Facilities are under ever greater pressure to ensure a return on any investment in technology. Adrian Pennington reports on how post manufacturers are appealing to their bottom line.

Post producers need to inject regular capital into their facility to maintain a competitive edge, yet they also operate as a service industry feeding from a broadcast community that is currently starved of advertising revenue. Pressured by the need to upgrade, yet without the cash flow to support kit purchases in these cost-conscious times, facility managers might be expected to be keeping their chequebooks closed.

This is not necessarily so, explains Gareth Wilding, sales director of Fineline, which specialises in financing media companies. “Some projects are being put on hold but investments are still being made, albeit more selectively,” he says. “The days of buying kit just to keep up with the facility next door are long gone, but facilities still want technology that helps their bottom line.”

According to Steve Nunney, who runs test and measurement kit supplier Hamlet: “Even more than normal, facilities face financial scrutiny to get more done in less time for less cost,” he stresses. “But the more immediate concern is generating enough work to pay wages.”

Workflow issues

The consensus among manu-facturers is that many issues facing post house bosses today are the same as a year ago - and the same as they will face 12 months from now.

“The market continues to need to focus on ironing out the clunky steps in the workflow between recording content and getting the story out,” notes Richard Scott, European vice president of technology company Harris Broadcast Communications.

“Tape duplication, for example, is waning fast and the offline/online process has merged into a single process on machines capable of real-time editing at online resolutions.”

Tom Ohanian, vice president of product management at Signiant, which develops content distribution and management software, says - perhaps unsurprisingly - that digital media creation and distribution are areas that could buck the trend. “The return on investment that comes from reducing physical distribution of material is now paramount,” he says.

“The easiest way for a business to cut costs is to prune its workforce but boosting productivity requires more than that and boils down to moving files around efficiently, securely and at greater speeds.”

That scenario resonates with Jeff Rosica, senior vice president, broadcast and professional, at Thomson, which has put its camera equipment division Grass Valley up for sale. “The word that sums up the industry at the moment is ‘transition',” he says. “Broadcasters and facili-ties are moving from an analogue, SD and linear world into an HD, file-based and nonlinear one, but few can afford to throw out the old and start again. Everyone has to make a transi-tion so all those pieces of kit work together, supporting yesterday's workflows and the aspirational plans for tomorrow.”

Avid's European sales vice president Patrick Jocelyn makes the same point from a different angle. “Storage is incredibly cheap, so that's not the issue. The question is how you find material, how you determine a project's naming conventions and how the project will be made available in the future.”

The difference between facilities that make money and ones that do not is efficient project management, insists Jocelyn. “That means thinking through the workflow up front, and maximising the available space and existing resources.

“For example, if a facility wins a £300,000 drama series and the project originally takes 12 weeks with 10 people, efficient workflow management - using technologies such as Avid's asset management software Interplay - may be able to finish that project on time using six people. This doesn't bring more revenue from that project but it does mean the facility can take on another project at the same time.”

Much the same message is to be heard from Autodesk, whose television industry manager Bruno Sargeant also highlights the headache that data workflows are bringing.

“As we move away from the format wars that characterised tape acquisition, facilities have to get to grips with content presented in different file standards, from Red to Quicktime, JPEG2000, P2, graphics files and others that appear on a regular basis,” he says. “It becomes very difficult to automatically track a project comprising multiple codecs when many of these are incompatible. The process becomes very manual.”

Autodesk's latest iteration of its flagship compositing and effects systems, such as Flame and Smoke, are tuned to handle a multitude of new formats natively, as are editing packages such as Thomson's Edius.

“While a broadcaster can specify the format in which it wants to receive the finished piece, a facility has to deal with a proliferation of formats,” says Thomson's Mark Narveson. “An editor should just be focusing on editing the content, not having to wrap and unwrap material in different codecs.”

Data management

However, a facility's new data-wrangling skills and the technology necessary to convert formats can be used to its advantage. While taped copies for review or versioning are being phased out, a similar duplication process for encoded file formats can still be charged for. The next step is management of digital distribution and archive in which a facility sets itself up to host the assets of a producer.

“Post producers of a certain size are in a prime position to do this since they may already own or be connected to large storage facilities,” says Avid's Jocelyn. “They can offer nearline storage where content is stored locally, as data that can be accessed quickly, or deep archive storage when content is unlikely to be needed for several years and can be stored offsite [outside city centres] where space is cheaper.”

Aside from streamlining the whole process and generating business from data management, there are other strategies post houses can exploit. Reducing operational overheads by introducing more energy-efficient kit sounds a no-brainer - although it also needs initial investment.

“Green solutions have risen to the top of the agenda over the past couple of years and are strong buying criteria for many,” says Mark Bain-bridge, Sony UK's media sales general manager.

Linked to this and to the drive for efficiency is an increase in inter-facility working such as when a producer attends a telecine session in New York while the physical process takes place in London. “This has been possible for years, but the speed and fidelity at which you are now able to work between facilities in different coun-tries make it far more practicable and convenient,” says Autodesk's Sargeant.

“Broadcasters or producers want to work where the resources are, not where the shoot is, by linking facilities together over high-speed networks,” agrees Quantel director of marketing Steve Owen.

New directions Quantel has identified two more emerging strands of work. The first of these is material captured on Red cameras, widely acknowledged to present challenges in post.

“The issue is efficiently bringing the Red [R3D] files into a finishing environment,” Owen explains. “It's a time-consuming step, akin to developing film, which requires a high level of media management to ensure the offline EDL can be conformed efficiently in an online suite.”

Quantel, he says, has enabled the conform of a Final Cut file to be made direct from a Quantel box of the R3D files, “cutting out the considerable time and hassle of converting the files” and receiving plaudits from customers in the process.

The second area is stereo 3D. Quantel's tools were used in BSkyB's recent public demonstration of 3DTV and it has been involved in many other 3D projects behind the scenes.

“There is genuinely a lot of stereo 3D work around,” insists Owen. “It's coming from features but also from broadcasters wanting to experiment and learn about stereo pipelines, which don't have much impact on capital expenditure, contrary to what is being said in some quarters. It's driving a lot of our conversations and customers are coming to talk about it in numbers we haven't seen for several years.”

The consensus is that the digiti-sation of post-production will not materially alter a facility's core revenue streams, but technology has
a central role to play in helping post houses deliver greater productivity from existing resources.

“If you're in visual effects or selling your services internationally, the current exchange rate means a business can be really competitive,” says Owen. “Nonetheless, you have to be able to handle a variety of work. You don't want to turn it away.”