Awards season is here. With this past weekend’s Golden Globes and the upcoming Academy Awards, that means gatherings of glitterati and much debate about the best film and TV shows, actors and directors, as well as who was best dressed, who got snubbed and who gave the best speech.
But one unsung hero of the entertainment industry that will not be strutting its stuff on the red carpet is IT. Behind the scenes, IT plays an important and ever-evolving role in delivering movies to theaters and our homes.
Meghan Fintland of NetApp’s Corporate Communications sat down with Jason Danielson, media and entertainment solutions for NetApp, to discuss the technology behind this year’s films. As a veteran in the IT and entertainment industries, Jason has seen different use cases emerge for storage and IT, and how newer technologies like social media and big data are impacting studios.
In this Q&A, Jason discusses what led him to media and entertainment, NetApp’s role in the industry, and surprising insights into what’s powering today’s films.
Tell us about your background and how you got into your role at NetApp.
At the dawn of the digital media age, I was fascinated by the use of computers to create and store video. My early career was a mix of producing video, running a graphics operation of a post-production facility, and running product management for early computer graphics systems.
In 1988, I returned to Silicon Valley to work for a startup called Digital F/X, where my product team won an Emmy for the development of the Video Workstation. Until then, it had not been possible to build a sub-$100,000 system that could support video editing, titling, painting, compositing, and digital effects. We even had an engineering team that opened up disk drives and modified them to deliver the bandwidth needed for real-time recording and playback.
At NetApp, I help engineers solve customer problems and articulate to our media and entertainment customers how they could use what we have built to improve their operations.
What is NetApp’s role in the film industry?
The days of storing newly finished motion pictures in film canisters are long gone, as the majority of films are now stored digitally. As a data and storage management company, NetApp works behind the scenes to support larger studios with several roles including rendering, digital distribution, and studio repositories.
For instance, motion pictures are stored, distributed, and delivered digitally-and usually in different formats for each-which requires transcoding. Transcoding processes the content of the motion picture, aka the ‘film’ frames, from one format (a combination of spatial and temporal resolution, color characteristics, compression technique, bitrate, file header information, etc.) to the next in the supply chain.
Rendering animation and, less obviously, special effects is another area where NetApp is used. This is video processing of a different nature. Like transcoding, it is latency sensitive in that the faster the storage can deliver the small files that together will compose the frame, the faster the renders.
Can you explain the behind-the-scenes technologies involved in filmmaking? What are some things movie watchers would be surprised to know?
Computer graphics and 3D animated films have continued to push the envelope of what computers can do. In the late ’90s, it became possible to actually render animated films. However, the time it takes to render a movie has not shortened in the last 10 years. As computers and storage have gotten faster, computer scientists and animators behind these movies have found ways to utilize that speed to create ever more complex and compelling visuals-characters and backgrounds. In fact, studios today are using render farms that number in the tens of thousands of computers running 24/7 to generate films.
What role does data play in films?
We still use the word film, but in fact motion pictures-what we sometimes call theatrical releases-no longer involve film at all.
Data is the film of the 21st century. All of the parts that film played from special effects to editing to distribution are now all played better, faster and cheaper with data.
Digital cameras record a file, and on-set systems process that file, play back that file for the director and cinematographer, and when approved, make back-up copies. Digital content is then shipped or transferred over a network, and sometimes even the public Internet in an encrypted form, to the editing facility at the studio or independent shop. There, the motion picture is edited with tools not too dissimilar from the video editing tools we have at home now, just more powerful and precise.
Next, the film goes through color grading, where scenes you think have never been digitally manipulated are manipulated. Once the film is completed, it is transcoded and transferred to digital cinema packs for physical delivery to the theaters, as well as different formats for distribution to the television (VOD) service providers and over the top delivery services like NetFlix, Hulu, and YouTube. Along the way, or once on the screen, the film might even be pirated for the black market. All digitally. This is a simplistic view, but film is data in every step of the process.
What are some IT challenges that are unique to film studios?
If you think about the filmmaking and distribution process, a studio’s stock in trade is the film frame. Each film frame takes between a megabyte and a hundred megabytes to describe, and as much as a few million film frames go into making one movie. That’s a lot of data compared to other industries. For example, banks make billions of dollars on financial transactions and customer records which can be described in less than a kilobyte.
So the need for data, and the storing, moving, and processing of data in the film industry is hundreds of times more per dollar of revenue than in financial services, as well as general IT. Studios can’t justify deploying all the digital storage they could actually use, so cost per capacity and, in the production process, cost per bandwidth is much more crucial to them than in general IT use cases.