Biz climbs digital mountain

Companies consider how to manage stored files

Compared with the physical world of film, digital shooting promises speed and flexibility. No waiting for dailies, no shipping cans of film back and forth from labs.

The difficulty of downloading giant digital files has kept the movie business from going the way of the record business, in that it confounds pirates. But it also can make digital production difficult.

But some things that filmmakers take for granted in the analog world pose thorny problems in the digital realm.

Take data management, the technology of wrangling the vast amount of digital data produced in making a movie or TV production. Filmmakers making the leap to digital are finding undreamt-of headaches in both transporting and storing that volume of digital material.

Without efficient, fast data management to help filmmakers and distributors organize, move and track their digital files, the crush of data can create delays in every step from editing through distribution.

“We grew up in a world of physical objects like reels of film, and we developed certain conventions based on how we handled those objects,” says Andy Maltz, executive director of the Motion Picture Academy’s Science and Technology Council.

“Imagine all the different kinds of objects created for a digitally produced motion picture. Data management is not just about how you recover the ones and zeros from the digital storage media, it’s how you find the objects you are looking for, and how you interpret them once you get them back. We’re in the early days on the digital side,” says Maltz.

Moving those files from set to post can be daunting.

Unlike tape stock, which has to be duplicated and then shipped, digital files can be sent by Internet without being backed up. At first glance, eliminating the cost of duplicating and shipping film or tape appears to be a budget boon. However, digital files carry their own handling and maintenance costs. Many productions end up shipping hard drives because it is faster and more cost effective than obtaining the bandwidth necessary to move such large files, but since they have to back up the data before shipping it, they lose one of the supposed advantages of digital.

So providers and software tools have sprung up just to help move the huge data files of a digital shoot, among them Aspera, the data transfer software used on “Avatar,” and Sohonet, the data services provider for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

Aspera and Sohonet send data over the Internet through high-speed Internet connections. Both companies encrypt the data they’re transmitting and monitor its progress, guarding against both data corruption — which could render files usesless — and data piracy. If they detect unknown connections en route, they can halt the transfer process immediately, keeping content from falling into the wrong hands.

Storing data also becomes a prickly matter.

“Many directors and cinematographers are experiencing a liberation of not exposing film,” says Christopher Carey, executive VP of worldwide technical operations for Paramount Pictures. “They feel that bits are free. (But) there are now data management build-up worries: what to throw out and what to keep.”

To help stem this digital inundation, various industry orgs are taking steps to at least standardize procedures. The Intl. Cinematographers Guild has created a two-day training program to educate digital loaders on a consistent means of entering and handling data on set. AMPAS also is working on creating industrywide procedural guidelines for the overall care of data.

“We’re trying to develop some of the infrastructure on a path toward standards,” says Maltz, “so everybody agrees on metadata structures, basic file formats, digital color representation and best practices for the creation and the preservation of data over the long term.”

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