According to The Foundry, the creators of the compositing software NUKE, compositing is “the creative process of assembling and combining filmed or rendered elements from multiple sources”. And when it comes to 2D compositing, there is no one in the business better than Crafty Apes. This small visual effects company out of Culver City, CA helped bring the stories of superheros like Doctor Strange and NASA scientists in Hidden Figures to life. But even the experts of 2D compositing faced a new challenge last year in the form of a six-minute dance routine on a Los Angeles highway.

La La Land is proving to be one of the most successful creative feats of 2016, which was confirmed recently when the movie took home seven Golden Globe awards. In the opening sequence of the film, the normally soul-sucking experience of Los Angeles traffic is transformed into a colorful and energizing musical number. A lot of creative consideration went into the scene, and director Damien Chazelle drew on many other films for inspiration. But the technical processes that brought that scene to the big screen are themselves a feat worth acknowledging. For instance, a majority of the scene was shot using cranes, and high winds forced operators to be extra careful not to hit any of the dancers or cars. And this is all before any of the post-production even began!

The Compositing Challenge

On average, most movies have a few seconds and about one hundred frames between cuts. However, the opening sequence of La La Land consisted of nearly six minutes of seemingly uninterrupted footage. All said and done the soon to be famous scene consisted of over 8,000 frames, dwarfing average scences from other films. To make the scene look just right, Crafty Apes had to render CG cars, add additional dancers and make multiple takes (there were three in total) look like one long, continuous shot. All in all, this process required hundreds of renders and terabytes of data. Tim LeDoux, one of the founders of Crafty Apes, described the challenge like this, “if moving from one frame to the next takes 20 seconds, how are you ever going to get through more than eight thousand frames? Every little thing adds up and compounds if you can’t get near real-time storage throughput”.

If it isn’t clear from the quote above, storage throughput is an important measure of performance for visual effects. However, when Tim and Crafty Apes first brought in Qumulo, and before they began work on La La Land, they found they were still not getting the throughput they needed. LeDoux was at first skeptical about improving his Qumulo storage, saying “I’ve worked with many different vendors, and while I’ve learned to expect problems I’ve also learned no one is going to knock themselves out to help me”. You see, with legacy storage vendors, Crafty Apes would have been left waiting for a monolithic update that would come out once in a blue moon. However, because of Qumulo’s dedicated Customer Success team and agile approach to software updates, Crafty Apes quickly updated Qumulo Core to operate at the level they needed.

“Qumulo is the complete opposite [of legacy vendors]. I’ve never had so many smart people working so hard to curve the product toward what we’re trying to do”, said LeDoux.

The updates to their Qumulo could not have come at a better time, because soon after working with the Qumulo Customer Success team to address their issues, Crafty Apes was awarded the La La Land project. Because each Qumulo user has a dedicated Customer Success Manager, LeDoux could easily get on a call or even Slack to get right to a solution. With that feedback getting related directly to the engineering team at Qumulo, not only was Crafty Apes able to take advantage of the regular release cycle of Qumulo Core, they also influenced what was included in those updates.

The Right Storage Partner for La La Land

“When the La La Land project came around it was make or break, and we were never down for a moment. Qumulo is our rock, allowing us to focus on the visual effects with absolute confidence the data is safe.” LeDoux said on his storage experience while working on the film. Today, the performance and feature set of the Qumulo cluster is significantly better than the studio’s prior solution, and Crafty Apes is in the process of adding several more nodes to its Qumulo cluster to support data replication between Los Angeles and Atlanta.

To learn more about how Crafty Apes used their Qumulo storage for their work on La La Land, download the full case study here.

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