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Facilities Trickle Into Stream
by David Fox
In the age of stream, how will low cost Internet technology affect facilities?
| Much of the technology we associate with
facilities houses, especially editing, is now so affordable that even the
smallest production company can have its own facilities in house. With the
advent of Internet streaming, there is no reason why a production company
shouldn't do everything itself, from acquisition to delivery. So, what will
happen to the facilities houses?
"Instead of large machines and tapes, facilities are moving to disks and wires," says Dave Pollard, a director of Squash, a new type of facility which specialises in compression, authoring for DVDs, and interactive TV (which he sees as a natural spin off from DVD). It is backed by London facility, The Farm (and is setting up in the heart of Soho in the same building as Home, the Farm's new HD facility). Even before its launch in August  it had a full order book, from traditional DVD movies to interactive DVDs for record companies.
He believes that facilities will change to providing huge computer storage, shuffling film and video data, and providing services which producers can't provide themselves. Many of these services will be provided remotely, as higher bandwidth connections and non-real time downloads, mean clients, editors and even staff can work anywhere. There will be lot more service contracts between facilities and customers, who will often be able to just use the facilities they need when they need them. A facility might telecine rushes and then hold them on central storage. A client can then remotely access compressed images as they are needed to do an offline edit, and pass back an EDL, which the facility will then conform at film quality. He believes this will allow facilities good margins, they will need fewer people (such as runners) and become more profitable.
"Facilities have to embrace new technology before customers do, so they have to live in a state of permanent revolution, so this is nothing new. We just have to continue providing services customers can't afford to do themselves, or don't know how to, or don't want to do," he says.
"Every time you believe you are settled somewhere, technology moves the goal posts and everything gets harder again," as has happened with the advent ofhigh definition. "That immediately makes the streaming more complex as there is not enough bandwidth to stream that over the Web. To traditional facilities, that represents a big opportunity," he believes.
A facility's costs are basically labour and depreciation and he sees the ability to have fewer staff, who will operate computer networks remotely connected to customers and others, as financially attractive.
Some areas, such as editing, have become low cost and relatively deskilled, he says, so many more people can edit pictures. Facilities can't stop this, so they have to embrace it, such as by sending material to editors via DSL while they are sleeping, so that, if they have a Mac and some software, they can edit at home. "Small facilities or freelance editors could just access an effect on [the facility's] Flame or whatever even though they don't own the equipment," he says.
"The facilities industry is not about technology. It is about talent. Supplying comprehensive creative services," agrees Andy Barmer, development director for new media, The Mill. Many clients have their own Avids, but they are unlikely to have their own telecine suite or a large 3D department. "They don't want to own a lot of technology or pay for a lot of talented compositors for occasional work. So, I think our clients will still pay for the very best talent."
However, he believes that facilities also need to diversify to some extent, to make content work for their clients on very different media. He thinks it is a good idea for both facility and client if the same people who create a commercial also do an animation for the Web site at the same time, giving them a uniform look and creating synergy between the different media.
Untroubled At Mill
Barmer also sees broadband, video compression technology and the Internet very much as a opportunity for facilities. The Mill currently sends approval quality video to clients using emill (its Web service). For example, [in Summer 2000] it did a big British Airways commercial for M & C Saatchi, New York, where it would create several 2Mbit QuickTime files or 10Mbit MPEG-1 files for the client each day. They could either pick them up directly from a specially created secure Web site, or a service company (in this case Nice Shoes in New York) would download them and deliver them on tape to the client.
He claims it is very easy for the client to keep in touch with what is happening, and has been very successful. The Mill charges for the service on an encoding basis, but it is free to view. It has been operating since January , but is has been improved since, making it easier to use and more secure. It uses Media Cleaner Power Suite to make the QuickTime files and FutureTel to make the MPEGs.
The service also enables some clients to order dubs online, which is often used by agency admin staff, who find it is a much simpler way of ordering playouts to stations.
Mill Film, which did the special effects for Gladiator, works a lot for Hollywood studios, wanted to use the Internet to deliver very big (gigabit) Avid files for movies. It was approached by Wam!Net, which offered a store and forward managed Internet service. Wam!Net installed the box in The Mill, which can create a compressed (or uncompressed) file, storing it on its local hard drive. Wam!Net then ensures it gets through the Internet to the client using its own segment of Internet backbone, "so you don't have to worry about getting all that content from A to B," says Barmer.
For large files for film or broadcast resolution video, he says "you really need the store and forward Internet provision, otherwise you end up tieing up your encoding machine while waiting to get it to the other side."
Wam!Net also provides the Mill's IP links, but the facility also uses Telestream, which enables it to encode to MPEG-1, MPEG-2 or MPEG-50 and transfer material to other facilities, so that it can send a 30 second commercial to the US in an hour from tape to tape, "which is a very attractive alternative to using a courier," says Barmer.
It is also using Wam!Net technology to create a Local Area Network with its offices and motion control facility at Shepperton studios (just outside London), allowing them to share its database and exchange files. However, it is not yet the answer to all its needs. "You can get to the point where a file is so immense that it makes more sense to put it on a DTS tape and put it on a bike," says Barmer.
Land Of Opportunity
Besides using the technology to enable it deliver its existing business, The Mill also sees opportunities to supply Internet content, such as Flash animations for client's sites, whether banner ads, Web commercials or animations for entertainment sites.
"Broadband and the Internet is going to change the nature of the ad industry and, to a certain extent, the film industry," says Barmer.
Rather than running scared of this change, he says facilities have to be flexible enough to do whatever the clients want. The Mill is also co-developing its own Web projects which will offer tools for the advertising and marketing industry. "We see ourselves using the Internet to improve our core business and producing stuff for our clients which is Web related and having equity in Web sites which our clients use to do their business," says Barmer.
Barmer also sees the nature of commercials changing as interactive TV grows, as they will become more about direct marketing than just building a brand.
As the broadcasting industry becomes more diverse, he admits there is a danger of dilution, but there will also be more opportunities. Instead of just a 30 second commercial, there will also be sponsored programming, and he sees bigger clients moving to set up their own stations on broadband. "There is an opportunity for facilities to be involved in setting up these projects, provided they are not afraid of change and get involved with the technology now, even if it loses them money initially," he says.
Playing Big Pipes
Pollard previously worked at Telecine, where they were developing various ideas to help customers move data asynchronously around networks. This was limited particularly by the speed of the carrier, which is governed by the weakest point, a consideration which he says must be taken into account by anyone wanting to rely on the Internet to deliver their content.
Although a building may be connected to the Internet by a very high speed line, you rarely get to work at those speeds. "That cuts down your streaming opportunities. You need to be able to sustain bandwidth across the whole network. We were very much focused on store and forward, using small bandwidth pipes to achieve high quality transfers in non-real time," he says.
Because streaming media on the Internet is aimed at the lowest common denominator, RealVideo and QuickTime set their sure streams at about 20k, because they know they can sustain that. Otherwise, without any buffering, quality can too easily be affected. However, "with download it doesn't matter if it drops from 40k to 5k and goes back up to 30k. If you want Video on Demand which streams at you, it will be lower quality for the foreseeable future, but with download, you could tell the device to get a film during the day, so that you could watch it in the evening."
He doesn't see DSL as being the answer, because its performance drops off so significantly as you move more than 1km from the head end. "It is OK in large cities, but not if you are far from the exchange," he says.