By John Ferder
Each year, I look forward to attending the Hollywood Professional Association’s Tech Retreat, better known as the HPA Tech Retreat. Apart from escaping the New York winter, it gives me new perspectives, a chance to exchange ideas with friends and colleagues and explore the latest technical and creative information. As a broadcast engineer, I get a renewed sense of excitement and purpose.
Also, as secretary/treasurer of SMPTE, the Board of Governors meetings as well as the Strategy Day held each year before the Tech Retreat energize me. This year, we invited a group of younger professionals to tell us what SMPTE could do to attract them to SMPTE and HPA, and what they needed from us as experienced professionals.
Their enthusiasm and honesty were refreshing and encouraging. We learned that while we have been trying to reach out to them, they have been looking for us to invite them into the Society. They have been looking for mentors and industry leaders to engage them one-on-one and introduce them to SMPTE and how it can be of value to them.
Presentations and Hot Topics
While it is true that the Hollywood motion picture community is behind producing this Tech Retreat, it is by no means limited to the film industry. There was plenty of content and information for those of us on the broadcast side to learn and incorporate into our workflows and future planning, including a presentation on the successor to SMPTE timecode. Peter Symes, formerly director of standards for SMPTE and a SMPTE Fellow, presented an update on the TLX Project and the development of what is to be SMPTE Standard ST2120, the Extensible Time Label.
This suite of standards will be built on the work already done in ST2059, which describes the use of the IEEE1588 Precision Time Protocol to synchronize video equipment over an IP network. This Extensible Time Label will succeed, not replace ST12, which is the analog timecode that we have used with great success for 50 years. As production moves increasingly toward using IP networks, this work will produce a digital time labeling system that will be as universal as ST12 timecode has been. Symes invited audience members to join the 32NF80 Technology Committee, which is developing and drafting the standard.
What were the hot topics this year? HDR, Wide Color Gamut, AI/machine learning, IMF and next-generation workflows had a large number of presentations. While this may seem to be the “same old, same old,” the amount of both technical and practical information presented this year was a real eye-opener to many of us.
Phil Squyres gave a talk on next generation versus broadcast production workflows that revealed that the amount of time and storage needed to complete a program episode for OTT distribution versus broadcast is 2.2X or greater. This echoed the observations of an earlier panel of colorists and post specialists for Netflix feature films, one of whom stated that instead of planning to complete post production two weeks prior to release, plan on completing five to six weeks prior in order to allow for the extra work needed for the extra QC of both HDR and SDR releases.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Perhaps the most surprising presentation for me was given by Rival Theory, a company that generates AI personas based on real people’s memories, behaviors and mannerisms. They detailed the process by which they are creating a persona of Tony Robbins, famous motivational speaker and investor in Rival Theory. Robbins intends to have a life-like persona created to help people with life coaching and continue his mission to end suffering throughout the world, even after he dies. In addition to the demonstration of the multi-camera storing and rendering of his face while talking and displaying many emotions, they showed how Robbins’ speech was saved and synthesized for the persona. A rendering of the completed persona was presented and was very impressive.
Many presentations focused on applications of AI and machine learning in existing production and post workflows. I appreciated that a number of the presenters stressed that their solutions were meant not to replace the human element in these workflows, but to instead apply AI/ML to the redundant and tedious tasks, not the creative ones. Jason Brahms of Video Gorillas brought that point home in his presentation on “AI Film Restoration at 12 Million Frames per Second,” as did Tim Converse of Adobe in “Leveraging AI in Post Production.”
Panels and Roundtables
Matthew Goldman of MediaKind chaired the annual Broadcasters Panel, which included Del Parks (Sinclair), Dave Siegler (Cox Media Group), Skip Pizzi (NAB) and Richard Friedel (Fox). They discussed the further development and implementation of the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard, including the Pearl Consortium initiative in Phoenix and other locations, the outlook for ATSC 3.0 tuner chips in future television receivers and the applications of the standard beyond over-the-air broadcasting, with an emphasis on data-casting services.
All of the members of the panel are strong proponents of the implementation of the ATSC 3.0 standard, and more broadcasters are joining the evolution toward implementing it. I would have appreciated including on the panel someone of similar stature who is not quite so gung-ho on the standard to discuss some of the challenges and difficulties not addressed so that we could get a balanced presentation. For example, there is no government mandate nor sponsorship for the move to ATSC 3.0 as there was for the move to ATSC 1.0, so what really motivates broadcasters to make this move? Have the effects of the broadcast spectrum re-packing on available bandwidth negatively affected the ability of broadcasters in all markets to accommodate both ATSC 3.0 and ATSC 1.0 channels?
I really enjoyed “Adapting to a COTS Hardware World,” moderated by Stan Moote of the IABM. Paul Stechly, president of Applied Electronics, noted that more and more end users are building their own in-house solutions, assisted by manufacturers moving away from proprietary applications to open APIs. Another insight panelists shared was that COTS no longer applies to data hubs and switches only. Today, that term can be extended to desktop computers and consumer televisions and video displays as well. More and more, production and post suites are incorporating these into their workflows and environments to test their finished productions on the equipment on which their audience would be viewing them.
Breakfast Roundtables, which were held on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, are among my conference “must attends.” Over breakfast, manufacturers and industry experts are given a table to present a topic for discussion by all the participants. The exchange of ideas and approaches benefits everyone at the tables and is a great wake-up exercise leading into the presentations. My favorite, and one of the most popular of the Tech Retreat, is on Friday when S. Merrill Weiss of the Merrill Weiss Group, as he has for many years, presents us with a list of about 12 topics to discuss. This year, his co-host was Karl Paulsen, CTO of Diversified Systems, and the conversations were lively indeed. Some of the topics we discussed were the costs of building a facility based on ST2110, the future of coaxial cable in the broadcast plant, security in modern IP networks and PTP, and the many issues in the evolution from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0.
As usual, a few people were trying to fit in at or around the table, as it is always full. We didn’t address every topic, and we had to cut the discussions short or risk missing the first presentation of the day.
The HPA Tech Retreat’s presentations, panels and discussion forums are a continuing tool in my professional development. Attending this year reaffirmed and amplified my belief that this event is one that should be on each broadcasters’ and content creators’ calendar. The presentations showed that the line between the motion picture and television communities is further blurring and that the techniques embraced by the one community are also of benefit to the other.
The HPA Tech Retreat is still small enough for engaging conversations with speakers and industry professionals, sharing their industry, technical, and creative insights, issues and findings.
John Ferder is the principal engineer at John Ferder Engineer, currently Secretary/Treasurer of SMPTE, an SMPTE Fellow, and a member of IEEE. Contact him at email@example.com.