​How Animal Logic pieced its storage together for production of 'The Lego Movie'

The animation and visual effects firm turned to Dell EMC to manage the vast amounts of data created during the making of The Lego Movie -- a film that peaked at 345 terabytes.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor
(Image: Animal Logic)

Sydney-based animation and visual effects firm Animal Logic has an impressive feature film resume, ranging from the 1995 movie Babe, through to The Great Gatsby, and the dancing animated penguins in Happy Feet.

In 2014, Animal Logic created one of the most recognisable animated features to date: The Lego Movie. Following the The Lego Batman Movie and this year's The Lego Ninjago Movie, Animal Logic's animation division is currently in production of The Lego Movie Sequel, due in 2019.

Speaking with ZDNet, Animal Logic head of IT Alex Timbs explained that the firm's mission now is to develop, create, and produce all of its own content -- a long way from the company's foundations in 1991, when "buying a graphics computer meant to mortgage one's house".

However, as the animators became more advanced and the graphics got crisper, Animal Logic found itself in a position where it had outgrown its storage requirements.

When creating The Lego Movie in partnership with Lego Group and Warner Bros, Timbs said Animal Logic invested a lot of time into automation, leveraging the Lego Brick Library to procedurally generate every brick. The bricks in the brick library are represented in 3D space, not just texture or flat or 2D, Timbs explained.

"It's a 3D world, and those bricks are actual bricks," he said. "So when you look at a building, that building is made up of actual Lego bricks -- you can actually stick your head in a window to see inside that building."

Timbs said that some of the scenes in The Lego Batman Movie contained over 220 million individual bricks in that world, so in order achieve that, Animal Logic automated its pipeline to generate things very rapidly.

"We like to call it industrial-scale art," he added.

"In a perfect world, the art director and the film's director would have perfect creative vision and know exactly what they want and how they want to get there; in reality, it's an evolving vision, there's constant changes from feedback, so automation allows us to iterate really rapidly."

Animal Logic turned to Dell EMC in 2008. Timbs explained that the teams were essentially moving data off 14 different silos of storage into one big bucket that required a fraction of someone's time to manage.

For production storage, Animal Logic uses Dell EMC Isilon, a scale-out network-attached storage platform for high-volume storage, backup, and archiving of unstructured data.

"Production storage is the storage where the render farm -- where the images are created," Timbs added.

"When we moved to Isilon, we were talking a couple of hundred terabytes; now we have 9 petabytes of primary and DR Isilon storage."

For some perspective, in the space of three years, Animal Logic's data footprint "grew exponentially", and was all driven by automation. Because production schedules drive the company's storage strategy, it is almost impossible to plan beyond 12 to 24 months, however.

"The infrastructure that we use for making films is not just a tool; it's the canvas on which we're creating these beautiful images," Timbs said. "Technology means a lot more to us than what it means to most people in other verticals. Our very business is technology -- it's computer science, creating images is our computer science, and so we need really powerful and reliable, efficient technology."

For The Lego Ninjago Movie, the teams currently use 40,000 CPU cores to render the film. However, with artists opening scenes and launching software from the production storage, Timbs said they're very sensitive to any sort of performance challenges.

"It's one of the most challenging scenarios for any storage system, because you've got these mixed workloads, very large demand from a huge compute cluster, and then you've got some performance-sensitive artists who want things to open and function efficiently working off the same storage," he added.

In late 2015, Animal Logic opened a new animation studio in Vancouver, Canada, as part of the three-picture deal with Warner Bros. The company also has an office in Los Angeles, in addition to its initial Sydney space.

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