Digital Asset Management: Heir to Helical Scan
by Laurence B. Abrams
Standing between an ARRI Alexa and a RED Epic on October 20, 2012 at the “Digital Asset Management and Workfws” training session conducted at AbelCine in Burbank, and with an array of ingest and processing software installed on nearby computers, Local 695’s Tom Vanasse began the day by ominously announcing that “Some of what you see and hear today will almost certainly be obsolete tomorrow.” That’s not very encouraging but new product introductions coming from a wide assortment of manufacturers are announced almost every week. And there are nearly as many on-set production workflows as there are productions, with many shows opting for entirely unique and often experimental approaches… part technology and part improvisation.
There’s much at stake on a motion picture and television production set and it grows increasingly more difficult to stay abreast of this rapidly changing state-of-the-art but it turns out that the Local 695 engineers who work with and develop these new technologies relish the challenge. Maybe that’s because it was the tinkering inventive egghead pioneering spirit that brought many of our members to this business in the first place.
Way back in the spring of 1953, Local 695’s engineers were doing their own sort of pioneering, experimenting with ways to bring this new thing called “video” to a world that for the most part had not seen it before. Even as their small static-y rolling image gradually found a place in living rooms across the country, there were many who continued to predict that television would not last… much like there were those who decades earlier predicted the demise of radio and decades later, the demise of 3D. But Local 695 member A. Murray Jarvis, writing in an article for the March 1953 issue of Local’s 695’s “International Sound Technician” magazine, saw it differently when he offered these remarkably prescient words:
“While the Video magnetic recording process is still in the experimental stage, great progress is being made toward its perfection by its enthusiastic developers. The resolution of the visual image produced by this process in its present form has restrictions, however the industry is watching this development with anxious interest for it has the potentiality of revolutionizing the entire motion picture technique as we know it.”
The black-and-white ABC TK-10 camera Murray Jarvis appears beside in this 1953 photo could be used only for live broadcasting and the Ampex VR-1000 2-inch helical scan recorder, the first recorder capable of capturing a video image, wouldn’t appear in TV studios until 1957. Even so, Jarvis’ vision for the future was extraordinarily accurate. Sixty years have passed… Kodak no longer manufactures film stock… and virtually all studio production, whether for motion picture or television, is recorded in video format. Jarvis’ nascent video technology truly is responsible for “revolutionizing the entire motion picture technique as we know it.”
Thus has been the ongoing evolution of the electronic audio and video recording chain, pioneered by Murray Jarvis and his contemporaries and carried forward by successive generations of Engineers, Broadcast Technicians, Videotape Operators and Video Assist Technicians of IATSE Local 695.
Tom Vanasse’s October training session at AbelCine represented one more step in that ongoing evolution. In this particular class, Tom explained to the 695 members in attendance that even though tools and workflows vary from job to job, and many of those tools and workflows in current use will most certainly face obsolescence before very long, the basic building blocks of digital video production… recording and re-recording… can be directly applied or adapted for almost any modern production environment. Training begins with these extensible building blocks.
Using this premise as the structure for the training session, Vanasse took the class step by step through the entire production chain. The choice of camera, from a DSLR to the widely used ARRI Alexa, stands at one end of the process while the varying requirements of Post-Production stand at the other. In between is the domain of the Local 695 engineer, recording full resolution RAW or multi-codec output live during shooting, re-recording video data from the camera’s source media to magnetic hard drives or LTO tape, generating additional backups and archives, transcoding to deliverable formats and meeting any additional requirements that are requested before the hand-off to Post.
The benefits and requirements of many of the connection standards were reviewed, from eSata, SAS and fiber to Thunderbolt and Firewire800. Discussion and demos covered the range of available external recorders and the rapidly evolving software tools that are currently available, including Black Magic’s Davinci Resolve, Assimilate’s ScratchLab and Adobe’s Speedgrade.
Of particular interest to the group was the new Codex Vault, which was demonstrated by Codex Digital Product Specialist Stephen Ceci. The Vault is a modular location-based media management environment that performs fast transfers by way of a programmable automated production management interface. This standalone solution requires no external drives or processing and seeks to eliminate some of the complexity involved in developing custom workflows on location. The Vault generates deliverables in all formats required for dailies review, post production and archive. Additional capabilities are expected as new stackable modules are released.
The video recording and re-recording technology used by Local 695 engineers has been improving continuously since the first helical-scan recorder arrived in 1957 but never has the technology evolved at such rapid pace as it does today. New developments in resolving power, data processing and throughput are introduced almost continuously. As equipment and workflows evolve, overall performance increases, quality gets extraordinarily better, cost efficiencies of production and distribution improve dramatically and with it, the entertainment industry finds new opportunities for growth by expanding markets for the products we create.
Celluloid takes its place in history and not without a good measure of nostalgia but now — sixty years later — on sound stages and location sets around the world where video electronic recording has almost totally replaced film, we can say with certainty that the revolution envisioned by Murray Jarvis WILL be televised.