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DigitalFilm Tree embraces OpenStack and cloud-based post workflows

The studio is running OpenStack private clouds for TNT’s Perception and ABC’s Mistresses.

By Randi Altman
Los Angeles — Ramy Katrib and the team over at DigitalFilm Tree (www.digitalfilmtree.com) have always set their own path. I first met Ramy at NAB in 2001. He was there looking at tools that would allow him to embrace a data-based workflow, something he thought was the future of post. He thought right.

He has spent over 14 years successfully creating data-based workflows for TV series like Scrubs, Cougar Town, NCIS: Los Angeles and feature films like Her.

Currently, Katrib is embracing another type of technology he believes to be the future of post: cloud-based post production workflows. While people have been talking about the cloud for years and some have been using it as a piece of their post workflow — storage and rendering — most in the industry are just dipping their collective toes in the water.

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Ramy Katrib.

But Katrib and DigitalFilm Tree CTO Guilluame Aubuchon believe they have found an affordable and open technology that allows them to dive in head first. The center of that reality is an open source cloud technology project called OpenStack, software for building private and public clouds.

OpenStack (http://www.openstack.org) currently has more than 200 companies that contribute to it, including IBM, Oracle, HP, VMware, and Intel…some of the largest IT companies in the world. All participants are contributing code, documentation, translations and vulnerabilities, all while building their own clouds.

“And it’s free,” reports Katrib. “Anyone can download it and start customizing it for their own needs. So that’s what we’re doing. We are using what is an enterprise-worthy, feature-rich, cloud-building technology and customizing it for the needs of media and entertainment.”

OpenStack allows you to create your own interface or use their templates to build on. “Our mission,” says Katrib, “is to develop our own technology and contribute back to the community. It’s a different way of thinking. If IBM, for example, contributes to the OpenStack community, they are productizing their own IP and selling it as IBM-branded services or products, but they are simultaneously contributing back to the core technology, so other users, even competitors, can benefit. This is a different approach.” The industry took a similar approach with Linux. 

Until OpenStack existed, he says, “You had cloud companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft and dozens of others that provide cloud technology and services. That marketplace represents 100 billion dollars of revenue annually, which is a conservative estimate. Then you have Hollywood, which is kind of tip-toeing. A lot of studios already use Amazon cloud services, Box, Dropbox and others, and OpenStack now provides a compelling new option for cloud storage and archive.”

Katrib says the M&E industry hasn’t truly discovered OpenStack. In fact, when Aubuchon was asked to give the main media keynote at the OpenStack summit in Hong Kong a couple of months back, they found themselves in the M&E minority.

But that hasn’t deterred DigitalFilm Tree (DFT). Katrib and company are putting their belief into practice, currently running OpenStack private clouds at DFT and two more for the television series, TNT’s Perception (pictured above) and ABC’s Mistresses.

“This type of cloud technology used to be proprietary and super expensive, that’s why you don’t often see film or TV productions using it. Now, OpenStack allows them to have a series of clouds, or nodes, that help automate their workflow and share files efficiently, like your own enterprise Google Docs. It’s the underlying technology that allows for this.”

Aubuchon emphasizes his belief that cloud-based workflow is the future. “There is an immediate efficency benefit. The amount of time, in regards to editorial and finishing, is reduced significantly,” he says. “As we look into the future, cloud is important, as we will see digital production to digital distribution become the standard, instead of the exception.”


Guillaume Aubuchon.

He points to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others, who are already using digital distrbution in cloud-based environments. “So the earlier we start the process in a cloud-based environment, the more distrubtion channels will be open and the more efficient it will be to get into those distribution channels.”

A DigitalFilm Tree-designed cloud-based workflow is set up for TNT’s Perception, which began production in mid-January.

The idea, they say, is that you can build several clouds and have efficiencies that don’t exist now. Perception’s particular workflow involves remote onlining and remote color grading, using the OpenStack technology.

Initially, the principal technologies involved are Avid’s Media Composer, Interplay and Sphere. Another partner is Blackmagic Design and their Resolve product, which DFT uses for remote color grading.

Katrib reports there are at least a dozen other technologies, including Adobe, that are integrated, but he emphasizes that the cloud component is based on OpenStack and couldn’t be done without it. Also, the big difference this season is that they are working directly on the camera raw files. But more on that later.

DigitalFilm Tree is essentially adding to what they did for the series last season, where they created a self-enclosed, fully functional mini post facility at ABC Studios. They designed and installed a full-blown color room with color grading monitors, Tektronix scope and Resolve panel, an online room, a dailies room, a titling room, and a VFX room.

“That post infrastructure was essentially what we have at DigitalFilm Tree, but integrated into traditional editorial, with editors and assistant editors. All of that was on one large storage volume – all of your original camera negatives, as well as Avid DNX editorial files, in one place and integrated – like a post pod,” say Aubuchon. This entire post process was happening across nine rooms. They called it “Self Post” – and because it all happened in one place, the DP could jump into a color room, while the show runner could approve VFX and edit right there.

“The idea is that you can build several clouds and have them speak together, automate them, and create efficiencies that don’t exist now. In this case, it’s a private cloud that we are creating, so we know exactly where the files are. People who upload have permission, and you need super admin permission to access it and decide who can upload and what the general file flow will be between these clouds. It’s a private cloud, just for this production,” he emphasizes. “It’s like your own dropbox on steroids, and it can handle camera raw files, in addition to a PDF or H.264.”

This year, DFT is delivering what they call “Cloud-Based Remote Services,” so the color correction, the Online DI, the titling – all the finishing work – will still happen in realtime, while the operators, the colorist, the VFX artist and the online editor are located at DFT’s post facility.

Henry Santos (standing) and Patrick Woodard in DigitalFilm Tree's DaVinci suite.

Henry Santos (standing) and Patrick Woodard in DigitalFilm Tree’s DaVinci suite.

Describing color workflow, Aubuchon notes “our colorist will color at DFT, but it will be reviewed in Sylmar. With camera raw files in both locations – our facility and at production – the Resolve sends metadata as you are doing color correction that touches the raw files on both sides. It’s not a representation,” Aubuchon emphasizes, “but the actual raw files that you are looking at! With older methods, you were relying on your Internet speed, but now you are working with metadata that travels across your cloud node infrastructure. The metadata is going from the color bay in our facility to the other system at the production, so when the colorist creates a grade, it’s being applied to the file. There is a full Resolve system at DFT and another one at production, with fully calibrated monitors. This is a Resolve technology that has been in use but not used ubiquitously yet.”

Another related technology to OpenStack is SwiftStorage. These files will be stored on a Swift OpenStack storage design. “We will have an OpenStack at DigitalFilm Tree, another at the production, and we can build another in NY, or anywhere, and hybridize them, so they can speak to each other. And if you need to scale up, you can scale up at the flick of a switch because the technology allows you that. Even though that might sound easy, the idea of scaling two, three years ago was difficult, expensive, and proprietary. Now, it’s one of the inherent features of the OpenStack.”

Both Katrib and Aubuchon will be at the HPA Tech Retreat next month and NAB in April talking about the benefits of OpenStack. “We have to give it substance and meaning, because it’s such a benign term. Most people don’t even know what the cloud is about. They use dropbox, icloud…they have a general sense of it, but not in terms of an actual production.”

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