Backlot: A Cloud Burst
Clouds are gathering over the production community, but the forecast is sunny.
There's a key technology trend emerging in professional media production: Web-based cloud computing, which lets customers use applications without installation and access their personal files at any computer with Internet access. Cost-effectiveness, the globalization of production and the explosion of bandwidth and Web-enabled devices are driving the trend.
"Cloud services have gained public visibility though the activities of Google, Microsoft and others who see popular software being in part delivered as a service rather than a product purchase and installation," says Peter White, director general of the International Association of Broadcast Manufacturers. "Now we're at the very early stages of cloud services in the video and media industry."
Quantel's QTube is an example of how the cloud can work for the broadcast TV industry. The developing service, which the company plans to make available early next year, allows all content stored on Quantel servers -- including video, graphics and archival resources -- to be accessible online to broadcast journalists anywhere in the world, who can use the resources to create and file news stories.
The U.K.-based company says its customers are talking about using QTube for large-scale global events. "We envision many of our broadcast customers will want to use the technology at the 2012 London Olympics," director of marketing Steve Owen says. "In fact, we are already talking with many of our broadcast clients who want to use the technology in 2011 for major sporting events.
"All of the broadcasters spend a fortune sending lots of people and equipment to the Olympics," Owen adds. "In the future, broadcasters will still need the people there, but a lot of the technical facilities don't have to be moved around the world anymore."
Quantel envisions journalists working on-site with portable devices and editing their news in a mobile environment. When they need an archival clip from a past Olympics, it's instantly accessible in the cloud. Need a graphic? Also just a click away. And filing a story means simply sending it from a mobile device -- no need to return to the broadcast center.
"People want to take their workflow global, and it is expensive and challenging to do that at the moment," Owen says. "But the Internet potentially gives them a global workflow without all the costs and complexity."
There are limitations, though.
"Bandwidth is not consistent everywhere in the world, so you may not be able to achieve certain kinds of services successfully from every place," says John Footen, chief technology officer at Chime Media. "For example, a service such as editing in the cloud would need a certain level of performance in order to be useful; it is not necessarily guaranteed that you will be able to get that everywhere at any time."
Movie and TV production also could benefit from cloud-based services. It's already being done using FTP sites to move content. And though private networks ensure connectivity, Footen says the key difference with cloud services is that the user is operating in the environment rather than moving material.
"Though if you have a good private network, you could also operate on a file that is stored somewhere else," he says.
Another issue with cloud services is Internet security, but Footen discounts that.
"We do our personal banking online, so there is no reason we shouldn't feel comfortable putting media online," he says. "We can provide the same very high levels of security as everything else that we are doing with the Internet."
Richard Gratton, senior product manager for Avid Technology's Web-based editing technology, agrees. "Having creative assets in the cloud has become a lot more acceptable," he says. "I think in the next 12-18 months, you'll start to see pieces of the production workflow start to emerge as cloud services."
Avid, maker of the dominant editing system used in film and TV production, demonstrated a cloud-based editing workflow at recent industry trade shows. The presentation aimed to show a workflow that was not exactly new: Two people, a producer and an editor, using the service to review media, making selections, editing and handling reviews.
"This is a story that we've heard many times, but it is usually happening within the post facility inside an editing bay with phone calls, sometimes with FedEx or what have you," Gratton says. "We demonstrated that workflow where those two people could have been anywhere in the world."
He notes that once media is in the cloud, filmmakers essentially could assemble a virtual production environment, which would be accessible to colorists and other members of the postproduction team in a collaborative and geography-independent environment.
"You could get more of a simultaneous workflow," he says. "If the effects people make a change, the editor could see it immediately. They don't have to wait for the media."
Still, Gratton is cautious. "We also have to set limits on what we can realistically expect," he says. "I don't think we will be doing high-end special effects on these kinds of things but certainly things such as editing."
Chris Gahagan, Avid's senior vp products, says parts of the production chain, like the actual shoot, are not likely to change anytime soon.
"Without going too far into the future and imagining some sort of rapid upload straight from the camera up to the cloud, we still have a certain amount of existing workflows."
He also notes potential advantages like device independence.
"Let's say my laptop broke, and I have a new laptop that has never been to the post facility," Gahagan says. "Ordinarily, I would have to go through all sorts of hurdles for software installation to make sure it meets minimum requirements. In this case, if the Web-based tools are designed properly … your software-installation process is pretty much reduced to clicking a link."
He says it might also help the capital-intensive business of postproduction maintain a more efficient infrastructure.
"In a production cycle, you can ramp up your needs [in the cloud], and when you are done, you ramp it back down," Gahagan says. "That is where the cloud has made progress in other industries; it allows them to not have to build to their peak [capacity needs]."
Footen sums it up: "The idea of media production as a service is something that is still relatively new. But there is no reason to expect that, with the constant increase in available bandwidth, it won't also be incredibly successful.