Work on the standard mastering format for B2B content distribution across the digital landscape has been a long process, but a gathering of the leading cheerleaders for IMF at NAB in Las Vegas may indicate that consensus is closer than ever

The Interoperable Mastering Format (IMF) for broadcast and offline has been long mooted and long mulled over, and at NAB it was widely evident under two prevailing moods.

Multiple upbeat vendors, typically Dalet with its shared plug-and-play IMF workflows, know it as a useful toolset that users will trust and deploy right now. Meanwhile SMPTE and the Digital Production Partnership (DPP) have been working assiduously to push IMF towards what will be landmark specification status.

DPP Head of Business Development Andy Wilson says: “We attracted a huge audience of broadcasters, suppliers, SMPTE officers, and content producers to the NAB launch of our business benefits of IMF document. Once the final specification is published by SMPTE later in the summer, the effort behind implementation really begins.

“The DPP will work with our members globally across production, postproduction, broadcasters, manufacturers and suppliers to form an implementers group, to help those who are migrating to IMF for content masters,” he adds.

Smooth migration
Typical of the DPP’s famed thoroughness, there will be an IMF Testing structure, not too dissimilar to the way it readied AS-11 for ubiquity.

“This will test vendor products against the DPP specification to ensure that buyers and sellers of IMF packages will be able to use equipment that interoperates correctly,” says Wilson. “The new testing procedures will sit alongside the existing DPP AS-11 Compliance Programme.

“Over the next year further training and awareness sessions for producers and postproduction will be organised, to help ensure a smooth migration to IMF deliveries,” he adds.

Bruce Devlin: SMPTE Standards Vice President

Bruce Devlin: SMPTE Standards Vice President

The make-up of the DPP’s IMF workstream gives a very strong indication that this versioning tool has required a major collective effort: it includes executives from Adstream, the BBC, BT, Centurylong, Channel 4, Channel 5, Disney, Dolby, Ericsson, Fusion Media, Honeycomb.TV, Group IMD, ITV, Marquise Technologies, the North American Broadcasters’ Association, PBS, Perform Group, Prime Focus Technologies, Qvest Media, Sky, Sony, The Farm, Turner Time Warner, UK Screen Association, Visual Data Media Services and WCP Media Services.

SMPTE Standards Vice President Bruce Devlin says: “SMPTE is continuing to review the specifications process, and it is using the DPP research work on IMF as the test documents.

“The IMF User Group meeting [at NAB] was also well attended, and at both events there were a lot of people who were totally aware of the benefits, along with several vendors rolling out toolsets and several content owners formulating roll-out plans,” he adds. “The next major IMF event will be the plug-fest to be hosted by IRT in Munich on May 29.”

‘Over the next year further training and awareness sessions for producers and post-production will be organised, to help ensure a smooth migration to IMF deliveries’ – Andy Wilson, DPP

Continuous development
The transformation offered by the widespread adoption of IMF is tantalising but will not happen quickly.

Andy Quested, tasked with Technology, Strategy and Architecture for the BBC, is the appointed rapporteur for the ITU global platform overview/investigation of IMF (ITU BT.2400).

Quested says: “In television terms we are dealing with very high-end programmes out of the studios that tend to be episodic, and people like the BBC and ITV who sell into the international markets. A lot of broadcast people do not see the need of it because they do not currently sell their content.

“But IMF is fast becoming quite a good performer for the exchange of programmes between broadcasters, distribution companies and others because it contains versions, no matter what the quality,” he adds. “It is even moving into commercials and promos.”

Big ad agencies are looking at IMF almost as keenly as the DPP membership are, so how vital are the plug-fests?

BBC's Andy Quested: Tasked with Technology, Strategy & Architecture

BBC’s Andy Quested: Tasked with Technology, Strategy & Architecture

“They are really important because IMF is not finished, and it never will be finished,” says Quested. “Each new piece that is added to it kicks off a virtual plug-fest, which is happening right now. The physical plug-fest is where people can combine results and talk about them.

“There are new features; one that is being tested is the ProRes application. Other new things include the sidecar metadata files,” he adds. “There will always be a plug-fest to test new features.”

IMF is already cloud capable, and maybe TV people would take advantage of this, but Quested points to on-going mistrust of the cloud by the film world.

“There is a lot of sensitivity about how cloud is used around the movies, but we are already thinking about the use of it for TV distribution, between say a big production company and BBC Worldwide, or a big production company and the BBC itself,” he says. “Eventually you won’t actually move any files around, you’ll just send pointers.”

So why does Quested say IMF will never be finished?

“It is flexible enough to adapt to quite long-term usage through the applications. We created a ProRes application, that was a business requirement of the DPP, and we could easily do H.264 and DMX apps if we wanted to,” he says. “We could make changes to do something slightly different like an archive application. There will be a slightly different version for promo and advertising producers, because their metadata is different. Instead of changing the core, you just update the applications.”

IMF is fast becoming quite a good performer for the exchange of programmes between broadcasters, distribution companies and others’ – Andy Quested, BBC

New document strand
So the potential of IMF is that it will creep into every form of content production, based on a sizeable set of applications?

Quested agrees: “Think of it as a core of standards that will change and adapt very slowly as new standards evolve and arrive. But around it can be applications that are totally business driven: these could be initiated by a huge company, or by groups of companies or users like the DPP. Commercials and promos are unique because they are larger distribution but a smaller amount of content.”

There is no certainty with regard to what IMF will be called by SMPTE come August. And it will be interesting to see what the ITU suitability tests suggest, and how BT.2400 evolves.

“Our target is a specification for the application. We don’t want it to touch SMPTE ST,” says Quested. “SMPTE is still sorting that aspect out; it is a change to how they work. It is a new document strand.”