The media industry’s lumbering trek toward adoption of cloud-based techniques for content production, management, and distribution has recently become more of a brisk jog in that direction, according to Richard Welsh, CEO of UK-based Sundog Media Toolkit, a provider of software-based tools for doing post-production work using cloud methodologies. Welsh suggests that this year’s COVID-19 global pandemic has resulted in “a very much accelerated adoption of remote and collaborative technologies. As a result, anywhere in the media production and post-production or distribution space, where there was maybe a hesitance to adopt remote working solutions or distributed workforce solutions in the past—that has pretty much gone away, simply because it had to. When we went to lockdown, people had to start adopting these technologies. The side benefits were they could access talent wherever the talent is, which is very useful. And there is also the issue of capital costs. That doesn’t benefit a facility in the short term because they have already spent money on whatever technology was in their facility. But the long-term benefit will be a reduction of capital costs, as well as the continuing ability to leverage your workforce that is not co-located, to access talent anywhere.”
“I could go on about how remote working and the cloud enable all of this, but in the short term, this has given us the ability to continue doing post-production, in particular, and now, production work, as well. It is a big reason that many productions are back to work. My guess is that even when the pandemic is over and people go back to more traditional post facilities, we will see alongside that a reduction in on-premises equipment and an industry move toward more software as a service—effectively being able to have the infrastructure you want, on-demand, but not as many of the systems on-premises.”
Welsh even goes so far as to suggest that, eventually, “we will see most if not all infrastructure and storage move toward the cloud. The barriers are gone, and the cost models are changing, and now, we have a highly dynamic environment in terms of services and what vendors can provide.”
Indeed, this rapidly evolving “dynamic environment” for cloud applications in the media space has Welsh so enthusiastic.
He points to several developments that are making that environment a hospitable one for media companies. One of the big developments in this regard was the creation and maturation of the Interoperable Mastering Format (IMF), according to Welsh.
On a landscape of seemingly unlimited streaming platforms, he suggests, IMF gave content creators a way to efficiently enable and manage assets and metadata, seamlessly build multiple program versions on the fly, and stream them direct to consumer devices for viewing.
“There is definitely a focus for all the main content creators to look at platform-first strategies,” Welsh says. “Basically, everything from live content to produced episodic content to feature film content and everything in between is now being focused on how exactly it gets to platforms. A big part of that, of course, is localization and versions. In order to facilitate all that, having a package media format like IMF is essential for long-term streaming strategies.”
This ability, in turn, has led to industry awareness of the need to generate metadata all along the chain, even at the start of the production process, he adds.
“[Because of streaming], content is going much faster in terms of the time it takes to get to market, and so, you don’t want to have to spend a lot of time on content prep when you have already finished a show,” he adds. “You can generate useful information upfront—for instance, ad-break markers, marketing material, cast bios, scene information, and so on, even machine vision analysis of the content itself—all of which is also facilitated by the cloud. Now, all that information can be created as you make the content—a really deep metadata stream you are generating that sits alongside the content. Things like IMF facilitate that. Without it, what you would end up with is a huge bucket of disconnected content and metadata. So if you look at it like that, IMF is a big story in terms of really helping to bring cloud technologies together to coalesce.”
A newer, important step forward, according to Welsh, in terms of making production via the cloud more ubiquitous, is the industry’s push to develop what he calls “a common API. That would effectively allow either asset management or business systems that maybe sit over the top of a lot of different cloud processes in a business to access those services from some central control system.”
“That would give you the best of both worlds,” he adds. “You could have one place to go to control what you are doing in the cloud, but you could still pick best-in-breed tools, or the most appropriate process if it is cost-effective or the fastest or highest quality for what you want to do, and you could do it on a very fine granular basis appropriate to the content.”
This kind of API interoperability, he says, is now moving closer to reality thanks to the establishment of a new API working group called the Open Services Alliance for Media. The Alliance is a global consortium of media organizations working together to enable open, interoperable services throughout the media ecosystem. In other words, Welsh says, “they are looking to create standards around API’s and microservices that allow cloud applications to be interoperable.”
This capability is hugely important, he adds, because of the need of content makers to use the aforementioned “best-in-breed” tools on their product—a wide range of options have to be available to them. Third-party solution providers like Welsh’s company and many others address many aspects of the various processes involved in a typical workflow, but right now, as Welsh says, “they do not all play together.” The goal is to change that as soon as possible, as much as possible.
“Big challenges can be automatically overcome if you can get all those tools into a common storage environment because you now can apply those tools to your content without having to move the content anywhere,” he explains. “One of the big changes has certainly involved bringing the process to the content, rather than taking the content to the process. It is less the case now that you have to move in and out of different storage systems in different clouds. We see more often that the application is able to go where the content is. Further API interoperability will help us jump that kind of hurdle.”
Welsh points to the Pixar-led Open Timeline IO initiative as an example of the kind of open-sourced post-production tool for cloud-based collaboration that could eventually lead most of the industry to move, as he suggests, most post-related operations into the cloud. Open TimelineIO is an open-source interchange format for editorial timelines—what Welsh calls “kind of an uber edit decision list [EDL].”
“It lets you have a significant amount of additional control over an EDL, allowing you to link assets directly to edits through the cloud,” he elaborates. “The advantage of an open timeline is that effectively you can move open timeline metadata plus the assets around between local storage and cloud storage while retaining the intrinsic link between the assets and the EDL. So unlike a standard EDL, which may be proprietary to the edit system, with the most useful detail beyond the cuts being lost when moving between systems, this one is open so that any edit system should be able to read it fully. A second use links the assets to the EDL no matter where you move them around through different environments. You don’t lose the ability to populate the EDL with your actual content. It is available now and may be underused at this point, but tools like that are a key part of having a smooth production-through-post delivery pipeline.”
A wide range of other cool developments across the industry are also starting to align, or have the potential to align, with this notion of “doing everything in the Cloud,” as Welsh puts it. For instance, regarding the debate over how best to enable on-set production to take place via the cloud, he emphasizes the only restriction currently is on bandwidth for productions that are out in the field. With the looming rollout of next-generation 5G cellular technology, he expects content creators to have more options for going immediately from camera to cloud in the not-too-distant future.
“5G will definitely be an enabler for production, where it is available,” he says. “It will be revolutionary. Of course, 5G does not mean super-high bandwidth anywhere you can get a 5G signal necessarily. In metropolitan areas, certainly, where there will be dense coverage of towers, we will be getting very high bandwidth compared to previous mobile networks. But in rural areas, it will depend—you might get better cellular coverage, but not the bandwidth for camera to cloud. However, in terms of the process, in many areas, you will have that potential.
“The industry is already developing technologies for Web video to move things along if you get that connectivity. Companies like Blackbird, Accurate Player, and others, for instance, are making great strides in video editing through a pure Web interface. Even secure streaming for review and direct-to-consumer encoding on-demand—companies like Eluvio are already developing those applications. So I think 5G will enable such things in a big way.”
Of course, as the industry moves its content-creation machine forward into the cloud, the question of security remains paramount. But there, as well, Welsh is optimistic, largely because of the development of new encryption methodologies, and he hopes a redoubled industry focus on educating its workforce about such perils.
“One new encryption method is called elliptical-curve cryptography [ECC], which is still quite new but looks quite interesting and harder to break,” he says.
ECC is a form of cryptography built around the algebraic structure of elliptic curves, he adds. It relies on pairs of private and public keys for decryption and encryption of data moving across the Internet. “You can get better strength of encryption for equivalent size keys than the previous generation of encryption, or similar security in a smaller key,” he explains.
However, Welsh’s larger point is that bad actors are, unfortunately, just as smart as industry experts and are continually looking for their edge. He worries something of “an arms race” could develop in this area, thanks to the advent of quantum computing. In theory, he suggests, hackers could use quantum computing tools to break even the most sophisticated encryption schemes.
“I’m pretty sure that will be one of the very first applications of quantum computing—to break encryption,” Welsh says. “Existing public-private key encryption based on large prime-number mathematics is hard to break at the moment, but is susceptible to quantum computing solutions. So there might be a bit of an arms race as quantum computing matures and becomes available commercially. Governments are always the first to have access to the most powerful compute technology, and cybersecurity defense-and-attack is a massive area of focus for nations around the world.”
For now, he suggests, the best defense as the industry moves further into the cloud is education designed to alter or improve the behavior of those working on content within a cloud framework.
“I think the really big advance in security right now is about behavior, in terms of people understanding the threat landscape,” Welsh says. “I’m talking about the average employee, sitting at their desk—you want them to understand about things like spear-phishing or click-throughs or safety of Websites they use or the strength of their passwords. That’s particularly true for areas where media lives, in terms of local storage versus cloud storage. Simple things like whether to email information about your production to a colleague or share it through a secure collaboration tool can make a big difference.
“So for all these things, awareness is huge. We need to teach our talent good behavior, be skeptical, and empower our people as our strongest security asset instead of treating them as the ‘weakest link.’ We are increasingly in an online world that exposes us to more and more online security threats, so act accordingly.”
Other business and cultural changes will impact the industry, he adds, as cloud-based productions become more commonplace. For instance, will companies run their own data centers and use private clouds, or take advantage of the public cloud ecosystem? Welsh suggests that the two will probably come together in terms of the creative-oriented features they offer, at least eventually.
“Public clouds have the advantage that anyone can go and invent things in them,” he explains. “So in terms of innovation, I think we will see that at first more in the public clouds, and at least to start, porting all that over to a private cloud environment may be challenging. But realistically, what will likely happen is that they will mimic the same underlying architectures as the public cloud, so that eventually you will be able to port public cloud applications to private clouds without too much friction.”
However, he cautions, the real eventual challenge with data centers may be the environmental consequences of running one, a larger issue for society to grapple with.
“It remains to be seen whether a very large data center is more environmentally friendly than a group of smaller ones, or individual local computing,” Welsh says. “There ought to be efficiencies to be had in consolidating resources, and to some extent, it will probably come down to the location and if there is an eventual ability to power them fully from natural resources like solar or wave or wind. There is also an impact on the environment from physically constructing all those very large buildings to house large data centers. So those kinds of things are still questions. At the center of the idea of a cloud is that you will be able to have your processing power somewhere else, rather than on site. So as the trend goes more toward the cloud—the data center—questions about the environmental impact will have to be kept at the forefront of considerations.”
Entertainment Globalization Association Forms
A recent announcement revealed that a new entertainment industry association has been formed with a specific focus on entertainment globalization. A report in Post magazine indicates that globalization in terms of the group’s focus refers to media services designed to build content in different languages for multiple markets around the world—services such as subtitling, dubbing, audio description services, and so forth. The new Entertainment Globalization Association is launching, the report states, with 60 global companies participating—10 founding companies and 50 forming companies. The initiative will initially focus on educational resources, localization standards, and generating consumer impact research for particular regions. Former Netflix executive Chris Fetner has been named the managing director of the association.
Reopening Hollywood Report
Industry Website Deadline has recently been running a series of articles titled “Reopening Hollywood,” about initiatives designed to get production resuming around Hollywood even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. The most recent installment examines the great lengths, and costs, involved with attempting to safely resume filming television series'. The article, penned by Nellie Andreeva, indicates that “so far,” Hollywood’s recently adopted safety protocols have been working on various scripted and unscripted series that have gingerly gone back into production. That’s not to say there haven’t been positive COVID tests, nor temporary shutdowns—both have occasionally been occurring. Rather, the industry’s relative success in implementing protocols that meet or exceed national standards has led such incidents to be isolated, and, at least so far, no evidence of infection spreads on sets has been detected. The article claims that infections reported so far from the industry have not been proven to be connected to productions and are most likely the result of home or off-work related activities. These results, the article continues, are a prime reason why California Governor Gavin Newson has thus far exempted the entertainment industry from his recent new limited stay-at-home order for much of the state.