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Is post-production an endangered species?

To judge by a spate of conference presentations at IBC 2013, we might conclude that post production was alive and well, but a closer inspection, might reveal that post production as we know it may cease to exist. That does not mean that the functions will become extinct, but that some will increasingly be automated, while the ones that really add value and require the human touch will be incorporated into either the production or distribution chains, squeezing out the traditional post-production house. There seems to be a trend away from one-stop-shop post-production toward specialists in visual effects (VFX), color management and creative finishing. Such trends are being driven by advances in computer animation and special effects generation, ironically, creating a need for greater human skills in matching these with the content after filming has finished, when the traditional post-production phase takes place.

Post production is also being driven by trends in computer hardware toward virtualization, cloud-based infrastructures, SaaS (Software as a Service) and increasing availability of wide area networks with enough bandwidth to exchange post production files affordably, finally ending the era of physical media transport by courier. This is leaving traditional facilities with their capital intensive infrastructure looking rather cumbersome and uneconomic.

As always at a time of disruption in an industry sector, there are opportunities for those post house willing to adapt quickly and retool with the skills and equipment needed to serve the emerging market. UK-based Envy Post Production, for example, recently incorporated an SaaS file transfer system called Media Shuttle to move large files securely, in response to evolving requirements from both its business partners and customer base.

Post houses need to follow trends in overall content production, with increasing demand for skills and facilities for data management, archiving and duration. There is a new breed of content commissioners among pay-TV operators and OTT providers such as Hulu and Netflix, with rather different requirements focusing on episodic series suitable for consumption online via PCs and tablets as much as big-screen TVs. At IBC there will some discussion over whether this will regalvanize the high-end post-production market or whether it means the functions will be subsumed into the OTT distribution chain.

Inevitably the question of UHDTV or 4K will be discussed in some of the IBC conferences around post production. So far momentum has been driven most by consumer electronics (CE) makers, just as was the case for 3-D. Sony was one of the first to declare its hand by setting up a 4K post-production facility at its Sony Pictures Colorworks base in Culver City, CA, in February 2013. This was Sony’s gambit to stimulate production of original 4K content, as well as remastering footage shot on traditional film, aiming to kick start the 4K content cycle.

Sony was then modestly encouraged by our own survey comparing perceptions among engineers and managers of TV stations about 3-D and 4K, compiled by Broadcast Engineering in conjunction with SCRI Broadcast Pro Video Research earlier this year. This revealed an expectation that 4K would begin to take off after 2014, with post-production houses more bullish about 4K than stations or pay-TV operators, reflecting their expectation that 4K will become a factor during the lifetime of some of the content they are currently working on.

But these are early days for 4K in post-production. It will be noticeable at IBC 2013 that 4K has made significant inroads into the post-production business in the wake of Sony’s activities, yet there are still questions to be settled over standards as well as applications. There is a debate over frame rates and use of 10-bit color to add depth, leading on to the question of whether UHDTV-capable displays will be able to harness the wide dynamic range that the newest high-end 4K cameras can reproduce.

A more specific question for post-production will be what display technology will be adopted for reference-grade 4K monitoring in post-production and color grading. We know that it won’t be plasma as that looks set for extinction, while LCDs face further challenges for use as reference displays, and OLED technology still has to overcome the issue of low yield.

We can see there will plenty to talk about around post production at IBC and plenty of events where that will happen.