Digital film production presents communications challenges

Digital film-making means managing vast streams of data. E&T finds out how movie makers are coping.

The film and TV production business has long been a friend to innovation, proving a fertile test-bed and serving as a glamorous marketing tool for technologies ranging from microprocessors to robotics.

For example, you could argue that 1993's 'Jurassic Park' not only made us believe that computer-generated imagery was real, but also helped launch the digital revolution alongside the emerging Internet and cheap PCs. 'Avatar' has not just redefined our view of entertainment technology, but has also been emblematic of a wider industrial and economic shift - to all-digital supply chains.

The live-action sequences in James Cameron's film were shot on digital cameras, while others were created using motion capture technology. All the footage was rendered digitally, edited digitally, the effects and music were developed or captured digitally and the final product was delivered to many cinemas digitally. I might have called 'Avatar' a 'film', but what role did celluloid actually play here?


The shift to digital production means major challenges for the communications business, and not just for the creation of mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Huge amounts of data also need to be moved around to create and manage high-definition (HD) broadcasts for TV.

The High Performance Networks group of the University of Essex recently opened a £2m Networked Media Laboratory specifically to explore 'efficient deployments of ultra-high-definition multimedia applications over high-performance networks'.

The Essex team, led by Dimitra Simeonidou, has looked at the data rates that the move to ever-higher resolutions will require. First, some context. Digital cameras are still trying to catch up with image quality offered by traditional 35mm film stock. The latest step here is to '8K' resolution, which implies a capture rate of 60 frames per second and a resolution of 7680x4320 pixel, horizontal by vertical. Today's typical HDTV display, in comparison, has a resolution of 1920x1080 pixel. Simeonidou's group reckons that this implies point-to-point data rates for uncompressed signals of 24Gbit/s, or 1.2Gbit/s for compressed.

Your immediate reaction might be, 'Well, compress everything then'. This is not an option in film and TV production (though it may be available when distributing finished films to cinemas). Until the movie or programme is finalised, absolute image fidelity must be retained throughout all aspects of post-production. It is how the makers ensure that all the elements added are synchronised. Given that subtle changes may still be being made frame-by-frame as other aspects of the film are finalised, and that several different teams may be working on a sequence at once, using compression actually poses a threat to finishing the piece.

For the film and TV business, Simonidou believes that much of the answer will lie in lambda (or wavelength) switching and continued developments in generalised multi-protocol label switching (GMPLS), placing the emphasis not so much on the capacity of the fibre itself as the intelligence with which demands upon its capacity are dynamically managed. This technique will also be useful if those within the network need long-term access to high-capacity connections within a well-defined group.

In a recent paper, her group observed: 'For post-production purposes, uncompressed 4K video streams (7.6Gbit/s) must be transmitted from the film production set to special-effects departments at remote locations. Lambda switching will therefore be the technology of choice for this application, guaranteeing that digital streams are securely delivered - from source to destination - with the required quality of service.'

The kit

This kind of thinking is already making its way out of the lab and into the hands of early adopters. Late last year, Modern VideoFilm, a US post-production house with recent credits including the Hollywood remake of 'State of Play', brought in French optical-communications equipment specialist Ekinops to help it light an internal dark-fibre optical network with capacity to transport 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) traffic as well as video-over-fibre to the plain and HD serial digital-interface standards, which have data rates of 1.485Gbit/s and 2.970Gb/s, respectively.

Meanwhile, The Post Group, another US company that has been involved with the production of upcoming movie 'Astro Boy',turned to Israeli communications specialists at MRV Communications to deploy an internal wireless 10GbE system using free-space optics. It had concluded that a dark-fibre network would take too long to build and the demands from a burgeoning client list who wanted full-HD were too great.

These two projects show the deployment of the latest technologies by Hollywood, a glamour business that gets the glamorous kit. As you may suspect, though, these two examples only tell part of the story, with the critical word in both of them being 'internal'.

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Both Modern VideoFilm and The Post Group are riding the digital wave. But next-generation film and TV is not just about blockbusters. In the UK, for example, even as the BBC is tightening its budget, it is also committed to moving more of its output to HD. The same is happening everywhere else.

Many post-production companies - particularly those that provide specialist services such as digital intermediates (where the colours in the image are 'tuned' after principal photography) - have responded to this change by expanding, often across numerous sites serving different aspects of the film-making process. Or the communications challenge may be as simple as linking the main editing office to a data store or rendering farm elsewhere. No matter how you slice this, right now much of the most advanced equipment is going into essentially standalone environments, helping companies manage their internal processes.

'It gets more challenging when you are looking to connect to other parts of the chain,' says Darin Harris, chief technology officer for The Tech Partners, an IT and comms consultancy specialising in film and TV, and the man who originally took The Post Group down the wireless path.

'You have situations where, for example, you can be sending files in the same format - say, JPEG 2000 - but the equipment at your end and the termination can be incompatible. There are a lot of issues surrounding that,' he said.

It is a familiar story. A technology is moving so fast that despite the presence of a usually flexible and innovative standards body - and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers is generally seen as just that - interoperability problems still arise. These are being addressed, but production cannot stop while they are.

For film production, this is a very expensive problem. For example, the credits roll to 'Iron Man 2' lists 20 special-effects companies. Many will have been working on the same sequence at once, some will have been based outside Hollywood and others probably outside the USA, and all will have needed to co-ordinate their work or have had it co-ordinated through a central hub. Add on other functions such as the delivery of the music, the digital intermediates and the traditional editing process, and you've got a vast amount of digital data flowing back and forth to make it all happen.

Opportunity knocks

Not surprisingly, this is where the big communications players have spied a business opportunity. It is not so much that the problems are insurmountable - they are not. For all the complexity implicit in the supply chain described here, the release date for 'Iron Man 2'was set in stone more than a year before it appeared and yet hit the deadline - and that kind of scheduling is commonplace in Hollywood. However, there are obvious cost and efficiency savings to be had, and whether you are a stressed-out BBC executive or a Hollywood mogul working on a $100m epic, you want to exploit as many as you can.

Cisco Systems is promoting a concept called the Media Workflow Platform. It is still aimed largely at standalone environments, specifically large broadcasters that handle much of their production flow in-house. However, the ideas behind the concept are fundamentally sound and represent what seems likely to be the next step for the business.

The basic idea is to interlink the data centre and network-infrastructure technologies as broadly as possible, then to stimulate more sharing and cross-collaboration within that environment, all underpinned by delivering high-speed (10Gbit/s) services to the desktop.

Dimitris Papavassiliou, Cisco's head of digital workflow solutions for media and broadcasters in Europe, says the concept is based on practicalities, on bringing some order to an increasingly jumbled supply chain. And if that sounds familiar, it's an important point.

'I do think that there is a lot in common between post-production now and other industries,' he says.

Certainly, the idea of picking off inefficiencies in linear, silo-based workflows, and eliminating physical storage management (typically of video cartridges) can be transplanted to or from many other businesses.

In that respect, film and TV is falling back into a traditional role. These industries have always offered a good way of explaining and resolving technological challenges because they promote the technologies they use and explicitly put them into a marketing context. If the big technology suppliers can show that they are enabling innovation in Hollywood and in TV production and helping them to control costs, then the implication is that it can do the same for your company.

There are more practical comparisons. The movies are not alone in needing ultra-high-capacity networks carrying uncompressed signals. Remote medicine and scientific visualisation users face almost identical challenges. It is not just that the film and broadcast industries provide a worked example from which others can generalise: there's a great deal of value to be extracted from their specific innovations as well.

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