Sound editor Malcolm Fife knows what it’s like to stare in the face of nearly impossible production schedules for big-budget movie soundtracks. He is also well-acquainted with the act of shrinking and growing his three-person studio partnership, Tyrell LLC, well beyond the boundaries of its tidy headquarters in Sausalito, California in order to keep a host of editors working concurrently on multiple recording tracks to meet their respective deadlines.
According to Fife, Tyrell spends about 75% of its time on sound work for movies, while the other 25% is comprised of sound tracks for various commercials. Movies benefiting from the award-winning sound editing expertise of Fife and his team have included New Line Productions’ The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King as well as Universal Studios’ King Kong. In each case, production usually entailed relocating Tyrell’s team of editors and equipment close to where filming or recording occurred, then assigning different editors to perform multiple edits, on often the same music track, sometimes at the same time simultaneously.
After joining forces with London’s famous Abbey Road recording studio during production of The Return of the King, Fife witnessed first-hand how useful a storage area network (SAN) could be at streamlining sound production workflows. It wasn’t long after work on the film concluded that he undertook the task of adapting what worked for Abbey Road for Tyrell’s own, more boutique-style environment.
Mixing. Editing. Scoring. Dubbing. De-dubbing. Shuttling as much as 48 or 64 new recording tracks from studio to edit suite. These are all facets of sound work involved in producing a major motion picture. They are also tasks that can typically require multiple editors and multiple recording rooms, all often in simultaneous use to perfect the final high-quality product.
When Tyrell first met with London’s Abbey Road for work planned on the Two Towers, the film’s producers consulted with Tyrell and Abbey Road about how best to keep all of its sound editors and editing rooms working efficiently enough to produce the final movie score according to the movie’s ultimate, multimillion dollar timeline.
A storage area network, they decided, could solve their problems by allowing multiple editors to share access to the same sound files, all stored centrally on the SAN, while being able to replay the files in real-time from whichever station they were at without hiccups. It would also avoid the typical scenario that tended to eat up quality edit time: Waiting to copy sound files down to a FireWire drive (or pop out a local SCSI drive) and move them to another edit suite for further work required.
After Abbey Road investigated then implemented a high-speed Fibre Channel SAN from Studio Network Solutions, it didn’t take long for Fife and the others at Tyrell to witness first-hand how well the SAN worked at file sharing and collaboration among the various editors, as well as real-time playback of tracks in progress. Fife and his team became quickly “addicted to the SAN idea” and enamored with the thought of files always remaining in the same network location for easier access, revisioning, and faster turnaround between edits.
Soon after this experience, Tyrell embarked on a mission to make its own production environment “SAN capable.” Its goal, according to Fife, was to mirror much of the success experienced at the Abbey Road location, while also exploring more affordable and flexible networked storage options that would allow virtually any laptop to access the contents of the SAN and would even let them use common TCP/IP network connections to transmit files from one room (or location) to another.
Malcolm Fife again turned to Studio Network Solutions to help him fulfill his goals for Tyrell.
The Choice: Fibre Channel and iSCSI SANs from SNS
After spending time with Studio Network Solutions, Fife ultimately incorporated not one, but two, SAN storage systems from SNS at the core of Tyrell’s new infrastructure.
As Fife recounts, “On the final dub of Two Towers and Return of the King, SNS sold us a Fibre Channel SAN we could bring with us to a dub in New Zealand. This would allow the music editors to have several mixes going, with any file available to anyone who also had access to the SAN. It made it much more efficient than what we would have had to do previously.”
Prior to the SAN, if his partner, Mark, was working on a particular cut, and suddenly Fife or another music editor needed the same cut, they would have typically resorted to copying the file onto another drive. “With a SAN, of course, everything is permanently waiting for you on the SAN. You boot your computer up and just log in. It was easy to arrange our workflow to work in this manner,” he said.
Normal network file sharing methods didn’t really allow them the option to play the sounds live from any workstation on the network, either. Instead of first having to import typical AppleTalk sounds and save them on a local workstation in order to play them back, Fife said a SAN would allow them to direct all the files to the SAN first, where they would then be widely available to any workstation in the facility. More importantly, the SAN would allow them to reduce the time-consuming work involved in navigating the various protocols required to move files from one computer to another. After working on projects that required combining the work from Mac-based Pro Tools (from Digidesign) or Windows-based Pyramix (from Merging Technologies), Fife knew that anything that could help minimize and streamline the conversion process and navigation between protocols was something worthy of note.
The alternative, using FireWire or SCSI drives, was not something Fife wanted to return to any time soon. He’d already experienced that frustration once too often. “Using those methods, you could easily end up with thousands of duplicates. Mistakes were also too easy to make by people editing the wrong version of a file. Now, when running ProTools or Pyramix, the computer just sees the SAN as a couple of SCSI drives on a desktop, yet the data comes to it at rapid rates of speed. It’s just amazing. ProTools will play things from the SAN that it might refuse to play from other mounted volumes,” he said.
After seeing how well the Fibre Channel-based A/V SAN PRO worked, Fife and his team began hearing about some of the more flexible options and lower implementation needs of a member of the SNS globalSAN family of products, the globalSAN X-4, based on the iSCSI protocol. (iSCSI is a storage protocol that allows fast, block-level data transmission and storage of data over traditional TCP/IP networks, such as those using high-speed Gigabit Ethernet cabling.)
Several aspects appealed to Fife about this type of iSCSI solution. Although his Fibre Channel SAN was much more robust, Fife liked the fact that Tyrell wouldn’t have to first invest in a host bus adapter (HBA) card or specific Fibre Channel cabling in order for every workstation to gain access to the iSCSI SAN. Fife also liked the fact that even contract editors with their own notebook computers could quickly “plug into the SAN” from any editing suite.
“It’s a very simple concept as far as SANs go. It plugs into networking wiring and interfaces on your computer you already have. The underlying software layers and drivers are hidden and just maintain themselves,” noted Fife.
When it came to managing workflows, Fife really liked how well SNS’ SANmp™ management software worked for both the Fibre Channel and iSCSI SAN environments. During file sharing, SANmp allowed the editors to make sure that certain files or volumes would remain read-only to all but the individual currently performing edits. It also assured Tyrell that the same view of files would remain synchronized and updated from every desktop.
Fife now has 1TB of storage on Tyrell’s iSCSI SAN and about 400GB of storage on the Fibre Channel system. A handful of workstations has access to each SAN, with the option to add more workstations to either SAN at any time, in order to accommodate peak workloads. Plans are now in place for the iSCSI-based GlobalSAN to store all of Tyrell’s permanent sound effects library along with other production dialogue for the studio’s current film project in progress.
Fife’s experience with SANs from Studio Network Solutions has been predominantly positive. So much so, that he plans to never go back to the way things used to be. He recounts how one recent scene in King Kong would have been virtually impossible without the use of Tyrell’s SAN from SNS.
A number of teams and departments had delivered several different sound elements developed using both Mac-based ProTools and Windows-based Pyramix. When Director Peter Jackson focused on sound for one island scene where the girl is kidnapped by island natives, he decided to integrate several elements from many separate sources in order to create the scene. Although many of the pieces were stored by other groups on local machines, Fife was still able to use Tyrell’s SAN to help combine all relevant sound elements together in one central place.
Going from PC to Mac and back again, Fife noted, “I was able to use the SAN to share and mount the shared elements on the stage between the two platforms. The scene was so complicated that it would have been extremely difficult to do it if we hadn’t been able to send things across the SAN. It would have been impossible to achieve what Peter was asking us to do. He picked and chose what he wanted when he sat down. He basically said, ‘I want this from you, and that from you, etc.’ Then, it was up to us to all work together in order to make that happen. It’s what SAN are for: Collaboration.”
In the end, Fife sees his SNS SANs as powerful, maintenance-free tools in Tyrell’s current production workflow. As tools go, he’s grown accustomed to spending significant time away from the creative music process as he cajoles his tools to work with myriad upgrades and mechanical tweaks required.
“I don’t really get paid for that kind of work. I cut sound on movies. So, that’s one of the things about having a globalSAN from SNS, especially with iSCSI. It just has a very low percentage of maintenance time required. The stuff is already designed around users in audio and video and multimedia enviroments. The people at SNS already intend for the systems to just plug into any small and medium-sized facility that does post-production work. Like many other studios, Tyrell has sophisticated technical people on staff who are not engineers and don’t have full-time IT departments. We just want to spend 90% of our time on the audio material, not the infrastructure. The SNS equipment is just designed at our level, and allows us to do that,” he said.
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