By François Abbe

You’ve tripled the amount of titles published in VOD. Marketing has forced you to release new titles at the same instant worldwide. Your budgets are lower to preserve margins. To summarise, you need to do “more, faster with fewer resources”. There are three answers: sort out the technology, improve the processes and boost the people!

Each case is different, there is no magic recipe (and that’s a French guy who says this!). But good news: choosing the right format really helps! In this report, more on how file exchange formats respond to your business needs. It covers three dimensions: engineering, workflows and human aspects.

One universal programme master, why bother?

You make a programme (film, series, magazine…); it ends up being delivered as a master (the golden copy). It used to be on 35mm for feature films, it is now on files (rare exceptions use videotapes like Sony HDCAM SR). This file is then copied and transformed into multiple versions for as many targets, then each distribute it via multiple mechanisms. The problem is related to what happens in Visuel_devicesthe middle.
Let’s say as a Producer, you co-produce a programme with three TV channels across three countries. So be prepared to send at least three different copies. The content may remain identical but the requested delivery formats aren’t. Your editing systems from Adobe, Apple or Avid may all tell you the master uses QuickTime with ProRes, the output may not be exactly the same. Your co-producers and end-clients who bought the rights might well be expecting something different…

One planet, one format: keep dreaming!

When I worked for Snell, delivery on tapes was king. The Company’s core business was conversion between the two worlds PAL and NTSC. 2/3rd of the planet uses 25 frames per second vs the rest in 30 frames per second. This need is still there, and things got a lot more complicated with file-based delivery. The work on MXF started in 1998 to build “the” universal B2B file format; it took more than 10 years to get it right. We are at this point!

The MXF standards were released by SMPTE. Manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic started producing camcorders using MXF and practical use cases (aka workflows) to work with. The AMWA was created in 2005 to turn the over-engineered MXF toolbox into more business and user-driven formats. The AS (Application Specification) were born: AS-02 re-used by IMF, AS-11 used by DPP and AS-10 are increasingly more popular in Europe.

AMWA and DPP: interop means business

How do I ensure my Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer editing stations produce the right output masters? UK-based DPP launched a universal exchange format. For the first time ever, there is a single format whoever the end-client in the entire country. A certification programme ensures systems are DPP compatible. Early 2015, DPP became a non-profit business.

In June 2013, Andy Quested (BBC) came to explain the goal of DPP at Mesclado’s Media Engineering Intelligence seminar hosted at ARTE’s channel in Paris. At the time, the BBC had planned file delivery. It took several years from tape to 100% file-based delivery.

Today, DPP has matured and got the interest of other European channels such as Norwegian NRK. DPP is built-in commonly used video software tools, especially mastering workstations. However, the introduction to the market of Beyond HD resolutions such as UHDTV and 4K D-Cinema raised the need for a replacement to the current DPP’s AVC-Intra. Work is still in progress but this would be the natural evolution of the format, a “DPP 2.0”. The question then would be: which format for the next generation?

What next?

Can DPP take over Europe? Probably not with HD because DPP focuses today on Panasonic AVC-I format whereas France and Germany are stronger users of Sony XDCAM-HD.

The support for 4K/UHD may help Europe converge to one format. We will watch out for camcorder vendors’ support of UHD-compatible formats: VC-5 for GoPro, XAVC for Sony, AVC-Ultra for Panasonic. Apple QuickTime ProRes is still a popular choice, even in UHD.

IMF: improving the overall workflow

Global delivery of a programme requires the support of multiple “creative” versions. The typical example is a feature film. Audio is available in as many languages as there are local distributors. There may also be a shorter version for In Flight Entertainment (IFE).

Years after the MXF standards, SMPTE re-used that work in IMF (Interoperable Master Format) to provide a universal master format. This effort was pushed by American Studios, eager to have one master package called IMP to produce all versions.

Workflow

Since 2014, IMF maturity has been proven thanks to several international plugfests in the US and a local one in Paris. All IMF implementations could exchange packages and handle the corresponding metadata. Besides, new needs have been raised by actors like Netflix. A new IMF application is being considered, with a format closer to distribution such as HEVC. This application and future ones may answer local distributors’ concerns who are worried about heavy current UHD Application 2 Extended 800 Mbps JPEG-2000 masters that they can hardly process! For some, versioning a master using a 20 to 50 Mbps codec would be much easier and of course less expensive.

“Fromage et dessert”

Cheese or dessert? You actually need both: a master package with all the versions and multiple delivery masters to send to each and every individual client (e.g. TV stations, VOD operators). In other terms, one IMF package is the source to one DPP delivery master for a TV station in London and one AS-10 file for Paris. Netflix is an exception: only IMF is accepted when delivering to Netflix.

Staff needs to tune-in

You now have a future-proof format, bringing more efficient processes. How do you get your staff to embrace this? Involving the various teams from day 1 is essential. The scope of change is vast: programme purchasing, finance, marketing, operations… All have one thing in common: they need to get the bigger picture before new technology gets released, affecting their day to day life.

How does this affect my Accounts Department?

Let’s now say you run a Facility house. Programme masters come in and you make copies in all the formats requested by clients. You used to charge by the file or by the hour. Guys in charge of Digital Distribution for VOD have switched to a Cloud-based platform. The problem is you have no more visibility of all this traffic within your in-house accounting system: files come in, get processed and come out but it’s all virtual. Everyone is sort of happy until…

Hooray, we’ve doubled the amount of business!

Business increases, margins get lower and you can no longer manually invoice the clients by copying and pasting data from one system to the accounting system. That’s when you get the IT people in to industrialise the process. If you want to save time, you involve from day 1 someone who understands both your business and IT, and who’s successfully worked on similar projects (did you notice the hint to Mesclado?)

Getting up with a smile

You now have the best integrated system and the most efficient processes. What do your teams feel about it? When projects of this type fail (i.e. more budget, more time), in 80% of cases change management wasn’t sufficient. It requires careful planning, team work with the staff. And again having people with an HR background and an understanding of the Media Technology side is a no brainer (another Mesclado value add).

Conclusion: when work flows…

To get smooth operations and happy people, everyone needs to embrace this great new world, including those technology changes. The initial effort is marginal, a fraction of what’s required when done during chaos. 2015 is not about technology, but about the people that drive it. Food for thoughts…

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