Post-production companies, long considered to be the ‘last stage’ in the broadcast and film chain, are often the most enthusiastic early adopters of cutting edge technology.
To get a sense of the direction in which this area of the industry is heading, we approached the heads of technology of major post-production providers to invite them to this round table discussion.
Topics ranged from the rise of UHD and HDR content and the adoption of IP and cloud infrastructure and workflows, to the possibilities offered by AI and Blockchain in the post workflow. It won’t come as a huge surprise that, as ever with post, storage and speed are prime movers when it comes to technology decisions for these facilities.
Jack Edney, Director of Operations, The Farm Group
Credits: Grand Prix Driver, Deep State, The X Factor and The Grand Tour
Daniel Sassen, Head of Technical Operations, Envy Post Production
Credits: Putin: The New Tsar, The Road to Palmyra, The Voice UK and Gogglebox
Nizar Thabet, Chief Technology Officer, Deluxe Entertainment Services Post Production Group
Credits: Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Wild, Wild, Country, and Genius: Picasso
IBC365: What key areas have your facilities been investing in over the past twelve months, and what’s been driving this?
Nizar Thabet: Deluxe is always keeping an eye on new ways to work more efficiently and perform at peak for our clients. Most recently, we’ve been strategically investing in two key areas: networking and storage. We’ve initiated a switch from fibre channel to Ethernet and are increasing our storage capacity and investing in newer SDN technologies. With the continued adoption of 16-bit OpenEXR, 4K resolutions and higher, storage has been a key area for heavy investment.
Jack Edney: The Farm continues to invest heavily both in terms of technology and skills – as ever, we have to continually keep ahead of the game to support our clients’ ever-growing ambitions. Our investment has predominantly focused on 4K/UHD, HDR, Dolby Vision within grade, online and QC, as well as Dolby Atmos within Mix rooms and QC.
The increased output from the OTT providers has introduced a greater need for future proofing content. This requires content to be delivered in a multitude of formats, often currently unsupported within the consumer tech space, giving content a superior technical shelf life to what’s gone before.
The Farm has recently focussed on heavy VFX investment, based on increased demand for us to supply the entire post package. This is driven by a variety of reasons, such as creative choice, more efficient scheduling, and the ability to handle complex colour pipelines now required in the TV world.
Our storage requirements, especially high bandwidth SANs and Nearline, have increased exponentially to enable the uncompressed workflows and colour pipelines required for the high-end deliverables; in a collaborative environment, the bandwidth required across the storage estate is immense.
We’ve increased internet capacity, diversity and peering with external networks/carriers. This has enabled faster file transfers and enhanced functionality with studios, for example for frame chase editing on fast turnaround shows. We’ve also increased bandwidth throughout our diverse London dark fibre network. We have the ability to carry multiple 10Gb networking, and 16Gb fibre channel, for 4K/UHD 16bit workflows.
Daniel Sassen: We have made significant investment in many areas, ranging from the backbone networking and storage infrastructure, all the way up through to the kit required at the front end to efficiently handle UHD and HDR projects. More specifically we have upgraded our GPFS SAN, Nearline capacity, Transcode throughput, as well as Baselight and Symphony seats.
Security has also been a high priority, and we have overhauled our entire IT infrastructure to ensure that we are meeting or exceeding the industry requirements in this area.
Christian Askøe Vollmers: Primarily storage, and in this case fast storage. We have been working in HD for a long time, and our system is designed to do so.
With data transfer for real time playout in 4K, especially in 16bit, it’s a total different ballgame. It’s not just a double up, but much more so, when it comes to data storage and bandwidth.
In short, the transformation from HD to 4K, and maybe even 8K, is driving the need for fast storage.
What I would like to see are systems that are much easier to scale, both up and down, and which could implement the best parts of on-location servers, and cloud-based server space. That includes both fast and slow storage. Today you still have to make a decision about what your minimum storage space and speed has to be, without really knowing what the future might bring.
You might have made major investments, and shortly after you encounter a slow period you didn’t anticipate. It would be nice to make a much smaller investment, in a system that could be instantly upgraded to, for example, four times the size.
I’m sure someone out there is looking into exactly that issue, and will develop a solution, if it’s not already on the market.
IBC365: How much have you increased your IP infrastructure in the last couple of years, and how has this transformed the workflow across your facilities – what’s next on the roadmap?
Jack Edney: Being in the predominantly non-linear world of post-production, we’ve been IP based for over 15 years, [deploying] video streaming, audio streaming and KVMoIP. In the 4K world, our workflows require the stability and bandwidth of fibre channel.
Advances in compression technologies enable us to offer 4K remote grading with our Los Angeles facility, and this will become more and more common with the increase in co-productions, and demand for creative talent.
We’re still utilising some baseband for delivery of the content that requires live feed, via facility lines, but this is beginning to migrate across to IP streaming protocols.
Daniel Sassen: Moving to a fully file-based workflow has become standard across the industry. Implementing a data-driven environment for producing UHD and 4K deliverables early on has helped us design larger scale workflows for the hundreds of HD productions we complete every year.
Christian Askøe Vollmers: We’ve increased quite a lot, regarding network speed. Next on the roadmap is dark fibre I/O for fast deliveries between sites, and especially fast deliveries to external clients.
Our company is located in two different locations in the Copenhagen area. We need to establish a superfast connection between those sites, for real time viewing of 4K content from servers placed on both locations. That will be run as a private-operated network.
The other purpose is for uploading deliveries to external client’s media hubs. Today we ship encrypted discs to the clients, as almost none of them have any facilities for receiving it as an upload.
This is not something we have to find a solution for now, but, in my opinion, something we should look into and prepare for, so when it’s needed, we have a bulletproof project which can be implemented quickly.
Nizar Thabet: We’ve augmented our IP infrastructure for both content delivery and internally. We deliver to clients at 100 Gb/s, have heavily invested in 40 Gb/s and 100 Gb/s switching technology, and deployed dark fibre across the Deluxe global network for increased bandwidth and connectivity. By leveraging DWDM technology, we’ve exponentially increased bandwidth between facilities and have achieved connectivity that exceeds one terabit per second. Our robust IP infrastructure ensures we’re able to readily meet nearly any project’s workflow needs, and we keep apprised of emerging technologies to further enhance these capabilities.
IBC365: How much of your workflow and storage is now in the Cloud or virtualised, and how does this approach impact on the services you can offer?
Daniel Sassen: The amount of data Envy has in the cloud has not increased much over the last two years, as we already had review and approval, encrypted delivery, long-term archive and logging services in the cloud.
One of the reasons we have not needed to increase our use of public cloud services is because we have setup our own private cloud with an array of servers and storage spread across our six locations providing virtualised services, redundancy and disaster recovery. Envy’s private cloud ensures our clients know where their data is, and they know they are not sharing data environments with unknown entities.
Christian Askøe Vollmers: We haven’t implemented any cloud-based workflows yet, but it’s something we will address in the near future.
In terms of virtualisation, we’ve started using Virtual Machines for different purposes, such as the small HTTP services we run to access media libraries, booking systems, license on demand handling and so on. It’s something we will continue to work with, and we are looking to expand the use of VMs.
Jack Edney: Increasingly, we are archiving more materials to the cloud, and using it to store/stream proxies. It is a great tool for virtualisation of scalable ‘on-demand’ process-driven tools, particularly for content preparation.
However, the true cost of the connectivity, along with the restrictions of bandwidth and latency within the cloud or data centres, limits the use of the cloud for our high-bandwidth editing environment.
Nizar Thabet: I built the first internal cloud at Deluxe in 2007, so we have really honed our cloud use, and are heavily virtualised wherever possible. Most of the finishing stations don’t yet support virtualisation, but most of our new innovative applications and Resolve databases are either cloud-based or virtualised.
We’re also using cloud resources for burst rendering, transcoding and hosting B2B client applications.
Cloud technology and virtualisation can help drive efficiency and provide additional redundancy, which is so important in our industry. We can also leverage existing APIs to integrate with the cloud; all of this helps us bring services to market more quickly.
IBC365: How much more demand for UHD and HDR content from clients is there? How are you handling demand and tackling the technical challenges?
Jack Edney: Over the past 2 years, the demand has risen significantly. Around 30% of our projects now require the ability to master in these formats. These projects also demand complex DI deliverables, which have a significant impact on the technology and personnel resources required.
Daniel Sassen: We have seen a big rise in demand for UHD deliverables in the last 6 months and there have been a few HDR projects as well. Quoting for both UHD and HDR is definitely increasing.
Nizar Thabet: From an infrastructure standpoint, successfully managing UHD and HDR content is a matter of having the necessary storage and proper reference equipment, so as the demand for HDR and HD content from our clients has surged, we’ve augmented our storage to accommodate that demand.
Christian Askøe Vollmers: We are taking this very seriously. We are already delivering in 4K 10bit, but are expanding to 16bit, to meet client demands for deliveries, which in the end will give them the possibility to deliver UHD and HDR content on consumer level.
Regarding the technical challenges, there is no doubt one that will occur over and over, is storage. Each production will demand more and more storage, and for longer periods. It’s there that I foresee we will place our main investments over the next couple of years.
Another challenge is network speed. We will also look into different methods for upscaling bandwidth on demand, both inhouse for production purposes, and on an external level, for deliveries to external clients.
IBC365: Are you considering, or in the process of, deploying blockchain technology? What do you see as the benefits and possible downsides to this approach?
Christian Askøe Vollmers: At the moment we are encrypting all DCP deliveries. In the future I see a market that will demand an increasingly higher level of security, and I expect that there will have to be certification for companies delivering media content. In that context the industry has to agree on standards, and that could be a challenge.
The downside, as I see it, could be that the administration of encryption keys and so on could result in slow handling processes. However, the benefits of security will outweigh the downside.
Nizar Thabet: Blockchain technology is very exciting; there’s much hype around it and the tech is solid, but there are also a lot of pretty big unknowns and it has limitations. Personally, I’m a big fan of the platform, and helped with the development of one platform, but I’m not sure how much it currently makes sense from a company perspective.
We can accomplish the same results a private blockchain would provide with a vector-based database, and a public blockchain raises regulation concerns.
That said, the EOSIO blockchain platform is promising for DApps, and the Sia storage platform could exponentially reduce storage costs. So we’re keeping blockchain top of mind, but still evaluating how we might best integrate the technology.
Daniel Sassen: Decentralised ledger technology could be used to track media as it goes through a delivery chain. This might be most useful when there are many stages to the delivery and multiple third parties are involved, therefore providing a means to investigate where the data package is, and which entity was handling the data at each stage of the process. This is not as relevant to us at Envy as we generally deliver directly to the broadcasters.
IBC365: How is the application of AI and machine learning likely to impact on your workflow – what opportunities do you see for post-production facilities?
Nizar Thabet: Automating repetitive and manual tasks is hugely beneficial as it helps us operate faster and more efficiently. New opportunities to streamline in post-production are constantly cropping up, and we closely monitor these advancements to stay at the forefront of technology that’s driving the industry forward.
For example, Adobe Sensei integration into Creative Cloud for Premiere is very useful, and image-processing technology keeps advancing, though we’re still in the early stages and it’s most beneficial to static images.
We’re working closely with technology partners like Intel and NVIDIA on AI and deep learning as it relates to image processing. It’s all very promising and we see huge potential in cultivating these technologies for post-production workflows.
Daniel Sassen: The biggest impact will be around logging rushes, utilising AI to intelligently make scenes easily searchable.
Jack Edney: AI is now a viable option within our operation, in particular for optimisation of scheduling for our back-end resources, ingesting and transcoding. It’s not particularly useful for a large part of our creative operation which requires human presence and touch!
Christian Askøe Vollmers: AI and machine learning will definitely change the future landscape of media production. Some of the functions you see today won’t be around in ten years; new things are sure to evolve. I see an opportunity to save time and money through automation, so the production systems will be able to adapt, through learning, and different projects can be trimmed to their exact needs. The possibilities are endless.
Read more Playout priorities: IP, UHD and OTT