The Story Behind ‘Meridian’: Why Netflix Is Helping Competitors With Content and Code (EXCLUSIVE)

Courtesy of Netflix

A deserted cliff. Lightning appearing out of nowhere. A mysterious lady all dressed in white. Netflix’s latest original program, “Meridian,” is spooky, confusing, and only 12 minutes long.

That’s because although “Meridian” is available on the streaming service worldwide, it was made not for Netflix’s 83 million subscribers, but for algorithms and their programmers.

“It’s a weird story wrapped up in a bunch of engineering requirements,” said Chris Fetner, the company’s director for content partner operations. Netflix produced “Meridian” as test footage to evaluate anything from the performance of video codecs to the way Netflix streams look like on 4K TVs.

And now, the company is giving the film away for free, so that others can do their own tests with it, be it hardware manufacturers, codec developers or even competitors like Amazon and Hulu. Netflix is using a Creative Commons license for the release of “Meridian,” which is new for an industry that isn’t used to sharing a lot of resources. “They are in the business of exploiting content, not of giving it away,” Fetner said.

But for Netflix, it’s just par of the course. Thanks to its Silicon Valley DNA, Netflix has long collaborated with other companies on cloud computing-focused open source projects. Now, it wants to nudge Hollywood to do the same — and “Meridian” is only the beginning.

Why Netflix is releasing tools that will help iTunes

This week, Netflix is also open-sourcing a set of tools tackling a common problem for studios and video services.

In a global media business, Hollywood is often producing dozens of versions for each movie. Not only do different markets require different subtitles, but there are also airline versions that come without riskier scenes, local content requirements like the need to pixelate all full-frontal nudity in Japan, dubbed versions and more.

Maintaining all of those versions isn’t just very resource-intensive, it’s also prone to lead to errors — like the time when Netflix thought it was getting a movie for its viewers in Germany. “It was labeled as the German master,” said Fetner. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be dubbed in Portuguese for Brazilian audiences. “It probably wouldn’t have been a great experience for our members in Germany,” he quipped.

That mishap was not an isolated incident. More often than not, switcheroos like this actually happen because of some error in the processing pipeline that can potentially affect large parts of a studio’s catalog, explained Fetner.

Netflix wants to solve problems like these by using the Interoperable Master Format (IMF), an emerging standard for exchanging master files between studios and services like Netflix. In essence, IMF combines the raw video file with a set of instructions that tell Netflix which parts it needs to omit in which regions, and when it needs to use which audio files. “We used to get baked cakes,” said Fetner. “With IMF, we get all the ingredients.”

IMF has been developed as a standard by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), and some studios have started to use it in recent months. However, Fetner acknowledged that still only “a small percentage” of all movies delivered to Netflix are in the form of IMF files. Part of the reason is that there are no widely available tools for the format yet, which is why Netflix is building and giving some of them away now — even if these efforts also benefit competitors.

One example: Netflix is now releasing a tool that will help studios convert IMF masters to files suitable to be delivered to Apple’s iTunes store. “The studios that give us content have a lot of other business problems to solve,” said Fetner. Helping them integrate IMF into their workflows will ultimately also benefit Netflix, he argued, even if it also means helping iTunes as well. “Today, Apple doesn’t support IMF,” he said. “The content owners have to support that business case.”

Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

This kind of thinking is new to Hollywood. In Silicon Valley, companies have long realized that rising tides often really do lift all boats. Open source has become a key business practice throughout large parts of the tech industry, and Netflix has been participating in the exchange of ideas and code for quite some time. Over the years, Netflix has released more than 150 open source projects.

It’s worth noting that not everyone in the open source world loves Netflix. Hardcore open source advocates don’t like that Netflix is using DRM for its streaming service, and the Free Software Foundation even briefly asked its supporters to boycott the company. But for the most part, the industry has embraced Netflix’s open source efforts. Software based on Netflix open source code is now used by major companies including Yelp, Yahoo, IBM and Microsoft.

Many of Netflix’s projects center on various aspects of cloud computing. Netflix has long run most of its operations in the cloud, and over time shared open source code to analyze data, optimize the performance of cloud-based servers and even monitor the security of a company’s cloud infrastructure.

Increasingly, the company is looking to bring the same spirit to Hollywood. In June, Netflix released an algorithm called the Video Multi-Method Assessment Fusion (VMAF) as an open source project. VMAF has helped Netflix to figure out which video codecs work best for its service based on real-world viewing tests. Now, it wants to help others do the same, and in turn improve the tool with additional data.

The drone didn’t deliver, so Netflix rented a helicopter

And then there is “Meridian.” It’s the third time Netflix has produced such test footage, but the most ambitious project to date. “Meridian” is 4K HDR video shot with 60 frames per second with a peak brightness level of 4000 nits and Dolby Atmos audio. In other words: It pushes the boundaries on all specs fronts, and includes a number of visuals that can trip up encoders. There is, for example, old, grainy footage with lots of noise, as well as cigarette smoke, fog, moving objects in the background and other sources of visual noise.

Netflix teamed up with a number of partners for “Meridian,” including Sony, Dolby and Red Studios, and also didn’t take any production shortcuts. For one scene, the company tried to record a driving car with drones, but the result just wasn’t quite right — so Netflix got a helicopter instead. “You need content that is representative of how movies are made today,” said video algorithms director Anne Aaron.

The industry has largely been relying on a small canon of test footage, said Aaron, which can be a problem if you want to test video codecs and other software that’s meant to support catalogs of tens of thousands of titles. That’s especially true for some of the existing openly licensed footage, which largely consists of animated fare produced with a very small set of animation software. Which leads to blind spots, explained Aaron. “Encoders can be highly tuned to encode ‘Big Bucks Bunny.‘”

“Meridian” may be produced with algorithms in mind, but Netflix subscribers can still enjoy the title as well. The company has made a habit out of including test footage in its regular catalog to see how it performs in real-world conditions. Viewers seem to be loving it, jokingly comparing some of the older test footage clips to classics like “Citizen Kane” in their reviews, and making fun of the titles picked by engineers for playback testing. “This is the best one yet,” wrote one reviewer. “The action! The excitement! The 23.976 frames per second!”

For her part, Aaron can hardly wait to see how Netflix’s viewers are going to respond to “Meridian.” “There is gonna be a season 2 if this works well,” she joked.