By David Cox
IBC 2019 kicked off with an intriguing announcement from Avid. The company entered into a strategic alliance with Microsoft and Disney’s Studio Lab to enable remote editorial workflows in the cloud.
The interesting part for me is how this affects the perception of post producing in the cloud, rather than the actual technology of it. It has been technically possible to edit remotely in the cloud for some time —either by navigating the Wild West interfaces of the principal cloud providers and “spinning up” a remote computer, connecting some storage and content, and then running an edit app or alternatively, by using a product that takes care of all that such as Blackbird. No doubt, the collaboration with Disney will produce products and services within an ecosystem that makes the technical use of the cloud invisible.
However, what interests me is that arguably, the perception of post producing in the cloud is instantly changed. The greatest fear of post providers relates to the security of their clients’ intellectual property. Should a leak ever occur, to retain the client (or indeed avoid a catastrophic lawsuit), the post facility would have to make a convincing argument that security protocols were appropriate. Prior to the Disney/Avid/Microsoft Azure announcement, the part of that argument where the post houses say “…then we sent your valuable intellectual property to the cloud” caused a sticky moment. However, following this announcement, there has been an inherent endorsement by the owner of one of the most valuable IP catalogs (Disney) that post producing in the cloud is safe — or at least will be.
At the press conference where Avid made its Disney announcement, I asked whether the proposed cloud service would be a closed, Avid-only environment or an open platform to include other vendors. I pointed out that many post producers also use non-Avid products for various aspects, from color grading to visual. Despite my impertinence in mentioning competitors (even though Avid had kindly provided lunch), CEO Jeff Rosica provided a well-reasoned and practical response. To paraphrase, while he did not explicitly say the proposed ecosystem would be closed, he suggested that from a commercial viewpoint, other vendors would more likely want to make their own cloud offerings.
Rosica’s comments suggest that post houses can expect many clouds on their horizons from various application developers. The issue will then be how these connect to make coherent and streamlined workflows. This is not a new puzzle for post people to solve — we have been trying to make local systems from different manufacturers to talk to each other for years, with varying degrees of success. Making manufacturers’ various clouds work together would be an extension of that endeavor. Hopefully, manufacturers will use their own migrations to the cloud to further open their systems, rather than see it as an opportunity to play defensive, locking bespoke file systems and making cross-platform collaboration unnecessarily awkward. Too optimistic, perhaps!
Or One Big Cloud?
Separately to the above, just prior to IBC, MovieLabs introduced its white paper, which discussed a direction of travel for movie production toward the year 2030. The IBC produced a MovieLabs panel on the Sunday of the show, moderated by postPerspective’s own Randi Altman and featuring tech chiefs from the major studios. It would be foolish not to pay it proper consideration, given that it’s backed by Disney, Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros. and Universal.
To summarize, the proposition is that the digital assets that will be manipulated to make content stay in one centralized cloud. Apps that manipulate those assets, such as editorial and visual effects apps, delivery processes and so on, will operate in the same cloud space. The talent that drives those apps will do so via the cloud. Or to put it slightly differently, the content assets don’t move — rather, the production apps and talent move to the assets. Currently, we do the opposite: the assets are transferred to where the post services are provided.
There are many advantages to this idea. Multiple transfers of digital assets to many post facilities would end. Files would be secured on a policy basis, enabling only the relevant operators to have access for the appropriate duration. Centralized content libraries would be produced, helping to enable on-the-fly localization, instant distribution and multi-use derivatives, such as marketing materials and games.
Of course, there are many questions. How do the various post application manufacturers maintain their product values if they all work as in-cloud applications on someone else’s hardware? What happens to traditional post production facilities if they don’t need any equipment and their artists log in from wherever? How would a facility protect itself from payment disputes if it does not have control over the assets it produces?
Personally, I have moved on from the idea of brick-and-mortar facilities. Cloud post permits nearly unlimited resources and access to a global pool of talent, not just those who reside within a commutable distance from the office. I say, bring it on… within reason. Of course, this initiative relates only to the production of content for those key studios. There’s a whole world of content production beyond that scope.
Knowing Your Customer
Another area of interest for me at IBC 2019 was how offerings to colorists have become quite polarized. On one hand there is the seemingly all-conquering Resolve from Blackmagic Design. Inexpensive, easy to access and ubiquitous. On the other hand there is Baselight from FilmLight — a premium brand with a price tag and associated entry barrier to match. The fact that these two products are both successful in the same market but with very different strategies is testament to a fundamental business rule: “Know your customer.” If you know who your customer is going to be, you can design and communicate the ideal product for them and sell it at the right price.
A chat with FilmLight’s joint founder, Wolfgang Lempp, and development director Martin Tlaskal was very informative. Lempp explained that the demand placed on FilmLight’s customers is similarly polarized. On one hand, clients — including major studios and Netflix — mandate fastidious adherence to advanced and ever-improving technical standards, as well as image pipelines that are certified at every step. On the other hand, different clients place deadline or budget as a prevalent concern. Tlaskal set out for FilmLight to support those color specialists that aim for top-of-the industry excellence. Having the template for the target customer defines and drives what features FilmLight will develop for its Baselight product.
At IBC 2019, FilmLight hosted guest speaker-led demonstrations (“Colour on Stage”) to inspire creative grading and to present its latest features and improvements including better hue-angle keying, tracking and dealing with lens distortions.
Blackmagic is no less focused on knowing its customer, which explains its success in recent years. DaVinci Resolve once shared the “premium” space occupied by FilmLight but went through a transition to aim itself squarely at a democratized post production landscape. This shift meant a recognition that there would be millions of content producers and thousands of small post houses rather than a handful of large post facilities. That transition required a great deal more than merely slashing the price. The software product would have to work on myriad hardware combinations, not just the turnkey approved setup, and would need to have features and documentation aimed at those who hadn’t spent the past three years training in a post facility. By knowing exactly who the customer would be, Blackmagic built Resolve into an extremely successful, cross-discipline, post production powerhouse. Blackmagic was demonstrating the latest Resolve at IBC 2019, although all new features had been previously announced because, as director of software engineering Rohit Gupta explained, Blackmagic does not time its feature releases to IBC.
Aiming between the extremities established by FilmLight and Blackmagic Design, SGO promoted a new positioning of its flagship product, Mistika, via the Boutique subproduct. This is essentially a software-only Mistika that runs on PC or Mac. Subscription prices range from 99 euros per month to 299 euros per month, depending on features, although there have been several discounted promotions. The more expensive options include SGO’s highly regarded stereo 3D tools and camera stitching features for producing wrap-around movies.
Another IBC — done!
David Cox is a VFX compositor and colorist with more than 20 years of experience. He started his career with MPC and The Mill before forming his own London-based post facility. Cox specializes in unusual projects, such as those using very high resolutions and interactive immersive experiences featuring realtime render engines and augmented reality.