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From DV And Desktop To Delivery
by David Fox
How technology is changing the nature of production and post production.
As the basic tools of television become less expensive, and the skill needed to drive them apparently diminish, more people can create content and, through the Web, reach new audiences. Television is no longer just a broadcast medium. "There are lots of little design companies who have moved from print (using DTP) to the Web and are now using video in their products," Tony Davis, Apple's business development manager for broadcast and new media, told the Broadcast Content Management 2000 conference in London.
There are already three million DV camcorders in use in the UK alone, and he believes a large number of those users will want to do more with them, including their own editing.
On the desktop, "the technology for consumer and professional users is converging, so that people can deliver professional tools on consumer PCs like the iMac," he said.
There are some 250 nonlinear editing systems available at present. Apple's own key product, Final Cut Pro, not only caters for the very highest level users (it can be used for HD editing in conjunction with a Pinnacle Targa Cine board for under $30,000), but it is also now available on an iMac DV, giving users a professional system for about $2,000, said Davis.
Magnus Wake, head of post production at Speakeasy Productions, Scotland, doesn't feel the iMac-effect is necessarily good for the industry. "I resent the fact that people can now use iMovie and create video, although it does bring new people into the industry."
However, staff are generally less technically aware than they used to be. "They don't know anything about the underlying technology, but they can drive the software," he said. Speakeasy, which is based in Perth and Glasgow, is typical of many new media companies in its rapid expansion, growing from just six employees to 22 between 1999 and 2000, and its wide range of delivery media, from the Web to Stadium-based giant screens.
Treasure, its late night 12-part series about obsessive collectors for Channel 4, is digital end-to-end, including streaming on the Web site. Each strange and often funny, 12-minute programme is shot on a 16:9 Sony PD-100 miniDV camcorder, at a rate of two or three collectors per day. The PD-100 is attached to one of its five Media 100 Mac edit suites by Firewire, with titles in ICE'd After Effects. The sound is balanced on the Media 100, although Wake said it is not ideal for this, and the show delivered on Digital Betacam.
For the Web, all the content is processed from Media 100 through Media Cleaner Pro, into Real Video and JPEG stills, with extra material, not used for the programme, added. Collectors are also allowed to place their own Web pages on the site, which also hosts chat rooms, forums and auctions.
Significantly, the budget for the Web site is at least as much as for the series (although that budget isn't generous as it is a late night series).
Speakeasy also produces Celtic TV (for the Glasgow soccer club), which includes a half-hour magazine programme, plus live match-day events, and Web streaming, including live coverage of press conferences.
On match days, it uses at least five cameras in the stadium, with pictures being displayed on two huge screens (the biggest in any European stadium). Under Scottish regulations, they are allowed show the full match on the screens, but not any replays. It uses two Play Trinity systems to do captions and effects, although Wake wouldn't recommend their system. "Trinity is great for spicing up a production, but it is not great for real-time graphics," he said.
For post-production, it shares media over a SAN for the Media 100s, although they can't let users see material someone else is working on, but users can exchange files quickly.
However, their reliance on shared storage can be a hazard if it goes down. There is also a problem with computer-based systems of having too many suppliers, so that when conflicts arise, no one will accept the blame, he said.
"Working in effects, I've tended to be on expensive productions, so I've been in situations were there have been 120 people, 37 trucks, and 42 hire car converging on the side of a mountain and spending a day shooting two people having a romantic conversation. At £150,000 a day, it's outrageous," freelance visual effects supervisor, Mitch Mitchell, told the conference.
He believes that the DV cameras offer fantastic possibilities for cutting these costs, but their quality is not being recognised because people have only used them on low-cost shoots without the lighting and thinking time more typical of a bigger production. "Some things need large forces of people, but scenes of a more intimate nature could well benefit from being shot with a much smaller crew and much smaller equipment base," he said.
DV is typically used for fly-on-the-wall type documentaries, shot by production personnel rather than trained camera crew, and with no lighting, "so, when people say shouldn't you use DV, these are their only examples and not a good argument for using DV. This vicious circle is stopping it being used for serious drama. If it was, it could allow more experimental and interesting drama to be created," he stated. For example, you could use many more cameras than normal, such as 20 cameras hidden among the set, or tiny cameras handheld giving a different perspective of the characters. "Waiters could walk around with them hidden on trays. They can fit in very small spaces. They can be thrown around, and if they are dropped, they are cheap to replace. It offers fantastic possibilities for a different way to shoot drama," he said.
Being unobtrusive, they elicit a very different response from actors or interviewees, compared to the way they behave when confronted by a huge crew and traditional camera.
"It is not a matter of eroding the skill base. We still need the skills," said Mitchell. After all, "you still have professional photographers and professional designers in an age of cheap and widely available stills cameras and Photoshop and other DTP software."
The comparatively low cost of desktop digital effects "allows more to be done for the same money, so you can produce really complex efforts for the same money, opening up the realm of fantasy and science fiction drama," said Mitchell. For example, the TV mini-series, The Tenth Kingdom, on which he worked, used 680 effects shots in 10 hours.
It wouldn't have been possible even to attempt a ten-hour production of this sort only a few years ago. Although it ended up costing a lot (for non-technical reasons), the visual results were spectacular.
"It is now possible to do very high quality compositing at full film resolution on computers at reasonable cost," he said. Although he regretted that this has generally resulted in a rash of effects movies which have no story but look good, such as Twister and Godzilla.
However, Mitchell made the point that digital effects tools needn't just help produce something that wasn't possible before (like the time slice effect in the Matrix or the liquid man in Terminator 2), but are also a way of restoring "material which has been spoilt by the passage of time or some technical failure." It allows "new content" such as the restored version of Snow White to be released, extending the life of what is probably Disney's most valuable property.
The 1925 production of Phantom Of The Opera (like other movies of its time), had a number of sequences shot in two-strip Technicolor, a technology which is no longer available, but by digitising the material, it has been possible to restore it in the computer and output it to film so it can be shown again.
As prices come down and ease of use improves, Annie Normandin, Discreet's product manager for infrastructure, said today's video tools "are accessible to small video companies and even the independent artists. A graphic designer can now use a nonlinear editing system with built in tools and finish the piece. Although specialisation is not completely going away, artists, whatever their speciality, are now much more self sufficient."
However, as the tools become simpler, other aspects of the industry are becoming more complex, particularly the abundance of content which needs to be managed, including new interactive content and rich media, which are leading to new business models.
"In such a rapidly changing environment, what can we do? As a manufacturer, we need to offer a scalable set of tools. We really want to be able to offer the best of class tools for each market segment. We also want to be able to offer faster collaborative work, so everyone can make the best of their talent," she said.
A key to this is open standards, which is why Discreet has resurrected an old project which allows its applications to access material produced on other systems and other applications store their material on Discreet storage. It is also supporting AAF, MOS, and other SMPTE standards, and is allowing users access streaming media from within the application, "because it can no longer be an afterthought."