DAM Comes of Age

Sony system marks a milestone
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Sony system marks a milestone

HOLLYWOOD

For the motion picture industry, the digital revolution holds the promise of a world where images and information flow securely to all parts of the business anywhere on the globe. Yet while industries and careers have been broken in pursuit of this digital "Holy Grail," Sony Pictures Entertainment may represent a new paradigm.

The digital asset management (DAM) system at Sony Pictures Entertainment is based on breaking the operation into discreet, focused tasks. While the vision is grand, it is also parceled into solving specific business problems.

The key architect of DAM at Sony Pictures is Jerry Ledbetter, vice president of the Digital Media Initiative.

"Most studios in the late nineties adopted an enterprise asset management philosophy with varying degrees of success," Ledbetter said. "The outcome had been a set of compromises. What we've adopted is Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), which is a work-point solution tied together with common Web services."

A significant advancement in this approach is to use off-the-shelf software, such as INSCI's WebWare ActiveMedia, and link it with other off-the-shelf products using open-standards interfaces such as SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol). Ac-tiveMedia provides a secure repository for the management of rich media such as audio and video, as well as more common "office documents" such as MS Word and PowerPoint. In addition to being a software package that a user can interact with directly, ActiveMedia also provides services (such as search, transform and download) to other applications. These may in turn deliver the media and services through their own user interfaces.

"In the past, an enterprise would seek out a vendor and put pieces together to create a workflow-search engines, transcoders, converters-which made it inflexible," Ledbetter said. "The new architecture takes a transcoder and builds a Web service around it so that multiple workgroups can use it in different ways," he said.

In practical terms, here are some of the solutions provided by the new digital architecture.

THE ARCHITECTURE

Sony Pictures uses about 20 post-production houses, sometimes with multiple ones handling different aspects of the same production. In the past, this meant a lot of dubbing and shuttling of tapes, and an inefficient and redundant workflow.

By adapting WebWare ActiveMedia, Sony created cineSHARE, which is designed to move and share marketing materials and stock footage with post, print and finishing houses. The system provides secure access to more than 20,000 assets, and because everything can be obtained through the Web, material is available to authorized people in any part of the world.

WebWare CTO John Fox said, "Sony cineSHARE aids in daily production of feature films. It enables access to digital media in all parts of the production cycle-digital dailies, location photos, head-shots, production notes and the like. It can be accessed by all constituencies-producers, directors, lawyers, editors. It's all done over the Web, so the collaboration can take place in near real time."

One way cineSHARE has proved tremendously useful is in the approval process for syndicated programs. Various regions have different levels of tolerance for language, meaning that an off-color phrase may be acceptable to a station in California but unacceptable to one in Texas. As a result, each episode needs to go through an approval process, which in the past meant sending tapes all over the country and getting back faxed instructions for the removal of potentially offensive language.

With cineSHARE, affiliates can access and review programs online. Editors can immediately access the instructions and make modifications. Days are shaved off the approval process, improving speed and reducing costs.

"This saves hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single syndicated show," Fox said.

For shorter programs, the system can even be used to access and send video at broadcast resolutions.

"We have TV producers in Russia passing full-res material through cineSHARE," Ledbetter said. This means that footage can be shot in Russia and edited in L.A. for broadcast.

"What used to be a five- to seven-day tape courier process has been reduced to an overnight digital activity," he said.

One might think that current bandwidth limitations, which may require eight hours to send an edited trailer by FTP, to be a central problem in DAM employment. Improvement is welcome, but even at current bandwidth rates, the savings in time and cost are formidable. The cost of creating cineSHARE-about $200,000-will be recouped in two years.

CineSHARE is one of five studiowide solutions implemented by Sony Pictures as part of its digital initiative. Others include cineFLIP, a transcoding unit; cineIMAGE, handling still images; cineSTORE, allowing access to low-res proxies of hi-res video; and Stock Footage, a catalog of more than 20,000 clips.

NO MORE COURIERS

All these services can be accessed on the Web, which means media can be shared and sent all over the world with no physical transport. While it saves courier fees, the biggest savings is time.

Yet this is no media utopia. Creating the systems, and getting people to adopt them has been a struggle, partly due to human behavior and partly to a pre-digital infrastructure.

"The U.S. has a mixed legacy patchwork of connectivity," Ledbetter said. "It is im-proving, but there is still a problem with the last mile."

Undoubtedly this will change, and in the meantime, Ledbetter noted, the current technology works extremely well in closed networks and for point-to-point solutions.

From Fox's viewpoint, bandwidth is not a problem.

"Broadband is currently sufficient and available in enough places," he said. "What needs to accelerate is the ability to make discreet pieces of software work together. We need more standards so that differently authored formats can be integrated."

Ledbetter, pausing to reflect on his career, noted that ultimately, advancements in technology are about more than engineering.

"My hardest lesson was to learn that as an engineer you ultimately have to adjust to the behavior and culture of the people," he said. "Convergence, the previous industry mantra, has not played out as originally envisioned. Instead, it has been dictated more by the 'lean forward' and 'lean back' modes of consumer behavior."

But the benefits of digital asset management seem to be too profound and persuasive to envision turning back. And for now, Ledbetter and Fox are staking their careers on that assumption.