Hot Button Discussion
Significance of SMPTE Standards
By Michael Goldman
As part of SMPTE’s ongoing Centennial celebration, it’s useful to examine some of the major technology milestones directly influenced by the Society’s 100 years of work standardizing important breakthroughs within the motion imaging industry and engaging in a wide range of educational and outreach activities to increase awareness of these efforts and their importance. A recent SMPTE Webcast, for example, examined the top SMPTE standards that have fundamentally helped shape the industry over the last century.
Mark Schubin, one of the participants in that Webcast, a SMPTE life fellow, well-known industry pundit and historian, however, points out that what often gets left out in such discussions is the human aspect of SMPTE’s work. He’s referring to a subtle, but crucial contribution that essentially allows the technical work to proliferate, influence, and connect with the rest of the industry in various ways.
“SMPTE has what they call its three pillars—standards, membership, and education,” Schubin says. “I think education is vastly more important than anything else. Many years ago, I would go to the monthly New York meetings religiously, drink in everything that was happening, and then go to the Annual Convention, the Winter Conferences, and just learn and learn. The point is it was great to be in a crowd of like-minded people, eager to learn and share information.
“The contribution of all that education is hard to quantify, because you can’t point to a document that shows direct cause and effect. … But in a way, that is where SMPTE standards come from—just people constantly getting together and saying, ‘this is what we are doing, this is what we need, this is a problem I have, how can we somehow resolve this?’”
Schubin says that, over the decades, SMPTE standards have tended to fall into two basic broad categories, both important to the industry for different reasons. The first category fulfills the task of what he calls “rubber stamping” a technology, meaning “someone has already invented something, it is useful, it has basically already been adopted, and then they submit it to SMPTE. That’s what most standards were until fairly recently. Rubber stamping is where SMPTE can help get the world to agree on a technology.”
The second category, according to Schubin, “invokes something that those of us who work in standardization refer to as the equal pain principle.”
“That’s the idea that I represent Company X, and I have the most magnificent way of doing something. But if SMPTE goes ahead and standardizes it, then that gives me a tremendous advantage over everyone else, because I am already doing things that way, I already have the tooling and the education necessary to do it better than anyone else. Therefore, other people in the standards group might, in theory, argue against what is, after all, the best possible version so that they can catch up. That is the theory of ‘equal pain.’ One of SMPTE’s great contributions has been to find a way to resolve such issues in a way that allows the industry to pick the best standard in the most efficient way possible.”
The theory of equal pain, Schubin says, was behind one of the SMPTE standards that he identifies as among the most important developed by the Society over the years—ST-240 (originally called SMPTE 240M), which included the official codifying of the 16:9 aspect ratio as the universal picture shape for HDTV.
“The picture shape of HDTV is one of the most universal things in electronic imaging today,” he says. “16:9 has been highly successful. But [what is not well known] is that one of the main contributing factors was the fact that NHK [the Japan Broadcasting Corporation] originally had it at 15:9, and had to agree to go along with the rest of the industry at 16:9, taking some pain to make changes in what they were already doing, also agreeing to 1,035 active lines of picture information rather than the 1,045 they originally had, in order for there to be a standard.”
In a sense, the most significant SMPTE standard, Schubin suggests, is ST-12, standardizing SMPTE timecode, for the simple reason that it “enabled the entire computer-assisted editing revolution,” in Schubin’s view. Less obvious, however, but perhaps more illustrative of the evolution of the modern SMPTE standardization process, according to Schubin, is ST-19, the Type C standard for television analog recording, for the reason that it settled a serious helical-scan analog recorder format dispute between Sony and Ampex in the 1970s, allowing the entire industry to move forward with an important technology. In this case, Schubin points out that SMPTE’s big contribution in establishing the standard did not involve “any kind of radical technological breakthrough at the time,” but rather, “showed the Society at its best, as this was another equal pain standard.”
According to Schubin, around the same time that Ampex revolutionized videotape recording with its two-inch quadruplex tape recording machines, the company also developed its initial helical-scan video recording technology, which, unlike quadruplex technology, permitted users to see a picture as they fast-forwarded or rewound a tape.
“For various reasons, though, it did not take off, and then, many other companies around the world came up with their own versions of helical scan recording, ranging in tape size from two inches down to a quarter inch,” Schubin explains. “There were [some applications] for them, but broadcasters didn’t use them because one of the most critical things for broadcasters was interchange, which is why they were still using 35mm film for programs and 16mm film for news, because both were standardized, meaning they could interchange all that material.
“Around 1977, Ampex came up with an improved version of the 1-inch helical scan system, and then Sony came up with another 1-inch helical scan version—a new form of video recording, not terribly different from Ampex’s, but with a few key differences. Two networks said they wouldn’t buy either unless the two sides agreed. SMPTE appointed a neutral party, Fred Remley, to be in charge of the standardization committee, and in no time flat, he got Ampex and Sony to agree they could each keep the top features they were each pushing, but still make everything interchangeable, so that you could play an Ampex tape in a Sony machine and vice versa. That quickly became the SMPTE Type C standard, and it was a remarkable thing. In fact I view it as kind of a template for SMPTE standards work that came later. It wasn’t so much the actual machines—they were significant for a while, until the digital revolution took over. It was more about how the standard was achieved that was extremely important.”
In the color arena, Schubin points to the work that went into developing the SMPTE-C color phosphor standard for monitors. Although that standard was eventually replaced by the ITU’s Rec. 709 standard for HDTV color space, it was a significant move forward at the time, and an example of SMPTE’s influence across the industry.
“This kind of rubber-stamping is very important,” Schubin reiterates. “It’s what [SMPTE co-founder C. Francis Jenkins] wanted from the beginning—this idea that, here were all these really smart guys working in motion pictures, let’s get them all together and get them to agree that whatever the best practice is, let’s get that out there into the industry.”
Schubin is also a big fan of standard ST-170, the first official definition of the center of an NTSC analog video picture. He admits that his admiration for this work is partly nostalgic in the sense that SMPTE, at the time it did the work was essentially “defining the dimensions of a television picture that people had been using for 50 years already.”
“Once color TV happened, the Electronics Industry Association was supposedly going to standardize certain important changes to the [original] monochrome specification, EIA RS-170. The new standard was to be RS-170A, but in reality, it was never officially released, though many manufacturers had it in their literature,” he says. “The reason was broadcasters were concerned that, if they all agreed to such a standard, and then did not comply with it, they would somehow be penalized. So, instead, they came up with a ‘tentative’ standard, but not even that defined the center of a television picture. Why would we care? Well, if one television station was putting it in one place and another in another place, if you were a commercial or post-production house, and you had your center in one location, and another company had it in another location, and then you wanted to add an effect to it, it would not necessarily be in the right place, and you would have to keep moving it. So it made life a lot better to make it official.”
Of course, the industry has since entered a hybrid era in which a transition toward IP-based data transmission methodologies is happening on the one hand, and on the other, ongoing improvements to traditional broadcast technologies like the Serial Digital Interface (SDI) continue apace. So, SMPTE and other organizations are working around the clock to keep up with these advances on both sides.
On the traditional side, Schubin points to ST-304, a standard for hybrid electrical and fiber-optic connectors for broadcast cameras. That standard is something that has “made life easier for anyone working in remote production,” Schubin says.
Even more crucial, he adds, is ST-259, the Serial Digital Interface standard. “That set a protocol for how to transmit digital signals around on a single coaxial cable” at continually updated and improving speeds, Schubin emphasizes.
“That remains critically important for studios, remote trucks, and production facilities of all kinds,” he says. “I recently saw a demo talking about [transmitting] 24-billion bits [of data] a second, almost 100 times more than what the original 259 standard called for, and yet, still doing it on a single coaxial cable with the same kind of connector on it.”
And now, “as we basically move into the file-based era,” he points to the importance of ST-377—the Material Exchange Format (MXF) file specification for the interchange of audio-visual material. MXF, in terms of how it impacts the broadcast industry, Schubin suggests, “is not the be-all or the end-all, and there are new and upcoming standards that are dealing with a bunch of stuff that 377 does not deal with, but it was the start—a way for the industry to wrap its mind around this new [file-based paradigm].”
“That was the one that told everyone, it was OK to stop shipping videotape around—we can now connect to networks on the Internet and ship files, and they will be OK,” he says.
Schubin’s overall theme is that SMPTE’s role as a central collaborator with other entities like the IEEE and the ITU in figuring out how to standardize technologies for the moving image industry, what to standardize, who should standardize what, and how to bring order to very complex processes that are constantly impacted by technological, business, creative, and social pressures, has benefitted, literally, everyone. And that brings him back to the third SMPTE pillar—membership, which by its very nature includes direct human participation in these processes.
“There is another common phrase that some of us use,” he says. “It is the idea that you get the standards you deserve, which means that if you do not participate in the standards process, then you are going to get a standard that does not necessarily take what you are interested in into consideration. That’s why I got involved in all this in the first place.”
SMPTE Honorees Announced
SMPTE recently announced the names of honorees at the 2016 Honors and Awards event for the Society’s 2016 Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in October, as well as news that two highly prestigious SMPTE honors will be conferred that same week in October during the SMPTE Centennial Gala, hosted by award-winning actor, John O'Hurley. At the Gala, on Friday, October 28, SMPTE will confer Honorary Membership upon filmmaker James Cameron for his ongoing technical achievements and techniques designed to advance cinematic storytelling, as well as the 2016 SMPTE Progress Medal to cinematography pioneer Douglas Trumbull in recognition of his numerous contributions to photographic processes and technologies in visual effects and high frame rate cinematography. Earlier that week, on Monday, October 24, the SMPTE Honors and Awards Ceremony will take place, and several industry luminaries and SMPTE contributors will receive prestigious awards for their contributions to the Society and industry over the years. You can see the full list of award winners by clicking on the link above. Both events will take place at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood.
HPA Engineering Award Winners Announced
Meanwhile, the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA) recently announced recipients of its 2016 HPA Engineering Excellence Awards, which will be bestowed during the HPA Awards event on November 17 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Among the technologies that will be feted that evening are RealD’s Ultimate Screen—a matte-white screen engineered to deliver high-quality imagery in both 2D and 3D formats; Grass Valley’s GV Node Real Time IP Processing and Edge Routing Platform, which is designed to provide vertically accurate switching of video signals in broadcast data centers, regardless of whether the signal originates in the SDI or IP realm; Aspera’s FASP Stream turnkey application software, designed for live-streaming of broadcast-quality video over commodity Internet networks; and SGO Mistika, a new digital intermediate/post-production solution. The HPA will also give out awards to industry craftspeople for their work in various disciplines, including color grading, editing, sound, and visual effects during the event.
New AV Display Image Standard
InfoComm International, the trade association for the audiovisual industry, announced this summer an official new standard for figuring out display image size for AV systems. That standard, known as ANSI/INFOCOMM V202.01:2016, Display Image Size for 2D Content in Audiovisual Systems, determines the required display image size and relative viewing positions according to essential viewing needs referred to as “basic decision making” and “analytical decision making.” It can be used to design new spaces or to modify existing spaces and in reference to both permanently installed systems or temporary systems. According to analysis in Sound & Communications magazine, the standard also provides guidelines and formulas for “closest and farthest viewing distances, as well as relative horizontal and vertical viewer locations,” and marks the first time the AV industry will have “verifiable” guidelines for figuring out display image sizes.