The current workflow challenges in Hollywood are driving interest in accelerating the ambition to move all production to the cloud sooner than 2030.
In the past few months the media and entertainment industry has not only decentralised its entire organisational model, but dramatically sped up its transition to cloud-based workflows, archives and computing resources.
This is not just happening piecemeal or short term – coronavirus is finally putting the skates under Hollywood studios to speed the transition to wholly cloud-based production.
As Avid puts it, while the past few years have seen a handful of innovators migrating certain workflows to the cloud, “it took a disaster on the scale of a global pandemic for the broader industry to seriously consider what cloud solutions could do for media production.”
Even before Covid-19 struck, cloud had risen up the agenda. In a 2018 poll when nearly 70% of media enterprises said they preferred an exclusively on-premises compute and storage model, a survey conducted by IBM and Ovum predicts this to drop by more than half in 2023. Meanwhile, there will be a surge in uptake of cloud offerings from 10% to 34% over the same period, resulting in an even split of deployment models across on premises, cloud, and hybrid.
Since that survey was conducted last year, investment priorities will have shifted further as a result of the external shock.
A recent IABM report underlines this by highlighting increased investment in virtualization and remote production. Most media buyers told the IABM that, post-pandemic, they can’t imagine things going back to the way they were before. The imperative for business continuity alone will accelerate technology transitions that were already underway.
“There will be positive consequences resulting from production lockdown,” contends Chuck Parker, CEO at Sohonet. “Chief among these will be an enlightened attitude in Hollywood and beyond to the practicality and benefits of a distributed content-production workforce.”
This is echoed at MovieLabs, a think tank set up by the major studios, including Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Sony and Universal, to define and enable the future of film and TV production.
“Everything changed overnight, and that obviously created a new level of urgency and focus on the cloud just to continue some level of work,” says CEO Rich Berger. “It would be fair to say that the collective mindset has shifted from ‘we will be migrating to the cloud’ to ‘‘we have an imperative to move to the cloud to protect our long-term business’.”
Creative driving force
MovieLabs set out a blueprint last autumn for all studio content to be created and ingest straight into the cloud without needing to be moved and gave a ten-year timeframe for that to happen.
“Not every principle we highlighted will be achieved at the same time and at scale,” Berger says. “That said, our focus since we published the 2030 Vision paper is to accelerate this timeframe.”
The current ‘working from home’ short term solutions are different from its longer-term cloud vision and involve complications like VPN access and duplication of files that are not core to its ultimate ambition but, Berger says, many parts are already happening and will be realised before 2030.
“Working in the cloud is not necessarily about improving efficiencies for the studios so much as enabling creatives to explore more options before they run out of budget or time,” stresses MovieLabs CTO Jim Helman. “For example, it allows the creation of more iterations before principal photography begins.”
Indeed, it is the creatives rather than the executives who may provide the driving force to maintain ‘work from anywhere’ workflows after Covid-19 is contained.
“Creatives have now had several months of working from home and can now see that cloud-based production workflows actually can work for them,” Berger says. “We have an opportunity as we move to the cloud to reinvent and optimise workflows. You wouldn’t have to send files all over the place, we can have them stay in one location and have the applications come to the medium. That in and of itself should create a lot of change and opportunity.”
At its most basic level, the cloud provides a more cost-effective platform for fulfilling unpredictable spikes in demand. At a more strategic level, the cloud provides a platform for aligning the needs of both creative and business teams.
“The costs associated with maintaining infrastructure on premises is higher in the long term,” argues Bob De Haven, GM, communications and media at Microsoft. Its Azure cloud is the platform of choice for Avid and Technicolor. “Go digital or go broke, that’s really the point.”
Changing the wheel
Cloud skeptics spotlight security, bandwidth and accessibility as critical concerns. Michael Cioni, Global SVP of Innovation at Frame.io welcomes the questioning but says the industry needs to make a behavioural change.
“We’ve gone through film to tape, tape to files, HD to 4K. Each required a decision to make the change, problems to be solved, inventions and a behavioural response to how facilities are run and how we expect the work to actually flow. Going to the cloud is really no different.”
The motion picture industry has worked in fundamentally similar ways since its beginning. Cameras and DoPs, audio recorders and sound engineers, editors working with NLEs, compositing tools and VFX artists, colour correction tools and colourists—all form a production support structure. They make up the most important part of the workflow foundation, and require the most significant investment from an equipment and labour perspective.
Few of these steps are directly connected to one another through a single platform.
“The unfortunate truth about the shift to digital technology is that it didn’t speed up the process as significantly as originally promised,” suggests Cioni. “Given the fair amount of manual processing it takes to move through the workflow, there’s still room for errors and failures—even (and perhaps especially) at the highest levels of the industry, where creatives are constantly pushing technology to its limits.”
Cioni is positioning Frame.io to be the media management ‘glue’ that links production tools with artists in the cloud. A milestone in this regard was the proof of concept demonstrated at a meeting of the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) in February.
At the event, a 6-minute film was made largely in real time in the cloud with the participation of multiple vendors including Avid, Blackmagic, RED, ARRI, FilmLight, SGO and Sony as well as members of the influential American Society of Cinematographers (ASC).
Footage was sent directly from camera to the Amazon Web Services cloud over wireless 4G LTE then streamed in both HDR and SDR to iPads carried by the DP and director for instant review. When takes are automatically available almost as soon as they are taken it dramatically shrinks the time to make alterations on set from days (sometimes weeks) to seconds.
“The workflow proved that it is possible to host the original camera files and power the offline edit from the cloud, and then relink back to them locally for the conform,” Cioni says. “The timecode and metadata captured in the live streaming assets on the set were sufficient to link back to the original camera files for the final digital intermediate.”
Bottlenecks to overcome
There are some constraints holding back the vision right now. One is around the streaming of the highest quality video, for example, high bit depth, full colour gamut streaming desktops for critical colour review.
MovieLabs points to limitations in the collaborative nature of work when working remotely. “We’ve yet to find technologies that allow whole teams of creatives to work in a ‘virtual’ suite as well as they can in a physical suite – where every participant can see, comment upon and control the output of the work and the applications being used to create it,” Berger says.
“We have more work to do as an industry to enable these applications to talk to each other and hand off assets and metadata to other components in a chain, even if piecemeal cloud implementations can be more inefficient than our legacy approach.”
Cloud interoperability is another issue. How can people working on the same show but in a different cloud access the same media? “We need to have a way to join clouds together or a seamless way where the operator doesn’t realise there are multiple clouds happening at the same time,” says Greg Ciaccio, workflow chair of the technology council at the ASC.
Limitations purely related to bandwidth are restrictive largely at ingest for Original Camera Files (OCFs). “We are able to ingest proxy files for many of our cloud-based workflows, but there are considerable delays to getting the matching OCFs ingested to the cloud because of the size of those files,” Berger says.
That is largely an issue of upload bandwidth speed which could be solved by 5G connectivity.
Concerns about the cost of cloud haven’t gone away either. “Without a doubt, [moving to remote production] was the right thing to do and without a doubt this was also the most expensive thing to do,” says Yves Bergquist, Director of the AI & Neuroscience Project at USC’s Entertainment Technology Center. “Storage, compute and data egress costs are likely skyrocketing throughout the industry, so this won’t be sustainable for long.”
He argues that AI/ML could offer a smarter way of managing data. “Like it or not, this hastily cobbled together ‘Internet of Production’ is here to stay. Because of the costs associated with its operation, it very much needs artificial intelligence.”
Concerns about security, which form a large part of the MovieLabs Vision 2030 specifications, seem to be receding. MovieLabs believes that in many ways, cloud-based workflows can and will be more secure with the right security framework and policies.
It is currently working on a ‘cloud readiness’ assessment across a set of workflow tasks to find a common way of evaluating just how possible various tasks are in the cloud today.
“We have seen pieces of the workflow—like batch VFX rendering, dailies and review/approve cycles and certain editing use cases—move to the cloud already,” Berger says. “We’re expecting more of these individual tasks to be next, for example, VFX workstations using shared global storage and also cloud-based archiving replacing LTO tapes.”
Internet of production
Cloud computing has dominated the IT conversation for many years, but the media and entertainment industry has lagged behind. That’s particularly acute in Hollywood in contrast to Netflix which has run all of its computing and storage needs, from customer information to recommendation algorithms in the cloud since 2016. It was a migration that took the company seven years to complete.
Netflix content production and postproduction remains a more hybrid operation, with one foot in the cloud to connect globally located creatives and another in physical spaces from New York and LA to Singapore and Brazil, where that creative work is done.
“It would be great to have the ability to reinvent large parts of our industry to essentially create a cloud-based creative supply chain connected and integrated fully with the creative and physical places all over the globe where content is made,” Leon Silverman, director, Post Operations and Creative Services, Netflix told IBC.
Not even Netflix can do it alone. “This will take real work and a lot of dialogue to move our industry forward,” Silverman says.
All the projections about cloud adoption are happening quicker because this technology is maturing faster than originally envisaged.
Cioni predicts: “Some people assume cloud is a decade away but I would say with very high certainty that in 2025 entire facilities that today do not use cloud for editorial, colour correction or conform will be using active and archive workflows completely in the cloud.”
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