The BBC’s Digital Media Initiative

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The British Broadcasting Corporation – better known as the BBC – may well be laying the groundwork for how broadcast networks operate in the coming decade. Over the past five years, the BBC has played the role of digital pioneer, employing cost-effective desktop solutions and embracing many new media concepts. The cornerstone of these new concepts is the Digital Media Initiative, which not only encompasses an interest in the use of low-cost, open architecture technology, but also the directive that any program should take all forms of media into account, not just television broadcast.

 

The BBC has recently organized itself into four major divisions. These include Journalism (news and sport), Audio and Music (the radio stations and music programming on both radio and TV), Vision (TV networks, drama and documentary program production and facilities) and Future Media and Technology (websites, mobile, video on demand, IT and infrastructure). As a broadcaster, the BBC operates eight national TV networks with fourteen regional feeds, as well as fourteen national and 45 local radio stations. The news operation is the second largest worldwide after CNN and media rich bbc.co.uk offers the largest web presence in Europe with two billion page impressions per month. As in the US, the UK is in a transition to digital transmission and 2012 is slated as the year to pull the plug on the analog broadcast services. Currently, more than 50% of the homes receive digital TV, albeit as a standard definition 625-line signal. The BBC and other UK broadcasters have been transmitting in the 16×9 aspect ratio for several years now, although the BBC currently only has one preview channel operating in high definition. Since the BBC is a public corporation that is funded through an annual license fee paid by all TV owners, they are under constant pressure to operate in a fiscally prudent manner and have been investigating ways to cut costs and streamline operations. One form of this is to outsource certain operations, such as their playout infrastructure to Red Bee Media, a company that was spun off to handle all transmission, broadcast playout, subtitling and promotion production for the BBC.

 

The BBC is embracing new media platforms and one example is an IP on-demand service to be launched soon. This will start as 400 hours/week and grow to as much as 700 hours/week. It comes with an interesting business model. The first seven days are free, then from the eighth day up to five years you will have to purchase the program, after which time it will be available for free again out of an archive. As an embrace of mobile viewing habits, I noticed that the BBC’s morning news program Breakfast was available for download as a video podcast. There is also a deal in the works with Virgin Mobile to deliver BBC 1 and 2 and the News 24 service as streaming media to cell phones and other mobile platforms.

 

Horses for Courses

 

I spent some time discussing the BBC’s future with several senior production and technical staff this fall at the BBC’s Broadcast Centre in the White City section of London. Although their pilot testing of Apple’s technology has been discussed by many online pundits and in various Internet forums, I found that the truth is really a matter of the appropriate tool for the task – or as the English say, horses for courses. For example, the London news operation is built around a Quantel sQ Server news solution with about 2,000 journalists and news editors connected to Quantel sQ Cut and sQ Edit client software. A new regional Scotland production and broadcast complex currently under construction, code-named Pacific Quay, will use an end-to-end Avid newsroom solution including a fair amount of Avid’s new Isis shared storage.

 

According to Paul Cheesbrough, Technology Controller for Production at the BBC, “We are really looking for the most cost-effective, open solutions that don’t compromise on service and quality. We have strong tier one partners in Apple and Avid, but as we move forward to replace legacy facilities, the goal is to use technology that best fits our mandate of 360 degree commissioning. That’s a term we use to indicate that any programming should work across all media platforms, whether that’s radio, the web, an iPod or television. Production and post technology have to serve that goal, so we are looking at digital, IT-friendly, tapeless products and solutions. Right now Apple appears to fit into our corporate network the best and Final Cut Pro is a good fit for long form programming; but in the case of hard news, Avid has a proven product line from ingest to playout, which made the most sense in Pacific Quay. I’d have to characterize us as an Avid house here at the Broadcast Centre, but as we refresh older technology, in many cases Apple will get the nod.”

 

The Broadcast Centre

 

The White City studio complex is home to about 60 Apple Final Cut Pro suites connected to local as well as Apple Xsan shared storage. Of these about three or four are finishing/online-editing suites, while the remainder are simple cutting rooms. More advanced color grading or post production sound mixing in special cases is outsourced to one of the many Soho post houses in London. Phil Checkland, Head of Production and Planning for BBC Factual and Learning joined our discussion. Factual and Learning is a programming group within the BBC responsible for long form documentary and entertainment programming. “We’ve been involved in a test called the Creative Desktop for a while now. In the past, we would go out-of-house at high hourly post rates for all of this editing. Our target is to save £ 1 Million a year by bringing the editing in-house. The time is scheduled through BBC Resources, so we are in effect their client. At the moment, the cutting rooms are running at 90% utilization, which will be a significant savings. As we started exposing more producers to desktop editing, we decided it was important to keep craft editors involved, since their skills are so important. We added training programs to help the transition to Final Cut Pro. Our creative teams are really a combination of producers and editors working together.”

 

In the States, even the most pro-Avid editor or facility owner will grudgingly admit that Final Cut Pro is up to the task of delivering shows to air, but for its champions inside the BBC, it seems that work is still needed. Phil continued, “Ironically, many folks still think of Final Cut Pro as a producer’s toy or something you do your kids’ movies with. Not all of the producers took to the new ways at first. In the past they’d get to go to a nice, plush Soho post house at a high rate, but that’s changed. Admittedly our rooms are more functional, but most really enjoy that they aren’t tied to the clock and can really spend the time to get the best product. We are now at the conclusion of the Creative Desktop trial and know it works, so the plan going forward is to implement what we’ve learned.”

 

According to Paul and Phil, most of the editing done these days is at full resolution. There is no need to bring in dailies at low resolution and then batch capture at a higher resolution for final output, since the media doesn’t stay on the drives that long. There is adequate Xsan shared storage, so producers can always work at the final resolution for air. In an interesting twist, the BBC doesn’t actually own these systems. Electronics giant Siemens holds the contract for IT support at the BBC. Since desktop computers are technically an IT purchase, the Macs and software for these Final Cut Pro suites are actually supplied and maintained as part of the IT contract – another part of the BBC’s business that has recently been outsourced. BBC Resources is also able to book BBC facilities for outside clients. If the BBC’s internal production staff doesn’t use the studio or suites, other producers can book them, as well. In fact, both staff and outside producers pitch shows to the various programming arms of the BBC, and 25% (up to as high as 50%) are given the green light to be produced by other production vendors. This also includes co-production deals, such as those between the BBC and Discovery. 

 

Sports Production

 

As in most broadcast operations the sports department has its own set of requirements. Jim Irving, Senior Producer, BBC Sport explained, “Our editing revolves around getting to air quickly. Our shows master to Digibeta, the producers do a paper cut and then there is a direct online edit, which typically happens in an Avid Media Composer Adrenaline bay here at the BBC. We are actually the largest client for BBC Resources – providing about 40% of their post business. Our biggest special concern is the library. Sport production has different needs for archiving than a general tape library, because we rely so much on quickly finding highlights of past events and performances. We are currently designing the specs for our new library. Archival material will be MPEG2 now and later move to 50Mbps MPEG4, as well as proxies.” Currently most of sports production is recorded on tape. According to Paul and Jim, they are looking at both Panasonic’s P2 and Thomson’s Infinity products, but there’s a policy against using Sony XDCAM-HD.  Paul pointed out, “We like P2 because the concept of solid state simply seems better. XDCAM-HD is an interim technology and we’d rather avoid that. As commodity pricing drives the cost of solid state storage down, that will be the best option in the long run.”

 

The BBC’s strategy is to have all production moved to high definition video by 2010, but there is apparently no edict regarding 720p versus 1080i or 1080p. Any HD standard the producer feels is appropriate for the production is acceptable to the BBC. One consideration is co-production, so even if the BBC doesn’t need an HD version today, the co-production partner might and that will determine the production format of choice. The BBC’s Creative Desktop and Digital Media Initiative are just another example of how an industry leader is tackling the challenges faced by broadcasters worldwide. If successful, plenty will copy the approach of this digital pioneer.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

Central and West Florida Film & Video Production Spotlight, Part II

Area Producers Stay on the Edge with Innovative Technology

 
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The big technology story for the production community is high definition video. By Federal Communications Commission regulations, all US television stations have to convert to digital transmission, but this doesn’t mean high definition TV. Many affiliates will choose to pass through the HD network signal, but continue standard definition NTSC broadcasts for local news, syndicated programs, and of course, commercials. This is all perfectly legal but means that it will be a long time before local advertisers will see their creative gems in splendid HD glory. Yet, many area production companies are shooting with HD cameras and edit houses are adding HD post suites. Why?

 

The answer is threefold. First of all, some HD camcorders can capture images at the film-like rate of 24 frames per second (referred to as 24P) versus video’s 30fps.  Although there are standard definition cameras that also offer this option, shooting in HD today adds shelf life to the future of the footage. Secondly, many producers work in other genres than 30-second commercials. These alternatives include broadcast and special venue videos that are adopting HD more quickly that the commercial world as well as directors who want to try their hand at digital independent filmmaking. But the third and most important reason is cost.

 

Thanks in part to Apple and Panasonic, this is the year for low cost HD post. It is now possible to shoot HD with a Panasonic VariCam, transfer that footage over FireWire into an Apple PowerBook or G5 computer and edit true high definition footage on a personal computer. In fact, Apple offered this new feature as a free upgrade to Final Cut Pro 4 owners, back in April. By the end of the year, Avid Xpress Pro, Sony Vegas, Adobe Premiere Pro, Pinnacle Liquid and other nonlinear editing software will offer similar capabilities.

 

There has been a huge explosion of new editing systems installed in the central Florida market, mainly due to the release of inexpensive Apple Final Cut Pro software, along with inexpensive HD hardware from companies like AJA and Pinnacle Systems. Bob Zelin (Rescue 1, Inc.) has built HD editing systems for CDB Productions, Adrenaline Films and Transcontinental Records, with several more companies about to enter the HD arena. Zelin comments, “ The acceptance of the AJA Io box, a $2000 piece of hardware that allows any Mac G5 to create broadcast quality video, has been incorporated by many of my established clients. Almost 100% of my clients have expressed interest in getting involved in this new way of doing post production.”

 

Tim Bartlett, Adrenaline Film’s general manager, adds, “Adrenaline Films has continued to make significant investments in HD technology. These investments include an HD nonlinear edit system built around Final Cut Pro and the AJA Kona HD card. One of the more diverse investments that we have made is the purchase of an Amphibico Amphibicam underwater housing designed for our Sony HD cameras.”

 

Emerge Media also brings clients a firm commitment to HD. Ray Combs, one of the partners at Emerge tells me, “Local commercials are not immune to the power of HD. We shot and posted a series of commercials for Orlando Infiniti at Chapman-Leonard Studios using the Panasonic VariCam, as well as a series of HD spots for Mercedes Benz of South Orlando, all of which are airing locally.” HD has been strong in the indie film market, giving a boost to Emerge’s post in HD.  Combs elaborated, “In April, Emerge Media performed the high definition edit for the feature film, Redemption, using Pinnacle’s CineWave HD hardware and Apple’s Final Cut Pro editing software. Redemption premiered in South Florida at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. Selected showings were projected in high definition proving that HD is a viable format for theatrical films.”

 

The same trend can be found in Tampa. Naked Eye Editorial is expanding into a new location and with this move is adding a second suite based on Final Cut Pro. I asked owner/editor Rick Bennett whether he was simply adding Final Cut Pro or making it an HD suite. Rick told me that, “Yes, it’s the real deal – Final Cut Pro HD software with the Kona 2 card as well as the Panasonic AJ-HD1200A VTR. We’ll start with the basic FCP set-up, then add the VTR by end of year. A very good client of mine just purchased the Panasonic HD camera. I have cut some stuff shot on the Sony HD camera and, for my money, the Panasonic looks just as good, if not better.”

 

Look is everything, of course, and many producers are now shooting with HD cameras because they offer a film-like look at a far lower cost – even if the end result is, for now, still standard definition. ImageROCKS executive producer Jim DeRusha has shot several spots during recent months with the Sony 24P camera. “What I’ve found is that true tape-to-tape color-correction is necessary to enhance 24P to more of a film look. It’s less expensive than film, so 24P is a great tool if the budget is limited and there is short turnaround.”

 

The Sony versus Panasonic battles ranges in HD as it has in every other arena the two have challenged each other. Many area shooters have plenty of time with Sony cameras, but the Panasonic VariCam is gaining new converts daily. In fact, I’d guess that Florida probably has more VariCam owners than Sony CineAlta HD camera owners. David Nixon Productions has been using the VariCam for a couple of years. David tells me about some of their experiences with the camera. “We’ve just bought the P+S Technik Pro35 Digital Image Converter. This enables us to utilize 35mm film lenses on our VariCam. The ‘look’ of this system is so much like 35mm film that it’s uncanny. The engineers at P+S Technik figured out that if you increase the target area up to 35mm, you can gain a shallow depth-of-field. So to do that, they have built a mirror system that bounces the image up to 35mm in size and projects it on an actual 35mm ground glass. This system is mated on the front of the VariCam and then you mount a 35mm lens (such as Panavision or Zeiss) to create the classic ‘look’ of 35mm film, where only the subject is in focus and everything else is out of focus. It really works!”

 

“We’ve just completed two projects with this system. The first was a standard definition project for Disney. They wanted to create the look of a film trailer, so this system was perfect. Not only did it look like we shot on 35mm film, but we were able to create the very dramatic look of a feature with radical focus shifts and very tight depth-of-field focus to keep the background soft. The second was a feature length dramatic film. By shooting on the VariCam with the Pro35 and Panavision lenses, the audience in the theatre will never know the movie wasn’t shot on 35mm film….and it saved the producers thousands of dollars in film and processing costs. This project is being cut on HD right now, and will go to a 35mm print for theatrical release. This will sell the ‘film look’ even more by gaining the texture and grain of the film print.”

 

o2 Pictures jumped also into the hi-def world with their own purchase of a Panasonic 24p VariCam. The camera was used extensively on a project for Disney Vacation Club that required shooting DVC members in their own homes all over the country. “We’ve been shooting almost non-stop since we bought the camera, and I’m incredibly impressed with the image quality” said director DanO’Loane. Much of the hi-def imagery is currently on display at the new sales center at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. “We created a whole new multi-media experience for the guests and the sales team. So we’ve had a chance to really branch out this year, both with the kind of work we’re being asked to do, and the way we’re doing it. It’s pretty exciting”. 

Whether it’s for creative or budgetary reasons, area producers and post houses are poised to be at the forefront of digital film and video technology, bringing cost-effective innovation to their clients. With costs coming down and the economy heating up, the year ahead looks good indeed. 

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Create magazine

Central and West Florida Film & Video Production Spotlight, Part I

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In a word – diversification – best describes the strategies being applied by area production and post professionals. Diversity in projects and new technology keep Orlando, Tampa and the surrounding communities hopping with productions that include reality television, independent feature films, infomercials and, of course, television commercials.

 

The Metro Orlando Film and Entertainment Commission has relaunched its website (www.filmorlando.com) with new features, such as a section where people can “list their property” for locations. This should be great for producers like Philadelphia-based Banyan Productions, which last year shot the entire series of Trading Spaces Home Free in this region, choosing eight metro Orlando couples to compete for a new home. In addition, Banyan also taped several episodes of the regular hit series Trading Spaces, as well as another series, Perfect Proposal, in and around central Florida. It’s not all about reality TV, though. Part of the Film Commission’s website redesign includes an Industry Resource section powered by ProductionHub.com for up-to-date information on industry jobs, events and seminars.

 

Central Florida continues to be a favorite of film producers. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions shot for several days in Orlando and neighboring counties for the upcoming ABC movie-of-the-week, Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Halle Berry. This was a two-year effort in location scouting and permitting and about fifty local crew members were hired for the production. Central Florida made the national spotlight at the past Oscars, when Charlize Theron picked up the Best Actress win for her portrayal of convicted killer Aileen Wornos in Monster. As a central Florida story, Monster required such key locations as the Seminole County Courthouse, the Diamond Motel in Kissimmee, Fun World and general shots in downtown Orlando.

 

About seventy-five percent of the crew was local, including Stephen F. Campbell, an area film and television director of photography, who served as the “A” camera operator on Monster. Steve commented, “For me the most amazing part of the experience was while I was watching Charlize’s performance through the lens, it was mesmerizing to see her portray the character of Aileen Wornos. We would do a take and I would say to writer/director Patty Jenkins, ‘she’s become that woman!’ We were able to provide the LA-based production team with a central Florida-based, technically and creatively inspired crew that is on par with any in the country.  Along with being the ‘A’ operator on the show, the opportunity to DP for a few days allowed me to work very closely with Oscar winner Charlize Theron, director Patty Jenkins and to have a creative participation on an Academy Award winning picture.”

 

Local production companies have been staying the course to grow their business. HB Production Services is now in its eighth year offering a mix of production, post and marketing savvy. HB Production Services, together with producer/director Joseph P. Torina of Torina Media, Inc., has produced eight infomercial projects which are currently airing in over twenty markets throughout North America each week. For these clients, the team develops the script, shoots “real people” segments all over the country and keeps two newly installed Avid Media Composer Adrenaline bays busy fine-tuning the finished stories. According to Harry Brockman, president of HB Production Services, this is balanced out with post and fulfillment for over 250 commercial spots. These are posted in HB’s linear editing suite, which has proven to hold its value, because of the real-time compositing and short turnaround required.

 

i.d.e.a.s. at the Disney-MGM Studios is moving beyond the traditional boundaries of commercials and entertainment television. In the past year they produced Courage, Colorado, a show that is part marketing, part reality TV. Greg Galloway, VP of Entertainment for i.d.e.a.s., tells me that, “Courage Colorado - two thirty-minute episodes, shot entirely in high definition – is part of a new reality-based program designed to help fulfill the dreams of a family or group of friends each week by taking them on an adventure in Colorado. The first two episodes starred the Van Eerden family from Greensboro, North Carolina, who visited various Colorado adventure spots during the ten days of production. The family participated in activities ranging from an authentic cattle drive to whitewater rafting to rock climbing. Courage Colorado was produced by i.d.e.a.s. in association with Orlando-based Skydog Productions, the marketing firms of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell and PRACO (Colorado Springs). The two episodes aired numerous times over the past two months on the Outdoor Life Network.”

 

Speaking of outdoors, Florida is host to many major water sports competitions and leisure activities. Capitalizing on this is World Productions, the television division of Winter Park-based World Publications, publishers of such magazine titles as Waterski magazine. Headed up by executive producer Ken Kavanaugh, World Productions currently produces Sport Fishing Magazine (Outdoor Life Network), Hook The Future (Fox Sports Net) and the Mastercraft Pro Wakeboard Tour TV series for ESPN. World handles full location production and post on these projects and also makes its facilities available for hire to outside clients.

 

The commercial world continues to rebound. John Dussling, GM at longtime central Florida production company Florida Film & Tape, reports the spot business has been quite strong in the last year. “We produced a series of commercials for Valencia Community College in conjunction with VCC’s Marketing Department. In their own words, the students’ passion for their studies was a key to the success of the commercials. With the PUSH agency, we produced several Addy Award-winning commercials for Florida Citrus Sports to promote Orlando’s two major college football bowl games: the Tangerine Bowl and the Citrus Bowl. The humorous theme, Right In Your Own Backyard, featured a football-dressed character and a tangerine-clad character swinging on a swing set; bouncing on a trampoline; and running through a lawn sprinkler …right in your own backyard.”

 

Alphawolf Entertainment, another stalwart of the Orlando commercial scene, saw quite a few changes this year, including moving into a new location within the Celebration community and an official name change from Alphawolf Entertainment to imageROCKS. As if this wasn’t enough, executive producer Jim DeRusha and producer/director Jack Tinsley have been quite busy with spots for The Golf Channel, Orlando Utilities Commission, Florida Lottery, Hasbro, Mississippi Development and Hughes Supply. Disney has been a traditional client of DeRusha’s and this year saw the production of various promos and interstitials to promote the new EPCOT attraction, Mission Space. These have included working with a number of celebrities like Tiger Woods, Buz Aldrin, Roger Clemens and Pudge Rodriquez.

 

Several companies either expanding or on the move are Gate Seven Creative Studios, Digitec and Eagle Productions. Along with moving literally across the street, Digitec has also upgraded audio and video post facilities, added another DVD authoring station and expanded interactive services to support their new customized software and hardware product offerings. These new services include online instructional design, with an emphasis on game-based learning, with or without Digitec’s Knowledge Direct WEB software product (an easy-to-use learning management system).  Content design and development services support Digitec’s V-Wall product, an array of  flat-panel video monitors that can display up to sixteen synchronized channels of video and audio.

 

Eagle has upgraded its new facilities to include a full Adobe-based video suite with Premiere Pro editing and Encore DVD authoring. They’ve recently produced 275 science videos as part of series of DVDs for a New York educational publishing company. In an innovative use of the web, Eagle used Flash Communication Server and Flash to make near-real-time client approvals feasible during the shooting stage of the production.

 

Gate Seven upgraded both Avid Media Composer suites and added a third Avid Symphony system. In addition they’ve entered into an in-house partnership with AniMill to offer design, animation and effects services. Business for Gate Seven has been brisk with spot work for Universal’s Revenge of the Mummy – the Ride campaign, promos for Sunshine Network and a series of vignettes for the Speed Channel.

 

The past year has been busy for Kent Vanderberg, president of Elite Film + Video (formerly Elite Digital Video). The new name reflects the fact that in the past year film has increasingly been their production format, along with video. Last November Kent directed a corporate image film for Virginia-based Computer Science Corporation, picking up a Gold Addy for the effort. Along with a heavy schedule of presentations for Siemens Medical Solutions and events at Disney, Kent had a chance to return to his first love, live concert events.  Seven cameras and 24-track audio covered the onstage action during a wild night at Ybor City’s Twilight Club, where performances by The Verve Pipe’s Brian VanderArk and New Orleans-based Cowboy Mouth rocked the house. Both bands are negotiating the release of concert DVDs from the material.

 

22A Productions has found success in handling projects outside of the US. As an in-house production management team that is part of the Universal Studios Production Group, 22A, headed by Charlie Krestul, coordinates and produces various internal and external jobs. These have included a 3D film based on Sesame Street for Universal Japan, producing commercials for Wet & Wild and various outside commercials. When I say outside, I mean that! The 22A management team has recently produced international commercials for Praxis and Chocomel in Australia and Missing Witness in Africa.

 

One of west central Florida’s largest media facilities, Tampa Digital Studios, has seen projects increase four-fold during the past year. Notable projects include commercials and direct response spots for Sam Seltzer’s Steakhouse, Florida Digital Technologies, Kuhn Volkswagen and others. Tampa Digital Studios has moved towards CD-ROM and DVD production as a substitute for VHS duplication. Specific projects handled by Tampa Digital include a paint ball DVD by Focus TV and Workouts For Women Inc. In response to the rising film and video production taking place in the Tampa Bay area, Tampa Digital Studios has added two new Avid editing suites and expanded its graphics and animation department, now providing clients with 3D and 2D motion graphics. The new capabilities were used to create the 15-second opening graphics package for six one-hour special programs of American Muscle Car, aired weekly on the Speed Channel.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Create magazine

Compression Tips For The Web

One of the many new disciplines editors have to know is how to properly compress and encode video for presentations on the Internet or as part of CD-ROMs. Often this may be for demo reels or client approval copies, but it could also be for final presentations within PowerPoint, Director or another presentation application. The objective is to get the encoded program down to the smallest file size yet maintain as much of the original quality as possible.

 

Everyone has their own pet software or player format to recommend, but the truth of the matter is that it is unlikely that you will encode your video into a format that absolutely everyone can read without the need to download an additional player that they might have to install. The most common player formats include QuickTime, Windows Media, Real Player, Flash and the embedded media player that AOL bundles into their own software. Within each of these, there are also codec and size options that vary depending on how current a version you are targeting.

 

Modern formats, such as MPEG 4, Windows Media 9, QuickTime with Sorenson 3 and others may look great, but they frequently only run on the newest versions of these players. If your client has an older Windows 98 PC or an OS 9 Mac, it’s doubtful that they can play the latest and greatest software. You should also be aware that not all encoded results are equal. Some formats look awesome at standard medium-to-large video sizes, but don’t look good at all when you get down to a really small window size. The opposite is also true. Here are some guidelines that will let you target the largest possible audience.

 

Size and frame rate

 

The first thing to tackle when encoding for the web is the image size and frame rate. Standard definition video is 720 x 486 (480 for DV) pixels (rectangular aspect), which equates to a web size of 640 x 480 pixels (square aspect). This is considered a “large” window size for most web pages. Scaling the image down reduces the file size, so commonly used smaller sizes are 320 x 240 (“medium”), 192 x 144 and 160 x 120 (“small”). These sizes aren’t absolute. For instance, if your finished program is letterboxed, why waste file size on the black top and bottom bars? If your encoding software permits cropping, you could export these files in other sizes, such as 300 x 200 or 160 x 90 pixels. Another way to reduce the file size is to reduce the frame rate. Video runs at 29.97 fps but due to the progressive display and refresh rates of computer CRTs and flat panels, there is often little harm done in cutting this down to 15 fps or sometimes even 10 fps or lower.

 

Reducing the image size and frame rate is a matter of juggling the reduction of file size with playback that is still easily viewed and doesn’t lose the message you are trying to convey. If you are encoding for a CD-ROM instead of the web, then size is less of an issue. Here you may wish to maintain the full frame rate (29.97) so that your motion stays fluid, as long as most CPU speeds can support the size and rate you choose. For instance, a 320 x 240 file should play fine on most machines with a 200 MHz or faster CPU; however, if this same file is playing back from within another application, like an HTML page displayed in a web browser or PowerPoint, some CPU overhead will be lost to this host program. This means that the same file which plays fine outside of the host application, might tend to drop frames when playing back inside of another application.

 

Formats and players

 

There are a lot of conflicting opinions on this subject, but I tend to go for what is a common denominator and provides quality playback. For this reason, I tend to stick with formats like QuickTime (Photo-JPEG codec), Windows Media 7 and Real Player. MPEG 1 and 4 are supposed to be playable on nearly everything, but I haven’t found that to be true. I love the way Sorenson 3 (QuickTime) looks, but it requires QuickTime 5 or newer. If you encode in one of the previous three I mentioned, which are somewhat older, odds are that nearly any machine out there will be able to play these files or will be able to download a simple player in that format that works on a wide range of Mac and Windows PCs. Although Photo-JPEG is generally not considered a playback codec, the advance of CPU speeds lets these files play quite fluidly and the codec lends itself to controllable encoding – meaning, less voodoo to get a good image.

 

If you are putting a file up for anyone to see, like a demo reel, then you will probably have to create a version in each of these three player formats. If you are encoding for a single client and you know what they can play, then only one version is needed. As an example, a typical :30 commercial encoded with QuickTime (Photo-JPEG at about 50% quality) at a size of 320 x 240 (29.97 fps) will yield a file size of around 10 to 15MB. This is fine for approval quality, but a bit large when you multiply that for a longer demo reel on your website. Cutting down the image size and frame rate and using a lossier codec, will let you squeeze a demo reel of several minutes into that same space.

 

Interlacing and filtering

 

Interlaced video doesn’t look good on computer displays and doesn’t compress efficiently. Some programs let you export single fields only or let you apply de-interlacing filters. I recommend you use one of these options to get better results especially when there is a lot of motion. The one caveat is text. De-interlacing often trashes graphics and text, since half the visual information is tossed out. Generally, you get a better web look if your footage is based on a single-field export. Additionally, some encoding applications include noise reduction and image correction filters. I tend to stay away from these, but a touch of noise reduction won’t hurt. This will prefilter the image prior to compressing, which often results in better-looking and more efficient compression. Adding filters lengthens the encode time, so if you need a fast turnaround, you will probably want to disable any filters.

 

Constant versus variable bit-rate encoding

 

Like encoding for DVDs, many compression applications permit you to choose and adjust settings for constant (one-pass) and variable (one or two-pass) bit-rate encoding. I prefer constant bit-rate encoding because variable bit-rate often makes fades and dissolves look quite “blocky”. Constant also gives you a better look when transitioning between static graphics or frames and motion. The downside is that you will have to use a lower average rate to get comparable results in file size. Not all codecs give you this option, but when they do, it will often take a bit of trial-and-error to determine which rates look best and to decide how often to place keyframes (usually a slider in the software or a number value).

 

Audio

 

Remember that audio is a major component of your program. You can cut done your video by quite a lot, but at some point audio is taking up even more space than the video and needs to be compressed as well. Tackle this in several ways. First, change your stereo audio to a single track of mono audio. The difference is minor and often stereo channels don’t seem to encode well, introducing all sorts of phase errors. Next, drop your sampling rate. You probably edited the show using a rate of 44.1 or 48 kHz. On most programs, you can successfully drop this to 22 kHz without really affecting the sound quality heard on most computer speakers. Do not drop the bit-depth. Reducing the bit-depth from 16-bit (typical) to 8-bit will create some very undesirable audio. Finally, add compression. Most codecs include some typical audio compression schemes, which all players can decode. A compression ratio of 4:1 is common and hardly noticed.

 

Software

 

Choosing the best application to encode/compress your footage gets down to learning curve, comfort factor, speed, preference and whether you are on a Mac or PC. Not all applications give you equal quality results with the same codec, though. You can encode using the internal export functions of most NLEs or choose from a wide range of applications, including Apple QuickTime Player Pro, Apple Compressor, Discreet Cleaner, Canopus Procoder, Sorenson Squeeze, Ligos, Windows Media encoder and many others.

 

When you encode a file, you may also choose to make it streaming or downloadable. Selecting progressive encoding will make the file downloadable, which is generally what you want for a demo reel or a client approval copy. If you want to ensure that the person’s browser will permit a download, wrap the file in an archive (data compression) format like .sit or .zip using WinZip or Stuffit. This forces the viewer to either open the file or save it on their local hard drive.

 

As with most things, it helps to read the book and spend some time experimenting when you’re not under the gun. This will let you decide which codec and encoding application gives you the best results based on need and the target audience.

 

© 2004 Oliver Peters

New Business Models

This industry used to be so easy to figure out. Employment was either in broadcasting, in a large corporate video department or at a large, full-service, state-of-the-art post-production facility. Industry pundits often blame the events of September 11 or the success of Apple’s Final Cut Pro for the demise of video facilities, but these are simply events, which coincided with the inevitable. Before – when most production and post was done on film – the tools were relatively cheap and the investment was in talent. Then – starting in the early 1970’s – we went on a 30-year-long tangent of technology – much like a junkie on a binge. Facilities purchased gear and promoted themselves based on having the biggest, best, newest and costliest gear. Now we are on the other slope of that same bell curve and the tools are once again cheap and the cost is in the talent.

 

When I started editing in 1976, my facility employer in Jacksonville was able to charge $260/hour for two-inch linear editing, which was a tad cheaper than the prevailing South Florida, “big city” rate of $275. Most facility owners would love to get that rate today, even if the dollars were even! Today’s equipment is cheaper to own and operate and hourly rates reflect that fact. It is easier to make a profit if you opened shop today, than if you had opened five years ago and were still paying leases for that older, more expenses equipment investment. Those are simply the business facts of today’s video economy, so how do people continue to make this their livelihood? As I see it, these are the four business models for the next decade.

 

1. Facilities

 

What I would consider the traditional facility is one with a large investment in advanced technology. For the moment this would include high-definition post-production, film-to-tape transfer and electronic film finishing (digital intermediates). As HD gear gets cheaper, though, that portion of the model is also quickly going to disappear. These sorts of facilities will only exist in major markets and will only make money with investments that cannot be easily or inexpensively duplicated on the desktop. Film transfer and high-data-throughput DI work will continue to require large capital investments and these facilities will be able to hang on to a small niche at the uppermost part of the industry. On the other hand, this same level of capital investment in standard post – the proverbial million-dollar edit suites – can no longer be maintained for standard commercial, corporate or even entertainment post.

 

2. Boutiques

 

The small post house has become the current “facility” model. Typically boutiques are small post houses set up in offices or even homes. They are characterized by a few nonlinear edit suites, a small audio suite and maybe a graphics/animation suite. This model is much like that of a graphic design studio, but in the past, video facilities like this were small “project studios” built around a single project or person. Now the boutique tends to be the norm outside of most major markets – running lean and trying to be a survivor. Most boutiques keep their core staff low and rely on freelance editors and designers or contract workers to get the work done in peak times. Since many boutiques are founded and operated by the principal partners who are still active participants in the daily operations, quality service is usually a goal that is more important than owning state-of-the-art technology. Equipment upgrades are made when a project can pay for it, rather than by the cycle of obsolescence promoted by any specific manufacturer.

 

3. Corporate / Broadcast

 

I really see these as the same thing. Both corporate video departments and broadcast outlets (networks, stations, cable, satellite) are institutions that are owned by large corporations, usually have a fixed staff and make equipment purchases based on a schedule of approved capital expenditures. If you can get a job here, the environment tends to be stable (though downsizing is always a threat), but the video gear is generally not as current as the state-of-the-art within the industry. It simply takes longer to get such budgets approved, so in the corporate or broadcast world, it is impossible to respond to the needs of a specific production, by just going out and purchasing gear to get the job done. On the other hand, when money is approved, it can frequently have a sizeable budget with enough money to get the installation done right.

 

Broadcasters are a growth opportunity for many video manufacturers. Worldwide, TV stations are only at the beginning of the conversion from tape to digital technology and tapeless infrastructures. Even if most TV stations stay in standard definition rather than HD, their outlay for new equipment will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is to this market sector that companies like Avid will turn for sales of their most expensive gear. Stations are used to paying higher capital costs, because they would rather pay up front and get ongoing corporate support than to be nickel-and-dimed with annual incremental upgrades.

 

4. Independent / Entrepreneur

 

This last category is one in which many editors have landed in this new millennium. It is also one that is the likeliest future for new people entering the world of post. Being an independent contractor can take several forms. The obvious is the “gun for hire”. The freelancer who is called in by a facility to handle the overflow or get a specific job out the door on time. Often freelancers settle into one place as if they were staff. To keep costs lower (especially because of the cost of benefits, like paid insurance), many employers choose to leave such employees in an independent status, even though their hourly rate might seem higher than true fulltime employees. These are the so-called “permalancers”.

 

Another independent’s operating model is the “preditor” – producer/editor. The preditor is more than just the jockey behind the controls. He/she books and supervises editing and other sessions, like voice-over recordings, and helps the client with the logistics of getting all the production done (other than any actual shooting). Although this is viewed by many as a new phenomenon, it is actually how most respected commercial film editors worked years before. They not only edited, but controlled every aspect of post, finishing and delivery.

 

Many independents choose the entrepreneurial route. They purchase some gear, like an edit system, and work out of their house or place it inside another facility. In the latter case, arrangements are made to split revenues so both sides profit. This often gives facilities a chance to expand without any capital outlay beyond the necessary space, power and amenities.

 

The post production business model has come full circle. This is a service business and not a technology business. Companies and individuals who learn to adapt to this will survive and even prosper in these interesting times.

 

© 2004 Oliver Peters

Be a Student of the Business

In order to be at the top of your game in this business, you have to be willing to constantly invest time in learning new things. Put in the effort and do some research, because tons of valuable resources are at your fingertips. Some like web sites and trade magazines are generally free, while others, like books, manuals and tutorials might cost a few bucks. In any case, there’s plenty from which to pick and choose.

 

Let’s start with trade magazines. I write for Videography, but I also get more than a dozen other audio, music, video and computer trade publications. Many are published by the same parent publishing companies, but most have independent editorial staffs, so you do get a diverse range of articles and product reviews. Now, I don’t read them all cover-to-cover, but I do scan every one for some new tidbit of information or production technique that I find interesting. Many of the trades offer free subscriptions to anyone associated with the industry that they service. In fact, if you get a free subscription to one, you will often also get copies each month of some of the other titles published by that same group.

 

Here are my recommendations of the ones that I think are worthwhile. For film and video production: Videography, DV, Millimeter, Post and Video Systems. For audio mixing: Mix and EQ. I’m sure there are others worth adding to the list, but it really gets down to personal preference. If you like to delve into the technical side, then the SMPTE Journal and American Cinematographer are quite good, but you will have to join or purchase a subscription to receive these.

 

The web is another great free resource. Most of the magazines maintain companion web sites that often feature expanded articles or coverage not included in the hard copy magazine. These sites are often updated with more timely press releases and other news information within the industry. Generally, these sites can be found under the magazine’s name plus .com, without any effort at all.

 

While we’re surfing the web, don’t forget that many companies include support pages with troubleshooting information, white papers on procedures and even technical documents and equipment manuals. Some manufacturers who offer such items include Avid, Quantel and discreet. You might have to hunt a bit on these sites for the right support page, but you’ll also often find forums with input and questions from fellow users. Sony even maintains several specific sites for their HD, DVCAM and editing products. Point your browser to  http://www.sonyusadvcam.com, http://www.sonyusacinealta.com, http://www.sonympeg-imx.com, and http://www.sonyxpri.com. If your main focus is film, then go to Kodak and peruse the wealth of documents on the professional motion picture portion of their company site.

 

Some of the other web resources include special web-based industry services and forums, like Digital Media Network, 2-pop, 2-popHD and Creative Cow. Several well-known system developers also maintain helpful personal sites, including Michael E. Phillip’s 24p.com and Alan Stewart’s zerocut.com

 

If you’d rather get your education between hard covers, check out the many books on subjects like editing, color-correction and more. Nearly all of these titles can be found online at Amazon. Most are published either by CMP Books or Focal Press. If you want to know more about the art of editing, one of the best books is Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye (Siman-James Press). Most of the current editors work with some type of nonlinear editing system, so for a little background and insight, check out Nonlinear4 (Michael Rubin), Nonlinear Editing (Bryce Button), Digital Nonlinear Editing (Thomas A. Ohanian) or Digital Filmmaking – The Changing Art and Craft of Motion Pictures (Michael E. Phillips, Thomas A. Ohanian).

 

If your need is for more detailed information, how about Steve Bayes’ Avid Handbook or Color-Correction for Digital Video (Steve Hullfish, Jaime Fowler). There are also plenty of instructions for effects and graphics, like Boris Visual Effects for Editors (Tim Wilson) and Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects (Trish & Chris Meyer). One of the best that I’ve read for Photoshop is Photoshop for Nonlinear Editors (Richard Harrington). If you work a lot with QuickTime and other media formats that involve compression techniques, how about Ben Waggoner’s Compression for Great Digital Video. If audio post is your thing, then you might want to investigate Audio Post-Production for Digital Video (Jay Rose). And last but not least, for the producers in the crowd, let me suggest Pre-Production Planning for Video, Film and Multimedia (Steve R. Cartwright).

 

So whether you are an editor, designer, mixer or producer, there’s something for you. A simple search through the web or through these publications will provide a wealth of knowledge for years to come – all at very little cost.

 

© 2003 Oliver Peters