ADA Compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has enriched the lives of many in the disabled community since its introduction in 1990. It affects all of our lives, from wheelchair-friendly ramps on street corners and business entrances to the various accessibility modes in our computers and smart devices. While many editors don’t have to deal directly with the impact of the ADA on media, the law does affect broadcasters and streaming platforms. If you deliver commercials and programs, then your production will be affected in one way or another. Typically the producer is not directly subject to compliance, but the platform is. This means someone has to provide the elements that complete compliance as part of any distribution arrangement, whether it is the producer or the outlet itself.

Two components are involved to meet proper ADA compliance: closed captions and described audio (aka audio descriptions). Captions come in two flavors – open and closed. Open captions or subtitles consists of text “burned” into the image. It is customarily used when a foreign language is spoken in an otherwise English program (or the equivalent in non-English-speaking countries). Closed captions are enclosed in a data stream that can be turned on and off by the viewer, device, or the platform and are intended to make the dialogue accessible to the hearing-impaired. Closed captions are often also turned on in noisy environments, like a TV playing in a gym or a bar.

Audio descriptions are intended to aid the visually-impaired. This is a version of the audio mix with an additional voice-over element. An announcer describes visual information that is not readily obvious from the audio of the program itself. This voice-over fills in the gaps, such as “man climbs to the top of a large hill” or “logos appear on screen.”

Closed captions

Historically post houses and producers have opted to outsource caption creation to companies that specialize in those services. However, modern NLEs enable any editor to handle captions themselves and the increasing enforcement of ADA compliance is now adding to the deliverable requirements for many editors. With this increased demand, using a specialist may become cost prohibitive; therefore, built-in tools are all the more attractive.

There are numerous closed caption standards and various captioning file formats. The most common are .scc (Scenarist), .srt (SubRip), and .vtt (preferred for the web). Captions can be supplied as “embedded” (secondary data within the master file) or as a separate “sidecar” file, which is intended to play in sync with the video file. Not all of these are equal. For example, .scc files (embedded or as sidecar files) support text formatting and positioning, while .srt and .vtt do not. For example, if you have a lower-third name graphic come on screen, you want to move any caption from its usual lower-third, safe-title position to the top of the screen while that name graphic is visible. This way both remain legible. The .scc format supports that, but the other two don’t. The visual appearance of the caption text is a function of the playback hardware or software, so the same captions look different in QuickTime Player versus Switch or VLC. In addition, SubRip (.srt) captions all appear at the bottom, even if you repositioned them to the top, while .vtt captions appear at the top of the screen.

You may prefer to first create a transcription of the dialogue using an outside service, rather than simply typing in the captions from scratch. There are several online resources that automate speech-to-text, including SpeedScriber, Simon Says, Transcriptive, and others. Since AI-based transcription is only as good as the intelligibility of the audio and dialects of the speakers, they all require further text editing/correction through on online tool before they are ready to use.

One service that I’ve used with good results is REV.com, which uses human transcribers for greater accuracy, as well as offering on online text editing tool. The transcription can be downloaded in various formats, including simple text (.txt). Once you have a valid transcription, that file can be converted through a variety of software applications into .srt, .scc, or .vtt files. These in turn can be imported into your preferred NLE for timing, formatting, and positioning adjustments.

Getting the right look

There are guidelines that captioning specialists follow, but some are merely customary and do not affect compliance. For example, upper and lower case text is currently the norm, but you’ll still be OK if your text is all caps. There are also accepted norms when English (or other) subtitles appear on screen, such as for someone speaking in a foreign language. In those cases, no additional closed caption text is used, since the subtitle already provides that information. However, a caption may appear at the top of the screen identifying that a foreign language is being spoken. Likewise, during sections with only music or ambient sounds, a caption may briefly identifying it as such.

When creating captions, you have to understand that readability is key, so the text will not always run perfectly in sync with the dialogue. For instance, when two actors engage in rapid fire dialogue, each caption may stay on longer than the spoken line. You can adjust the timing against that scene so that they eventually catch up once the pace slows down. It’s good to watch a few captioned programs before starting from scratch – just to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

If you are creating captions for a program to run on a specific broadcast network or streaming services, then it’s a good idea to find out of they provide a style guide for captions.

Using your NLE to create closed captions

Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and Apple Final Cut Pro X all support closed captions. I find FCPX to be the best of this group, because of its extensive editing control over captions and ease of use. This includes text formatting, but also display methods, like pop-on, paint-on, and roll-up effects. Import .scc files for maximum control or extract captions from an existing master, if your media already has embedded caption data. The other three NLEs place the captions onto a single data track (like a video track) within which captions can be edited. Final Cut Pro X places them as a series of connected clips, like any other video clip or graphic. If you perform additional editing, the FCPX magnetic timeline takes care of keeping the captions in sync with the associated dialogue.

Final Cut’s big plus for me is that validation errors are flagged in red. Validation errors occur when caption clips overlap, may be too short for the display method (like a paint-on), are too close to the start of the file, or other errors. It’s easy to find and fix these before exporting the master file.

Deliverables

NLEs support the export of a master file with embedded captions, or “burned” into the video as a subtitle, or the captions exported as a separate sidecar file. Specific format support for embedded captions varies among applications. For example, Premiere Pro – as well as Adobe Media Encoder – will only embed captioning data when you export your sequence or encode a file as a QuickTime-wrapped master file. (I’m running macOS, so there may be other options with Windows.)

On the other hand, Apple Compressor and Final Cut Pro X can encode or export files with embedded captions for formats such as MPEG2 TS, MPEG 2 PS, or MP4. It would be nice if all these NLEs supported the same range of formats, but they don’t. If your goal is a sidecar caption file instead of embedded data, then it’s a far simpler and more reliable process.

Audio descriptions

Compared to closed captions, providing audio description files is relatively easy. These can either be separate audio files – used as sidecar files for secondary audio – or additional tracks on the delivery master. Sometimes it’s a completely separate video file with only this version of the mix. Advanced platforms like Netflix may also require an IMF (Interoperable Master Format) package, which would include an audio description track as part of that package. When audio sidecar files are requested for the web or certain playback platforms, like hotel TV systems, the common deliverable formats are .mp3 or .m4a. The key is that the audio track should be able to run in sync with the rest of the program.

Producing an audio description file doesn’t require any new skills. A voice-over announcer is describing any action that occurs on screen, but which wouldn’t otherwise make sense if you were only listening to audio without that. Think of it like a radio play or podcast version of your TV program. This can be as simple as fitting additional VO into the gaps between actor/host/speaker dialogue. If you have access to the original files (such as a Pro Tools session) or dialogue/music/effects stems, then you have some latitude to adjust audio elements in order to fit in the additional voice-over lines. For example, sometimes the off-camera dialogue may be moved or edited in order to make more space for the VO descriptions. However, on-camera/sync dialogue is left untouched. In that case, some of this audio may be muted or ducked to make space for even longer descriptions.

Some of the same captioning service providers also provide audio description services, using their pool of announcers. Yet, there’s nothing about the process that any producer or editor couldn’t handle themselves. For example, scripting the extra lines, hiring and directing talent, and producing the final mix only require a bit more time added to the schedule, yet permits the most creative control.

ADA compliance has been around since 1990, but hasn’t been widely enforced outside of broadcast. That’s changing and there are no more excuses with the new NLE tools. It’s become easier than ever for any editor or producer to make sure they can provide the proper elements to touch every potential viewer.

For additional information, consult the FCC guidelines on closed captions.

The article was originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Video Technology 2020 – Shared Storage

Shared storage used to be the domain of “heavy iron” facilities with Avid, Facilis, and earlier Apple Xserve systems providing the horsepower. Thanks to advances in networking and Ethernet technology, shared storage is accessible to any user. Whether built-in or via adapters, modern computers can tap into 1Gbps, 10Gbps, and even higher, networking speeds. Most computers can natively access Gigabit Ethernet networks (1Gbps) – adequate for SD and HD workflows. Computers designed for the pro video market increasingly sport built-in 10GbE ports, enabling comfortable collaboration with 4K media and up. Some of today’s most popular shared storage vendors include QNAP, Synology, and LumaForge.

This technology will become more prolific in 2020, with systems easier to connect and administer, making shared storage as plug-and-play as any local drives. Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems can service a single workstation or multiple users. In fact, companies like QNAP even offer consumer versions of these products designed to operate as home media servers. Even LumaForge sells a version of its popular Jellyfish through the online Apple Store. A simple, on-line connection guide will get you up and running, no IT department required. This is ideal for the individual editor or small post shop.

Expect 2020 to see higher connection speeds, such as 40GbE, and NAS proliferation even more widespread. It’s not just a matter of growth. These vendors are also interested in extending the functionality of their products beyond being a simple bucket for media. NAS systems will become full-featured media hubs. For example, if you an Avid user, you are familiar with their Media Central concept. In essence, this means the shared storage solution is a platform for various other applications, including the editing software. There are additional media applications that include management apps for user permission control, media queries, and more. Like Avid, the other vendors are exploring similar extensibility through third-party apps, such as Axle Video, Kyno, Hedge, Frame.io, and others. As such, a shared network becomes the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Along with increased functionality, expect changes in the hardware, too. Modern NAS hardware is largely based on RAID arrays with spinning mechanical drives. As solid state (SSD) storage devices become more affordable, many NAS vendors will offer some of their products featuring RAID arrays configured with SSDs or even NVMe systems. Or a mixture of the two, with the SSD-based units used for short-term projects or cache files. Eventually the cost will come down enough so that large storage volumes can be cost-effectively populated with only SSDs. Don’t expect to be purchasing 100TB of SSD storage at a reasonable price in 2020; however, that is the direction in which we are headed. At least in this coming year, mechanical drives will still rule. Nevertheless, start looking at some percentage of your storage inventory to soon be based on SSDs.

Click here for more on shared storage solutions.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Video Technology 2020 – The Cloud

The “cloud” is merely a collection of physical data centers in multiple locations around the world – not much different than a small storage center you might have. Of course, they employ more advanced systems for power, redundancy, and security than you do. When you work with one of the companies marketing cloud-based editing or a review-and-approval service, like Frame.io or Wipster, they provide the user-facing interface, but are actually renting storage space from one of the big three cloud providers – Google, Amazon, or Microsoft.

There are three reasons that I’m skeptical about ubiquitous, cloud-based editing (with media at native resolutions) in the short term: upload speeds, cost, and security.

Speed

5G (fifth generation wireless) is the technology predicted to offer adequate speeds and low latency for native 4K (and higher) media. While 5G will be a great advancement for many things, it’s a short distance signal requiring more transmission spots than current wireless technology. Full coverage in most metro areas, let alone widespread geographical coverage worldwide, will take many years to fully deploy. Other than potential camera-to-cloud uploads of proxy media in the field, 5G won’t soon be the killer solution. Current technology still dictates that if you want the fastest possible upload speeds for large amounts of data, then you have to tap as close as possible to the internet’s backbone.

Cost

Cloud storage is cheap, but extensive upload and download times aren’t. Unfortunately modern video resolutions also result in huge amounts of data generated on every shoot. Uploading native 4K media for a week-long production is considerably more expensive than FedEx and overnight charges to ship drives. What about long term storage? Let’s say that all of your native media is in the cloud and you pay according to a monthly or annual subscription plan. But what if you want to stop? That media will have to be downloaded and stored locally, which will incur data rate charges, as well as your time to download everything.

Security

Think these sites are unequivocally secure? Look at any data hack at a major company. Security is such a concern in our business that most major movie studios won’t let their editors connect the computers to the internet. Many make these editors check their cell phones at the door. No matter how secure, it’s going to be a hard sell, except for limited slices of the production, such as cloud-based VFX rendering.

I do believe 2020 will be a year in which many will take advantage of some modes of long distance, cloud-based edit services using low-res proxy media. Increasingly some services will be used to move dailies and deliverables around the globe via the cloud. But that’s a big difference from cloud-based editing becoming the norm. One edit scenario many will experiment with is to store the edit project files in the cloud, but with the media mirrored locally at each edit site. This way only the lightweight files used for edit collaboration need be moved over the internet. Think of this as Google Docs for editing. Adobe already offers a version of this, but I suspect you’ll see others, including solutions for Final Cut Pro X. So while true cloud-based editing is not a near-term solution, bits and pieces will become increasingly commonplace.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Video Technology 2020 – Apple and the PC Landscape

Apple enjoys a small fraction of the total computer market, yet has an oversized influence on video production and post. Look anywhere in our business and you’ll see a high percentage of Apple Mac computers and laptops in use by producers, DITs, editors, mixers, and colorists. This has influenced the development and deployment of certain technologies, such as optimization for Metal, Thunderbolt i/o, ProRes codecs, and more. This may irritate Windows users, but it’s something companies like Avid, Adobe, and others cannot ignore. Apple deprecates OpenGL, OpenCL, and CUDA in favor of Metal, and so, developers of software for Apple computers will follow suit so that their Mac-based customers enjoy a good experience.

Going into 2020, Apple is offering a better line-up of professional Mac products than it has in years. MacBook Pro laptops, iMacs and iMac Pros, and the new Mac Pro are clearly targeted at the professional customer. Add to this the Pro Display XDR and authorized third-party products available through Apple, like LumaForge Jellyfish storageBlackmagic and Sonnet eGPUs. Clearly Apple intends to offer an end-to-end hardware and software ecosystem designed to appeal to the pro video customer.

Apple’s prices can be a turn-off for some. Similar investments in a PC – especially custom configurations – may yield better performance in certain applications. Nevertheless, most former and present owners of Mac Pro “cheese grater” towers feel like they got their money’s worth and will at least have interest in the new Mac Pro. Same for MacBook Pro owners. So while these new machines may not move the needle for the larger consumer computer market, it will definitely keep current Mac users in the fold and prevent migration to Windows or Linux PCs. It also reinforces Apple’s interest in the professional market – not just video, but also animation, design, audio, science, and engineering.

The unknown will be the impact of Apple’s new Afterburner card for the Mac Pro. While accelerator cards have been offered by various manufacturers in the past, recent computing developments have focused on processor core counts and GPU technology. The Apple Afterburner is the first introduction for Apple of a new FPGA-based (programmable ASIC) hardware accelerator card. Designed for transcoding, it promises to increase stream counts with 4K and 8K raw and standard codecs in the Mac Pro. Once it’s out in the wild, we will have a better idea of who supports it (beyond Apple’s own software) and its real-world performance.

As Apple goes, so goes the rest of the industry. How will the PC world counter this? Will we see similar cards from HP or Dell? Or will NVIDIA respond with similar results using their GPUs? That’s unknown right now, but my guess is that it will take at least this next year for the rest of the world to respond with competing solutions.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Storage Reliability

Recently I’ve written about storage strategies designed to future-proof access to your files. Other than questions of whether future software can still play your files, the biggest issue is whether of not the media is playable at all in a number of years. Unfortunately, there are simply no guarantees. All media can and does fail. Let’s look at various answers.

Everyone touts “the cloud” as the ultimate solution. Although cloud-based storage space is relatively cheap, the cost and data charges for massive uploads and downloads along with local internet speeds pose the stumbling blocks. There’s very little in the near term to change that. Remember, too, that cloud storage is a subscription service than never ends if you want to keep that media in the cloud.

The LTO (Linear Tape Open) data tape format is considered the “gold standard” for physical back-up and retrieval, but it’s really a format designed for long-term industrial and financial data applications. In other words, back it up once and forget it unless you need to restore from a backup tape in the future.

While many studios require original camera footage for major feature films to be archived onto LTO, the format doesn’t fit well into the needs of most small-to-medium production companies and post houses. There are three reasons for this: 1) As file capacities grow, LTO barely keeps up in equivalent capacity and transfer speeds. 2) The LTO standards keep evolving with limited forward or backward version compatibility. 3) If you need to continually go back to your archive to revise and update older projects, the linear design of LTO isn’t very attractive. In addition, frequent shuttling back and forth on LTO tapes to retrieve materials from random sections of the tape will cause an LTO tape to prematurely fail before its rated life.

One alternative to LTO is Sony’s Optical Disc Archive. It’s essentially a videotape deck-sized unit that records on writeable optical media (like a Blu-ray disc). They offer a robotic juke-box type of system for automated retrieval with large library systems. It’s a robust solution, but is mainly relevant to large facilities, such as at broadcast networks.

Storing on a large, RAID-protected array is a good, short-term idea, but it won’t be very cost-effective as your storage needs mount. I don’t recommend small 2-drive or 4-drive RAID enclosures for extended storage. These are more likely to have the RAID structure (whether hardware or software) fail and leave you will nothing accessible on that array. In my experience, single, enterprise-grade drives are more reliable. I buy these as raw drives (so I’m not paying extra for a power supply and interface with every drive) and mount them in a drive dock when I need to use them.

Hard drives do carry a manufacturer’s warranty for a rated lifespan, but I will reiterate that there are no guarantees. A 3-year-warranted drive may last as long as a 5-year drive and either one could fail in one year or last 10 years or longer. I currently have some drives that are as old as that. With drive failure is always a looming possibility, the reasonable strategy is to maintain multiple copies of any media of value. Three duplicate copies is recommend.

Let’s address how to select the drive to buy. Most of these types of drives come in several speeds and warranty levels. 5400 or 7200 RPM are the normal speed offerings. Both are fine for archiving, but 7200 is preferred if you occasionally need to edit directly from them. Warranties are usually three or five years. As with any physical media, it covers the replacement of the product, but not the value of the data stored, which you may have permanently lost.

A warranty is like life insurance. A 3-year drive isn’t necessarily better than a 5-year drive. The company has developed actuarial tables that tell them statistically enough of the  5-year drives last to the 5-year mark, so they won’t lose too much money by replacing the few drives that do fail. Sometimes the difference between three and five years may simply be that drives tested with more minor errors end up in the 3-year pile, while the ones with fewer errors go into the 5-year pile. I haven’t looked into the manufacturing specifics too deeply, but that’s generally how product warranties work.

With those two criteria in mind, I usually purchase 7200 RPM enterprise-grade drives with 5-year warranties. These are drives intended to be used in servers and shared storage systems running 24/7/365. There has been a lot of consolidation in the hard drive business, so regardless of the brand name, there are really only a handful of companies manufacturing the media.

One source to track which drives to buy is Backblaze. They are a cloud provider that publishes their testing results, based on a current pool of over 100,000 drives that they have in operation. Right now the front-runners are ToshibaHGST (Hitachi enterprise) and Seagate. The HGST brand has been absorbed by Western Digital. All these are good options. I also hold back on the largest drives rather than be on the bleeding edge. For example, you can now purchase 14 TB drives, but I’ll tend to stick with 8 TB for a while.

Mechanical hard drives are meant to spin and not to sit on a shelf indefinitely. Periodically load each drive into a dock and spin it up. Make sure the contents are still retrievable and files can be opened. This process should happen no less than once a year. More frequent is even better. And yes, if you have 100 drives in your archive, don’t get lazy. This needs to be done. If a drive sounds odd, has difficulty spinning up or mounting, or has lot of vibration, then clone and replace it ASAP, because it’s likely to fail soon.

Many spinning drives and solid state drives employ S.M.A.R.T. technology. This is a prediction of drive failure. Diagnostics fail the S.M.A.R.T. test when they determine that enough sectors on drive are no longer writeable. Other drive issues, like excessive heat and slow spin-up can cause errors. The drive may outwardly act and seem fine, but it’s time to clone and replace the drive. Shared storage servers monitor for S.M.A.R.T. errors in their RAID drives, but you can also get some diagnostic applications to test individual drives.

The final level of security is to develop a plan to routinely transfer your entire library to the current format of the day. If you use hard drives, then plan on migrating your library to a replacement within five to ten years. Many feature film operations, like ILM, have done that for years, because they sit on a library of material with a ton of value. Your media files, might not be that, but this should be a strategy you follow to future-proof your production investment.

©2019 Oliver Peters