Ultrafast storage fuels movie's battle scenes

Fiber-channel storage device delivered content at 600-700 MB/sec during production of The Incredible Hulk

Hired by Marvel Entertainment to help bring a 9-foot-tall gamma-powered superhero to life on the big screen, officials at the Soho VFX special effects facility needed massive storage availability to help its artists create digitally-rendered fight scenes for the film, The Incredible Hulk, which opened June 12 in Australia.

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 fiber-channel storage device delivered content at 600-700 MB/sec. to the workstations and Dell servers of artists who were simultaneously building the special effects for the movie project.

"Each of those [artist] machines is trying to load all of this data and the BlueArc device has to keep up," noted Bannayan. "It's almost like drinking from a firehose; 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, remarked Bannayan.

The Incredible Hulk tells the story of Bruce Banner, a scientist who uncontrollably transforms into a green-skinned goliath due to an accidental overdose of gamma radiation. In the film Banner, played by actor Ed Norton, is on the run from the US 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 super-villain 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 US Army soldiers in a Brazil bottle factory and a rooftop chase and long fight sequence between the Hulk and Abomination which 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 revealing the muscular progression of Roth's Blonsky 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 studio sends Marvel Studios updates of film scenes with added images almost daily in high-definition Apple Quicktime formats.

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

BlueArc's Titan server has been installed at Soho VFX since late 2006. The storage appliance features approximately 38TB and serves as the company's entire mainline storage backbone including project data, administrative data and user home directories.

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