With the industry moving to file-based programme delivery, how should all this digital content be stored
Having adapted to file-based deliverables, indies are now being forced to rethink strategies around content storage. Alarmingly, many producers are maintaining a room full of dusty tapes or shelves full of hard drives. A Digital Production Partnership (DPP) survey of indies last April found that 46% were storing masters on tape and 20% planned to continue to use tape as a solution. And 9% were using portable hard drives, which the DPP guidelines label “a disaster waiting to happen” because of the hardware’s failure rate.
In practice, the principles behind storing files are not all that different from those for keeping tapes. Producers still have to decide what material to keep, for how long, and how they’re going to find it again. But the introduction of the DPP’s AS-11 standard for file delivery demands a top-to-tail revision of what it means to store programme masters.
“This is a hot business issue,” says Maverick TV and North One TV head of post Donna Mulvey- Jones. “Content is at the heart of a producer’s business but how we keep content has changed. It is no longer good enough to put a tape on the shelf.”
For a start, the term ‘master’ is not entirely straightforward. The AS-11 copy sent to the broadcaster is the delivery master, but there may be different delivery master versions. Additionally, there will be a high-resolution mezzanine or edit master based on original EDLs used for re-edits ahead of transmission or downstream distribution. Associate elements necessary for versioning could include audio stems, stills, auto QC and Harding reports, graphics packages, music cue sheets, stills and an H.264 viewing proxy.
“You can end up with files duplicated everywhere,” says Timeline TV North post-production director Eben Clancy. “Because producers have never had to think about archive in the tape world, it is very difficult to get them to take it seriously. There is nothing built into the budget to deal with media afterwards and it’s always an afterthought.
“There’s no joined-up approach. As far as most people are concerned, the file moves through the system like a tape, but there are major questions for everyone about who keeps what version of which file, what happens when you hand it on and when it should be deleted.”
These are decisions that should not be left to individual producers, many of whom move swiftly on to the next project. These are long-term, company-wide policies that fall under the purview of a head of production.
“Companies need to decide whether to do this in-house or outsource, and that depends on whether they have the expertise internally to manage it,” says Mulvey-Jones, who is leading a review of tapeless storage at the All3Media-owned indies.
“One of my projects is to assess how much of what we’re currently spending on warehouse space could be put into a new media asset management [MAM] system,” she says. “We can’t afford a massive MAM but we do want select content to be searchable, quickly retrievable and secure. And it has to work against a budget.”
The solution may be a hybrid of content stored on servers externally, but accessible from a MAM frontend at the indie.
RDF is also weighing the return on investment from buying and maintaining a nearline asset management system in-house against paying for outside storage provision. RDF head of technical Tara Palmer says: “We find ourselves going back to finished programming frequently, both for compliance and project development. It’s increasingly apparent that we need to search and access those master files efficiently, and that a MAM is key.”
Post facilities have taken it upon themselves to help transition clients to the new workflows. Alongside the AS-11 delivery file, it is standard practice to consolidate the elements that went into the programme with another version stored at high resolution, most likely in DNX or ProRes. Few facilities, however, are making additional revenue from storing these files on behalf of producers, although some are examining options.
Evolutions, for example, is in the process of creating a web portal allowing clients, notably those of fixed-rig shows, to search and browse low-res proxies of deliverables in the mid- to long-term. Crow TV ensures its clients are offered the most usable collection of assets as routine. “There may be a revenue stream if different deliverables can be marketed,” says head of post Andy Briers.
Alongside an LTO archive for rushes, Envy has begun offering a master archiving service. “We are offering to store these assets in a long-term archive, allowing clients immediate access whenever they need it,” explains head of operations Jai Cave.
The Farm will store a one-hour programme and all assets for three years for a one-off fee of £500 as part of its single programme on the shelf (Spots) service. “If you can make the price of storing the asset as attractive as it would have been to make all those deliverables [on tape], then producers won’t see this as an additional cost sitting at the end of the delivery process, but a de facto part of the programme budget,” says The Farm joint managing director David Klafkowski. “This is not about replacing the MAM systems at the bigger production companies. Often they do not have the time to collate all of the nuts and bolts per finished episode. That is a service that post houses have traditionally done.”
The catch, however, is that the business model around file storage is one of volume. The larger indies that are most likely to have volume are also the most likely to invest in their own MAM systems, while smaller indies that are most in need of a storage policy will lack the volume or resources to make it pay.
“It’s easy for an indie to commission, say, The Farm for one job and take the next to Envy, but after a few years your master content will be all over Soho,” warns Mulvey-Jones. “It won’t be cost-effective and it won’t be secure if a facility goes bust.”
Nor are most facilities equipped with redundant data centres and petabytes of storage. “We archive everything we make a programme out of and keep an LTO for five years, along with the AS-11 and associate files, but our speciality is not in archive,” says Evolutions operations director Owen Tyler.
That’s where archive and content processing specialists like Re:fine or Ark Post Production come into their own. “Every client has individual needs so we offer a bespoke service around three levels of storage: nearline work in progress, disc-based
storage for urgent retrieval or thirdtier deeper archive on LTO,” says Ark technical consultant David Carstairs.
Clancy says Timeline would “love” to make a business out of archive but clients don’t want to spend the money. “They are willing to pay just enough so that if they had to find something they could, but they’re not willing to spend real money to make finding it easy,” he says.
DPP on storage
The DPP has discussed whether there’s merit in mandating storage standards and determined there isn’t. However, it will publish a “definitive and more tech nical guide” to storage this summer. DPP project manager Rachel Baldwin says: “We recognise that production companies need to store a range of content, from the high-quality editable file to all programme elements. We will provide detailed guidance on how to catalogue, review and search content, and aim to standardise the terminology.”