No longer a vague concept for the future; Post Production in the Cloud is here now and getting more practical by the day. While questions of content security and bandwidth have been keeping all but early adopters from taking advantage, many in the Industry are starting to see the benefits of this technology and preparing for widespread deployment.
Skeptics would say that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They are content to try and handle Post services the old fashion way, physically dragging around hard drives or tapes from one service provider to the next. However, they are increasingly being outnumbered by those who need to embrace the Cloud in order to stay competitive. New efficiencies are required to keep up with shrinking budgets and postproduction schedules.
Realtime collaboration from numerous remote workstations means work can be parceled out and the approval process can be shortened, not to mention the time eaten up by physically transporting media back and forth between producers and the myriad of service providers necessary to finish a project.
As an example, lets look at a need that is already being met with Cloud technology. Probably our industry’s most prevalent and established use of the Cloud to date is in the area of theatrical distribution. After only a little more than a decade on the scene, the way Distributors get their content to theaters has undergone a dramatic transformation.
It used to be, (and not all that long ago), that physical 35mm prints of motion pictures were created, then schlepped around from studios to theaters, and sometimes on to secondary markets. Much to the chagrin of the established status quo and companies like Eastman Kodak and UPS, the studios set up the Digital Cinema Initiative to find a better way, and they did.
In fact, they saved so many millions of dollars in lab services, print stock, and shipping that they were able to finance the Exhibitors’ transition to digital projection with a system known as the “virtual print fee.” Although movies are still sometimes shipped via hard drive, they are increasingly being distributed via the Cloud and almost never by shipping film prints. But with the speed of technological evolution in our business, that is now very old news. So let’s look at how a few DCS members are bringing cutting edge Cloud technology to the fore.
Ramy Katrib is the CEO of DigitalFilm Tree and a Founding Member of DCS. His company is highly successful in the world of episodic television Post Production. He explained how extremely truncated TV Post schedules have become and jokes that in TV, the “Binge-watching” phenomenon has led to “Binge-delivery,” where the networks are sometimes demanding a complete season be delivered within a three week timeframe. DFT has begun taking advantage of the Cloud to meet these challenges.
One popular technique is “Object-Based Storage,” where a client’s material is uploaded to servers physically located in DFT’s own digital vault. This compares to Public Cloud services like Google, Microsoft, or the most prevalent, Amazon, (also known as AWS). Object-based, or a mix of the two known as “Hybrid” is considered to be more secure than relying on the public Cloud. With recent news stories of large scale hacks of Yahoo and iCloud, (although Apple denies it was hacked), it can certainly give a content owner pause.
DigitalFilm Tree’s system starts once the material is captured and then quickly uploaded so that post production begins immediately. Dailies are color timed and made ready to distribute in a variety of formats. Banking industry level encryption is used to make sure only designated key holders are granted the specific access they require. For example, Creatives might need to only see dailies, while the VFX house may need to download the “Camera Original” raw files. Making the assets concurrently available to a variety of Post functions means the Editor, Post Sound, VFX, etc., can all be working simultaneously, which is a major factor in speeding the workflow and meeting challenging deadlines.
With the current binge-delivery trend, it also helps that all the assets for a whole season are kept ready to access on the server throughout the process. Ramy points out that the ability to quickly pull assets in this way, compared to having to locate them on LTO and bring them back on-line, is a big, but often overlooked, timesaving advantage of the system.
I’ve described what has become the standard workflow for studio-based, locally produced shows that DFT services including American Housewife, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Angie Tribeca. But what about a distant location where broad band access may be limited?
Wrecked is a show they work on that has shot in Puerto Rico and is currently on location in Fiji. In this case, they work to facilitate locating a secure data center close by to the filming location and set up remote access to their servers back here in Hollywood. Since such secure data centers, with bank-level security and redundant back-up, are present wherever there is a functioning banking industry, they are never too far away from a production. Once the camera original is uploaded, which is usually an overnight process, post production can begin with the same workflow as a shoot happening down the street.
I was curious just how fat a pipe is required in regard to bandwidth to smoothly accommodate such a workflow. If the production is shooting ProRes, even up to 4K, it might total to a couple of terabytes a day, which can be handled with a minimum speed of 100Mbps up and down. However, if the production is shooting less compressed raw formats, it might add up to as much as 6TB a day requiring up to 500Mbps to efficiently handle the footage. The goal is to turn around a day’s footage around overnight.
Another DFT service Ramy was telling me about that especially piqued my interest as a Cinematographer is known as a “Remote Color Session”. I’ve written a lot about the frustration we DPs feel when we are not able to supervise the color grading of our work. The problem stems from the fact that successful Cinematographers are usually onto their next project, many times on a distant location, before their last one reaches the DI stage. It is getting to be somewhat common in these cases that the Post house will set up a remote monitoring situation so that the DP can follow along remotely as the Colorist works at the Post house. However, these have traditionally been highly compressed files in order to meet the available bandwidth parameters which is certainly not ideal for grading.
However, working with capabilities built into DaVinci Resolve, DigitalFilm Tree has begun taking the process a step further. They transfer the camera raw files to a remote server located at a facility convenient to the DP. Then, instead of compressed footage, only the color decision data is being transmitted in real time, thus using a fraction of the bandwidth, so that what the DP is seeing on location is displayed at full quality from the raw files at his location….sweet!
Another longtime DCS member, Kenneth Yas is Managing Director of the Americas for WCPMedia Services, which is headquartered in Switzerland. They specialize in enterprise-level content distribution, carefully controlling the delivery of movies and TV programs to theaters, broadcasters, and cable outlets that have licensed the programing. They also service productions like HBO’s The Young Pope by delivering encrypted assets, including high resolution media, to production partners around the world, cutting costs and improving security.
Ken points out that removing such geographic barriers allows content creators to share access to media and to collaborate seamlessly at every stage of the Post process from anywhere in the world. Such services have supported a trend toward international co-productions where various aspects of production and post are carried out in different locales in order to take advantage of tax breaks and incentives. Working with a company like WCP can enable smaller post-production facilities to compete in a global media market by allowing them to specialize at what they’re good at, and outsourcing services which are hard for them to handle, such as media storage, dailies processing, deliverables production and media distribution.
Speaking of small post-production operations, let me tell you how DCS is starting to use Cloud collaboration to help handle the post for the hundreds of streaming presentations we produce each year. It’s primarily Editor Christopher Scott Knell and myself bouncing post production chores between us. He’s better at graphics, sound, and finishing, while I like to keep an eye on the basic cutting of the pieces.
Since we don’t have the bandwidth to be transferring our native content, which is increasingly captured in 4K, we physically make two backups for all of our assets at the end of any production which are then stored on two separate OWC 24TB RAIDs. One is then kept at each of our residences, (which in my case is DCS World Headquarters).
We then use the functionality of both Adobe Creative Cloud and Frame.io, a review and collaboration platform that works alongside Premiere and other popular NLEs, to unify media assets and ease creative communication.
We can see, comment, and update each other’s timeline, but the material is assembled from separate RAIDs so we are never having to transfer those files. I don’t edit everyday as Christopher does, so I sometimes get stuck deep in the weeds trying to remember how to accomplish a complex editorial function. Thankfully, I can use various chat software to share my desktop with Christopher and he can usually guide me out of a jam. The hours saved not having to pour through on-line manuals and tutorials to figure out something I’m not familiar with, is a Godsend.
I’ve also successfully used some Cloud services recently in my day job as a Cinematographer. In this case, it was part of the very painful experience of trying to update my DP demo reel. The problem is that I have a lot of work that I’m very proud of from earlier in my career, and although it may have been captured on 35mm film and displayed theatrically, the copies I was able to access at the time were usually in standard definition. Unless it became a classic and warranted re-release in the last decade, it would not have ever been transferred to HD. So now, when I to cut these samples up against more recent material I’m collecting in 4K, the older footage, even though it may have been beautifully photographed, looks to be lacking by comparison.
After running into him at the HPA Tech Retreat, I was explaining my dilemma to my old friend Lance Maurer, CEO of Cinnafilm. His company, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has long been creating some of the highest level software for image processing in the Industry. Their tool sets can be found working in most top Post facilities to perform such functions as format and frame rate conversions, runtime retiming while also controlling grain levels, de-interlacing, scaling, de-noising, along with removal of dust and interlace artifacts. In short, they have specialized in helping post facilities fix problem video and transform outdated formats up to the optimum in quality, which is just the kind of help I was looking for.
Cloud computing and bandwidth have now advanced to the point where Cinnafilm has decided to offer their services directly via a Cloud platform they are calling PixelStrings. Now anyone, from any location with an internet connection, can take advantage of these high-end offerings. Whether they are major Studios or boutique operations, they can help to insure optimum image quality on any screen.
PixelStrings will initially be available in the public Cloud on AWS (using S3 storage), and eventually on other Cloud platforms as well. In addition, it will be available for private Cloud integrations through various partners and an API. PixelStrings will be on a pay-as-you-go basis, by-the-output-minute for just the services you require. Pricing will be very competitive and include all processing, software fees, and compute costs, but will not include data storage or egress charges.
PixelStrings is in active beta test now, which proved to be excellent timing for me. Lance offered to apply his best medicine to my tired, old demo video. I simply uploaded the material to PixelStrings and shortly after was able to download the much improved material, now in full HD with vivid color and very little of the previously noticeable grain and artifacts.
Once the service goes live to the public by Fall of this year, it will be followed by an IMF option available in early 2018, and full DCP outputs by the second quarter of 2018. The goal is to offer creatives the power to fix, convert, or optimize their content, and then to deliver the best-looking IMF and DCP packages possible.
VR is another area that lends itself to Cloud based workflows. In fact, a proposal for a very large scale location VR project is what prompted me to begin this research. The shoot involves traveling to 6 different countries with a multi-camera 360º VR rig that can consume up to 8TB per shot! A further complication is the fact that you can’t monitor while you’re shooting and it takes massive computing power to process and stitch the material in any kind of reasonable time.
Unless our crew is prepared to wait until the footage is processed we would not have the confidence to know we bagged the shot. Consequently, we would not be able to move onto the next location, and without being able to reformat, we would be forced to perilously carry hundreds of terabytes worth of hard drives with our original data all around the world…Can you say excess baggage?
The only reasonable scenario I could come up with is to upload the material each night to a facility with a super computer that can more quickly process VR, and then have them send back 360º dailies that we can view on location. It will still be a challenging undertaking, but would border on the impossible without such a Cloud workflow. So the question remains, are you ready to take advantage of post production in the Cloud? I know I am.
You can find out more about the aforementioned enterprises by visiting their websites;
Digitalfilm Tree at: www.digitalfilmtree.com
WCPMedia Services at: www.wcpmediaservices.com
Cinnafilm’s PixelStrings at: www.pixelstrings.com