Dell EMC Isilon Storage Propels Digital Filmmaker’s Creation of Totally Virtual Movies



Instant data access ensured throughout production process

  • Lightstorm’s Virtual Production process generates vast amounts of data that can easily overwhelm storage systems.

  • The company’s success depends on instant access to all of its data.

  • Enormous power, flexibility and expandability of Dell EMC Isilon storage clears path for creation of the next generation of high-resolution, virtual movies.


Lightstorm Entertainment was founded by Academy Award-winning filmmaker James Cameron. It is best known for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic, and the virtual production blockbuster Avatar. The company’s groundbreaking all-digital movies demand flexible, scalable, high-powered storage to handle vast amounts of data and serve up high-resolution files in sub-second timeframes. Isilon storage makes that possible.

The virtual production process begins with the creation of thousands of virtual assets – from plants to planets – which come together in one of the world’s largest motion capture volumes, an aircraft hangar-sized facility with hundreds of digital cameras suspended overhead.  Actors perform their scenes using physical mockups of sets and wire-frame props while their motion, facial expressions and reference video are recorded to disk.  This motion is mapped – live – to virtual creatures, characters and environments – providing the director with a real-time view into an impossible world.  This process is the genesis of what will later be refined and rendered into the fantastic story of Pandora.

Tim Bicio, Lightstorm’s Chief Technology Officer, explains, “As we start creating the Avatar sequels, making Jim Cameron’s amazing stories come to life means everything has to be authentic. We’re making a world that doesn’t exist but has to seem completely real. To accomplish that, we’re pushing our technology to capture high frame rates, high resolution, and stereo.  We usually generate more data than expected, so Isilon’s easy scalability is essential. When I need more storage, I simply add more blades.”

The company uses Dell EMC SyncIQ software to replicate Isilon storage between its primary and remote data centers. A total of 9.5 petabytes of Isilon storage is deployed between the five sites.

File system organization and access is key to optimizing the process - “Our creative people can’t wait three or four days while we search for something on a backup tape,” Bicio says. “All data has to be online all the time, whether it’s stored near line, offsite, or in the cloud. Isilon storage delivers anything the artists need on demand.”

He adds, “The native tools built into Isilon make it extremely simple to operate and maintain. That translates into some impressive cost and time savings.”