Analogue Wayback, Ep. 17

The shape of your stomach.

The 1970s into the early 1990s was an era of significant experimentation and development in analog and digital video effects and animation. This included computer video art projects, broadcast graphics, image manipulation, and more. Denver-based Computer Image Corporation was both a hardware developer and a production company. Hardware included an advanced video switcher and the Scanimate computer animation system. The video switchers were optimized for compositing and an integral part of the system; however, it was the Scanimate analog computer that is most remembered.

Computer Image developed several models of Scanimate, which were also sold to other production companies, including Image West in Los Angeles (an offshoot of CI) and Dolphin Productions in New York. Dave Sieg, Image West’s former chief engineer, has a detailed website dedicated to preserving the history of this technology.

I interviewed for a job at Dolphin in the mid-1980s and had a chance to tour the facility. This was a little past the company’s prime, but they still had a steady stream of high-end ad agency and music video clients. Some of Dolphin’s best-known work included elements for PBS’ Sesame Street and The Electric Company, the show open for Washington Week in Review (PBS), news opens for NBC, CBS, and ABC News, as well as numerous national commercials. One memorial Pepto Bismal campaign featured actors that step forward from a live action scene. As they do, their body turns a greenish monochrome color and the stomach expands and becomes distorted.

Dolphin was situated in a five-story brownstone near Central Park. It had formerly housed a law practice. Behind reception on the ground floor was the videotape room, cleverly named Image Storage and Retrieval. The second floor consisted of an insert stage plus offices. Editing/Scanimate suites were on the third and fourth floors. What had been the fifth-floor law library now held the master videotape reels instead of books. A stairwell connected the floors and provided the cable runs to connect the electronics between rooms.

Each edit suite housed several racks of Scanimate and switcher electronics, the editor’s console, and client seating. At the time of my interview and tour, Dolphin had no computer-assisted linear edit controllers, such as CMX (these were added later). Cueing and editing was handled via communication between the editor and the VTR operator on the ground floor. They used IVC-9000 VTRs, which were 2″ helical scan decks. These are considered to have provided the cleanest image over multiple generations of any analog VTR ever produced.

Each suite could use up to four decks and animation was created by layering elements over each other from one VTR to the next. The operator would go round-robin from deck to deck. Play decks A/B/C and record onto D. Next pass, play B/C/D and record onto A to add more. Now, play C/D/A and record onto B for more again, and so on – until maybe as many as 20 layers were composited in sophisticated builds. Whichever reel the last pass ended up on was then the final version from that session. Few other companies or broadcasters possessed compatible IVC VTRs. So 2″ quad copies of the finished commercial or video were made from the 2″ helical and that’s the master tape a client left with.

This method of multi-pass layering is a technique that later took hold in other forms, such as the graphic design for TBS and CNN done by J. C. Burns and then more sophisticated motion layering by Charlex using the Abekas A-62. The concept is also the foundation for such recursive recording techniques as the preread edit function that Sony integrated into its D2 and Digital Betacam VTRs.

The path through Scanimate started with a high-resolution oscilloscope and companion camera. The camera signal was run through the electronics, which included analog controls and patching. Any image to be manipulated (transformed, moved, rotated, distorted, colorized) was sourced from tape, an insert stage camera, or a copy stand titling camera and displayed in monochrome on the oscilloscope screen. This image was re-photographed off of the oscilloscope screen by the high-resolution video camera and that signal sent into the rest of the Scanimate system.

Images were manipulated in two ways. First, the operator could use Scanimate to manipulate/distort the sweep of the oscilloscope itself, which would in turn cause the displayed image to distort. Once this distorted oscilloscope display was then picked up by the high-resolution camera, then the rest of Scanimate could be used to further alter that image through colorization and other techniques. Various keying and masking methods were used to add in each new element as layers were combined for the final composite.

Stability was of some concern since this was an analog computer. If you stopped for lunch, you might not be able to perfectly match what you had before lunch. The later Scanimate systems developed by Computer Image addressed this by using digital computers to control the analog computer hardware, making them more stable and consistent.

The companies evolved or went out of business and the Scanimate technology went by the wayside. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting facet of video history, much like that of the early music synthesizers. Even today, it’s hard to perfectly replicate the look of some of the Scanimate effects, in part, because today’s technology is too good and too clean! While it’s not a perfect analogy, these early forms of video animation offer a similar charm to the analog consoles, multitrack recorders, and vinyl cherished by many audiophiles and mixing engineers.

Check out this video at Vimeo if you want to know more about Scanimate and see it in action.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Blackmagic Cloud Store Workgroup Ideas

In my previous post I reviewed the new Blackmagic Cloud Store Mini. (Click here for the full article.) Blackmagic Design has a track record of being disruptive with cool new ideas and products. Their cloud storage line is no exception. I am less interested in the Blackmagic Cloud, as I’m not a fan of either the Resolve database format for projects nor parking your projects in the cloud. However, the storage products don’t require the Blackmagic Cloud and that opens up a number of possibilities.

I’ve worked with shared storage (SAN and NAS) products going back to Avid’s first fiber channel MediaShare. Blackmagic’s Cloud Store and Mini are light years ahead of those early units. Yet the multi-user workflows developed back then are still in play today. This is especially true if you are a facility owner with a handful of workstations all connected over a network to the same storage pool. It’s also true if you are an editorial team working together on a feature film. Both are workgroups that can easily be serviced by one of the Cloud Store or Cloud Store Mini storage products.

Building the workgroup

I’m a fan of simplicity. Today’s edit suites don’t need all the gadgets that they’ve had in the past. Less is often more. Let’s envision four workstations running either Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Resolve may be part of the mix, but not for collaborative editing. I’ll leave that discussion for another day. Mac-based, of course, but by personal preference since the storage also works with Windows. With those parameters, what would you buy?

For a fixed facility, the Mac Studio is a no-brainer. The Mac Pro makes no sense to me for most editorial work nor for most grading or audio mixing. A loaded M1 Max with a 1TB or 2TB internal drive is plenty. This unit already includes a built-in 10G Ethernet port. If the budget can’t handle four of those, then a loaded M1 Mac mini is another option. Just make sure to add the 10G upgrade.

What if the team needs to more portable, such as for on-site editing? In that case, go for one of the MacBook Pros instead. Since these do not include Ethernet ports, you’ll need add a Sonnet Solo 10G (Thunderbolt 3 to 10G Ethernet) converter for each computer in order to get 10G speeds.

External displays are required for the two desktop Mac models, but optional with the laptops. Equip each unit with one or two of Apple’s 27″ Studio Displays. An alternate option would be the Apple Store’s LG UltraFine 4K display. Don’t forget audio. Unless everyone is working with headphones, I would recommend a simple audio interface (PreSonus, Focusrite, Universal Audio, etc) and desktop speakers (M-Audio, KRK, Adam, etc).

This team is using 10G Ethernet. If you opt for the Cloud Store Mini 8TB drive, then you’ll need to integrate a standard 10G Ethernet switch to connect the four workstations with the Mini over a 10G network. There are a range of options, but at a minimum the switch will require that five or more ports supports 10G. There are many small combo switches on the market with both 1G and 10G ports. It’s easy to misread and think you have enough ports and then find out that most are only 1G.

In this hypothetical scenario, if you only have four workstations and are using the larger Cloud Store, then a switch isn’t needed, since the Cloud Store already has a 4-port 10G switch built in. And finally, you’ll need enough Cat 6 Ethernet cable for the cable runs between rooms. If any run exceeds 100 feet or passes alongside a lot of electrical wiring, then you may want to consider Cat 7 cable.

Storage strategies

Now that we’ve built out the body of the facility or workgroup, what about its heart? Blackmagic Design offers CloudStore with 20TB, 80TB, or 320TB capacities, and Cloud Store Mini with 8TB.

The type of work being done will determine which one is the best fit. For example, if you work with high-resolution media and commonly edit with native camera files, then you’re going to need as big of a unit as you can afford. On the other hand, if most of the media is smaller or you generally edit with proxy files, then the Mini with 8TB might be plenty. Remember that you can always add a large Thunderbolt array (Promise, OWC, etc) with spinning drives at a very reasonable cost as a local drive on one of the stations.

A feature film might have a large Thunderbolt storage tower connected to one of the workstations. It would hold all of the original camera media. Those files would be transcoded to proxy media located on the Mini 8TB. All four workstations would be able to edit with the common proxy files, because the Mini is shared storage. When the cut is locked and it’s time to finish, the unit with the Thunderbolt tower would relink to the original camera media for grading and output.

There are many variations of these scenarios. It’s just a few ways that Blackmagic’s cloud storage products can be used to build powerful workgroups with a very light footprint. However, a key part of this innovation is the ease of putting such a system together.

©2022 Oliver Peters

A look at the Blackmagic Cloud Store Mini

Blackmagic Design is striving to democratize shared storage and edit collaboration with the introduction of the Blackmagic Cloud and the Blackmagic cloud storage product line. Let’s focus on storage first, which in spite of the name is very much earthbound.

Blackmagic Design’s cloud storage product line-up

Blackmagic Cloud Store (starting at $9,595 USD) sits at the top end. This is a desktop network-attached storage system engineered into the same chassis design that was developed for Blackmagic’s eGPUs. It features two redundant power supplies and an M.2 NVMe SSD drive array, which is configured as RAID-5 for data protection in case of drive failure. Cloud Store integrates an internal 10G Ethernet switch for up to four users connected at 10Gbps speeds. It also supports port aggregation for a combined speed of 40Gbps.

Cloud Store will ship soon and be available with 20TB, 80TB, or 320TB capacities. If you are familiar with RAID-5 systems, you know that some of that stated capacity is unaccessible due to the data parity required. Blackmagic Design has factored that in up front, because according to them, the size in the name, like 20TB, correctly reflects the useable amount of storage space.

Cloud Store Mini ($2,995 USD) is an 8TB unit using Blackmagic’s half rack width form factor. There are four internal M.2 flash cards configured as RAID-0. It sports three different Ethernet ports: 10Gbps, 1Gbps, and USB-C, which uses a built-in Ethernet adaptor. Lastly, the Cloud Pod ($395 USD) is a small 10G Ethernet unit designed for customers who supply their own USB-C storage.

All three models are designed for fast 10G Ethernet connectivity and are compatible with both Windows and macOS. Although there are many SAN and NAS products on the market, Blackmagic Design is targeting the customer who wants a high-performance shared storage solution that’s plug-and-play. These storage products are not there to usurp solutions like Avid Nexis. Instead, Blackmagic Design is appealing to customers without that sort of “heavy iron” infrastructure.

Cloud Store Mini as a storage device

The Blackmagic Cloud Store Mini is shipping, so I was able to test drive it for a couple of weeks. I connected my 2020 iMac (which includes the 10G option) via the 10G Ethernet port using a recommended Cat 6 cable. I also connected my M1 MacBook Pro on the Ethernet via USB-C port. This gave me a small “workgroup” of two workstations connected to shared storage.

Continue reading the full article at Pro Video Coalition – click here.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 16

Football. That’s where they play in quarters, right?

One of the fun experiences while in Birmingham was putting together the telecast of three football games. It was a brief moment in time when the original, upstart USFL professional football league challenged the NFL’s football supremacy during the spring season. Birmingham was one of several cities around the nation with a team, which was a great opportunity for the TV station.

Back then (and maybe still today) one way for a television station to shore up its revenue for the month was to bump a night of primetime network programming and replace it with its own. An affiliate lost that night’s worth of network compensation (the money a network pays the affiliate to run network programming). However, they were then able to fill all of the commercial slots for the night, which more than made up for it.

As long as an affiliate didn’t do this too often, networks wouldn’t challenge it, especially if this was for a strong local event. Furthermore, a broadcaster could promote this as a special event, like coverage of important away games that were normally unavailable. The station could charge premium ad dollars for commercial placement within the game, as well as other ancillary income, like sponsorship of the broadcast.

The station covered three away games being played in New Jersey at the Meadowlands, in Chicago at Soldier Field, and in Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The first two were split feeds. A split feed is when you are tagging onto another company or network that is broadcasting the game with a full production truck and crew. All the station had to do was book a smaller truck that would piggyback off of the main production truck. The main truck would send our truck a “clean feed” from their video switcher without their graphics or talent inserts. It also included game audio without their announcers. In the split feed truck, we added our own graphics, mixed in our own play-by-play announcer audio, and then cut to our own single camera whenever we wanted to see our sports reporter.

As production manager for the station, I flew in to produce the telecast, along with our reporter and graphics producer. Chyron (character generator) material, like logos, player names, and templates for stats pages, had been produced in advance. We hired local crew members, including a camera operator, technical director, audio engineer, and Chyron operator.

It got off to a fun start in the Meadowlands. Our New York-based Chryron operator was experienced with hockey games. Football – not so much. As we started to finalize the Chyron pages prior to the game, his first response was, “We’re doing football. Right? That uses quarters, right? OK, I get it.” Everything went off without a hitch. The Chicago experience went equally well, except the taxi driver was a bit confused about where the entrance to Solider Field was! In addition, the director in the main production truck seemed very “high strung” based on what we were hearing through our intercom connection.

Denver, on the other hand, was a completely different experience. We were the main truck doing a full production and not a split feed. This meant hiring a full 40-foot production truck, plus crew. We arranged all of it through a production coordinator who specialized in large sports events. It was fun producing a full-on sports telecast. However, you never know who the locally-hired crew are. The director was highly capable, but his main sports experience was baseball, which led to some interesting camera cutting. For instance, in most football game coverage, when the quarterback passes the ball the camera stays wide and follows the ball to the receiver without cuts. However, this director chose to cut camera angles during the pass. It worked fine, but was a bit different than expected.

I learned to appreciate such live productions, because when they are done they are done. There’s no post-production with infinite client revisions. All of the stress is during the build-up and the live production. No matter how good or bad the broadcast turns out to be, the end is truly the end. That’s a rather cathartic experience. When it’s over, everyone gets a high-five and you go out to a nice, late crew dinner!

©2022 Oliver Peters