M&E Journal: The Rise Of Digital Pipeline Tools

By Weyron Henriques and Chris Reynolds, Deluxe Entertainment Services Group

It’s not news that VFX and post-production processes have become increasingly complex due to the multitude of digital cameras used during production. Every production works hard to manage the immense amount of data that is produced to keep assets, shots, and metadata organized using a variety of strategies and tools. This has become more difficult to do as the complexity of factors that need to be considered, along with their downstream implications, continues to increase.

It’s critical that rich metadata capture and robust asset management strategies are in place from acquisition through the entire post-production process to ensure quality and efficiency from start to finish. Because of this, we’re seeing the rise of sophisticated cloud-accessible digital pipeline tools that combine asset management with synchronized metadata to simplify processes, while simultaneously increasing quality and efficiency.

These pipeline tools can serve as a relational data hub for all production and post-production data that will continue to grow throughout the post-production process. As the production evolves and the relational metadata increases in complexity, the value of digital pipeline tools becomes more evident and empowers content creators to work smarter under tighter timelines, spending less time managing technical details and more time creating quality content.

Camera information

It’s not uncommon today to have multiple camera types at an on-set production. The number of camera types being used is on an upward trajectory, now averaging around half a dozen per production. Some support multiple sensor resolutions and picture framing options, coupled with multiple color and tonal spaces, lens options and more. Getting lens information from non-smart lenses can require alternative data gathering methods that may include file scraping for lens type on camera reports. The captured camera metadata can create a large list of precise combinations that play a critical role in guiding downstream processes that maintain image quality.

Dailies color

Dailies color decisions are expected to be propagated into VFX and DI finishing more than ever. The concept of “throw-away” dailies color decisions is obsolete and the expectation of color integrity from start to finish is the new normal. Dailies color may not be limited to the American Society of Cinematographers Color Decision List (ASC CDL) due to the creative demands of the director or DP. As a result, dailies color grades can extend into secondary color, shapes and color dissolves.

It is therefore critical to accurately capture the daily color decisions per shot and to intelligently and computationally use it for seamless downstream color propagation through VFX, editorial and DI workflows.

Production logs, dailies tracking and metadata

In addition to the primary metadata that is gathered from dailies logging and camera metadata, it’s equally important to capture camera, script and stage setup reports as secondary metadata. They can play an important role in pipeline guidance and decision making. Additionally, when their text is searchable and synchronized to the camera footage they can be leveraged for advanced content searching for VFX and editorial.

Acquisition metadata is best captured during the dailies process and lays the foundation for data tracking and lineage. Dailies operations play an important role as they associate the raw camera files with the scene, take and camera roll through the logging process each day. At the end of each day raw camera files are archived to LTOs and sent to offline locations – all of which can be registered and tracked by digital pipeline tools.

Asset management

At the core of these pipeline tools are robust databases that are aware of the location of every frame on every LTO and storage volume (NAS, SAN, cloud) visible to the pipeline tool for each production. This is an important aspect of any pipeline tool as dailies are often completed at locations close to the set that can be geographically distant from the database and near-line storage arrays and often have limited internet bandwidth that can make transmitting raw camera files impossible.

This means that the data transmitted to the pipeline tool from on- or near-set dailies must be limited to the metadata set and not the media itself.

Because the metadata contains the file information and frame location on each LTO that was created, when those same frames are loaded onto another storage volume the tool can automatically scan, compare and identify that the frames are the same, create the proper file relationships and link the appropriate metadata to each frame. For pipeline tools to work effectively it’s critical that they are aware of the primary camera metadata, dailies metadata, secondary metadata and archival metadata as it is created.

The near-line storage component of an effective cloud-based digital pipeline is also key to its successful implementation. The data archived to LTOs on set needs to be offloaded to near-line spinning disk storage to allow rapid access of content for VFX and editorial pulls and delivery to truly optimize timelines, as opposed to the more sluggish method of selectively restoring data from offline to online storage with each request.

Using a pipeline tool that is tied to a high-bandwidth data infrastructure brings added flexibility by supporting the ability to have multiple near-line storage pools in different geographies. As long as the pipeline tool is aware of each near-line access location and the various copies of data, it can pull from whichever storage location provides the optimum performance for each conversion and delivery.

This is where the full power of a digital pipeline tool becomes evident – in its ability to use this metadata to maintain quality and accelerate timelines. The metadata for each project grows exponentially from the start of production to the final delivery and can be fully leveraged as the project is distilled down from on-set capture to distribution, providing single IMF and J2K creation. A streamlined VFX process is a great example of this.

Accelerating timelines with metadata

Some digital pipeline tools provide cloud access to VFX facilities so they can request shot pulls to perform their work. When shots are requested, the system can use the camera, dailies, and color metadata that was previously related to each frame to determine the optimum de-bayering algorithm, color space conversion and tonal space mapping before transcoding the raw camera frames into the desired format for each facility.

When combined with a workflow orchestration layer, conversions from raw file formats to RGB can be triggered automatically to deliver VFX plates and picture references. This ensures that proper conversions are made based on camera, sensor resolutions, framing and output target and that accurate metadata and sub-frame metadata is injected into each frame. Because the system can initiate and automate these processes, time zones and human process initiation is removed from the equation, speeding up the process dramatically – often cutting out an entire day from the process for each pull request.

Once VFX are complete, each facility can upload its final shots directly into the pipeline tool using a secure transmission layer. The beauty of this is that the relationship between the original footage and the new VFX footage is maintained and tracked in the pipeline tool, enabling efficient conform and color matching. Further, VFX review timelines can be built based on the uploaded shots, accelerating that process as well.

Similar benefits are realized in the editorial process with automatic proxy creation based on preferred conversions. Dynamically computed dailies color decisions can be baked into proxies using the CDL metadata in the system, further accelerating timelines while providing the most accurate color viewing experience possible through the editorial process.

Once editorial is completed, final conform EDLs can be uploaded directly into the pipeline enabling more efficient online conform for color grading. Here again integrated workflow orchestration tools can reduce timelines by enabling semi or fully-automated online conform with full CDL metadata preservation and delivery. Further, as updated EDLs are provided, the system can track the various editorial conform versions through the grading process. The relationship between original and graded frames, frames containing VFX, and all of the associated metadata that has been generated throughout the process, is fully maintained and tracked in the system.

Final deliverables, searchability and archiving

Once color grading is complete and final audio and/or subtitle assets are added to the system, the final conform and creation of IMF and/or J2K deliverables can be completed by the more advanced systems available today. From there, additional localized assets can continue to be added to create new versions, rounding out the production supply chain for global distribution.

When a digital pipeline tool is used from acquisition through delivery, the relational metadata that has been captured through the various processing pipelines also serves to provide powerful search capabilities for your projects. This capability can be used to find shots and versions, and search secondary metadata sources, such as production logs, scripts and more. Never before has so much information about a production been accessible through a single interface.

As these tools continue to mature, search capabilities will expand, providing unparalleled creative possibilities for production of additional versions, marketing materials, ancillary content, production archives, and more.

The adoption of digital pipeline tools that combine digital asset management with rich metadata and workflow orchestration is critical for the future of our industry.

It’s time to embrace these advancing toolsets so that we can continue to focus on technology and automation to further enhance creative collaboration amidst the ever-growing technical complexities and compressed timelines of global content creation and delivery

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