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The future of post-production

"Traditional systems can adapt to new technology to offer more efficient services," said S.J. Owen, in a talk given at Amsterdan during IBC 97.

Traditional production methods are now facing a process of change, due to the need for cost reduction and the growing improvements of desktop systems. Is the future of post-production an industry of isolated publishers and producers working in independent suites? Or will the available bandwidth be able to interconnect all those suites to turn them into a kind of post-production super-center?

Either way, conventional structures would seem doomed to disappear, but in the scenario described the opportunities offered by the new technology to current production facilities are unknown, and the possibility that the knowledge and experience found there will be applied more efficiently.

In this lecture offered at IBC 97 within the Post-Production Forum, S.J. Owen, from Quantel (UK) examines how conventional facilities can adapt to change, by using new technologies to their advantage, and offer services that simply will not be available on desktop systems. TV&Video offers here the essential parts of the talk.

Downward pressure on production budgets is putting TV industrialists under the challenge of cutting costs. Production companies are looking for savings throughout the process, including post-production, and are demanding lower fees from companies that provide this service. At the same time, post-production equipment is becoming more accessible every day, not only because of the reduction in purchase value, but also because of the reduced need for technological knowledge for its operation. Thus, the future seems uncertain for post-production providers, whether they are service companies or manufacturers.

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But this picture ignores the other side of the coin, that of increasing efficiency. Existing providers of after-production services can remain competitive, not by entering the infinite spiral of lowering costs, but by reducing them through greater efficiency.

Business Development

Many companies have already diversified to offer complete production services aimed at providing production houses with comprehensive packages. Efficiencies are achieved through reduced staff and a much flatter production flow. The idea of a comprehensive package may be convenient for customers because it maximizes the use of all resources. Some types of services that are being offered are: Offline editing, online editing, graphic design, audio dubbing, 3D animation, studio physical plant, standards conversion, video to print, purchase of equipment, recruitment of personnel, satellite links, transmission services, global transport, storage of materials, engineering services and duplication.

However, even without becoming a comprehensive provider, new technologies offer considerable opportunities for service centers to improve their efficiency.

Online services

Before examining ways to improve efficiency, it is important to understand the implications of changes that can be planned. Online editing is a vital part of almost every type of program production. The role of online editing is to end the video, and depending on the application, it may also include ending the audio. It's easy to see online editing as simple as offline editing with better images, but it's actually so much more. Different types of production expect different things from online editing, but most editing sessions include a mix of skills that are immediately discussed. The mix changes between applications, but it's rare for a session that doesn't involve many of the different aspects of online work:

Tell a story. Narrative ability is required in many different online applications. Even if the online session is a simple assembly of shots that have been selected and structured offline, the editor must ensure that nothing distorts the story to be told. News editing is one extreme of the skill needed to tell a story. In the middle between simply assembling shots and news storytelling, there is a vast terrain to which online publishing contributes: the editing of highlights of a sporting event, for example, or the production of dramatic programs. Of course, there is little that an online editor can do if he does not have the appropriate shots, but if the rest of the production team gives him good material, it is the editor who can make the difference between a normal program and an excellent one.

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• Assembly. Many productions today use offline editing systems to have the opportunity to make the basic editing decisions, so the job of the online editor is to assemble the shots in the same order as they would offline. Editing decisions go in the form of an edit decision list (EDL) that uses timecodes to describe exactly how components should be assembled. In a modern editing suite, offline list assembly can be almost automatic, and there is certainly little room left for creativity. If the offline method is not used then the director might have a manual list of shots that need to be assembled to get a basic idea of the program structure before the editing is refined. In an ideal world, assembly from EDL lists would be automatic and would not need to involve the editor. The editor and director would go to work once the shots were assembled, when they could begin refining the edit to finish production.

• Creation of versions. Versioning is the industrial aspect of the online method. A part has been produced and now different versions of it are needed. In news it is common for the same story to be offered in different newsletters of different lengths during the same day. Once the initial version has been edited, the easiest way to originate the versions for the other newsletters is to reissue the original. But versioning is not only used in news, but in programs that are repackaged for other channels or for other markets, and changes in length or in the inclusion or exclusion of certain scenes are required. One of the biggest challenges of versioning had always been maintaining quality without having to start over the whole process, but modern technologies can make this less of a concern, although it's not yet an automatic feature.

• Creation of impact. The main goal of some productions is to create an impact, and promotions and commercials are the two best examples. The online method combines several elements, and much of the impact that is achieved comes from how well those elements are combined. Creating an impact may require the online editor to use a wide range of tools, such as color checkers, texture generators, etc. Online editors should be versatile.

• Troubleshooting. Few things in life are perfect, and television production is no exception. There are many problems that can occur during production, which do not become visible until the online session (lighting, camera errors, etc.), and it is the editor who is responsible for solving them. If it can't do so, that could mean a comeback and therefore a disaster for the budget. Some producers complain that online editing is expensive, but several hours of it could avoid the need for a resume that may be worth ten times as much, if at all. There are no rules when it comes to fixing problems, and good editors and good suites make it seem simple. Clearly, online editing is a complex mix of tasks and skills, not all of which are used in all work. However, there are certain fundamentals that when compromised, can seriously reduce the capacity of a suite. In the modern world, suites are only practical if they are in a position to take on a wide range of tasks. The savings made in online editing in a low-cost suite can evaporate if a job has to be left half-edited. What are those fundamentals?

• Image quality: The advantages of compression are well known, as well as its disadvantages. It is clear that television signals will inevitably be compressed somewhere between production and the distribution chain. There are uncompressed editing systems, and their use ensures the best image quality both today and in any reuse of the material in the future.

• Data integrity: As online editing systems become non-linear, disk storage integrity becomes more relevant. Many failures in a VTR do not damage the recorded master (although there are spectacularly catastrophic failures), and it is important that a non-linear suite offers a similar level of integrity.

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• Speed: All the facilities of a suite must be of practical use. Little is gained with a new feature if it is very slow in an editing session. Linear suites do it all in real time, and non-linear suites edit faster than real time, but they have to process the effects.

Technology trends

There are three indisputable technology trends in online publishing, each taking its place now, or perhaps doing so in the near future. All three affect the efficiency that can be obtained in different ways (Figure 2).

The first trend, which is already underway, is the transition from linear to non-linear editing. Nonlinear online systems offer many benefits over conventional linear suites, one of which is that they allow the transition between isolated stations and work sharing.

The advantages of job sharing and the efficiency they provide will be detailed shortly. Once the media is stored in a shared repository, the replacement by networks of the physical exchange of media, tapes, disks, etc., becomes much more practical. Future facilities will leverage the technologies that drive these trends today, to increase their capacity without compromising the service levels their current customers enjoy.

A server-based installation

The key to future installations that deliver the necessary efficiency is server-based production. The idea is not new, but only in the last twelve months have such systems left the laboratories and moved to real daily use. Conceptually, editing systems "order" frames from an array, process them, and return the result to the array for future use. The only way to implement a system like this is to design an array capable of accessing any frame at any time: True random access applied to video.

The efficiency of shared access

• Advance loading: The necessary material can be uploaded before editing. PC-based applications can read EDL lists and control a VTR to roll the material on the server. In this way, editing suites can spend all their time editing, and not loading the material.

• Multi-suite work: Some productions, such as sports, need access to the same material in different suites at the same time. Server-based operation eliminates tape copying or multiple recording, and the entire material control structure that currently works.

• Work of individual suites: Sometimes an edition may need to be independent of the group, and the work can be started in another suite without wasting time repeating the work that has already been done on the network.

• New recording methods: There is no waste of time in searching for specific events, as everything is recorded marked. No time is spent copying clips, as they are available to anyone on the server.

• Remote work: One of the attractions of this trend is the linking of geographically separated facilities, through telecommunication lines. Perhaps the most immediate benefit will be the use of remote access to central facilities.

It's not hard to imagine service centers selling their processing and warehousing facilities to small companies that only require control stations. Those small companies would be able to access high-tech equipment without incurring immense capital costs, while processing centers could increase the use of their equipment by sharing their capacity with anyone wherever it was required.

To conclude, it must be said that the changes will not happen from one moment to the next. The transition to online non-linear editing is a vital first step in the process, to uncover the new potential of server-based systems and remote work.

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