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April 12, 2022

SymplySPARK: Game changing RAID for indie film making

Making films is a challenge even at the best of times. But when you’re an indie crew funded almost entirely out of the director’s own pocket there’s all the more pressure to get things right.

Storage technology is at the heart of filmmaking. It’s not the first thing you think of, nor is there an Academy Award for it, but without high performance storage films just wouldn’t exist. Independent filmmakers Jonnie Howard and Mikey Kowalczyk know this fact first hand. Their debut feature film, Harvey Greenfield Is Running Late, is due for release in 2023 and they’re pulling favours from all directions to get it made.“The film is based on a play by Cambridge writer, Paul Richards,” says producer Mikey. “It’s the story of a man running late for the world’s busiest day and who’s tasked with saving analogue print media at the publisher he works for.”

Time and Money

It’s a feeling that the filmmakers themselves know all too well. As does anyone who’s worked on a low budget passion project. “The two things I’m trying to balance are time and money,” adds Mikey.

Budget is king when it comes to films. It’s unfashionable to say, but without it there’s simply no project to make. Any production has some form of funding thrown behind it – even if it’s shot on a phone. What’s important for indie films is to make the available budget stretch as far as it can – by pulling in favours. Or creating new ones.

“I spoke with Oggi Tomic – a BAFTA winning filmmaker based in Cambridge,” comments director Jonnie Howard. “And he introduced us to Global Distribution to help us make something that had a budget of a few thousand pounds look like it had hundreds of thousands.”

Global Distribution is a UK-based distributor specialising in technology for the media and entertainment industry. They provided the crew with a RED Digital Cinema RANGER GEMINI 5K camera, which was used for principal photography, and a series of peripherals including an Atomos Shogun 7 and Hedbox NERO V-Lock batteries to power the RANGER.

“The connection with Global Distribution completely made the quality of what we produced,” Mikey says. “We’re up there with the big dogs now. We’re playing the real game of making films and can be taken seriously.”

But it wasn’t until a few days in that the real game changer came along.

“We were a few days into shooting and had already bought some drives for backing up the footage,” muses Jonnie. “But we knew that there might be something special bubbling away in the background.”

That something was a pre-production unit of the SymplySPARK – a personal Thunderbolt 3 RAID that was, at that time, still in the final stages of development at Symply.

“The first couple of days we were using those portable drives it was taking us a couple of hours to copy footage. Then we got the SymplySPARK,” Jonnie enthuses. “We started copying over our rushes and it was like, ‘OK you’re going to take longer to drink your coffee than it is to copy these files’ – it was an absolute game changer to have something of that speed on set with us.”

SymplySPARK: Robust, serviceable RAID

Everything about the SPARK is designed for speed and ease of use. It’s built using a lightweight, tough metal alloy enclosure to withstand the demands of being both on set and in the studio, and it ships in an impact resistant wheeled carry case by NANUK. And although the pre-production model that the Harvey Greenfield team were using didn’t have the case they had no qualms about taking it with them.

“It’s just so portable – it’s even got a handle and it’s so light,” Jonnie says. “It’s asking you to take it between locations. It looks like it can be driven over by a Jeep – I’m not going to, I’m not saying you should, but when it looks like it can take it that’s a good sign.”

SymplySPARK is built with the real-world needs of film crews in mind. Try as we may there are always unforeseen events that mean moving quickly or changing up the schedule. Especially on indie projects. It’s something that the development team at Symply is very aware of, which is why the SPARK is designed with a locator pin at the back of all its HDD bays and a thumbscrew lock on the front to secure the drives at all times. Drives won’t come loose in transit so there’s no more rebuilding of RAID configurations or worrying about loss of data due to damage.

But it’s not just the drive bays that have had some core focus. One of the biggest issues with shuttle drives is that they’re built as one single unit – designed to access the drive bays and nothing else. SPARK enables users to easily field service both the fan and power assembly – the two most common causes of device failure in competitor portable RAIDs and shuttles.Users have the option to invest in a SymplySAM (Self Assist Maintenance) kit, which includes a spare fan, power assembly, and drive module as well as the only tool needed to fit them (a simple PH4 screwdriver). All supplied in a protective, yet compact, NANUK hand-carry case.

Into the edit

With dual Thunderbolt 3 ports featuring power delivery, the SymplySPARK has one of the fastest universal connections for editing and offloading footage. When used on set, DITs can power laptops directly from the SPARK to save on cabling. In the edit suite, it means that Harvey Greenfield’s editor, Catherine Ashenden, could access footage at the fastest speeds possible.

SPARK’s whisper-quiet fan keeps editors and sound mixers focussed on the task at hand. Coming in at under 45 dB the noise produced by SPARK is quieter than rainfall and not much louder than a library. An easy-to-access lights out mode is also useful for colorists wanting to prevent any impact on their work from exterior lighting.

“When the SymplySPARK arrived I knew this was the real deal,” comments Catherine. “And 144 TB of storage is more than enough for our project.”

SPARK is available in four capacities, from 48 TB up to 144 TB, and there’s even a unique SPARK XT verion that utilizes Seagate’s MACH.2 multi-actuator HDDs to deliver SSD levels of performance without compromising on capacity (112 TB) or incurring any notable increase in cost.

“It’s so fast connected over Thunderbolt,” adds Catherine. “I can work with all of our 5K REDCODE RAW footage without any trouble.”

A brand to remember

With the second leg of shooting for Harvey Greenfield Is Running Late due in July 2022 the team is looking forward to wrapping up the production. The first rough cuts have been watched, and the comedy resonates where it should.

And the quality of the footage is really having an impact. What makes that impact possible is the speed and versatility of the storage behind the production. Offloading camera media and reviewing shots on location became effortless – taking storage along and not panicking about it at all. And having the speed to work up an edit quickly.

“Having the SymplySPARK took a load of my mind,” Jonnie concludes. “You don’t want to fret about storage and backup – it’s too important. So when you have something like the SymplySPARK you don’t have to worry about that.”

“100% we’ll use it again,” Mikey adds. “It would be my priority to get SymplySPARK on future projects.”

Watch out for Harvey Greenfield Is Coming Late in 2023.


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