DreamWorks Exec: 'When Data Is Your Product, Technology Is The Paintbrush’

'Technology is every lever you can move and every knob you can twist to gain efficiencies and optimizations within your business. Technology is everything to us. Innovation is a cornerstone. And this is why the partnership with NetApp is so critical,’ says DreamWorks Animation’s Kate Swanborg.


While the casual moviegoer thinks of DreamWorks Animation as a producer of digital animated movies, the reality is the studio is really a data factory, according to Kate Swanborg, senior vice president of technology, communications and strategic alliances for the Glendale, Calif.-based company.

Swanborg, speaking during the opening keynote session at this week's NetApp Insight 2019 conference in Las Vegas, said DreamWorks Animation may be known as a storyteller and as a worldwide filmmaker.

"[But] under the hood, fundamentally, DreamWorks Animation is a digital manufacturer," she said. "There's only one thing we make at DreamWorks Animation. We make data. We make lots and lots and lots and lots of data. In fact, just for record, it's the only thing we make. It's actually the only thing."

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DreamWorks in October celebrated its 25th anniversary, and Swanborg said she has been there for 23 of those 25 years.

NetApp has been the underpinning infrastructure for the movies DreamWorks has made for over two decades, which Swanborg said is significant due to the highly technical nature of digital film-making.

She said that digital film-making of animated features differs significantly from traditional live-action film-making in a couple of major ways. One of the most significant is that traditional film-making meant taking a crew to a location who then brought in multiple recordings from which the right scenes were chosen and then combined into a movie.

"Ever heard of ‘left on the cutting room floor?’" she said. "We don't get that luxury. There is no cutting room floor for us. Everything that we do is crafted from the ground up."

Swanborg said to take as an example Dreamwork's latest feature, “Abominable,” in which a Yeti is discovered by a 16-year-old girl near her home. The girl, Yi, named the Yeti “Everest,” and made plans to take him home to Mount Everest.

Both Everest and Yi were first sketched by artists, and then resketched several times until the filmmakers felt they generated the right emotion, after which the final sketches were delivered to digital artists who created geometric shells of those characters, Swanborg said.

After that, an entirely different group of artists create an inverse kinematics skeleton and muscular definition system called a character rig, each of which is infused with up to 5,000 unique animation control points, she said. She said to imagine each character as a digital marionette, each with up to 5,000 strings.

A movie, which lasts an average of 90 minutes, will also have several dozens of environments in multiple locations, Swanborg said.

"Every single thing that you see in those has to be crafted from the ground up as well, intentionally designed," she said. "Take for example, one sequence in ‘Abominable’ that had 3 billion plants. Three billion plants, billion with a 'b.' Leaves, stems, everything, blades of grass, 1.2 billion flowers, patterns that had to each be geometrically modeled, shaded, textured, lit and composited."

A 90-minute movie may have as many as 30 locations and several dozen characters, Swanborg said. At 24 frames per second, that is 130,000 frames in the film, she said.

"Now I want you to keep in mind: Every single one of those 130,000 frames is having to go through 12 unique creative departments, 12 unique groups of artists who are framing and compositing and shading and texturing and providing effects for every single one of those frames throughout our computer system," she said.

The result is that, by the time just one digital film is finished, it will have required the crafting of 500 million digital files, Swanborg said.

"Keep in mind, our business model says we’ve got to release two films a year, she said. "It takes us four years to make these movies. If it's taking you four years to make your product, you can't make it one after the other in a linear-type fashion. You can't do that. You actually have to be in simultaneous production in order to release two films a year and beyond. Typically, we are in simultaneous production on as many as 10 films at a given time. So do the math. Ten films at half a billion files each is 5 billion active files at DreamWorks Animation being worked on in a hybrid cloud platform in which every artist can access any file on any film at any time."

Swanborg said people in the IT industry know that a company like DreamWorks is really a manufacturer of data, but may not know that they know it.

"You may not have put it together, but I know you knew this," she said. "I know you know that the only thing we make is data. You know how I know? When was the last time you saw a film on film? Think about it. Can you see flicker in your mind's eye? You remember the flicker? Do you remember the grainy image? I do. I can see it. I can see it, but I haven't seen it in a long time."

The reason is that most movie theaters around the world are run using digital projectors, and so instead of showing film are really showing data, Swanborg said.

"They're showing you our data," she said. "Don't tell the CSO [chief security officer), for the love of Pete. You're seeing our data every single time you go to the movie theater. In fact, do you know how the movie theaters get our movies? They've downloaded the security keys. You're watching data. Data is our product. Data is our progress. Data is our process. Data is everything we're doing."

That makes DreamWorks Animation different from other businesses, Swanborg said.

"When data is your product, technology is your paintbrush," she said. "However, it is also your budget, your board of directors and your bottom line. Technology is every lever you can move and every knob you can twist to gain efficiencies and optimizations within your business. Technology is everything to us. Innovation is a cornerstone. And this is why the partnership with NetApp is so critical."

It is clear to DreamWorks Animation that data services are a critical component of its future strategies, Swanborg said. The company and NetApp started a little over a year ago an engineering partnership focused on the infrastructures and data services necessary to create an on-demand, real-time content creation system for its artists.

"We believe in NetApp's vision," she said. "We believe in their trajectory toward a unified data management strategy that's focused on both on-premise and cloud infrastructures in order to create a seamless and secure data fabric. That's funny. When we first started thinking about this concept, data fabric, we're storytellers, and so the first thing we did was we were trying to figure out languaging around it. Is it a data fabric? Is it the data fabric?"

Then one day, DreamWorks Animation had an epiphany, Swanborg said.

"It's our data fabric," she said. "It's DreamWorks' data fabric. It's ours. It's the thing we have. We built it."

Every business has a data fabric it can leverage and optimize and make more efficient for better business outcomes, Swanborg said. Every data fabric is a collection of systems and workflows that provides storage, file delivery, protection and access in a high-volume, high-integrity and highly reliable way.

DreamWorks Animation also realized is its data fabric is not just one fabric, she said.

"Like most fabrics we understand in the world, it has layers," she said. "Onions have layers, our faces have layers, and our data fabric has layers. Four, in fact, we figure. Our four data fabric layers are production, protection, analytics and automation. Those four layers working in concert with one another gives us our infrastructure."

The production layer consists of file services and arrays to provide artists with on-demand access to their data to ensure they have the most reliable and integral data, she said. This is where the content, which is often irreplaceable, is created.

That leads to the protection layer, which needs to be more than just a backup window, Swanborg said.

"We are looking for near-instantaneous recovery time," she said. "And we are looking to avoid end-user issues or environmental disasters and therefore we protect and replicate our data with NetApp solutions, both on-premise and off-premise and the cloud."

The analytics layer is still a work in process, and DreamWorks Animation has yet to tap into is full potential, Swanborg said.

"But even in its infancy, it is helping us determine systems efficiencies and network performance in order to optimize when our artists get the data, where they get the data, ensuring that they have the best visual resources," she said. "And we're only delivering what they need when they need it."

Topping that off is the automation layer, which is critical to any business straining for resources, time and budget, Swanborg said.

"The automation layer of our data fabric is doing things like provisioning and other daily tasks, things that are routine but critical in our production pipelines so that our engineers don't have to focus on those things any longer," she said. "Our engineers are freed up to focus on far more complex tasks, and actually setting our technological strategies for the future."

It was fun to see Swanborg open the curtain on DreamWorks Animation's focus on data, said John Woodall, vice president of engineering at Integrated Archive Systems, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based solution provider and NetApp channel partner.

"As they've created what they call a 'digital factory,' as they create data as their product, the key point in her message was that, at any given point in time, 5 billion files are active in their estate," Woodall told CRN. "That's not 5 billion files in archive. That's 5 billion active files that are being worked on pretty much every day.”

DreamWorks has an infrastructure that lets any employee access that data any time of the day from any location, Woodall said.

"I don't know of a single vendor who could support that initiative with the seamlessness of what they built with the four layers of the data fabric they envisioned," he said. "There are several third-party products in that. But that's the whole point. The entire message was focused on, 'We built our own data fabric to meet our business' requirements, and that's what you can do.'"

The key here is that anyone can build a data fabric specific to their own needs, Woodall said.

"And NetApp is a huge enabler," he said. "In fact, it may be the only enabler that can do this at the scale and the speeds that these types of customers demand."

The scale Swanborg discussed is impressive, and it's only going to get bigger, Woodall said.

"And NetApp's front and center," he said. "She's saying, we can't do this without NetApp. I personally don't know of another traditional-ish company that can provide that. A lot of people can play in places of that. But nobody has this vision and the platform of the Data Fabric that they deliver on. If you really understood what she was saying, it's huge."

What DreamWorks Animation is doing with data is almost like pixie dust, said Ken Farber, president of ePlus Software, a Newtown, Pa.-based solution provider and NetApp channel partner and part of Fulton, Md.-based ePlus Technology.

"The massive amounts of data that they have to consume and digest and replay, that's crazy," Farber told CRN. "We should be going after them as a customer."

There are a lot of takeaways from Swanborg's presentation, Farber said.

"The availability they need, the number of departments using the data, the amount of data they consume, but the thing that resonated with me was the idea of technology as a paintbrush," he said. "That's just a great perspective beginning with who they are and what they do. The technology is really the paintbrush and the fabric of every company and what they create."

Swanborg really did talk about the reality of NetApp's Data Fabric, said John Reckner, ePlus Technology's director of data center solutions.

"She wove it all perfectly together," Reckner told CRN.