File serving gives facelift to TV superhero CGI film development

Imagi enlists Ibrix technology to render new Gatchaman and Astro Boy films

A perusal of Internet message boards and online forums shows that fan anticipation of seeing characters from popular Japanese superhero-themed cartoons such as Gatchaman and Astro Boy make the 21st century leap to feature-length computer-generated imagery (CGI) films is reaching a fever pitch.

Creating these CGI movies -- based on popular Japanese TV cartoons from the 1960s (Astro Boy) and 1970s (Gatchaman) that also found their way to U.S. audiences -- for the big screen is a time-consuming task. However, Hong Kong-based Imagi Studios Ltd.  expects that its use of file-serving technology to scale its storage environment and thereby bolster its animation-rendering capabilities will dramatically accelerate its production timetable.

Imagi has chosen Ibrix Inc.'s Fusion file-serving technology to remove storage bottlenecks in its IT environment while growing its file-serving capacity by more than 50%, said Peter Pang, MIS manager at Imagi Studios, a subsidiary of Imagi International Holdings Ltd. The company expects that the file-serving technology will cut the typical 18 months needed to create a 90-minute computer-animated feature film to just eight months, noted Pang.

"In the past, storage was too often the bottleneck of the rendering process," said Pang, who noted that 90-minute CGI films include around 10 million frames that have to be stored and accessed by developers. "With the vast amount of data involved in the 3-D rendering process, even the slightest hitch in the storage system will be amplified exponentially to an uncontrollable situation," Pang said.

The ability to quickly and efficiently deliver files needed to build frames for animation rendering is taxing computer processing more than ever before. According to Pang, animators and render farms -- computer clusters that render CGI -- are constantly battling for resources on the storage system. Very often, the same file is being accessed by hundreds of rendering nodes and dozens of animators simultaneously.

While most file systems are optimized for large-block I/O, animation rendering requires the opposite, small-block I/O, which can cause most systems to be taxed and sluggish. Pang noted that animation-rendering jobs require the ability to add processors and cache at will to pump more memory into a storage system while also improving performance and reducing latency.

Imagi Studios currently runs a Linux-based Hewlett-Packard Co. StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Array 5000 array and Network Appliance Inc. F940C filer. Imagi now uses the NetApp filer for rendering applications, a job that's becoming more difficult for the technology as the massive I/O demands of rendering increase. Pang said that he expects the Ibrix technology, used by Pixar Animation Studios Inc. to augment rendering in the development of its hit 2006 CGI film Cars, will fix that problem once installation is completed in a couple of months.

Imagi Studios is currently installing 16 Dell Inc. servers to run the Fusion technology and an EMC Corp. Clariion CX3-80 array for Tier 1 storage. The older HP and NetApp systems will form the company's Tier 2 storage system.

Pang noted that by parallelizing I/O from the compute elements, or nodes, to the data storage, Ibrix's file-serving technology creates a very large software "pipe" between compute elements and the storage to simplify file access and significantly improve performance. "[Ibrix's] efficient 4GB/1GB read/write throughput alone is a big improvement over our previous 1GB/300MB system, plus the functionality of separating read/write requests into individual segments," remarked Pang. "It is able to solve the bottleneck issue on the storage effectively."

Pang added that Fusion will also support expanding future storage capacity requirements of the studio. "Not only does it solve the problems we're facing right now, we benefit from its scalability in the long run," he said.

Imagi Studios, which saw its release of its CGI-animated TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) movie achieve the top ranking for box office revenue in its first week of release in March, hopes the technology can help in its aggressive plan to deliver one CGI-animated superhero-themed movie every eight months.

Gatchaman, known in the U.S. as Battle of the Planets or G-Force from an English-dubbed incarnation that appeared on television 30 years ago and acquired cult classic status, is slated for release in 2008. Astro Boy is scheduled for a 2009 release.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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