Over the past few years, post houses have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of time they spend encoding video into numerous file formats and distributing that material in a variety of ways according to client demands.
There are several encoding systems on the market to simplify what has now become a routine task. One such system is ContentAgent-XR from ROOT6 Technology.
We purchased our first systems in the summer of 2004, primarily for ad-hoc encoding. In the early days, we were mainly doing ‘one-off’ encodes in MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 formats for review and approval. In that context, we liked the system and especially appreciated the advantages of integrated file delivery via ftp or e-mail and the built-in DVD burning capability, which is used extensively for telecine rushes work.
We had been using the original three systems quite happily for more than a year when, last October, we pitched successfully for a major encoding project. The contract heralded the arrival of three further ContentAgent systems, this time in the new XR 3U iteration.
XR is a multiformat video encoding system using the Windows XP embedded operating system with SD video I/O. The system makes use of established and proven encoding technology with proprietary software and comes in a 3U rackmountable package with an optional touch screen. It is designed as a workhorse in high-throughput dubbing machine room environments where ever-present deadlines demand efficient workflow.
Incidentally, the 3U XR version differs from our original units in that it has been designed to accommodate HD I/O and additional storage for uncompressed HD capture. This is planned as an option with new V2 software.
Unlike some systems that present you with all the options all the time, this kit provides access to the fundamental controls that operators need to get the job done. Where our applications are concerned, ContentAgent is not the domain of experienced engineers; a competent operator can easily set up projects and templates.
The user interface is clear and straightforward, with a refreshing lack of drop-down menus. All the commonly encountered post-production tasks are always in front of you. To create a new job, you can either capture directly from tape or import material from a network. Then, using the Workflow Wizard, you define the required process, which is created in simple child steps.
These steps are typically derived from supplied templates, which cover any actions relating to the transcoding, distribution and output of the material. When completed, the new workflow can be saved and reused for consistent results. As a large amount of post work revolves around repetitive tasks, the ability to recall and reuse a complex workflow with a single click is a valuable asset.
The user interface is in part a result of the company's Soho location at the heart of the UK's post-production community. It would be impossible for the developers not to get a great deal of feedback, with users and potential users on their doorstep. The system offers a useful and timesaving deck control feature, enabling operators to log multiple in and out points on a tape so that clocks and tails are eliminated from subsequent transcode processes.
Last summer, we won a major encoding project. The client is a music label, and our task, currently ongoing, is to take an archive of 15,000 pop promos, mainly on DigiBeta, and encode the material for both Internet and mobile delivery. Armed now with our three further ContentAgent XR systems, the specific task was first to create a master 50Mb I-frame-only file. This is the digital representation of the video master from which all further material is derived.
For mobile distribution via the client's business partners, including Apple, Yahoo and Vodafone, we then created an 8Mb/s MPEG-2 long GOP file, which the partners transcode into the appropriate mobile formats.
Finally, a Windows Media 500kb/s version is generated for reference by the client over the Internet. The encoding system automates the entire process for us, including the removal of heads and tails for the two consumer versions.
All of the data for this project is held within our own internal SAN, and the encoding systems write directly to this. These are then compiled on-demand to large-format FireWire drives, DVD-R or delivered electronically straight to the client's business partners.
We expect to deal with the back catalogue for this project in around six months and, to date, it's running smoothly. We've experienced no hardware problems. The Intel-based system uses standard proven components, and reliability has been excellent. I know that there is a manual but, in the best engineering tradition, I'm thankful that I've never needed to consult it!
When we ordered our first system, we didn't directly road test it against the competition with which we were familiar. We knew that although ContentAgent isn't the cheapest solution on the market, in encoding-intensive environments like ours, it was going to be one of the fastest to pay its way. This has proved to be the case.
What we like most about ContentAgent is the ease and simplicity of setup, its operational efficiency with automated workflow and its universal encoding capabilities. So far, we've never had a client ask us for an encoding job we couldn't do on the system. To those key capabilities, I'd add the convenience of integrated file delivery and the ability to create DVDs.
Major software upgrades can be a bit problematic, but frankly, this is not atypical in the industry. It's not a big issue for us, as we can run a major upgrade on a single system to make sure we're comfortable before committing totally to the new version.
We've already had some sneak previews of V2 software, which we're eagerly anticipating. Essentially, this will migrate the system into the world of HD and film. As film restoration and DI is a significant and increasing revenue stream for us, we're excited about the possibility of being able to encode DPX files and move them around in a far more manageable way for our clients.
Adrian Bull is director of engineering at Ascent Media Group Media Management Services in London.