Ultrafast storage fuels Incredible Hulk battle scenes

Special effects firm's team of artists turns to BlueArc array to smash data bottlenecks

Hired by Marvel Entertainment Inc. to help bring a 9-foot-tall gamma-powered superhero to life on the big screen in The Incredible Hulk, officials at the Soho VFX Inc. special effects facility needed massive amounts of storage to help its artists create digitally-rendered fight scenes for the film, which opens Friday in U.S. theaters.

Soho VFX used a BlueArc Corp. Titan 2200 series server to generate approximately 150 digital camera frames -- totaling 16TB -- for the live-action movie, said Berj Bannayan, a co-founder and software engineer at Toronto-based Soho VFX. During the peak period of production, the Fibre Channel storage device delivered content at 600-700MB/sec. to the workstations and Dell servers of artists who were building the special effects for the movie.

"Each of those [artist's] machines is trying to load all of this data, and the BlueArc device has to keep up," said Bannayan. "It's almost like drinking from a fire hose; you have to have fast storage loaded and saved many, many times during the animation process."

Because so many frames of the movie had to be repeatedly produced at the same time, the Titan 2200 box had to respond to split-second demands from artists for hundreds of gigabytes of data-intensive and 3-D files, he explained.

The Incredible Hulk tells the story of Bruce Banner, a scientist who uncontrollably transforms into a green-skinned goliath because of an accidental overdose of gamma radiation. In the film, Banner, played by actor Ed Norton, is on the run from the U.S. government, which wants to capture and use the Hulk for its own purposes. Near the end of the film, the Hulk battles the Abomination, a former British special forces agent -- portrayed in human form by Tim Roth -- who volunteers to be transformed into a supervillain monstrosity.

Bannayan said Soho VFX was responsible for creating many of the digital effects for two action scenes in the film -- a battle between the Hulk and U.S. Army soldiers in a Brazil bottle factory, and a rooftop chase and long fight sequence between the Hulk and Abomination that includes a helicopter crash. "You want absolute visual fidelity to make it look like it's a real environment. There's just a lot of information that goes into making a frame, even turning a digital model into a colored image alone can be many gigabytes of data," he added.

Other scenes in the big-budget film created using BlueArc's storage server include shots of the Abomination throwing cars and sequences that show the muscular transformation of Roth's character from a "40-year-old guy to a Bruce Lee body" after he is injected with the Hulk serum. "You can see the quality of his skin, he had tattoos and we had to match that -- it was just as difficult as rendering the Hulk was," said Bannayan. The 12-shot sequence took 15 artists two to three months to complete, he said.

Soho VFX has created digital effects for other Marvel feature films, including The Fantastic Four, The Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and X-Men 3: The Last Stand. When working on a film with Marvel, the visual effects shop sends the studio updates of film scenes with added images almost daily in high-definition Apple Quicktime formats.

Bannayan said having fast storage capabilities in his IT infrastructure allows his company to more quickly finish animation and deliver images to Marvel to make desired changes in time to satisfy strict production deadlines.

Soho VFX has been using BlueArc's Titan server since late 2006. The storage appliance offers approximately 38TB of capacity and serves as the company's entire mainline storage backbone, holding everything from project data to administrative information and user home directories.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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