes credit for their software being used in the production of visual effects in Avatar.  The BBC has a video explaininghow they helped creative staff make the power visual effects.  Weta Digital purchased a site license of The Foundry’s Nuke software last summer, but has been using Foundry software since working on The Lord of The Rings Trilogy.

Avatar was one powerful, data-intense, record-breaking movie.  Weta Digital has 7 systems appearing on the TOP500 Supercomputer list, there was more data generated than any other movie in history, Avatar received 11 nominations from the upcoming Visual Effects Society Awards, and the box office records continue to be recorded.

Digital entertainment and technology have been a long-standing success story:

To complete the data center-centric, geek-filled tour of the world of “Avatar,”I noticed that the official Avatar movie web site is distributed by Fox Filmed Entertainment via the Level 3 content delivery network.

About the Author

John Rath is a veteran IT professional and regular contributor at Data Center Knowledge. He has served many roles in the data center, including support, system administration, web development and facility management.

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