Mystery Box has been dreaming up the perfect DIT station for years now. There may not be one setup that checks ALL the boxes, but we’ve found a solution we’re happy with. Before we jump into the details, let’s talk specs:
2018 Mac mini (fully spec’d w/ 10GbE)
LTO 7 Drive
12TB SSD RAID (6x2TB)
OWC 8TB Thunderblade NVMe SSD RAID
Blackmagic Design Ultrastudio 4K
Sonnet dual RED mag reader
Angelbird Cfast 2.0 reader
Angelbird dual SD reader
Anker USB 3.0 hub
HDPlex 300W linear power supply
These components paired with Hedge as the offload software allow us to quickly dump footage to two SSD RAID arrays. If you haven’t checked out our post about the Thunderblade, you can do so here. Offloading two full 500GB RED mags simultaneously to both arrays takes about 15min. That’s 1TB of data being written twice in 15min! After a day of shooting, the footage is then written to tape and moved off-site, and when we get back to the office, we hook up the Mac mini to the server through 10GbE to backup there as well.
The Ultrastudio 4K allows us to monitor camera feeds and even send out camera signals to a Zoom call for clients to view remotely. Easy and clear imagery for remote access has played a large role in filming during the COVID-19 landscape this year.
All this tech has to be housed somewhere, and finding the right enclosure was harder than you might expect. While building out the kit, here’s what we prioritized:
Relatively small unit (needs to fit in the trunk of a car)
Limited amount of exposed power/data cables
Everything mounted securely in a contained unit
Easy but rugged port access
Until now, we’ve been using the Inovativ Scout to haul around our DIT kit. It’s an excellent cart, no doubt. When a production calls, we simply roll the cart up the ramp into the Sprinter van and it’s off to the races. Everything works beautifully... as long as the cart lives with the production van. But therein lies the problem. If someone wants to rent the DIT kit, or if a production only hires us for DIT services, do we give them the entire production vehicle too? Traditional carts only make sense if you can easily roll them into a vehicle. We want something that can be thrown into a trunk or back seat. Enter the bones of our kit; Inovativ’s Axis system. It’s pack-down size is MUCH smaller than traditional carts.
*To be clear, we haven’t been sponsored by Inovativ, we just love their gear.
The Axis system relies on a dove-tail plate with a Matthellini clamp. This quick-release system clamps onto any old combo stand making it easy to securely pop the entire DIT station on and off. No more reliance on the production van with a ramp. Now one person can easily pack the kit into the trunk of his or her sedan. As long as the grips can lend you a combo stand on set, you don’t even need to haul one of those around either!
Some of you might be thinking, “If size is a big concern… why not use a laptop?” An excellent question. We actually toyed with the idea of a laptop setup, but the biggest drawback is the mess of cables that inevitably follows. Cable clutter isn’t just aesthetics, it’s a potential data loss hazard. Card readers, storage devices, USB and Thunderbolt 3 hubs, LTO drives, and video capture cards all need lines for data and power, Having a proper enclosure for it all is a big deal for us.
With USB type-c and TB3 connections taking over as the standard, we have become increasingly protective of the ports on our machines. These tiny connections lack a locking mechanism and are begging someone to accidentally rip them out. This is one of the main reasons we were attracted to a rack mount solution. Just so happens, the Axis system has a 4U rack option. Here’s how we have it loaded out:
2018 Mac Mini in the Sonnet Rack Mac Mini
mLogic mRack DIT LTO-7
1U shelf for card readers (Sonnet Dual RED Mag, Angelbird CFAST 2.0, Angelbird Dual SD)
Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 4K thunderbolt 2
Rear mounted Anker USB 3.0 hub
Each of these devices (with the exception of the Angelbird readers) requires separate power, and uses a bulky power brick. To avoid the clutter and setup hassle involved with connecting all those bricks, we got rid of them and consolidated it all into one bundle (3 cables in a convenient cable loom) running to a linear power supply and UPS. The linear power supply from HDPLEX is a 300w beast, powering everything but the Mac Mini (which is going straight to the UPS). Now instead of 5 ugly power cables running down to the UPS with their equally obnoxious bricks, we have a single bundle running down to one large power supply, and it’s gorgeous.
As for those tiny TB3 cables, keeping everything within the rack enclosure ensures no one accidentally bumps into and damages cables sticking out of ports. TB3 is a fantastic hardware interface in terms of size and throughput. What it lacks is a robust and secure point of connection. There’s a reason the industry clings to dinosaurs like BNC connectors (which were designed in the 50’s). Fortunately there are some companies who have made locking mechanisms of their own to support TB3 connectors. Sonnet’s card readers all have a screw-in lock, and Angelbird’s readers utilized an elegant internal friction fit that we love. If you are shopping for a new TB3 device we would encourage you to look at how the cable connects to the device. Could save you from data loss.
*A quick note about the mLogic mRack DIT. We love the slim 1U case it comes in, but the original case was just a little too deep for the Axis rack, so we had to make a custom 1U case to make it fit. We worked with Protocase to fabricate the new one and were pleased with the outcome.
Speaking of rugged port connections, let’s take a look at the backplane of our DIT Kit. One downside of our rackmount enclosure is lack of access to all the ports. We frequently need access to the Mac Mini’s USB, TB3, HDMI, and 10Gb Ethernet ports and will also need access to the Ultrastudio’s SDI in/out and HDMI out. Innovativ has that covered too since the Axis enclosure has 4 rectangular cutouts and optional plates designed for use with neutrik style ports. With these plates we could make custom passthrough ports. To expand the USB 3.0 port, we added a hub that perfectly covered one of the cutouts. To mount it in place we designed a 3D printable cage. Now all the common connections are right there, on the back panel.
Unfortunately TB3 cannot be passed through, meaning access to the back of the Mac mini is still needed. For this reason the Mac mini was placed in the bottom 1U where a cutout in the enclosure allows us to reach those ports.
It’s not the smallest system, but it packs down nicely. The monitor lays face down on the desktop, while the UPS and power supply go into a separate pelican. It ends up being 3 pieces; the Axis enclosure, a pelican case, and a combo stand. Each piece is easy enough for one person to carry and could fit in the trunk of your college roommate’s Geo Metro. It’s a data wrangling beast, while keeping exposed cables to a minimum, and the most accessible ports are all secure locking cables.
Productions spend thousands of dollars and countless man-hours on each project. After the crew has wrapped and the day is done, there’s only one thing to show for all that investment; the data on your drives. Our DIT kit provides the peace of mind and assurance that the data is taken care of, while eliminating the most common points of human error. It’s a compact, secure, and streamlined solution, and we love it.