Post-production evolution

A look at the evolution of the post-production process
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Beth Logan builds tracks for an HD project using Sony’s Vegas 6. Photo courtesy Logan Productions.

A look back

For those of you younger than 40, it may come as a bit of a shock, but editing has not always been an electronic process. Computers are relatively new to the scene and especially new to the editing process.

We often talk about the transition to digital technology in our industry. Seldom is such a thread more valid than in the case of post-production tools. TV post production began when skilled editors physically spliced program segments together using Editall splicing blocks and a special Scotch-brand type of adhesive tape. The technique was not unlike film editing; often segments were hung in bins as a film editor might do.

Practical electronic editing began with the Ampex Editec in 1963. It used cue tones recorded on tape to electronically control the splice timing. Synchronization of the edit points required great reflexes and a significant degree of luck.

Time-code-based editing began in 1971. Surprisingly, this was about the same time NLEs began to appear. The first was the CMX-600. It used computer disks to record monochrome images, which could be conformed with the original videotape recordings using an auto-assembly system called the CMX-200. Only six CMX-600s were ever sold, perhaps because each one cost $250,000 in 1971. That would be $1.2 million dollars in today's money! And you thought today's equipment was expensive.

The entry of NLE technology

Despite stratospheric costs, from those roots came the first widely used electronic computer editing system, the CMX-300, which was also released in 1971. For about two decades, the CMX-300 dominated the industry. However, other entrants, including Calaway Engineering, ISC, Accom and Editware, brought important improvements to the technology and moved the industry from the clunky minicomputers of the time to microprocessor-based systems that later became a major force in the post-production process.


Avid’s Adrenaline HD features 10-bit video capture and playback and real-time HD and SD multi­camera editing.

Younger readers may think that computer-based NLE has always been with us. Not so. NLE technology was only a marginally-successful part of the industry for its first decade. During the late '70s and early '80s, Lucas Films' EditDroid, Editing Machines' EMC2 and the Montage Picture Processor all pioneered the concept of random-access NLE by following in the footsteps of the CMX-600.

However, it was not until 1989 that an unknown startup company really moved editing from editing controlled by computers to editing in computers. It was this aspect that moved video editing into the mainstream of the post-production process.

New editing paradigm

That company sold a whopping five systems on the show floor at NAB1989. Despite this meager beginning, it's name became synonymous with NLE and entered the lexicon reserved for few other manufacturers. That company was Avid.

The entire post-production industry has been uprooted by the revolution in hardware. High-end edit rooms used to cost upwards of $1 million and required VTRs, switchers, audio consoles, monitoring, effects systems, character generators, graphics cameras, routing switchers and lots of training. Today, the same horsepower can be provided in full-bandwidth HD in a desktop processor for a single-digit percentage of what it cost only a decade ago.

The newsroom revolution

This revolution has changed the post industry from one highly leveraged in capital hardware cost to one focused around highly-skilled, creative (and mobile) individuals. It has become hard for large post companies to compete with a sole practitioner who has an entire editing system in the trunk of his car or on his laptop. The most successful production companies have rebuilt their businesses to focus on human resources and workflow engineering.


Today’s NLE technology empowers editors by providing a seamless real-time workflow supporting all video acquisition formats with realtime, multi-track, mixed format HD/SD editing, compositing, chroma keying, titling and timeline output capabilities. Photo courtesy Canopus.

Every TV newsroom has used editors since the introduction of news film in the '40s. It was the job of these talented folks to process content acquired from the field into discrete and cohesive segments for newscasts.

Electronic editing began with the introduction of Umatic 3/4in tape in the '70s. CBS coined the term electronic newsgathering (ENG), and the use of film for news quickly disappeared. Arguably, Umatic lowered the quality of the product put on-air. However, as better equipment became available, notably with the introduction of the first Betacam professional VTRs, news moved to an all-electronic workflow, including simple linear editing with VTRs.

The next step was to move from a linear workflow to an NLE workflow. Avid introduced the first nonlinear computer-based news editing system in 1993. As a plethora of vendors released new products, workflow further improved. Today, it would be foolish to implement a news editing system based only on linear editing techniques. Now it's all about workflow, with linkage between newsroom computer systems, production workflow solutions and network-based editing.


Leitch’s VelocityHD NLE features full-quality HD playback of two video streams, two dynamic graphic streams, and dual-stream real-time HD transitions and effects.

Today, it is easy to say there is virtually nothing that cannot be done with computer post-production techniques. Each year, the improvement in software and hardware tools is astounding. The computer on which I am writing this article was delivered for $900, and it included a FireWire interface and editing software, which is remarkably full-featured. It can ingest and edit at full resolution and even output WM9 and MPEG-2 with software codecs. Having spent a decade of my career as a video editor using razor blades and later an Ampex RA-4000, one of the first computer editing systems that used time code, I can truly say that I would have killed for even today's low-end software.

Storage issues

There are several other issues that impact current editing technology, but storage is at the forefront. One of the limitations of editing and compositing applications has been the high cost of storing images at full resolution. Fortunately, the tremendous drop in the cost of storage follows the increasing processor speeds. Also, as the cost of CPUs have dropped, so, too, has storage.

With early editing systems, manufacturers discouraged users from selecting any disk storage they did not sanction. Sanction typically meant: “Buy it from us.”

However, the tables have turned, and some vendors have welcomed, or perhaps accepted might be more appropriate, the need for users to seek high-speed storage solutions and networking hardware for editing applications. This is particularly important in editing where large amounts of content are produced.


Pinnacle’s Liquid 6 delivers native HD editing, SmartRT real-time power, SmartEDIT multiformat editing and DVD authoring.

Management of that content with workflow processes, which include media asset, archive and rights management, is increasingly a part of post production. An important part of modern shared production environments is the ability to browse a library of content available to be edited. Managing the linkage of browse and online libraries and keeping them in perfect sync is critical. A card catalog is pretty clumsy when the assets are not on removable media like videotape.

HDV recording in cameras has been around for a couple of years. Until recently, however, editing HDV was challenging. The reason was that long GOP files are created in the HDV compression process, and for a long time it was assumed that long GOP MPEG editing was either impossible or impractical. However, recent developments in encoders and decoders from several manufacturers have shown that's not the case.

HDV solutions

At NAB2005, HDV editors were shown, and most are robust and versatile. Even so, not all editing solutions use the same processing. Some require the video to be decoded to baseband, edited and then recomposed. That takes time. Other software systems decode only the video around the desired transition, which means faster total throughput.

Now producers have the option of using short and long GOP MPEG, DV, uncompressed and other formats for both acquisition and editing. Some current HDV editing products include: Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5, Apple Final Cut Studio, Avid Xpress ProHD and StudioHD, Canopus Edius NX for HDV, Leitch Velocity HD, Pinnacle Liquid 6, and Sony Vegas 6.

Innovation doesn't just come from large companies with the assets and resources to invest in research and development. It also comes from startups anxious to prove prowess to a skeptical marketplace. Nowhere is that more true than in post production. One only needs to remember that Avid was once David seeking to slew a much bigger Goliath. It is wise to investigate the small and struggling innovators, for sometimes their desire and lack of preconceived notions leads to highly successful new solutions, not unlike those we enjoy today.


Adobe Premiere Pro 1.5 offers an expanded set of editing tools for correcting, enhancing and managing projects.

Innovation has become an intensive software business with hardware that is nearly off the shelf. This has been the root of tremendous change. Once the province of traditional television post production, electronic editing has become the norm for film and video, with features moving increasingly to electronic capture in HD, fulfilling the promise first recognized in the late '80s by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Digital intermediate work, a highly specialized form of electronic editing, completes the spectrum that begins with DV editing in home PCs.


Innovation

The future holds advances that will seem remarkable when they happen and unremarkable with historical perspective. One can assume that faster processors and cheaper storage will make worries about computer limitations an issue that is easy to overcome. The latest dual core processors from Intel, the Pentium Processor Extreme Edition, will have a major effect on the future of editing and graphics. These processors include hyper-threading technology, allowing four threads to be processed at the same time. Combined with a 64-bit operating system, the improvement in processing power is huge and should enable sophistication in media applications on a scale that was previously impossible. For instance, encoding HDTV to MPEG-2 or H.264 should be significantly faster, perhaps approaching real time with optimized code.

Gordon Moore from Intel, the author of “Moore's Law” said, “[The] first microprocessor only had 2200 transistors. We are looking at something a million times that complex in the next generations — a billion transistors. What that gives us in the way of flexibility to design products is phenomenal.” Large-scale production of products using this technology will move computer-intensive graphics applications, like TV editing, to even less expensive platforms with significant improvements in performance.

The ability of such hardware to run applications that require huge amounts of memory are also facilitated by 64-bit addressing, which raises the amount of memory addressed to 1Pb (1000Tb). Initial testing by Intel reportedly shows typical gains of 1 percent to 50 percent in speed with 64-bit processors. Using hyper threading and accessing significantly more memory gains for TV and media applications will become critical factors in improving software performance.

John Luff is senior vice president of business development for AZCAR.