Post-production systems: The need for speed

The latest post-production systems leverage the phenomenal processing power of commodity IT platforms to enhance the efficiencies of broadcast workflows and enable creativity, all at a lower cost than was conceivable five years ago
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Over the last five years, the systems at broadcast and post-production facilities have been converging from rather different starting points. The traditional broadcaster is interested in speed of operation, as material is often prepared close to air. The post facility is more service-oriented and has a different set of financial goals from the broadcaster.

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The BBC Bristol employs Discreet's FireHD suite.

Post houses have tended to choose from a limited set of the most popular products. Clients ask for the big names, and the freelance staff they often use are familiar with that equipment. Broadcasters have more freedom and will choose the best equipment for the task. If necessary, they can train their staff to use unfamiliar equipment.

In the past, many broadcasters chose high-performance systems that used proprietary hardware, at a cost, to satisfy the fast-turnaround demanded by broadcast workflows. The careful crafting of post-production looked for more standard equipment that could be readily amortized and could use the pool of freelance resources.

As commodity software platforms have radically increased in performance, the advantages of proprietary hardware have all but disappeared. The latest dual core 64-bit processors, coupled with graphics processor units (GPU), provide staggering processing power, yet at the price of a home PC.

Create more with less

Broadcasters now have to create much more with the same resources: capital and human. Viewers expect a comprehensive Web presence, they want on-demand access to programs, and they want to watch handheld devices while on the move.


ENVY, a post-production facility in London, uses Discreet's Smoke for editing and effects.

Broadcasters will have to create several versions for this range of markets, with different segment lengths, different resolutions — SD, HD and QSIF — and different graphics. All this puts new demands on their post-production systems. First, it means a move toward file-based workflows. From necessity, transcoding engines have become part of every system.

Broadcasters are calling for open systems. They want to choose the best of breed without locking in to a single vendor. Another advantage with open systems is the easy exchange of projects with external facility companies.

Convergence

The many changes in the business of television, and the ever-increasing capabilities of commodity IT equipment, means that outside the specialty of news, the requirements broadcasters are now no different from a post house. This convergence brings other advantages in that staff can move freely between broadcast facilities and external post houses.

Branding

One of the consequences of the multichannel, multi-platform world in which the broadcasters compete is that channel branding and promotion have come to the fore. The entertainment options continue to grow as telcos and cable companies expand their content portfolios. Broadcasters will have to adopt dynamic visual graphics to differentiate themselves from the competition. The quality of these graphics must stand up to the expensively produced commercials and programs.

This has led to many broadcasters expanding their in-house graphics and editing capabilities beyond the requirements of news and documentaries. Being broadcasters, the tight deadlines have not changed, so reliability, performance and ease of use are important when making a purchase.

Post-production systems have until recently been islands, ingested from tape, and the output delivered to transmission as tape. File-based workflows have changed all that. News has led the way. It is perfectly possible to transmit a news report without using videotape. There is a seamless file flow from ingest to air. As network and stations move to server-based playout, there is no reason why files cannot flow from post-production to master control via the archive.

Media asset management

Any move away from tape introduces the issue of file management. Tape libraries use tried and trusted working practices, with an orderly system of shelf numbers and bar codes. A tape can be quickly located and checked out of the storage area for editing, dubbing or transmission.

File management requires media or digital asset management (MAM or DAM) to replace and enhance the traditional tape library.

Post-production systems

A picture is emerging of unitary systems from ingest to transmission that predominately use IT platforms, and augmented by hardware acceleration where the process demands it.

The advent of file-based workflows means that, in theory, broadcasters can handle program content from acquisition to transmission as a seamless flow through the stages of post-production: logging, offline, graphics, online and finishing. Underpinning the tasks, asset management can be used to transfer the files between tasks and back and forwards from the archive. This replaces the traditional tape library and endless journeys in tape carts. Cost has been an issue with DAM, but products are available now that are tailored to the specific needs of broadcasters, rather than the enterprise systems more suited to brand and content management.

Broadcasters that have looked at DAM soon found that it did not provide answers to process management. You could find and preview the media, but could you manage the workflow or schedule human and hardware resources to tasks? Over the last two years, there has been more attention paid by vendors to broadcast management systems that could deliver a real return. These systems will usually be integrated from the products of several vendors to provide a complete solution to back file-based post-production.

Storage

Although storage drops in price every year, the lowest cost will not necessarily be suitable for video applications. The manufacturers of editing and graphics equipment often prefer to supply storage that they have qualified. Not only does this guarantee performance in the demanding environment of close-to-air production (especially so for HD systems), but service and support can be simpler from one supplier.

There are many possible architectures for storage, but all use a hierarchy of cost and performance. Online uncompressed editing is the most demanding, often with several people collaborating on a project and sharing media files. Finished programs can be laid off to lower cost storage in a compressed format (50Mb/s I-frame being typical for SD), on SATA arrays or data tape.

Post-production can use direct-attached storage for work in progress and then store finished jobs on a central file-server, often network attached storage (NAS). This is fine for simple tasks, but broadcast projects are often a collaborative effort, especially if time is limited. For this style of working, there is one answer — to use a storage attached network (SAN). The workstations are attached directly via fibre channel or iSCSI. That way, the potential bottlenecks of the network and network interfaces of the NAS appliances are avoided. Avid Unity is a typical example of fiber-attached storage for collaborative editing.

Workflow

One could say that the use of videotape held back the development of processes and workflows; it has been an Achilles heel. Broadcasters that have migrated to file-based content can start with a clean sheet of paper to design more efficient systems in order to better use the skills of their staff and meet the needs of multi-platform delivery.

A fully featured media management application should be able to integrate the business systems of a TV station with the management of media as it flows through the processes of post-production. Although workflow has become a buzz word in this industry, the same process control and monitoring used in industrial plants must be applied to content creation and publishing to move broadcasting from being a craft to a content factory. Only then can broadcasters feel confidant that they can fight off the many threats that are coming from the telcos through 3G and IPTV.

With broadcasters' demands for more open interfaces, vendors are claiming to offer “open” systems with standards such as AAF and MXF. This is important, as in the past equipment could easily be linked with a 270Mb/s SDI interface. In the file-based world, it must be just as easy to interconnect. No one wants the proprietary formats we once saw with the different implementations of motion JPEG.

Quantel

Broadcasters have used Quantel equipment since the Paintbox was first launched. Known for their speed of operation and ease of use, Quantel products are found in news and post, as well as outside the broadcast sector in digital film.


Post-production facility mediahouse, London, features Quantel's sQ Edit nonlinear editing and effects system.

sQ has been designed for the rapid-fire work of sports and news broadcasting. The sQ system has a server at its heart, with a range of workstations for cuts-only or craft editing. The Quantel products are designed for collaboration, with innovations such as ZoneMagic, which enables secure local and remote media sharing with AAF support in a genuine federated workflow that can span a room, a department, a city or across the world.

In a typical example of the increasing demands of channel branding, German post house ACT has just purchased the new eQ FX to create on-air promotions for broadcaster Westdeutschen Rundfunks (WDR), and support its move to HD production.

Quantel has also been working extensively to create connected workflows through partnerships. Together with Front Porch Digital, it offers a self-contained archive solution to back-edit workgroups.

Autodesk

The Media & Entertainment division of Autodesk has a long reputation for workstation-based products at the high end of the performance spectrum. In answer to its customers' demands for lower-cost products, many applications have been ported from SGI/IRIX to commodity PCs running Linux. This makes support easier, as the base of Linux users is much higher than IRIX. Plus, there are the economies of using commodity workstations. As broadcasters view the quality of material created by post houses on Discreet's Flame and Smoke, they have been keen to adopt the equipment for graphics and finishing.

The Flint visual effects system can be found at broadcasters across Europe and Asia. A recent customer, RT… (Radio Telefix …ireann), is using Discreet's Flint as an in-house tool to generate a full variety of graphics building broadcast content material, opening titles, sequences and promotional material. RTE also use 3ds Max animation software. For the demanding graphics at the Torino Winter Olympics, NBC used Autodesk's maya 3-D software. Broadcasters have even ventured into high-end post. In addition, the BBC Natural History unit uses Fire for HD editing.

Apple

Apple is well-known for Final Cut Pro, which has become one of the favorite editors for the freelancer. Now part of Final Cut Studio, Apple has a suite of products for editing, motion graphics, and sound design. Apple also offer high-performance and cost-effective servers and storage, which lends Final Cut to broadcast worgroup applications.

With family ties to the QuickTime architecture and an open XML interchange format, there are a growing number of partners who are offering products that can be used to build complete post-production systems around the Final Cut Studio tools. The Apple products are now finding their way into news editing and transmission applications alongside post-production.

Avid

Much of what we see on screen today has touched an Avid product, which are well-liked by the editing community. For broadcasters, they have the added advantage of being able to offer common storage platforms for programs, graphics and news. Collaborative, online editing demands a storage solution designed for media files; a regular IT storage array will not deliver the performance required.

The favorite for this application is Avid Unity, a flexible system that scales to almost 200TB and 1500 user accounts in the ISIS implementation. ISIS has already been deployed at several European sites, including the new Danmarks Radio facility, Ciris and Avi-Drome in Holland, and RFO and Equidia in France.

Avid's latest launch, Interplay, which is dubbed the nonlinear workflow engine, can be used to automate many of the production tasks allied to editing: logging, encoding and transcoding, and archiving.

Canopus Edius

With the name Grass Valley behind it, the Edius editor will see new applications in broadcast. The NLE will shortly include many features loved by broadcasters, including multicam editing, streamlined user-interface and improved support for multichannel audio.

Canopus also has several transcoding tools in its product line that can meet the needs of content repurposing in the file-based world.

Adobe

No broadcast post department would be complete without After Effects and Photoshop. With the purchase of Macromedia, Flash, which is a favorite application for 2-D animation, joins the Adobe stable. These versatile and low-cost packages are invaluable for many tasks from graphics to compositing, with the added advantage of being cross-platform.

But Adobe is also offering a desktop HD editing solution, Production Studio, and through the OpenHD initiative, it is possible to purchase certified shrink-wrap products for the Windows platform.

The latest releases from Adobe now provide much enhanced integration for using Adobe products is a seamless flow. Dynamic Link saves re-rendering when exchanging effects between After Effects and Premiere Pro, and Bridge provides central navigation for the production studio.

It's a wrap

As the MXF wrapper ousts the tape cassette, broadcasting is entering a new era, where broad means not just the broad reach of the transmitter, but the breadth of platforms used to reach an audience.

For broadcasters looking to stand out from the crowd, branding and promotion have become important for creating that special “on-air look.” Even the publisher broadcaster must look beyond a simple playout system and encompass post-production systems to create an enticing brand, plus the ever-increasing requirement to repurpose content from different delivery channels.

The latest post-production systems leverage the phenomenal processing power of commodity IT platforms to enhance the efficiencies of broadcast workflows and enable creativity — all at lower cost than conceivable five years ago.