Everyone knows that computers are a big part of the film industry, especially when it comes to animation and special effects. What not everyone thinks about is the particular backup and storage issues faced by the likes of George Lucas, Pixar, and ILM—and, in fact, everyone who works with digital video, whether or not they’re taking in millions of dollars at the box office.
Since the beginning of time—or at least the beginning of computing—there have been certain categories of people who find themselves with Big Files. The actual number of bytes, or kilobytes, or megabytes, or gigabytes, that defines a Big File increases over time, along with the size of hard drives, the speed of processors, and the amount of RAM (memory) you can put into your computer.
But while the absolute sizes increase exponentially every few years, the relative sizes of different kinds of files remain fairly constant. Text files are small. Even formatted word-processing files are fairly small. Image files are larger. Music files are larger still. Executable files (software) seem to get bigger every year, but most programs will still fit on a single CD. Video is where it starts getting Big, and 3-D animation involves Serious Bigness.
Think for a minute about the kind of video that you usually encounter online. In order to be watched over an internet connection (even a fast one, never mind dial-up) without looking as if it’s been stuck in slow motion, a video has to fit within certain parameters. Web videos are almost always short—under 10 minutes in length. They’re also usually very small in terms of their dimensions—only a few inches across. And they’ve been highly compressed to reduce the file size, which means the image quality isn’t usually very sharp. It’s good enough to see what’s going on, but if you blow it up to full-screen size (even on a 14” laptop) it looks awful.
Digital video for the big screen—or even the wide-screen TV—is a whole different ball game. Those mind-blowing special effects in the latest hit movies need vast cyber-acres to store all the detail that goes into creating them. In fact, they take up more space on a computer than on an actual film reel, or would if bytes translated directly into physical space.
Yes, you can fit the final film on two DVDs—a mere 9 GB. But the difference between a final film “print” of a special-effects scene and the billions of tiny triangles used to create Yoda and his light-saber is like the difference between the space needed to store a VHS tape of you walking down the street and the space needed for you to actually walk down the street. Computer animators have to create the whole street and every step you take on the way. So gigabytes, to digital video professionals, are small change. Their weekly workload is measured in terabytes. (A terabyte is a thousand gigabytes, or a trillion bytes, just to give you a sense of the scale we’re talking about here.)
That means that animators and video post-production professionals (like the Ur-Guru before he became a software developer) have never been able to use the same storage or backup solutions that ordinary home or home office users, or even many mid-size business users and non-IT corporations do. Digital post-production has been one area in which tape backups have tended to dominate, because tape was the only option available for those Big Files.
Now, however, according to an article in Digital Animators, even the animators and videographers are starting to prefer external hard drives to tape backups. A quick cost analysis (provided in a table in the article) demonstrates one good reason: 500 GB of FireWire hard drive storage costs only $500, while the least expensive tape system is almost $2500 for the drive, plus about $60 per 200 GB tape cartridge. Tape cartridges and removable hard drives are about the same size, too, so both are portable.
Of course, external hard drives are just as vulnerable to failure as internal hard drives are. “After I burned out my third hard drive,” said a friend who is working on a documentary at one of the local community colleges, “I realized there was something wrong with the equipment in the studio.” And replacing hard drives costs more than replacing tape cartridges.
Portability also makes theft easier. A leaked copy of “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” appeared on the internet the same day it opened in the theaters. I don’t know for sure that it was a backup tape or disk that was taken rather than a finished DVD (which is even more portable), but the need to keep multiple copies of all these files does make it easier for one to go missing without anyone noticing.
What I am sure of, though, is that backing up Yoda is one reason for the massive production budgets of special-effects films, not to mention the massive collections of hard drives that people like the Ur-Guru have built into their workstations.