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Mastering the art of data infrastructure

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Emily Miller
Emily Miller
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In Kung Fu Panda 4, Po the Dragon Warrior meets his most difficult opponent yet: The Chameleon, a powerful foe with the ability to steal the likeness and kung fu of any master. To protect the Valley of Peace from the shape-shifting sorceress, Po needs to think outside the box and discover a new and unexpected way of doing things.

The Chameleon challenge

For the DreamWorks Animation team behind the latest installment of the Kung Fu Panda franchise, animating The Chameleon posed just as big of a challenge. But just like the mimicking reptile herself, the team adapted, striking the right balance between technology and creativity to bring her transformation process to the big screen. 

Before moving to production, the team invested 6 months in sketching basic shape transformations of The Chameleon, testing her morph timing, and understanding the requirements for fully animating her as a 3D character. This process involved a unique mix of tools to create intricate character rigs with hundreds of data points used to control the animations. 

Creativity + technology = transformation

Betsy Nofsinger, visual effects supervisor for Kung Fu Panda 4, tells us, "How we were going to do that transformation became one of the biggest challenges of the show. We didn't want to do something that’s just uniform scale and shape change. We wanted to do something a bit more exciting. There was a lot of development in that, and cross-department work to make sure we were driving it based on animation and performance requirements."  

This kind of close collaboration between creativity and technology is what makes the DreamWorks team so successful. “It’s what makes us unique. Whenever we bring those different sensibilities together, we always find that we have a better product in the end,” says Bill Ballew, DreamWorks CTO. “Our technology staff wants to be filmmakers just as much as our filmmakers. That engages them; it’s what motivates them. It’s what makes it different from working at any other technology company, the fact that they get to solve problems that are more artistic in nature.” 

Data is at the root of collaboration

“While we are fundamentally a creative company, what most people don’t know is that we’re also a large-scale digital manufacturing business. We generate an enormous amount of data as we create one of these films," Ballew tells us.  

But just generating the data isn’t the challenge — making sure it’s consistent, organized, and accessible to the right people is. As animators work on bringing fan-favorite characters to the screen, they need near real-time access to the latest models and files.  

A film like Kung Fu Panda 4 can use about 300 million hours of compute and require half a billion digital files. And for a popular franchise with films created across multiple years and platforms, data needs to be translated and transformed to match new ways of working.

Keeping up with changing technology

Because animation teams work on multiple films each year, critical files need to remain convenient while still enabling opportunities for collaboration across film productions. “For Kung Fu Panda 4, as the fourth in a franchise, you’d ideally want to capitalize on a lot of work that has been done before, and we certainly do on design. But there had been quite a long stretch between the last Kung Fu Panda movie and this one. The technology had evolved greatly since then,” says Nofsinger. “We had to put solutions in place to utilize those previous assets and move them forward.” 

Taking advantage of every opportunity and keeping up with changing demands requires an intelligent data infrastructure that enables data control and flexibility at scale. “We have to adapt to the landscape that’s around us, so we look for ways to future-proof our infrastructure,” says Ballew. “If we have to pivot and go in a slightly different direction, we want that infrastructure to be stable and to move with us.”  

NetApp helps customers like DreamWorks tackle disruption head-on — no matter what form that disruption takes. Seamless flexibility delivers greater data mobility without complexity, creating opportunities for new breakthroughs and awe-inspiring projects.  

Ballew tells us, “We don’t want to be the ones to say, ‘no, the studio can’t do something’ because the technology infrastructure can’t handle it. We’ve invested in NetApp on an infrastructure that scales extremely well. I couldn’t tell you the last time we had a discussion at the executive level of ‘Do we have enough storage?’ or ‘Do we think it will hold up to this level to do this ambitious film that we have?’ It’s not even a conversation anymore.”

Explore the partnership

So, whether you’re trying to stop a shape-shifting sorceress or bring one to the big screen, being able to adapt quickly is key. NetApp is proud to provide DreamWorks with the data solutions to rise to the moment and intelligently adapt to each challenge as the animation studio continues to drive both technical and artistic innovation.

Emily Miller

Emily leads Brand Experience for NetApp. She’s focused on driving NetApp’s reputation as a cloud storage leader in the market through brand and content strategy, creative leadership, sponsorship programs and digital/live experiences. With experience on both client and agency side, from small start-up to global conglomerate, Emily brings a down-to-earth approach combined with creativity and humor to get things done. She has a BA in History from Yale and an MBA from the UC Berkeley/Haas School of Business.

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