HD Editing, in Fits and Starts

Despite progress, workflow issues remain March 8, 2006
JOHNSTON, IOWA: Long before IPTV began broadcasting in high definition, we were actively involved in the acquisition of high-definition content.

As early as 1998, we began shooting HD for special events like the Iowa State Fair. Several years later we produced our first HD program, a documentary on the restoration and remodeling of the Iowa State Capitol building. Although IPTV personnel shot the footage for this production, the actual HD editing had to be done off-site at a post house in Chicago because we had not yet purchased any HD editing.

In 1999, when we were working on this project, there were so few nonlinear HD editing options available that met our performance requirements--and were in a price range we could afford--that we seriously looked at converting our existing analog linear suite to HD and using our reliable GVG 341 editor as our primary HD editing facility. The only thing that kept us from moving down that road was the lack of a suitable HD switcher that could take the place of the GVG 110.

The only nonlinear options that we could seriously consider based on performance were the Discreet Smoke and the Avid DS/HD. At the time we first started looking at the DS system it was not an Avid product, but rather an offering from Softimage, a company that Avid acquired. We had, in essence, cobbled together a small HD editing system based on some unauthorized upgrades to an early Final Cut Pro system, but the editing performance of that generation of FCP was intolerable for long-form programming. Also, there were so many problems associated with the bargain-basement hardware that we had used that FCP wasn't a serious consideration.

There were two critical factors that lead to our decision to purchase the DS/HD. The first was the price: For about half the cost of what as quoted for an equivalent Smoke system we were able to purchase the DS/HD as well as upgrade two of our SD Avids to Meridian.

The second factor was compatibility--certainly not essence file compatibility, which has never been a strong suit for Avid, but edit decision list compatibility. Since we knew that we would be doing a large amount of HD work using our SD Avid systems, it was crucial that we have the ability to create the basic product in down-converted SD from the HD masters, then take the EDL and the HD masters into the HD system, conform the EDL and ingest and create the finished product. The DS/HD was approximately 98 percent accurate in the conforming process whereas the Smoke was in the 75 percent range. Given what I know now, I suspect that EDL conforming accuracy was probably one of the key issues that the Avid software engineers focused on with the Softimage DS purchase.

CONVERTING TO HD

Now move forward to the present where IPTV is doing the vast majority of our field production in HD. At this year's NAB, our team will be doing the final work on creating request for proposals for the conversion of our studio to HD. Workflow has become one of the key discussion points in the industry, and of course, as with all things digital, there are brand new emerging technologies like Blu-ray and flash storage, which promise to revolutionize the way we work. With those drivers and others, the push at our facility has been to update, upgrade and increase our capacity for doing HD production. During this period of time, improvements have been made in the systems we initially considered. Additionally, our local staffs have made decisions that impact our workflow.

Our promotions department now produces interstitials in HD using their system of choice, FCP HD. Meanwhile, programming and production have stuck to their guns and are unwilling to change from Avid. On-air playback of content is via Omneon servers which have their own unique needs and limitations when it comes to HD. So when considering a solution that in theory is supposed to improve workflow, it is critical to have the players involved look beyond the barriers of their own area to how they fit within the overall station system. An example is our recent purchase of Avid upgrades.

When our production department first began working with Avid on what was needed, the proposed equipment list only had the upgrades for the existing Media Composer Meridian systems and a new Media Composer Adrenaline. Evidently the Avid workflow upgrade proposal doesn't provide a path for our existing DS/HD system that doesn't require a forklift. It wasn't until we all sat down to go over the proposal with the Avid representatives that we were able to get a plan put together that recognized that we wanted to do more than move files between our Avid systems; eventually the content created on these systems has to make it on the air and into our archives. I suspect there might also be a time when the promotions department may want to use some of the content in creating interstitials. As you may suspect, these requirements resulted in a considerable change in the hardware and software inventory from what was originally proposed as a fiber switch and shared storage between our two existing Meridians and the new Adrenaline.

In addition to the upgrades to the existing Meridiens and the new Adrenaline, the original Avid proposal included two Avid MEDIArray ZX's and a Q-Logic 16-port 4 GB Fibre Switch. The final proposal plan added an Avid Media Manager, File Manager and Transfer Manager to the package which allow us to connect the existing DS/HD system as well as the hooks necessary to connect the Avid environment to the IPTV house network. For me, often the hard part of this is just figuring out what all the parts do and how they fit in the system. It appears to me that MediaManager, FileManager, and TransferManager are all software packages that run on dedicated servers. MediaManager tracks all the "Avid" media assets stored on the MEDIArray storage. In theory it can also track non-Avid assets files that are related to an Avid based production. Our system has yet to be commissioned so I haven't seen how that works. The addition of the MediaSelect option allows desktops attached to the Avid via the LAN to browse assets. What I am still unclear about is if this browse option is strictly for the Avid storage or can the desktops also browse attached non-Avid systems such as the Omneon storage and Spectra Logic archives. During our meeting with Avid to discuss equipment needs, integration and configuration, they were unable to answer this question but offered to check it out and get back to us. So far, we haven't heard back regarding this question.

According to the documentation, TransferManager facilitates the movement of files between the shared storage and the attached editing systems. As I understand it, to work with files from the shared storage, the data still has to be moved from the shared storage to the local system storage for editing. TransferManager speeds up this process by providing a dedicated server to handle the processing and allowing the processor on the editor to focus on just manipulating the content. The process can take place on the TransferManager at faster than real-time speeds. In our application the system will perform a similar function for moving completed content to and from the Spectra Logic archive.

The final piece is the FileManager, which is still a bit of a mystery for me. At first blush it appears to be a software-based transcoder similar to the FlipFactory, in which case Avid content is sent to it and transcoded to the appropriate format for use on other systems such as our Omneon and FCP systems. However, I also know that there is a FileManager plug-in available for the FlipFactory, so I assume that if you own FlipFactory, you can just purchase the plug-in, but it may entail some upgrade to the FlipFactory.

As much as I would like to report how well all of this is working, since our system isn't commissioned yet, I don't have any real world results. One observation that I will make is that I am becoming increasingly more skeptical about buying systems that you plan on expanding. Three or four years from now, I doubt that the technology that we are implementing will be compatible with new technology being rolled out. So keep the existing systems operational until the forklifts arrive and remember that in the digital age as in every other age, the things that revolutionize our workflow are the same things that can disrupt our world.

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