Going Tapeless

 

The popularity of P2 and other tapeless camera formats has had a big impact on the post community. Some editors love it while others view it as a huge pain. Nevertheless – like it or not – file-based production and post production are here to stay. There’s not only P2, but also XDCAM, XDCAM-HD, XDCAM-EX, RED and a whole slew of consumer and prosumer camcorders using SD and CF cards to record various flavors of SD and HD video. And let’s not forget that FireStore and the original Avid/Ikegami EditCam started it all and are still with us today. Sony optical disc XDCAM and XDCAM-HD tend to be the exception, since this media offers a hybrid workflow that bridges the tape and tapeless worlds. To avoid confusion, I’m going to frame my comments around card and drive-based media, like P2. Some of the tips will apply to XDCAM, but others won’t.

 

There are typically 3 elements to file-based recordings. The first is essence – the actual audio and video content. Audio/video media that is recorded at a particular size, scanning method and frame rate (e.g. 1920x1080p/23.98fps) and uses a specific codec (e.g. DVCPRO HD). This essence is encased in a file wrapper, like MXF, MOV, MP4 and others. The file method used might also include a small metadata file, which is a data file containing information about the essence. When people talk about P2, that terminology should really only be reserved for the actual card and Panasonic product family. P2 devices can record audio and video essence in various formats and with different codecs, yet it’s all still on the same P2 media card.

 

Even when things look the same, they aren’t. For example, both Sony (XDCAM-HD) and Panasonic (P2) use the MXF wrapper, but the essence inside is not the same. Panasonic P2 MXF files could be natively opened and edited in Avid software, but XDCAM-HD MXF cannot. It doesn’t even stay the same within the same company. Sony’s XDCAM-HD uses the MPEG2 codec for video files, which is wrapped as an MXF file. When the EX-series camera was released, Sony chose to wrap its MPEG2 recordings as MP4 files. You would think the files used an MPEG4 codec by that designation, but not with the EX cameras. In the case of Panasonic, you can now record HD video as either DVCPRO HD or as AVC-Intra and they both appear with MXF file extensions.

 

When you analyze the file structure of any of these media cards, there is a specific folder and file hierarchy. Depending on the format, this structure has to stay intact. Moving video files outside of their folder often results in the inability of an NLE to read or open these files, so be careful how you handle them. With that in mind, here are some workflow tips for dealing with file-based media in a tapeless world.

 

Tip 1 – Clone your camera cards or drives

 

With the exception of XDCAM and XDCAM-HD, all card and hard drive-based media recordings MUST be backed up for protection, because no one plans to leave the card on the shelf. The recommended practice is to “clone” the card, i.e. copy the card in an exact fashion to preserve the original format and codec and maintain its folder and file hierarchy. This step is often done on location using a laptop, so that cards can quickly be reformatted and used for further recordings during the same day. Card capacity has increased from 4GB to 64GB, but it’s important to realize that a large capacity card is not always the best choice. Yes, you can record all day, but that means you’re likely to spend the rest of the entire evening copying and verifying the cards. Even if you have a “data wrangler” on the crew, they will be sitting on their hands if the card is in the camera all day long.

 

Keep your back-ups native! Some folks have imported their media into FCP or Avid systems and then formatted the cards, thinking that their NLE-compatible media was protected. This may be the case if you also back up your working media drives or your drives are RAID-protected, but the logic is faulty. Once you have imported P2 DVCPRO HD or AVC-Intra files into most NLEs, those files have been altered. Depending on the format and NLE, they have either been rewrapped or transcoded. Destroying the original camera media is tantamount to shooting on film, transferring the film to video and then destroying the negative. If you have maintained a back-up of the camera media in its native form, then you can always go back to these files, should you decide to switch to a different NLE or your working media becomes corrupt.

 

OK, so we agree that you should back-up your files to match the cards. But how? There are lots of recipes for doing this, but I think the best all-around solution comes from Imagine Products. Their ShotPut software comes in Mac and Windows editions for P2, EX and RED. It’s designed to safely name folders and copy and verify files to as many as three destinations. Having multiple copies is important, because no media product is infallible. People theorize about burning their media to Blu-ray data discs as an archive, but the reality is that transfer rates, burning speeds and BD-R media costs make this unattractive. Other solutions, like LTO3 data tapes and RAID-5 arrays only appeal to a select few. The solution most producers settle on is to buy cheap commodity FireWire, USB or eSATA drives (Maxtor, LaCie, Western Digital, Hitachi, Seagate, etc.) and make at least two copies that will sit on the shelf. The hope is that at least one of these will still spin up and work a year or so down the road when you need to go back to this footage. Remember that this is in addition to the working media used during post production.

 

Tip 2 – Budget time and media costs

 

Capture time has been replaced by import time. When I work with videotape, I tend to select a handful of good options for each set-up or scene and digitize only those takes. As a result, I might capture about half of the tape, but this is offset by the review and logging time. Logging plus capture time takes about as long as the full running time of the tape.

 

With tapeless media, I bring it all in. Yes, I know, the various import modules, like FCP’s Log and Transfer let me cull the footage down, but I just don’t like working with them. I’d rather bring it all in and sort it out in the NLE, which brings us to the point about time and money. Starting a P2 or EX session for example, generally means mounting a cheap USB or FireWire drive and importing all the clips. Unfortunately you are working with one of the slower transfer rates available on computers. The average (good) copy time takes about an hour for every 100GB of data. A typical DVCPRO HD shoot recorded on P2 media might be a few hours of footage delivered on a 200GB USB drive. The import is faster than real time (compared to the running time of the footage), so about 7 hours of 720p DVCPRO HD (at 29.97pN) media might take about 2-4 hours to copy, based on your machine and drives. This is in addition to the original back-up time from the cards, of course. It’s slower with AVC-Intra, because some NLEs (such as FCP) have to transcode this codec during the import. On my MacBook Pro, the transcode to ProRes in FCP’s Log and transfer module was a little slower than real time.

 

RED footage makes time an even bigger issue. Most editors have been unhappy working with RED’s QuickTime reference files on substantial projects, like feature films. That’s because the QT reference files have to stay linked to the R3D camera raw files and are essentially “windows” that look into the 4K data and extract lower-resolution media on-the-fly. If you want to edit smoothly, then it’s important to transcode the raw files into something easier on your NLE, like DV25, DVCPRO HD, DNxHD or ProRes. In other words, edit using a standard offline/online approach to RED. Exporting transcoded R3D files with a general purpose computer is pretty tedious. Budget between a 3-to-1 and as much as a 20-to-1 ratio to go from RED One’s raw files to your NLE and be ready to start cutting.

 

Like any other tapeless media, RED camera files also need to be backed-up. REDcode is a variable bit rate codec based on wavelet compression. On average, the files (4096×2048, 2:1 aspect, 23.98fps) consume about 1.5GB for every minute of footage – or about 90GB per hour. An indie feature might shoot around 30 hours of footage, which puts that close to 3TB of required storage, just for the camera raw files. Times 2 if you rely on redundancy for extra safety. To compare, 1080p/23.98 DVCPRO HD would only use about half of that. Same for ProRes and about two-thirds for ProResHQ.

 

Tip 3 – Organizing files in your NLE

 

The hardest thing to get used to with file-based media is the cryptic naming conventions used by the cameras. When you import these files, you typically get long alphanumeric file names and not “Scene 1 / Take 1” or “Wide shot of person sitting on the bench”. Some NLEs will let you safely change the file or clip names. Others won’t. Avid has always let you do this, but it has traditionally been a no-no with Final Cut. Recent versions of FCP have made that safer with some formats, but I really urge you to resist the temptation. Remember that at some point you might need to relink media files or restore from the backed-up camera files. You are only going to be able to do this when the file name matches. Changing the name from “0014EF” to “Scene 7 / Take 3” might be fine and safe in an ideal world, but if all else fails and you have to resort to some type of manual search, keeping this name relationship the same will save your butt.

 

I recommend using one of the other bin description or comments columns as a place to assign a useful name. Both Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro include numerous descriptor columns, so feel free to use these for custom names. You can also easily search and sort these, giving you the best of both worlds.

 

The other organizing factor is reel ID. Since there are no tape reels in the tapeless world, NLEs vary in their approach. Software like that from Imagine Products will let you rename cards. This is a wise approach. All too often, I have been handed a drive containing the contents from several cloned P2 cards. A volume for each card will mount on the desktop (on a Mac), labeled “No Name 1”, “No Name 2” and so on. What do you think is going to be on the next day’s drive? Same thing! So I urge you to properly name the cards in a consistent manner, using either film style (camera rolls) or video style (tape numbers) labeling. This may or may not be important for your NLE, but it is imperative if you have to locate shots on these drives in the future.

 

Tip 4 – Cataloguing your footage

 

You have been shooting with your RED One or HVX-200 for a few months and have started to accumulate a bunch of small FireWire drives holding the footage from each project. That’s easy to do, because the drives are so cheap that you buy a new one for each shoot. Just charge it off as part of the production budget, like tape stock. That’s all well and good, but now these are starting to pile up just like the camera tapes you used to have in the library. What’s the next step?

 

The simple and obvious step is to physically label the drives – just like your tapes. No wait – better than you used to label the tapes! Before you get buried in a pile of portable hard drives, start a cataloguing system. There is plenty of software to choose from and can be as simple or elaborate as you need. The main criteria is that the process be quick and easy when you want to know what’s on each drive or where to look for something shot during a given production. Choices include Apple Final Cut Server, Imagine Products, Bento, Filemaker Pro, CatDV or just an Excel spreadsheet. Whatever it is, start doing it yesterday!

 

Tip 5 – Mastering

 

I know, I know – it’s a tapeless world. The truth is, I still feel very comfortable having my finished production on a piece of tape. Most of my clients still own some VTRs. If you have to revise a project a year down the road, it’s often easier to ingest a videotape master and make revisions than to reload the entire original project from data back-ups.

 

My favorite mastering procedure is to generate four outputs of my edited sequence. These include a final videotape master of the edited program that is mixed, color-corrected and includes all titles and graphics. In addition, I will output a videotape submaster that is “superless” (no titles) with the audio in “stems” (separated dialogue, effects and music). Such a submaster makes any of the common revisions very easy.

 

That’s two of the four. Next, I’ll also export self-contained media files (such as QuickTime movies) in these same configurations – final master and superless submaster. This level of simple and easy protection neatly fits into the budget of most producers. For example, an hour-long, 1080i, 8-bit uncompressed QuickTime file with stereo audio requires about 400GB of drive space. Dumping a master file onto a FireWire drive is still more expensive than an hour-long HDCAM tape, but you can work with the media, even if you don’t actually own or have access to the tape deck.

 

Careful planning, organization and a policy for data management and protection will help you survive and thrive in the transition from tape to files.

 

© 2008 Oliver Peters

Impressions of Las Vegas – NAB 2008

If you’ve casually been following the NAB news, you most likely think that the biggest press is the lack of participation by Avid and Apple. It’s true that neither had a booth, but both were there at customer and reseller events, including Avid’s roll-out the new DX product line. If this is your take away, then you might surmise that NAB was a rather lackluster event for post. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that NLEs have reached a certain level of maturity and it’s hard to keep rolling in new features. In fact, camera manufacturers have been driving the show with the latest and greatest file-based formats. The editing system manufacturers have had their hands full simply adding support for each new camera record option. Whether or not your favorite NLE supports P2, XDCAM-HD, REDcode and so on will impact far more users than whether Avid improves color correction or Apple improves media management.

 

If you’re looking for true edit system innovation, then that news came out of Quantel. Not only are they adding significant features, but they’ve wholly embraced the tools to edit and color grade the left and right eye views of stereoscopic imagery. We’ll see if that proves to be a good business model, but right now in the wake of quite a few 3D movies in the theaters, Quantel is betting that the market is there for more than a select few. Autodesk likewise had its own news with the continued unification of the user interfaces between Smoke and Flame. The products each still have a distinct and unique role to play, but Autodesk is integrating across both product groups such common modules as the timeline and batch (Flame’s process tree for effects).

 

As far as Avid’s DX line is concerned, so far the main news is new hardware connected via the PCIe bus and new pricing. This ties in with improved GPU and CPU power as well as Leopard and Vista support and even optimization. In total this will result in more streams of true real time horsepower. Unfortunately, this also means that Avid has to update the system, while staying with the familiar GUI that its user base likes. It might be different under the hood, but on the surface looks and feels the same. Many will applaud this, but it won’t sway the critics and certainly won’t bring back those who’ve left for other NLEs, like Final Cut Pro.

 

 

Trends 

 

If you’re looking for trends, however, it’s become pretty obvious – if you didn’t know already – that the industry is moving away from videotape and towards a myriad of file-based solutions. When Panasonic jumped in originally with P2, Sony made no bones about detracting from their competitor. The funny thing about this is that Sony has now wholeheartedly embraced the concept with its EX1 and now EX3 cameras, sporting their own style of solid state storage, the SxS cards. Users are riding the learning curve, as many still don’t understand the differences when it comes to containers (P2 cards, XDCAM-HD discs, SxS cards), file wrappers (MXF, OMF, QuickTime, AVI, MPEG4) and codecs (DVCPROHD, AVC-Intra, MPEG2). Of course, eventually it will all get sorted out, but what’s worth noting, is that the only new videotape-based VTR introduced at NAB 2008 was an HDCAM-SR player by Sony. Meanwhile Sony and Panasonic both released quite a few VTR “replacement” products that use each manufacturer’s card scheme. Panasonic is growing a product ecosystem around P2 and likewise Sony growing one around the SxS cards.

 

Many experienced video pros look at this in horror, fearing that a few years down the road, it will be hard to mount the hard drives to which this media has been copied after the shoot. I appreciate this sentiment, as you can still readily find decks to play Betacam-SP and even Umatic tapes that are now over two decades old. That isn’t universally true however. In my market, you’d be hard pressed to find decks to play such once-popular formats as D1, D2, D3 or D5. The are only a handful of one-inch Type C VTRs in the market and their reliability is questionable. So the truth of the matter is that you probably aren’t any safer with content on tape as on hard drive, assuming you establish a viable approach to archiving the media. Generally this takes the form of redundant copies on multiple hard drives or at best, data tapes, such as the LTO3 format.

 

With this as a trend, quite a few NAB vendors were showing solutions for lower cost and simpler shared storage as well as asset management software. Some products to look into include Apple’s Final Cut Server, Laird Telemedia’s LairdShareHD, Focus Enhancements’ ProxSys, Gridiron Software’s Flow and Tiger Technologies’ MetaSAN and MetaLAN. In addition, the average cost of local storage is getting cheaper than ever; so, those editors working with P2 or similar technologies will have no problem just dumping all the media at full resolution to their local drives straight from the shoot and cutting happily away.

 

 

RED

 

It’s hard to talk about NAB and not mention RED Digital Camera. Yes, they announced two new cameras (Scarlet and Epic), but more importantly is the fact that the post support structure is growing around them. Even if RED is ultimately not super-successful (unlikely), they will have changed the way many work with images. I believe the camera raw workflow is bound to be adopted by others in the future. Today, Apple and Assimilate are the only official RED partners. They are the only companies with access to the .R3D files. Avid is also able to provide some editorial support through XML list conversions. In the RED booth, a beta version of FCP’s Log and Transfer module was shown that imports and transcodes .R3D files. FCP editors can natively import raw files, transcoding them to another codec, like Apple ProRes 422 on the way in. There was also a technology preview of .R3D files being graded directly in Apple Color, through the addition of a RED-oriented RED Room tab within Color’s interface. 

 

Assimilate introduced its RED-specific SCRATCH CINE, the only full-featured finishing product geared strictly for a RED workflow. But the story doesn’t stop there. Quite a few companies are chomping at the bit to release their own products for RED. At the moment, they are held back by RED Digital Camera’s agreements with its original partners. These are expected to expire soon, with RED releasing an SDK for its REDcode codec. Once that’s done, expect to see companies like Cineform and IRIDAS quickly jump into the game. In fact, these companies already have raw workflow products that are ready for RED, which were developed using existing (but not final) versions of the codec. So just as in the digital still photo world, camera raw will be a concept to which videographers will need to become accustomed.

 

Look for more of my NAB 2008 post production analysis in the June print edition of Videography magazine and also online at DV magazine.


© 2008 Oliver Peters

Staying Green In Post

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A lot of emphasis is being placed on saving the environment and operating in a “greener” workplace. That may be easy to see in a production on location, where waste is easy to identify, but how is that applied to post facilities and editing boutiques? Let me outline some simple steps to help you do your part.

 

Water

 

I’m not exactly sure when it became the norm for everyone to have their own personal bottle of water, but palettes of bottled water have taken over the frig at most post houses. If you’ve listened to the news for the most fleeting moment, you should be aware that our landfills are being filled with these plastic bottles in spite of recycling efforts. You can make your contribution by going back to other sources of water for yourself and your clients. After all, the source for what’s in those bottles is generally the same as what’s coming from your tap anyway. You can handle this by something as simple as using a large water supply service to stock a water cooler of the same stuff, but in much larger, recycled containers. Or how about enhancing your customer service and actually bringing your clients a tray of glasses and a pitcher of ice water into the session? While we’re at it, the same logic can be applied to cans of soda.

 

Power

 

Through my decades in the business, common wisdom said that equipment should stay on 24/7 and that more gear dies from being powered up than from staying on constantly. I’m here to tell you that at least with today’s technology, this is total bunk. When you’re done for the day or the week – shut the power off! I’ll admit that I have had some gear break when it was first turned on, but these cases have been rare and nothing in the last ten years. In fact, most of the shops in which I freelance, routinely power down decks, computers and drives at the end of the day. None have had any issues. Hard drives are the only item I tend to see left on, but I would recommend turning these off as well. 

 

Remember that many items use standby power even when the units are off. This standby power feature enables faster startups, but in some cases draws almost as much power as if the unit were still on. I would recommend that you put such gear on a power strip. You can hit one breaker switch and turn off the current feeding that unit, after using the computer’s software shut down. This has the added benefit that you are truly turning off the unit, so the next time the computer is booted, it starts clean and “flushes” out any problems that might have been held by standby power. Macs are especially susceptible to this, as “gremlins” are often held in memory in spite of shutdowns or restarts. These miraculously go away when you actually kill the power to the unit and do a reboot from a true powered down condition.

 

Let me point out that power surges and poorly conditioned power do more harm to gear than whether or not it stays on 24/7. So as a normal installation item, I would recommend that all drives and computers be connected to a large uninterrupted power supply (UPS) from a reliable manufacturer, such as APC. If you get the more expensive models (not the cheapos from an office supply store), they will apply some power conditioning to the signal. Believe it or not, I have seen where the absence of a UPS has caused file loss and/or corruption on a SAN array! All purely a result of the lack of this sort of power conditioning.

 

Air Conditioning

 

Another holdover from the old days is air conditioning. Tape rooms used to be set to about 60 or 65 degrees – and suites close to it – so it was a common sight to see editors and clients in sweaters and even heavy jackets during a session on a hot summer day. The logic was that heat kills gear and so if the ambient temperature was about 65 degrees, then it was hotter inside the equipment racks and probably close to 100 degrees on the circuit boards themselves. Again, technology has advanced since the 1950s. In a recent Google study, their engineers analyzed the failure rates of hard drives at Google data centers. In this study they found that there was no strong correlation between heat and drive failure. The researchers are careful to point out this doesn’t mean that there isn’t one, but that heat is only one of the factors in drive failure rates.

 

Ultimately all drives fail, so you have to balance the energy costs against the hardware replacement costs and decide whether 10 degrees difference in temperature is worth the possibility of gaining an extra year or so of life from your hard drives. Most of the smaller boutiques in which I work haven’t had the luxury of designing large, cold machine rooms that mimic a Google data center. Instead, racks are installed in standard office or remodeled home environments. Since equipment and people share the same spaces, I find that the thermostats are typically set in the low to mid 70 degree range. Low and behold the gear is just fine and anecdotally, I don’t see any higher failure rates than when I worked in the frozen tape rooms of the past.

 

Cleanliness

 

Heat is one factor, but an even bigger factor is how clean your gear stays. Most computers and drives that employ fans, use a front-fed, flow-though ventilation. Air is sucked in the front and pushed out the back. Most of the rooms where you find this gear could hardly be considered a “clean room” environment. Even the cleanliest environment has dirt and dust, especially if there’s carpet. Take a look at the fans or open up your computer occasionally and you’ll be appalled at the amount of dust that’s trapped inside. This dust prevents proper cooling, so if heat is a factor, then this dust is greatly reducing the efficiency of your air conditioning. The best solution is to establish a monthly maintenance routine in which computers are opened and vacuumed out. Drives are removed and either vacuumed or blown out with compressed air. Obviously the latter should be done outside so that you aren’t simply blowing this dust back into the same environment from where it came.

 

File Based Media

 

Many people are discussing the concept that video technology is cleaner than film technology and that ultimately file based digital productions (P2, XDCAM, RED, S.two, etc.) are environmentally better. I haven’t done any sort of analysis on this and quite frankly, many environmental arguments often don’t actually hold up once you look at the total net effect of the alternative. For example, yes, manufacturing film stock and processing negative is a very dirty technology, however, there’s not much 35mm film production being done worldwide anymore outside of the motion picture industry. On the other hand, digital storage for still photographers and videographers is mushrooming – so I don’t think you can definitively say yet whether manufacturing all the solid state storage, hard drives and data back-up tapes to enable this digital revolution is actually cleaner than what it has replaced. After all, manufacturing digital media is not without its own environmental impact.

 

That is, of course, primarily a production question, which means the decision has been made before it gets to the editing suite. On the other hand, there are a lot of things editors and post facilities have historically done to protect assets in post and these practices should be revisited in light of cost and the environment. For instance, if you produce a set of shows, it’s common to output various formats (master, textless, 4×3, 16×9, letterboxed, etc.) to individual tapes. This is an item that is consumed for each piece of programming and even if you get the right length of videotape to match that program, the cost of cassette shells, cases and mechanisms is the same whether it’s a 5 minute or 60 minute program. Hard drives are cheap these days. It makes more sense to archive this content in a data format. You can get many more programs on a single hard drive or even data back-up tape than if videotapes are used. In the future, as massive online storage becomes the norm, courtesy of folks like Google, it might be feasible and in fact preferable, to archive your assets in the Internet cloud and not on-site as a physical piece of media.

 

Review And Approval

 

Edit sessions used to involve working with a client who sat in on the session and then walked with review dubs (3/4”, Beta-SP, VHS, etc.) for their bosses or clients. As our business changed, more of this work has become long distance and I find it to be the exception when a client spends the entire time in the session. At first, this meant making dubs to review (VHS or DVD) and shipping these across the country via Federal Express or another carrier or locally across town using a courier service. Hence, cost for materials – that eventually get tossed into the trash – as well as transportation. Again, the Internet is your answer. Many editors routinely turn to services like YouSendIt, SyncVue or Xprove to send review files to their clients. Internet services have become fast enough and compression quality good enough that it takes next to no time to upload or transfer 320×240-sized review videos at a sufficient quality level to get client feedback and approval. On most of my projects, voice-over recording sessions, music library searches and client review and approval cycles are entirely handled via the Internet. No material or transportation costs involved, so all-in-all, a much more environmentally-friendly process.

 

Even if you don’t believe in many of the environmental or energy arguments offered, it still makes perfect sense to come up with a plan to incorporate these suggestions. If nothing else, they will go a long way towards reducing your business’ operating costs and might just be beneficial for the rest of us, too.

 

©2008 Oliver Peters

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