Students at Concordia University in Montreal work on a cinema project.
Concordia is a public university located in Montreal with an enrollment of approximately 45,000 students. A highlight of its extensive fine arts program is the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, the largest university-based center in Canada for film production, animation and film studies, which serves a total of 635 students annually.
The Hoppenheim School of Cinema’s curriculum is designed to give students a high-level creative focus with a firm grounding in cinema history. State-of-the-art production facilities also ensure that the school’s 200 undergraduate film production majors emerge with a strong technical foundation.
Students graduating from the program find a wide range of employment in the media industry, including work as cinematographers, producers, animators and colorists. Notable Concordia alumni include Torill Kove, a current faculty member and 2007 Academy award-winner for best animated short, and Pierre Gill, director of photography on movies such as Art of War and Outlander, and the The Borgias and Copper TV series.
Until two years ago, the school’s program was largely film-based. Editing, sound mixing and animation had made the leap to digital platforms, but image capture was still carried out using Bolex cameras and 16mm film. Around that time, a $2.1 million commitment from the university enabled the school to flip from 80-percent film to 98-percent digital acquisition within a single year, with the department adding Arriflex Alexa XT, RED Scarlet, and Blackmagic Studio 4K and 2K digital cinema cameras.
With the infrastructure to support film production in the city quickly disappearing, the school’s digital transition was mostly market-driven. First, Kodak closed its Montreal office, requiring students to ship film dailies to Vancouver for processing. Next, Technicolor substantially reduced its local film scanning services.
Those events happened to coincide with the emergence of digital cinema cameras from companies like RED, and the acceleration of tapeless workflows—a development that Marcus von Holtzendorff, post production coordinator at the Hoppenheim School of Cinema, attributes to “the tsunami.” (A major earthquake and subsequent tsunami off the coast of Japan in 2011 put a virtual halt to Sony’s production of HDCAM SR, a tape format widely used for feature film and TV post-production.)
Another reason cited by von Holtzendorff for the timing of the school’s transition was a need to balance staffing with an increasingly complex production process.
“Students have to run through this labyrinth of post-production, which is getting more and more complicated,” he said. “We’re talking about things like on-set color management, managing dailies, etc. It’s easy to just buy gear and throw it at students, but with the pace of technological change, we were aware that we needed to have a very limber, versatile system where only a couple of people could manage the volume of production.”
Prior to the upgrades, the school’s film production staff was tasked with maintaining multiple direct-attached hard drives—a challenge when dealing with 200 students. With the department producing 200-odd projects per semester, or about 10 feature films worth of material, the amount of time consumed rendering and copying files was creating a bottleneck.
With the prospect of shooting in digital cinema format—and storing raw 4K image files—on the horizon, storage capacity was also a concern.
The school’s digital transition has helped to boost its profile at competitions and provide students with solid technical skills that will benefit them after graduation.
“There was an acknowledgement that all of this comes with a huge amount of data,” von Holtzendorff said. “How are you going to handle it when [the students] don’t have RAID arrays, but single Firewire or USB hard drives and laptops? We reached out to a few vendors and realized we had to build a solution around some sort of shared storage.”
After the project went out to bid, the solution that the school ultimately ended up installing consisted of a Rohde & Schwarz Clipster for conversion and DCP generation, DDN SFA12K storage, and workstations running Avid and Final Cut Pro for offline editing and DaVinci Resolve for color grading. To connect its Thunderbolt-equipped workstations to the 8 Gbps Fibre Channel SAN, the school turned to ATTO Technology’s TLFC-2082 Desklink devices. With a portfolio of Thunderbolt 2 to 10GbE, Fibre Channel, SAS/SATA and SAS RAID Desklink devices, ATTO provides connectivity solutions for Thunderbolt-enabled platforms.
“Concordia’s Hoppenheim School of Cinema was a great opportunity for ATTO to prove ThunderLink products could stand up to the demands of a high performance SAN environment,” said Tom Kolniak, director of products at ATTO.
For von Holtzendorff, the utility and performance offered by ATTO’s Desklink devices made them a clear choice.
“With the Thunderbolt Macs, you can’t put a Fibre Channel card in, so ATTO’s Thunderlink devices ended up being really crucial, both for moving material around and doing a conform and grade,” he said. “We got the ATTO boxes in early — the Mac Pros didn’t even exist — but the SAN was already up and we were using them with cards on older Mac Pros. During testing, we quickly realized the performance was the same if it was a Fibre Channel card or Thunderbolt, so we were like ‘OK, that’s good. Let’s get 14 of those.’”
Though the transition from analog to digital shooting, and from direct-attached to shared storage, proved relatively smooth, integrating the new SAN with the school’s IT department was considerably more challenging.
“The university IT department wanted us to use commodity storage — vendors that they already had relationships with — and add it to their existing storage pool,” von Holtzendorff said. “When you’re dealing with content creation — high-quality, high-bandwidth video—there’s an education process that needs to happen with the standard IT world. The SAN also had to be located in a data center offsite with eight 8 Gbps long-range fiber connections linking the two buildings, which is a non-standard setup.”
When the Hoppenheim School of Cinema’s production facility was fully completed in spring 2014, students in the program gained access to cutting-edge tools that von Holtzendorff said “would be the envy of any film school.”
For most projects, the workflow involves students shooting in 4K or 2K. The raw image files are then copied to the center’s 150 TB SAN, which can handle six uncompressed 2K streams so that multiple projects can be color graded simultaneously. Project files are transcoded to ProRes or DNxHD, enabling students to perform offline editing on their platform of choice.
For the most part, offline editing is not done onsite, but offsite using laptops, a trend that von Holtzendorff attributes to “comfort and convenience” factors. Once the final sound edit and mix is completed in the facility’s mixing theater, students then get the opportunity to color correct in Resolve before the project is DCP’d for the school’s year-end screening.
The school’s 150 Terabyte SAN can handle six uncompressed 2K streams so that multiple student projects can be color graded simultaneously.
The main effect of the transition on the Hoppenheim School of Cinema has been to improve the quality of students’ work and to boost its profile at competitions. The technical foundation the students receive is also proving to be important when they seek work following graduation.
“We had a similar transition when we went from DV to HD, and what we’ve seen is that it allows our students to compete internationally, because they’re producing at the same quality as any big US school,” said von Holtzendorffsaid. “The funny part is, the SAN that we have, no U.S. school has anything like that. It’s top of the line. It was the right time and the right place and we invested a lot of money into that component. Having cutting-edge technology that reflects the reality of how films are being made forces the curriculum to adapt, and it means that the school is relevant. When the students get out on the street looking for a job, they know the lingo. They’re like, ‘Yeah, I know how 3D LUTs work.’ They get it, and I think that’s very valuable.”
Upgrading to a SAN from direct-attached storage also provided the school with a substantial measure of future-proofing.
Asked about future expansion, von Holtzendorff said, “The thing about getting a big, high-capacity SAN was that we could put in a little more money and get a scalable solution that will serve us for four years without any further investment. We can add faster, newer hard drives and more storage. Basically upgrade elements of it and not start from zero. We planned for how much storage capacity we would need, and it’s been adequate—until the time comes when we shoot in 8K. The transition went off pretty smoothly considering how radical it was and doing it in such a short period of time.”
Reflecting on the impact recent changes have had on the school, von Holtzendorff is justifiably enthusiastic.
“It’s surprising how nonchalant our students are about this technology,” he said. “It’s funny in a way, because some of them will graduate and end up working with older technology. And our professors, we had to drag them into the digital age. But now that they’re here, they’re like, ‘wow it’s pretty cool what we can do with this stuff.’
“With a few people and the right technology, we’ve made a very complex system accessible for the students and faculty.”