Infrastructure Built for Affordable, Quality, Cutting-Edge VFX Workflows

Avere Helps Unleash Creativity, Power Growth

No fewer than six of the year’s top-12 box-office hits1 showcase the creative talents of MPC’s (Moving Picture Company) VFX artists. From a 400-shot aerial battle in Guardians of the Galaxy to Maleficent’s cliffside castle and the mutant-slaying Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past, MPC’s visual effects have helped turn storyboard concepts into box-office billions.

Martin Weaver, Head of Infrastructure Delivery at MPC, says that blockbuster success takes both inspiration and infrastructure. “To support the technology requirements of high-end VFX, we’ve architected a performance-optimized IT infrastructure that’s deployed in MPC’s London, Montreal, and Bangalore facilities and that will streamline set-up of new global offices. This standardized infrastructure gives us agility and scale to support business growth and a broad range of technical requirements. To keep pace with data demands, we use Avere’s FXT Edge filers to augment the performance of MPC core storage systems. A foundational technology in our IT infrastructure, Avere’s solution provides cost-effective performance acceleration for rendering and other heavy-I/O workloads.”

Challenge: Growth and Expensive Real Estate

Weaver says growth presents constant challenges for infrastructure design. He cites multiple dimensions that pressure IT systems and storage. “Moving higher up the echelons of VFX quality dramatically increases the amount of data that goes into rendering an image. That means we’re working with larger and larger data sets to deliver the client’s desired visual results, whether for photo-realistic images, full-frame characters, or convincing fluid-based simulations. At the same time, we’re running more concurrent projects, working on larger and bigger-budget films, and providing infrastructure resources to more creative seats.”

Weaver’s team must ensure sufficient IT infrastructure—including storage capacity and performance—to meet the demands of this growth. Budget and space constraints add to the challenge. “In the UK, for example, all of our creative seats and core NAS storage are located in MPC’s central-London facility.

Because it was impractical to expand in that location—you’ll know from the UK version of Monopoly® that the center of London is the most expensive part of the board—we opted to house the render farm off-site at our data center in Pinewood. But without a solution to manage down the traffic between sites, we faced prohibitive telecommunications costs.”

Solution: Avere for Cost-saving Performance and Flexibility

Weaver explains that London’s limited-real-estate challenge was the catalyst for one of MPC’s first Avere deployments. “Deploying an Avere Edge filer at the render-farm end of the communications link, we were able to accelerate NFS performance to the farm and simultaneously reduce network traffic between the Pinewood data center and our London facility.”

Today, Avere Edge Filers boost storage performance and efficiency at MPC global facilities, including the studio’s London, Montreal, and Bangalore sites. At each site, Avere clusters offload EMC Isilon core storage to accelerate rendering processes and deliver maximum interactivity to artist workstations. Across MPC facilities, Avere Edge Filers deliver scalable performance to various sizes of render farms running an application mix that typically includes Autodesk Maya, The Foundry NUKE, and Pixar RenderMan software.

Benefits: More IOPS, Interactivity, Efficiency, and Potential

Satisfying the Thirst for New Effects

“In the VFX industry where last year’s best becomes this year’s norm, the amount of data that goes into image rendering grows at an even faster rate than Moore’s law predicts on the compute side,” notes Weaver. “Moving from 2K to 2K-stereo or 2K to 4K resolution, for example, means more data—and more IOPS and throughput. There’s also a continual thirst for the new effect, the showstopper that’s not been done before. The datasets required to produce these new images combined with the increasing complexity of interactions, quantities of geometry, and numbers of characters and assets in a shot continue to drive the demand for high-speed I/O. To prevent general slowdowns as demand increases, we redirect much of our heavy-IO traffic to Avere. The Avere cluster effectively boosts I/O performance so that we can keep up with the rendering demand and at the same time take the strain off our core storage systems to ensure responsiveness to other applications.”

In London, MPC also uses an Avere cluster to enable faster loads from a third-party-software and tool server. Instead of waiting minutes to pull required rendering scripts and other data off the software server, render nodes can start almost instantly. With hundreds of machines simultaneously attempting to initiate the same render, timesavings are dramatic. Weaver reports that the Avere cluster has continued to keep pace with demand, even as MPC has expanded the farm by 300 percent.

Unleashing Creativity

“Dealing with performance bottlenecks can be like playing whack- a-mole,” adds Weaver. “By reducing strain on core storage, Avere ensures we can handle heavy rendering loads while maintaining maximum responsiveness to artist workstations. Hundreds of artists work at each site, so maintaining their productivity is essential. Better interactivity also fosters creativity, so it’s important to minimize the frustration that comes from waiting in front of an idle workstation screen.”

Powering Growth

Avere’s solutions help MPC save on both telecommunications and infrastructure costs. In London, for example, Weaver estimates that without Avere efficiencies, the cost of bandwidth to the remote render farm would have doubled. In smaller MPC facilities, Avere technology enables use of cost-reduced core storage systems that can be configured with more economical— versus high-performance tier 1—disk drives.

“Avere effectively turbocharges I/O so we can handle heavy rendering workloads and meet peak-production demands without deploying additional infrastructure and incurring all of the related data center costs,” Weaver says. “Avere also offers future flexibility to, for example, take advantage of object-based storage, either as a private, on-prem repository or in a public cloud. Avere really gives us benefits in multiple directions, from reducing infrastructure costs to extending the use of our core storage and conserving data center space as the business grows. We continue to find new ways to put these resource and budget savings to work delivering blockbuster results for our clients.”


1Top 12 Box Office Results 2014 - Source: 

About MPC

A subsidiary of Technicolor, MPC is one of the world’s leading visual effects studios. Renowned for adding visual wonder and creative expertise to the advertising, film, and entertainment industries, the company boasts industry-leading facilities in London, Vancouver, Montreal, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Bangalore, Shanghai, and Mexico City. MPC teams craft spectacular visual experiences?in any space, on any screen. Projects have included blockbuster movies such as Godzilla, the Harry Potter franchise, X-Men, Prometheus, and Life of Pi, as well as famous advertising campaigns for brands such as Samsung, Coca-Cola, Sony, Three Mobile, and Channel 4. (