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)

Zodiac

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In the late ’60s northern California was terrorized by a serial killer that came to be known in the media as the Zodiac Killer. Starting in 1969, Zodiac taunted the police with letters that included cryptograms and claimed to have killed as many as 37 victims. These letters were signed with a symbol of a circle and cross that was dubbed the Zodiac by one letter writer to the San Francisco Chronicle, though the killer never actually named himself that. He is generally believed to have killed five victims, though some writers have theorized that the murders might actually have done by several persons, rather than a single serial killer. Thousands of suspects were investigated over the years, but the case remained unsolved.

 

The hunt for the Zodiac Killer is now the subject of director David Fincher’s (Alien3, Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) latest film. Zodiac is an adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s books about the events surrounding the investigation and the subsequent media circus. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, and Brian Cox. Fincher, who started his career with a stint at ILM and then as a commercial and music video director and cofounder of Propaganda Films, is hardly a typical Hollywood director. Some of Fincher’s commercial clients have included Nike, Pepsi and Levis and he’s directed music videos for such artists as Madonna, the Rolling Stones, the Wallflowers and Nine Inch Nails.

 

As a director who’s moved to features from short form genres, he combines interesting commercial sensibilities with cinematic storytelling. He is also willing to challenge the status quo of traditional filmmaking technology. Like Michael Mann (Collateral, Miami Vice), Fincher is a fan of the Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cinematography camera. The Viper captures scenes similar to a digital still camera in the raw mode, with three 9.2-million-pixel Frame Transfer CCD sensors at a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels. A characteristic of the Viper is its FilmStream mode, which retains the image fidelity as an unprocessed, 10-bit log 4:4:4 signal. Unlike Mann, who chose to record onto Sony HDCAM-SR tapes, Fincher opted for a totally tapeless workflow. In fact, this will be the first major Hollywood digital film with a totally uncompressed, tapeless path from production to the creation of a digital intermediate master. By staying uncompressed until a film negative is struck after the DI grading, the image quality will theoretically rival or surpass the image quality of camera film negative scanned at the 2K resolution (2048×1556 pixels).

 

A Fresh Approach to Feature Post

 

Like Fincher, editor Angus Wall is not your typical film editor either. In 1992 Wall and Linda Carlson founded Rock Paper Scissors – a respected West Hollywood creative editorial house known for its commercial work for such clients as BMW, HP and Nike – and later in 1997, visual effects house A52. Angus Wall took some time out of finalizing the trailers for Zodiac to discuss the post on the film with me, as well as his collaboration with Fincher. “I knew David from when I worked in the vault at Propaganda and had always aspired to work with him. He has been very generous to me and I have been lucky enough to work on a few commercials and videos with him. My first film experience with David was doing the titles for Se7en. Seeing them on the big screen at Mann’s Chinese really ‘put the hooks in me’ to do more movie work. I have since worked on Fight Club, Panic Room and now Zodiac. With David’s support, Rock Paper Scissors was able to design and set up the post production workflow for Zodiac. If technology can only be as good as the people working it, we had ‘the perfect storm’ on Zodiac. Andreas Wacker brilliantly designed the data workflow and wrote the software to make the whole thing work.  Joe Wolcott created budgets and provided the liaison with S.two, Thompson, Camera House and production to ease ‘where the rubber hits the road.’ Assistants Wyatt Jones, Pete Warren, Brian Ufberg, and Brad Waskewich did their usual jobs, plus what the labs, neg cutters, and finishing houses are normally supposed to do. I can’t say enough about their efforts… And David really went to bat for us to be able to do it.”

 

You’ve probably already read a few articles about the Zodiac production methodology, but Angus filled in the gaps on the post side for me, “On set, Viper footage was recorded to S.two DFRs. These are essentially fast hard drives that store footage as uncompressed DPX sequences [and hold over three times the number of minutes as a 35mm film magazine]. These drives were shuttled to editorial and loaded onto an Apple Xsan. Two copies of these files were archived to LTO3 media for back-up. A stringent verification process was performed to make sure there was no data corruption in either archive. With film, if frames are damaged you can cut around or repair them; if a file is corrupt, you may have lost the entire take or worse… It’s a binary world.  So in many ways, copying and verifying files is one of the most critical aspects of this workflow. The LTO cartridges really became the equivalent of the camera negative, because once the data was verified, the D.Mags were sent back to the set for reuse. Since we were in effect acting as the lab, we had to be able to turn around the D.Mags and generate dailies on the same sort of nightly schedule as a film lab working with 35mm negative.”

 

When Viper is used in the FilmStream mode, the 10-bit log images have a greenish cast, since you are viewing a raw image from the sensors. Often DPs and directors will add special look-up tables (LUTs) to correct this image for the on-set monitor. Angus continued, “We created nine LUTs with David using Final Touch software for on-set and dailies use. After verification, the footage was processed for editing and dailies. We used Apple’s Shake to downrez the DPX files to QuickTime movies using the DVCPRO HD codec, which included rendering the applied color-correction from these LUTs. We called this ‘Shake & Bake.’ Andreas created a script, which preserved the metadata of these files, essential for tracking them through the database he designed and for various uses, such as the later conform.  Our render farm was the six G5s used to edit.  In the second week when David went to two cameras, Mac Minis were added to handle the extra load!  To stay tapeless, the secure PIX [Project Information Exchange] system was used to post dailies online and later to post review versions of picture and sound.”

 

Footage Galore

 

From our conversation, it was obvious that Wall had to deal with more than the typical amount of footage for a feature. Fincher shot the equivalent of almost three million feet of 35mm film, deleting about half of that on set, keeping just his selected takes – an important aspect of a digital production workflow. According to Angus, “In total, David’s ‘printed’ takes amounted to 18,220,156 frames. That’s around 210 hours of footage.” Nevertheless, Wall was happy with their tapeless workflow. “This approach offers great opportunities in terms of efficiency and simplicity. Once you remove the linear component of film or tape, scaling is made much easier. Efficiencies are realized by dealing with files and it’s environmentally friendlier, since there is no chemical component and there are fewer expendables.” 

 

Wall completed the first assembly of Zodiac two weeks after production had wrapped, and spent 11 1/2 months total editing the film. The first assembly was about three hours long, based on the 190-page script. The final length is projected to be under two hours and forty minutes. Rock Paper Scissors has been involved in the finishing as well.  “Andreas wrote software to do the ‘virtual conform’. This takes XML from Final Cut and pulls the relevant uncompressed files from the archives using an LTO tape robot. For the first test screening, Iridas was used for color correction and the resulting uncompressed file sequences were rendered in Shake for use in Final Cut. There, the picture was double-checked, titles and sound were added, and the whole thing output to D5. The final DI is being done at Technicolor, who will use the conformed, uncompressed file sequences for final grading.”

 

Desktop Tools To The Rescue

 

Those who’ve checked out the Fincher profile on Apple’s website know that Angus Wall is a strong proponent of Apple’s Final Cut Pro. “Multi-clip sequences were really the tipping point for me. In Zodiac, there’s a scene that takes place on a TV talk show. David had Digibeta camcorders placed in the three old studio camera bodies. Each of these recorded the scene and was later upconverted to HD in Final Cut. The monitors in the control room were blue-screen, so we were able to comp the Digibeta camera shots into these monitors. This allowed us the flexibility of controlling what image needed to be in the monitors. David covered the scene with three Vipers as well, giving us six multi-cam streams of HD running in real-time. That’s pretty amazing. Most of the final composites were completed in Shake. In all, there are hundreds of shots – lots of split screens – that were done in Shake – many in-house.”

 

As we wrapped up the interview, Angus finished up his thoughts on Final Cut Pro, “Rock Paper Scissors is now all-Final Cut and that transition happened in about six weeks.  Everyone simply warmed to it as a better way. I prefer the interface because it’s more customizable and flexible.  On Zodiac we cut with 30″ and 23″ Apple displays, and it was great to be able to have several timelines up and to move pieces of the interface around where we wanted them. Our Apple PowerMac G5s were equipped with AJA Kona 2 cards, so David could see the cut on a 65″ plasma screen in HD resolution. I like that Final Cut is resolution agnostic. You don’t need any specialized gear to work with HD inside the computer, so it really embraces newer technology. Besides, it’s what the ‘cool kids’ are using! [laugh] Seriously, most of the film students are learning it in college, so they come out familiar with the interface already.”As more directors investigate the options offered by a tapeless, file-based workflow, movie fans will get a chance to see new and unique ways of storytelling, wrapped in some of the best-looking footage to ever hit the screen. The economies that this workflow will offer ensure that more directors than ever will be able to tell those stories.

 

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