Up for Adoption

I can’t believe how shocked I was when I watched that episode of “The Sopranos.”
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I can’t believe how shocked I was when I watched that episode of “The Sopranos.”

No, I’m not talking about the last episode, the flukey ending that got everyone’s knickers in a twist. And I don’t mean that I was bowled over by the violence, crudity or fundamental inhumanity of any particular episode. This was far more disturbing.

A couple of weeks ago, I revisited Sopranos episode number two, and one scene in particular knocked me for a loop: The crew has “boosted” a trailer-load of this new, whiz-bang consumer electronics gadget—the DVD player.

Paulie: “I hear there’s not as many titles available as on laser. There’s more coming, though. My internist told me the picture’s not that different from laser, either. But the sound… way improved.”

Good grief… could it have been such a short time ago that DVD players were bleeding-edge technology? I can barely remember such a time, but there it is, immortalized in a contemporary icon of pop culture… “The Sopranos.” And, relatively speaking, it was only yesterday.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the first DVD players and DVD film titles hit U.S. stores in early 1997. The turning point was in 1998 when approximately 23 million players were sold, and nearly 2,500 titles were published. In 2001, DVDs overtook VHS sales, and the rest is history.

Today, of course, I can run down the block to the supermarket and pick up a fully-featured DVD player for $49.95, along with a handful of feature films for under $10 each. If “cheap” is the measure of market saturation, then we have indeed arrived.

MORE THAN STATISTICS

For working professionals, the story of the DVD’s incredible time-to-adoption holds implications, which go beyond the simple gee-whiz factor.

The first realization was that it was time to sell off the VHS duplicators to the scrap dealer, and learn the ins-and-outs of the fickle world of MPEG-2 compression and disc authoring. In the beginning, I can recall paying a neighboring facility to have a “first play” (no menu) DVD authored on their $25,000 Sonic DVD Creator system, a set of proprietary compression hardware and semi-automatic coding utilities, hosted on the newly-designed Mac G4. It wasn’t cheap. Within the year, we were dragged, kicking and screaming, into software-based compression and authoring, burning programs onto $25-a-pop DVD-R blanks.


(click thumbnail)Good grief...could it have been such a short time ago that DVD players were bleeding-edge technology?The transition, mind-numbing and expensive as it was, was worth the effort. For once, our clients’ time-to-adoption matched the national trend, and in what seemed like no time at all, they began choosing DVDs as their deliverable of choice. We had made the transition.

The big-picture lesson, though, is a familiar one: One fine day, everything you know is suddenly wrong. Formats can change in the twinkling of an eye, and forces outside of your control—market forces—will dictate what those changes will be. The best technology will not always win the day, nor will the most cost-effective; and you cannot predict even the shortest-term future of technology. Translation: Go with the flow. And plan on being asked to dip into your wallet—frequently—to support the never-ending march of progress.

When will it all stop? Never, if we’re lucky, because this expensive and upsetting phenomenon called change is actually netting out to some wonderfully streamlined workflows, higher sound and picture quality, and extended production features. Production technology is more affordable than ever, and open standards and widely published APIs have turned software innovation into a grassroots affair.

A DISC IN THE HAND

Here’s a case in point: We were recently hired to shoot a multicamera project, and the specification called for production on Sony’s optical disc-based XDCAM HD system, something we were unfamiliar with. Rolling a total of six ISO XDCAM HD recorders over five days of shooting served as a crash course in adapting to an unfamiliar format.

On the minus side, well—we couldn’t really decide what directorial command to use to get the show on the road. “Roll tape!” didn’t seem appropriate; “Lasers on!” and “Burn bits!” just seemed to lack a certain panache. I think we settled for “Flame on!”

On the plus side, compared to some of the competing methods of high-def acquisition, is the benefit—real or imagined—of tangible, physical media… something to feel and touch, something to catalog and store at the end of the shoot. The media itself feels ever so slightly less fragile than a cassette full of polyester tape. I have no idea if that’s true; but perception counts for points, and even in my active imagination, I can’t imagine that horrible crinkling noise—the sound of a threading ring run amok—coming from an XDCAM HD disc. And since the digital information is stored more like data than like a linear bitstream, the real-time process of digitizing footage into an edit system can be treated like a file transfer, moving packetized lumps of content from the XDCAM HD deck in half the time. This is a modern format, made for modern workflows.

Of course, neither disc-based XDCAM HD nor hard-drive recorders nor solid-state memory media will be the last word in acquisition; nor will today’s consumer formats, like Paulie Walnuts’s “way improved” DVD’s, endure forever. Soon enough, inventors and developers will launch entirely new technologies, inconceivable by today’s standards, and we’ll be off to the races once more.