If, as many technology pundits suggest, 2010 was the year of the tablet-computing device, then it shouldn't surprise anyone that such technology is rapidly infiltrating media production pipelines in various ways. After all, as Sean Cooney suggests, "we are seeing tablets becoming part of everything that we do, so it naturally follows they would be part of production in some capacity."
As part of his job as Vice President of Advanced Production Technology at Warner Bros. Emerging Technology Division, Cooney is responsible for evaluating the emerging tools that are becoming available to filmmakers and producers who are capturing images digitally and building virtual pipelines to produce movies, TV shows, Web content, and more. According to Cooney, tablet devices are among the intriguing technologies that various facilities at Warner Bros. and elsewhere are already beginning to incorporate into their workflows.
"A prime example of the way tablet computers have infiltrated production and post is Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI)—an on-lot post-production facility that works closely with emerging technology," Cooney says. "They have been a leader in the area of data-centric workflows across the globe in order to serve the needs of high-end feature and television clients."
Indeed, a number of industry facilities are actively working on strategies to utilize tablet computers for production applications, particularly in terms of their potential as viewing devices for dailies. Besides MPI, other facilities that have already incorporated iPad into their digital dailies service offerings to one degree or another include the Next Element by Deluxe Mobilabs remote dailies service and the Lightiron Digital Outpost service, among others.
But SMPTE member Bill Baggelaar, who heads engineering operations at MPI, emphasizes, "the potential of such devices for production is not limited to only dailies viewing. MPI is exploring using tablets to do basic color-grading operations on stills, and then passing them along to post-production as a quick and easy reference. In this approach, the tablet can be an input device for cinematographers to set looks on set, set CDL values, and then share that information with post-production. They see the device as a way to clearly send the desires of (filmmakers) to the post people."
The Hungarian post-production company, Colorfront, is also experimenting with importing 3D look-up tables (LUTs) into tablets and other mobile devices. Colorfront is even attempting to calibrate tablet monitors in a sense by passing standard photometers across their surfaces as a metering method for checking the individual device's specific color and density characteristics before importing LUTs into them.
That facilities can calibrate, at least to a degree, a tablet device and incorporate it into their on-set workflow seamlessly, is an important point, because such tablets are, at their core, consumer devices, and thus were never designed for professional applications. Still, Cooney reports that some of the solutions now available or in development across the industry are able to achieve "a surprising degree of consistency" in terms of image and color quality and fidelity.
That's not to say there wouldn't be some compromise in using tablets or mobile devices in terms of their reliability, compared to the high-end monitors used normally in production. "But, in some cases where the tablet is used as a supplementary device and additional monitors are still available for critical viewing, the speed and portability of tablet devices and smart phones can be useful," Cooney suggests.
Still, the sudden arrival of powerful consumer devices that crews can bring to the set in pockets or backpacks and casually use to pass data and images around and off the set does bring up the issues of standards and security. In these areas, the paradigm shift needs to be examined closely, Cooney says.
"REC 709 is already a well-established [standard for] viewing color space, and in practice, H.264 and MPEG-2 are common file formats (for viewing HD imagery)," he says. "However, ensuring color fidelity across different devices in the field, editorial, finishing, and distribution is still an area ripe for additional development. We are looking at potential initiatives that would carry through the digital dailies portion of the workflow and onto tablet devices."
The (Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences') Image Interchange Framework is ongoing, and part of their work includes proposing an industry standard for managing color from camera through post-production. Industry watchers suggest the Academy Color Encoding Specification (ACES) (currently being evaluated by SMPTE) could conceivably lead to a potential standard in this regard.
As far as security goes, that's the real rub, Cooney suggests. As he puts it, "just because we can do something, it doesn't mean that we should."
"In a way, it's sort of like a Trojan Horse—having a tablet on set," he adds. "It's happening because of a larger trend toward mobility and easier sharing of digital information. But we do need to be cautious about whether we should pass images around and how easy it should be to share them. There is a long history of protocols that have been established with good reason in the industry for director approval and editorial review of material before it gets shared with larger groups, and some of that could be lost if you immediately broadcast dailies on an iPad or mobile device. So, we're in that stage where we may have to develop new protocols or structures for the approval system."
Still, iPads, iPhones, and now, Android devices appear to be here to stay and, therefore, will find their way onto sets and into post-production suites one way or another. Click here for an interesting article from the Fall 2010 issue of DGA Quarterly magazine about a wide range of new software tools and Apps for the iPhone and iPad already in use on sets across the industry to help directors and cinematographers save time and labor. Here are three trend-oriented blog columns from the Pro Video Coalition in 2010 on the use of iPads and corresponding Apps to assist cinematographers generally, and with particular shooting decisions, as well as post-production professionals.
Google's recent announcement of its decision to eliminate support for the H.264 codec for HTML5 inside its Chrome browser is causing quite a stir across the industry, as analysis examines the various business and political implications of the move in the context of Google's rivalry with Apple and the rise of streaming media. A recent Tech Blog item on the MacNews World site typifies the many commentaries and the competing views on the subject. One analyst at the Pro Video Coalition, however, examines the issue in terms of how the move affects content creators and their ability to distribute the video content that they produce. His point—any move that limits where, how, or on what kind of device content can be viewed is something that content creators and consumers need to take seriously. Meanwhile, the issue of video streaming is vastly growing in the media world with major developments over the past year. Shortly before the Google H.264 announcement, the Digital Content Producer site summarized some of the key video streaming trends over the past year.
Another major technology trend impacting content creators, broadcasters, and filmmakers is, of course, data storage. While much of the talk relative to solid state drive (SSD) technology as it relates to content creation has been about SSD as a data recording mechanism on the acquisition end, important gains are also being made in a wide range of other areas, including archival storage applications. A recent article at the Broadcast Engineering site discusses many of these trends, and suggests that SSD's are making major inroads in replacing hard drive technology for various media operations. The article points out that the number of manufacturers of SSD technology has grown rapidly in the past few years, and they are making great strides in improving speed, durability, and reliability of such technology.
Engineers at Northwestern University reported that they have created a curvilinear camera about the size of a nickel, designed to replicate the shape and function of the human eye, but with zoom capabilities. A recent report on the Futurity website states that the camera currently has a 3.5x optical zoom, with higher zoom capabilities in the works. Researchers say the camera is "inspired by the human eye." This is achieved with a flat lens membrane that is turned concave using complicated hydraulic water chamber principles. The article suggests the technology will have applications for endoscopic and other forms of medical imaging, consumer electronics, night-vision surveillance, and more.