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Automating the handling of digital data storage tapes helped bring the Lord of the Rings saga to the big screen.

Peter Jackson’s digital effects company Weta Digital Ltd. is one of the first in the film industry to automate the handling of digital data storage tapes, in the process saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wellington-based Weta bought a TimberWolf 9710 tape library and six DLT 7000 tape drives from StorageTek. The tape library can do the work of four full-time tape operators who would otherwise have been required to handle the 2,500 tapes currently in circulation.

According to Weta chief technical officer Jon Labrie, manual tape handling is still the norm in the industry and Weta is the first he knows of to automate it. “It has made what was a difficult, at times maddening, part of creating digital effects easy,” says Labrie. “It’s an automated process – we put up a window and click on a file and there they are. That’s a tremendous luxury for us because we have lots of other problems to worry about.”

After a year, the tape component has paid for itself. Labrie calculates that the cost of the robotic tape library and DLT drives was comparable to the cost of four annual tape operators’ salaries – or more than NZ$200,000 (US$82,750).

Weta has spent approximately NZ$20 million on the IT infrastructure to support the making of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Among many challenges Labrie had to find way to manage the large amounts of data created. Every day, a team of 160 digital-effects artists created about a terabyte of new data. Each frame of film takes up 12MB and there are multiple frames in every shot with 300GB to 500GB having to be backed up on to digital tape every day. These backup tapes are taken off site and stored in an earthquake-proof building once a week.

To manage all this information Weta created a hierarchical storage management system incorporating off-line, “near-line” and online storage. The StorageTek robotic tape library keeps more than 10TB of information available to be called up on to disk within two to five minutes. This is referred to as near-line storage.

Between 200GB to 400GB of data are moved each day between online Network Appliance disk systems on which film scanners and digital effects artists work and the near-line TimberWolf library. Material kept near-line includes original film scans and shots completed by the artists. “That’s in case someone says, ‘Hey I want to have a final go at that shot’,” says Labrie.

Weta bought the tape component as part of its purchase of SGI gear, including high-end Octane2 workstations.