Evaluating Professional Online M&E Platforms, Part 2

Part 2 explores some of the technical operations cloud-based platforms need to function properly in a digital supply chain.
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The first part of this article explored the emergence a digital supply chain for entertainment media content that is fully file centric, and the recent appearance of cloud-based platforms for storing, managing and distributing content. It suggested a variety of factors for content owners to consider in evaluating various solutions and determining which is right for them. It looked at some of the core functions of these platforms, including suitability for managing media assets, search capabilities, and technical capacity for content creation, ingest, storage and delivery.

Part 2 explores some of the technical operations cloud-based platforms need to function properly in a digital supply chain.

RESOLUTION

Moving master files that are commonly HD, UHD or 4K is a fundamental requirement of any system delivering content for broadcast play-out or theatrical display. These files, by definition, are large and uncompressed and must be delivered intact along with their complete associated audio track layouts. These audio files are either married to the master file or sent along as separate stems and linked to the master image file.

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CODECS & FILE FORMATS

In addition to supporting resolutions ranging from SD to 4K, the best platforms accept a full spectrum of file types and containers. Choose a platform that can read the most popular codecs (e.g. DNxHD, ProRes, AVC Intra, XDCAM, DVC ProHD, XAVC-S, and H.264) and formats (e.g. QT, MOV, AVI, MPG, MP4, MXF).

TRANSCODE

Ideally, the platform should create a viewable proxy upon ingest and make it available for viewing or download. This is a convenient way to evaluate a compressed but high-quality version of the master content in a viewer as soon as the transcode has finished. This file can also serve as a screener for delivery to another party or for viewing purposes in a screening room environment shared by guest users in an individual account.

If the platform provides an integrated transcoding service that can accept any input format to a selected output format as well as perform frame rate and aspect ratio conversion, that’s one less task the client will have to outsource and complete before upload.

FILE TRANSFER

Once the content is living in the cloud, delivery of files from one account to another should be seamless and achievable from any location where there is a connection. This delivery process should involve notifying the recipient by email that there is content awaiting confirmation of delivery. In the case of a new recipient, an email request to open an account prior to completing the delivery should be sent to the recipient. Depending on the permissions granted, the recipient will then be able to screen and/or download the content. This provides an additional level of privacy and security to the delivery.

REVIEW & APPROVAL FOR DAILIES, WORKS IN PROGRESS & PROMOTIONAL CONTENT

If the platform is being used to move either master or editable content from the set to post production, finishing, VFX or sound, the project will likely need to create and publish dailies versions of content in a secure and private screening room environment. If the platform is being used primarily to showcase, promote and sell content, then finished programming or trailers (often watermarked by the system) will be the order of the day.

The system should include the ability to create multiple screening rooms. If it also allows screening rooms to be assigned selectively to various stakeholders for review, approval and annotation, so much the better. Perhaps most important, the platform should be sufficiently flexible to include and sign in all the potential guests who will be reviewing the content—not just the platform licensee.

PLATFORM ADMINISTRATION

Any application worth its weight should have enterprise-level control over users and functionality. It should also deliver persistent, automated notification to all recipients of any and all platform activity.

The account administrators must be able to freely create, provision and assign permissions to groups (and users within groups) according to function, as well as monitor usage across the platform and for any action. This is especially important for companies whose users are geographically spread out.

PLATFORM REPORTING

A system that can fully monitor usage can report it down to a granular level. These reports (as HTML and .pdf) should include storage, uploads, downloads, streaming, transcoding and deliveries, among others.

STORAGE

The storage requirements for libraries of M&E-finished programming and/or post-production content can become enormous very quickly. As online storage continues to spearhead the move to the cloud for business and industry, either replacing or augmenting on-premise storage solutions becomes an attractive alternative. While cost will always be the key consideration, the price of online storage continues to drop to record lows. Other drivers include type of storage (block vs. object), privacy, security and fast access to assets. 

SECURITY

In this day and age—next to price—security is the most important consideration when it comes to moving high-value content to the cloud. There are myriad issues regarding security that a company must evaluate before choosing a platform but getting the correct answers to the following questions will provide insight into how dedicated a platform is to protecting its clients’ assets:

· Who has access to the media and in what capacity?

· Can this access be modified or completely removed?

· Is there the ability to generate an audit trail for all activity on the platform?

· What encryption is in place to protect data from being pirated in the browser?

· Is 256-bit SSL encryption implemented?

· How is data encrypted in transit?

· Where exactly is the data center located?

· How stable and secure is the internet connection into and out of the data center?

· How is access to data on servers encrypted?

· Who can physically access the servers that data is being stored on?

· Is there disk mirroring and incremental backup at the data center?

· Are there any additional on-premise disaster recovery policies in place at the data center?

· Does the data center provide dedicated and exclusive tenancy to its platform clients?

· Is the data center certified with any regulatory agencies, production studios or trade bodies?

TRAINING & SUPPORT

Regardless of how intuitive and easy to navigate a platform may be, there is going to inevitably be a need for training and ongoing support, especially for a new technology that provides a comprehensive solution to the workflows for popular post production and distribution workflows.

This effort can take the form of an online, phone or in-person presence, but it has to be readily available and time-zone sensitive. Early adopters of a new system will appreciate quick response times and certainly deserve the time and attention needed to take them through uncharted waters. As time goes on and these systems penetrate the market, training and support can be formalized and even commercialized, but at first there may be a need for intensive training.

PRICING

Does it make financial sense to utilize online media platforms as opposed to simply buying (and amortizing) more on-premise hardware and software licenses? That will depend on the forecasted volume of content being stored, managed and distributed on an annual basis and what it costs the company to handle this work on-site.

Capital expenditures have the advantage of immediate depreciation, but when one factors in the add-on costs of service, maintenance and other overhead costs, things can get expensive very quickly, especially for boutique and medium-size production/distribution companies.

The technical feasibility of an in-house solution should be considered. Developing and deploying such a complex system would require a significant investment. It can also take a long time to design, implement, test and deploy a system. Keeping it up to date with evolving technology and industry standards might also be challenging. A fully-tailored in-house solution might offer advantages in terms of customization, but that would have to be weighed against an online solution that is ready-made, proven, maintained and evolving.

Assuming the online platform offers a variety of pricing models (such as on-demand and subscription packages) and that the seller is willing to play ball to get the relationship off the ground (i.e. trial periods and gradual on-boarding of content over time) launching a relationship with a cloud-based platform is a worthy exercise.

TRACK RECORD & CUSTOMER REFERENCES

Media platforms should be ready, willing and able to share testimonials in the form of personal referrals and reports in the trade press. The ongoing reputation, credibility and business future of these platforms depend on regular market exposure across all media, and perhaps most important, good word of mouth.

Kenneth Yas is Managing Director—Americas for WCPMedia Services, whose cloud-based content management and distribution system is used by media and entertainment companies around the world. Yas is a 25 year veteran of the post-production industry whose background includes senior management and marketing roles with Lightning Media, Thomson Grass Valley, The Post Group and Lucasfilm.