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Reviews & Approvals: Cospective’s Rory McGregor talks cineSync, Frankie

By Randi Altman

Many of you are likely familiar with the remote review and approval tool cineSync from Australia-based software company Cospective. cineSync has been used on some big-name film and television projects (Christopher Nolan is one outspoken fan) since its introduction in 2005. Back then the company was called Rising Sun Research, which grew out of VFX studio Rising Sun Pictures. So, users solving a problem by developing their own solution.

Well the minds behind the Academy Award-winning cineSync technology have introduced another tool targeted at in-progress reviews. This one, called Frankie, is designed for spots, music videos and other short-form productions. I reached out to CEO Rory McGregor to find out more about their company, the thought process behind the development of their tools, and the industry in general.

You have a background as an audio post pro. How does that help you steer the company?
I spent close to 10 years working in audio on feature films, as a mix engineer and sound editor as well as a facility manager, so I was also surrounded by picture editors, VFX artists, producers and directors. As a result, when I came to Cospective, it was very much from a post production workflow background — not from a software background — so my focus has always been on usability and practical application. I have a good understanding of what people need from software in this industry and it’s not all about features. It’s about simplicity, reliability and effectiveness. I think having a great love for post production in general really helps us to develop the best tools — without the technology getting in the way.

What is the genesis of cineSync? When was it introduced?
We first released cineSync officially in late 2005, but its genesis came a year earlier. Rising Sun Pictures, a visual effects company with which we are closely associated, was working on Harry Potter: The Goblet of Fire and Superman Returns. They were trying to run reviews with folks in the UK and the US and were becoming increasingly frustrated with the process. No one was quite sure what anyone was looking at, there was constant potential for miscommunication and it was hard to get absolute decisions on work in progress. Tony Clark, the co-owner and co-founder of both RSP and Cospective, basically just said, “It shouldn’t be this hard. There must be an easier way.”

The initial prototype of cineSync, built over a weekend, was essentially a QuickTime player hooked into some chat room code. It was crude, but the effect was revelatory. Suddenly people could see the same thing at the same time, no matter where they were. They could point to something on the screen and say “change this” and everyone could see exactly what they were pointing to. Decisions could be made with confidence during reviews, because the feedback was clear and in context.

Industrial Light and Magic — which was also working on Harry Potter at the time — embraced cineSync right away. Even before we’d released a formal beta version, we were reading reports of Steven Spielberg using cineSync on War of the Worlds.

By the time we’d released the more polished, commercial version of cineSync in November 2005, it already had a lot of buzz and a very loyal user base.

Can you talk a bit more about the need within the industry?
The need was substantial. In the earlier example, Rising Sun Pictures is based in Adelaide, South Australia, but they are only one of dozens — hundreds — of VFX facilities around the world who need to work with people in other locations. Even just within Los Angeles it can be a solid 90-minute drive each way between Hollywood and Burbank or Santa Monica. Being able to see exactly what your collaborators are seeing is vital to clear communication, and it’s really not practical or possible to always be in the same location.

cineSync/Shotgun integration

cineSync/Shotgun integration

On the one hand, the time, energy and money lost in constantly traveling to try and supervise work in progress can be prohibitive. On the other hand, the time, energy and money lost in miscommunication and misunderstandings can be even worse. cineSync goes a long way to solving both those problems, especially in conjunction with great tools like Shotgun and FTrack and even video chat.

What are some details of the offering?
cineSync is fundamentally an interactive review tool. It allows filmmakers and media professionals to watch, markup and make notes in sync with anyone anywhere in the world. cineSync guarantees that you’re always seeing exactly the same frame of exactly the same clip at the same time. It’s an installed application, which anyone can download and install for free, so it’s simple for guests to join a cineSync review. There are no license files to manage and no VPN or specific network requirements. You can use cineSync from a facility, from a hotel, from your kitchen table.

cineSync account owners initiate a review using their account login details and cineSync generates a unique session key for that review. The session key is given to the guests who use it to join the session. Once in the session, both owners and guests have the ability to play and pause the clips and to use cineSync’s toolset, so it’s a properly interactive experience.

Features include pencil/arrow/shape drawing tools, onscreen “sticky notes” and the ability to save out all annotated frames. cineSync Pro account holders also have access to color controls, a zoom tool, aspect ratio and masking settings, the ability to review 3D/stereoscopic media and integrations with Shotgun and Ftrack, among other features.

Frankie's interface

Frankie’s interface

Why was it the right time to come out with a tool like Frankie?
Frankie really came about as a way of making cineSync-style reviews available to the advertising market. There were three main barriers for cineSync in the advertising industry — many places don’t allow installed applications. They didn’t have their own infrastructure for media transfers, and it was all seen as being a bit complicated. We needed to design a review system that required no install and no reliance on an IT department that guests could join with single click.

We wanted to build Frankie in such a way that it required no plug-ins, so we built it using the emerging HTML5 standard just as it was being adopted by the major browsers (although it took Internet Explorer a little longer to catch on). We also wanted a fully scalable architecture, both in terms of our own server infrastructure and in terms of storage. Cloud services like Amazon now enable that amazingly well. So Frankie was well positioned to capitalize on brand-new technology and make it available in an easy-to-use platform.

Can you explain a bit more about how cineSync and Frankie differ? 
As I mentioned, cineSync is an installed application, while Frankie is entirely browser-based. cineSync is designed for very security-conscious studios and film facilities. Even though cineSync is a media synchronization system, it never actually has access to the media — no content ever passes through our servers. The facility or studio is responsible for their own media transfers, which they would do through Aspera or some similarly secure mechanism. cineSync has a built-in Aspera client to make this process as simple as possible, but it still requires the facility to have their own Aspera server. Once the media has been transferred to each participant in the review, cineSync simply checks the files in each location to ensure they are the same and then synchronizes the playback/notes etc.

Frankie

Frankie

With Frankie, media is uploaded to Amazon S3 storage, transcoded for smooth playback on all devices and then distributed to everyone in the review. Unlike cineSync, which requires guests joining the review to enter a session key, guests in Frankie reviews are simply sent a link, via email or chat. When they click the link, it launches their preferred browser, opens the Frankie review and downloads and syncs all the media automatically. It really is single-click access. You can send someone a link and they can access and review the media in their own time, where cineSync is more purely based around live, interactive reviews.

How are they alike?
Both cineSync and Frankie are tools for interactively reviewing and annotating work in progress. Both support stills and video. Both platforms have drawing tools for visual mark-up and they both allow you to save out all your notes and drawings. Essentially Frankie is based on cineSync technology, so they have the same fundamental features; they’re just suited to different projects.

Can you talk about security? How do you address that in both of your products?
cineSync is secure by design. It passes studio security audits with flying colors, because any media in a cineSync review never leaves the control of the production and never passes through any third-party server, including ours. The only information transferred during a review is control information such as “Play” or “Stop on frame 10” or on-screen annotations — and all communication is 128-bit encrypted. Session keys are destroyed at the end of each session and they can’t be used by themselves to access media anyway.

cineSync/Ftrack integration

cineSync/FTrack integration

With Frankie, we’ve found that simplicity and ease of use largely outweigh security concerns. Because commercials themselves are distributed for free and are intended to be viewed by as many people as possible, there’s less inherent risk in leaks. If security is a genuine concern, as it is with a few of our advertising customers, then cineSync is a great alternative. Frankie does allow for the setting of project level passwords and file storage is handled by MPAA-aligned Amazon S3.

Essentially there’s always a trade-off between security and usability and we’ve tried to accommodate the spectrum across our review tools.

You guys were early to the party, but do you think the recent explosion in review and approval tools is due to tax incentives and the shake up in VFX that leads to outsourcing?
That’s a contributing factor, but I think the main explosion in review and approval tools is happening around advertising, TV and even semi-professional media production, where tax incentives have little to no effect. Essentially remote review and approval technology, in conjunction with VOIP, video conferencing and Google Docs — and the cloud in general — is allowing companies to seek out the best practitioners in the world, regardless of location.

Similarly, for production and post production houses, their client base is no longer limited to their home town. We see so many commercials now where the client, the agency, the production facility, the post facility, even individual crew members are all in different countries.

I also think Google and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have completely changed the game — people expect to be able to share things easily and that’s flowed through into professional media production.

In the film industry, tax incentives certainly have more of an impact. When cineSync first started, the main factors for outsourcing were local wages and differences in currency, although several countries already had certain tax incentives as well. As local wages have grown in traditionally lower cost countries and as currencies have appreciated against the USD in the past few years, tax incentives have been growing to try and offset the changes — we’ve certainly seen that here in Australia.

But still, even though rebates have distorted the market, I believe there are very few VFX facilities hired purely as a result of incentives. Lola in Santa Monica is known worldwide for their facial replacement work. Weta has a well-deserved reputation as a leader in motion capture. Other companies specialize in fluid effects or creature work, for example. Film productions are still going to seek those specialist skills out and are still going to rely on tools like cineSync to help coordinate the work.

What projects have taken advantage of your tools recently?
Frankie’s been used on a number of high-profile commercials, including a Joseph Kahn-directed spot for car company Qoros, a Canadian spot for Dutch distiller Ketel One and a Marks and Spencer spot from MPC.

Madam Secretary

Madam Secretary is one TV show using cineSync.

cineSync has been used on (more or less) every major film in the past few years, especially those with a VFX component. Recently released films that used cineSync extensively include Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules, The Maze Runner, The Giver, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Fault in our Stars, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the TV show Madam Secretary.

What haven’t I asked that you feel is important?
Before when you mentioned the proliferation of review and approval products, I agreed there were a lot out there now — but I think some are missing one of the most vital components of effective collaboration. That component is realtime interactivity. It’s the ability to show someone something rather than trying to explain it. It’s the ability to ask and answer questions in realtime, while you’re both looking at the same thing. It’s capturing the essence of reviewing material in the same room — while being miles apart.

cineSync and Frankie offer that level of interactivity, and it’s a focus we’re going to continue to develop.

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