Sunday, November 13, 2005

Meet the Filmmakers

A couple of days ago I was honored to attend an event thrown by AMD, Microsoft and the Austin Film Society. This was my first trip to Austin (unfortunately only for a 20 hour visit) but I will definitely return. The event was very well attended by Austin area filmmakers for primarily a social gathering with some short presentations from some celebrity filmmakers : Mike McCoy (producer and star of Dust to Glory) and Robert Rodriguez of Troublemaker Studios (writer, director Sin City, Spy Kids 1,2 & 3, ...) I was attending as the sole demo artist, showcasing what CineForm products can do for the indie filmmaker. Now this was not a tradeshow, this is a party with an open bar in a 6th St. night club, hardly the venue to demo software technology. Yet many brave filmmakers did choose to approach the long haired geek (myself) amongst the glowing computer gear.

This was a great learning experience for me, as this was a far better cross-section of indie filmmakers, than those that go to NAB or SIGGRAPH. So even at an event thrown by AMD and Microsoft, there were a lot of Final Cut Pro users, but more amusingly many assumed I was demonstrating FCP (I repeat, at an AMD/Microsoft event.) It is true that Adobe Premiere Pro does look much like FCP, and for good reason, it is aiming to be the FCP of the PC (and has pretty much succeeded technically in most areas.) There is now no longer that great divide between the feature sets of the competing low cost (pro) NLEs on either platform. The market potential that created the FCP phenomena doesn't exist today, yet the illusion still exists. I think many viewers of my demo assumed I was using FCP; after all, they have seen FCP do cool stuff (and no one can market better than Apple.) When I explained that, no, this was Premiere Pro running CineForm's Prospect HD/2K, the follow up question was often, "Can I do that?" on FCP, and the answer, again, was no.

It's not what I was showing couldn't be done under FCP in the future, but some of the same forces that have PC dominating the desktop are again at work against Apple. Compared to Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro is a closed architecture, all major new features must come for Apple alone, third party vendors can only really enhance existing features within the product. Premiere Pro, on the other hand, is open, with a hardware abstraction layer (HAL) that allows thirds to add and extend beyond the core feature set. For example, integrated HDV editing within FCP could only come from Apple, whereas the intial Premiere HDV editing -- way ahead of Apple -- came from small third parties like Main Concept and CineForm. Apple's FCP certainly has lost some gloss over the HDV introduction, and even today users have no support for 24p HDV (unlike various PC solutions, including CineForm.) Not that Adobe alone has great HDV either, yet it is greatly supplemented by third party integration. Apple has plenty of compelling reasons to create a good HDV implementation, as this prosumer format is heading to become the new DV, which equates to lots of platform and software sales. However, the many smaller niche markets can't be served by Apple engineering, creating opportunity for companies like CineForm (but unfortunately for Apple this is easier to do on another platform.)

The niche market that has opened up though FCP's closed archecture are tools and workflows for independent filmmakers, the market that used to be FCP's turf excusively. The independent filmmaker is looking for the most cost effective solution to post his or her project, without compromising the final product. A simple enough desire, yet the allure of HD has complicated matters greatly for these filmmakers. It is very expensive to post and online HD production, forcing most into an offline workflow (an alien experience for DV shooters.) Even offline has additional expense such as the conversion cost from creating offline ready DV dubs from a HDCAM shoot (approx. $80 per 40 min HDCAM tape equals thousands for an average feature) -- then the online costs are still in the production's future. The offline then online approach is the typical FCP workflow, as it is for Avid, really it is the traditional workflow. Yet the indie filmmaker is not concerned with tradition -- neither Mike McCoy nor Robert Rodriguez were speaking at this event because they followed tradition.

So what did I demo at this event and how does it differ from the traditional workflow? I was showing the first 10 minutes of a feature shot on super-16 scanned at 2048x1276 10-bit log (26% more data than 1920x1080 HD) yet this 2K project fit in 10GBytes (which I had backed up on my iPod.) This project was playing on a dual opteron workstation, with the 2K media running from two drives in a simple striped RAID 0 configuration (inexpensive and standard.) On this system I showed that I could playback and mix three of these 2K sequences all in real-time. Three streams of 2K is simply not possible in any other practical workflow. What this all means is the tranditional off-line workflow can be entirely skipped. Now the workflow is free the the rigid ordering of : offline editing -> lock down -> conform to uncompressed -> complete FX work -> flatten the timeline (render, otherwise it won't even preview) -> color corrector (render) -> master out. With a compressed online workflow, steps can be performed in any order, and as you have the resolution image available at all times, HD dubs are ready available for marketing your project, all on much lower hardware costs. Under FCP for a 2K (film) or HDCAM projects, all you get is either a single stream compressed or single stream uncompressed -- no real-time, no workflow enhancement. For Apple to compete they need to open up FCP's achitecture to allow third parties to keep their product moving forward.

In the end, the idea of a compressed digital intermediate is not new; it has been around for may years as real-time DV editing. All CineForm has done is removed the bit-rate and resolution limitations of these camera formats DV, HDV, and DVCPRO-HD, and made film and HD resolutions edit as easy as a DV project without the quality compromise of all the camera based compression. An old workflow re-invented for a new filmmaker.

4 comments:

David Kirlew said...

Thanks for the info. I've been leaning towards using the Prospect codec to edit a movie I'm currently writing but was evaluating workflows from Avid and Apple. Now I think I'll definately use cineform with Adobe.

Brache said...

Dave,

Let me know when you guys close your capital financing! You guys are doing really cool stuff, and I want to work for YOU!

David Kirlew said...

Which David are you referring to me or David Newman

Brache said...

I was referring to David Newman, but if you're hiring...