Tales From the 2024 HPA Tech Retreat – Keeping Up With AI and Other Quickly Evolving Technologies

by | Mar 6, 2024 | Essays | 0 comments

Tales From the 2024 HPA Tech Retreat – Keeping Up With AI and Other Quickly Evolving Technologies

In a tradition maintained for many years, I devote a DCS eNews essay to cover the technology presented at the HPA Tech Retreat. It is a very high level gathering, now in its 29th year, that brings together a core group of technology leaders to meet each February in the California desert near Palm Springs. They share with each other challenges, solutions, and innovations occurring in motion picture production and post.  There’s always a lot of great innovation on display and this year was no different. I’ll cover some of what I discovered, however, one technology stole the show, and that was the broad and ever-evolving subject of AI.

It has been a week or so since my return, but my head is still spinning, and I truly don’t know whether to be enthusiastic or terrified. AI is a technology that promises fantastic new creative potential, but at the same time, will be completely disruptive to the industry and the way many of us have learned to earn our living.  One thing I know for sure is that ignoring it is not an option if we hope to remain relevant in the media and entertainment industry.  As in the Charles Darwin quote which we use to end each DCS eNewsletter reminds us, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” 

The dichotomy of my feelings toward AI, and the future of our industry were well illustrated by two speeches.  An encouraging outlook was presented in the opening keynote by HPA President Seth Hallen, (Managing Director of Light Iron) who acknowledged the rough patch we have all been through, but was hopeful moving forward.  His message was “Don’t fear AI” and instead explore the “ability to integrate these tools” into our work in order to “enhance the human touch.”

Hallen’s comments were somewhat in contrast to a Supersession closing keynote from the soon to be retiring Avid CEO Jeff Rosica.  Entitled, “Unbreaking, Fixing an Industry-Wide Mess” Rosica explained, “Our industry is facing significant headwinds coming from all directions, and all at the same time, a tremendous technology shift is coming on (and) it’s really reshaping everything that we do.” He pointed out several areas of change impacting the industry including the disruption of traditional production and distribution models.  Streaming and access to content by consumers anytime, anywhere on a myriad of digital devices will need to be accommodated.  He said, “We are in the midst of this change which is creating a lot of angst and pressures on each business.”

If that wasn’t enough, he explained, there are three other areas coming at us fast.  “Processes and workflows developed and proven over decades are being ripped and replaced,” referring to the rapid evolution of digital tools and IP networks now being accelerated by automation.  He also pointed to the Covid pandemic which ushered in an expectation of workers being able to perform their duties from anywhere causing us to rethink how content is created, with remote, collaborative and hybrid production models now the norm.

At the same time, he explained, the industry is facing a talent drain referring to the skills required in the areas of engineering, electronics, computer programming and software-based skills. He warned, “Our industry is running out of people…We don’t have enough people to even keep up with current requirements.” 

The final challenge identified by Rosica mentioned a term I had not heard before, “disintermediation,” meaning a breakdown in the connective entities delivering goods or services between producers and consumers.  He explained, “Few companies are not facing financial challenges, which were only exacerbated by the strikes last year.” At the same time technologies like Cloud, IP and Artificial Intelligence are creating issues of data security and data integrity such as deepfakes. “There have always been technology shifts in our industry, but we’ve never seen this many happening in parallel,” Rosica said. “Across the board, technology is creating substantive change. It is unprecedented.”

After scaring the bejesus out of us, he ended on a more hopeful note saying,“I do think there is a way forward. We can build something better for the future. Some things can be more valuable and stronger when they’re broken. We need to be brave. All will be fine and shake out favorably in the end. The consumer’s appetite for appealing content will not go away, and streaming is not a bad model. We need to embrace it as it may be the savior.”

The two powerful keynotes by Seth Hallen and Jeff Rosica were bookends for many truly remarkable presentations on the current state of Generative AI.  There were several practical real time demos of Open AI’s new “Sora” text-to-video model that simply blew me away.  Taking prompts from the audience, and working on a laptop, Niko Pueringer of Corridor Crew used custom LoRA models to create fully rendered visually complex animated images that would totally reimagine themselves with each new suggestion.  This was followed by the husband and wife team of AI Educators, Caleb and Shelby Ward of Curious Refuge, who showed examples of highly photo realistic demos, (many of their own creation.)  A collection of recent short film samples by various artists can be found in their AI Gallery on the Curious Refuge website: https://curiousrefuge.com/ai-film-gallery

The Adobe video team was well represented in the discussion of AI.  They demonstrated how AI-enhances animation workflows with tests using the iconic SpongeBob SquarePants and Baby Shark brands to show how eliminating mundane chores will allow creatives more time to…create.  They also touched on the challenge to protect such valuable IP in this era when everyone can reimagine and transform copyrighted images.

There was also Mark Schubin’s famous Technology Year in Review with interesting short tidbits and statistics from the previous 12 months.  Mark, known as “The Program Maestro” of the Tech Retreat, covered products such as Apple’s Vision Pro virtual reality headsets, the emergence of quantum dots for image display and transmission, as well as Canon’s Metalens and the Sphere 18K Big Sky Camera, (more on that to come.)

There was plenty outside of the “Supersession;” the first day of the 4 day Tech Retreat was devoted to illuminating case studies and workflow presentations on what was termed “Extreme Workflows” covering projects such as getting Christopher Nolan’s IMAX feature “Oppenheimer” to the big screen, and lightning-fast turn around sports programs.  The final day of the Retreat concentrated on workflow and a review of MovieLabs 2030 Vision, a technology roadmap to help establish interoperability and common ontology for media creation and distribution into the future.  As part of that discussion, Adobe’s Jeff Hodges and Morgan Prygrocki discussed the importance of Open Timeline IO (OTIO) for maintaining of Interoperable workflows.

A presentation I found particularly interesting as a Cinematographer was delivered by DCS members Michael Chambliss, a Business Rep for ICG Local 600 who focuses on new technology, and Greg Smokler, VP/GM for the Cine Products division of Creative Solutions, (SmallHD, Teradek, Wooden Camera).  They gave a presentation on Color Managed On-set HDR/SDR Workflows from the DP’s perspective with a panel that also included noted Cinematographer Tommy Maddox-Upshaw, ASC, Nate Heartt from Netflix, and Rory Gordon of Arsenal FX.

A panel discussion on ground breaking technology behind the Sphere in Las Vegas was perhaps the highlight of the Tech Retreat for me. Variety’s Carolyn Giardina assembled several of the Sphere production and post team members including my good friend and longtime DCS member Andrew Shulkind.  They shared some of the history and challenges of developing a camera with a 316-Megapixel HDR Sensor known as “Big Sky” in order to provide content for their 160,000-square-foot, immersive 16K-by-16K wraparound Sphere display.  They also discussed color timing and Q.C.ing Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth at the same time U2 rehearsals were taking place in the Sphere just prior to its public opening.

There was also plenty happening outside of the main presentations. Adobe’s Kylee Peña and Morgan Prygrocki hosted a luncheon to recognize underrepresented and un-tapped talent in Hollywood. At one of the “breakfast roundtables,” which are small breakout meetings over the first meal of the day, I got a chance to catch up with Andy Maltz. Andy is the former Managing Director of the Academy’s SciTech Council and current Chair of the international technical standards committee for the motion picture industry – ISO/TC 36 Cinematography.  He has recently formed “General Intelligence,” a consultancy which aims to help navigate technology-driven change in the motion picture industry with a particular focus on AI. It is currently the Wild West in the deployment of AI and Andy’s vast experience navigating and managing the development of technology standards should be a great value to the industry.  If, like myself, you want keep up with Andy’s activities, visit his new website: GenIntelligence.io.

I also had a chance to take a meeting with Terri Davies and Kari Grubin of the Trusted Partner Network (TPN). They explained their mission, which is supported by the Motion Picture Association, to help foster best practices for content security and preparedness and to help streamline the necessary checks throughout the content pipeline. Our production and post pipelines are increasingly interconnected, and security of that pipeline is only as strong as the weakest link. Therefore, vendors hoping to supply services to the industry need to prove they maintain stringent security protocols.  This has become even more complicated since remote workflows have come to the fore due to the Covid pandemic. Beleaguered vendors, such as small VFX houses who simultaneously serve many productions, used to be required to painstakingly verify their practices separately for each job.  The TPN network aims to streamline this process by pre-qualifying vendors, so that once they earn the TPN badge, the industry can be assured their security is up to snuff.  It is more secure and saves time and expense for everyone in the content pipeline.

And if all those presentations and sidebar meetings were not enough, the Tech Retreat also features an expo-type area called the “Innovation Zone” where dozens of companies sponsor booths for one-on-one demos of their products.  I got a chance to preview the new Quantum 32 from SmallHD.  The “Q32” is designed to be a true reference grade HDR monitor at a fraction of the price of other established brands. Lightweight and versatile enough to be used in real production environments, yet high enough quality to serve in a DI suite.  In the Dolby booth, I got a chance to try out Apple’s Vision Pro headsets as well as a new HDR 4K projector that beautifully fills up to a 10’ diameter screen projecting the image vertically from just in front of the screen.

There is still lots more I could tell you about, but as technology gets more complex, it seems attention spans are shrinking, so I think this may a good place to call this essay a wrap.  Next up: NAB.

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