AAF and MXF: What is it? Who has it? Why do I want it?
In this day and age, collaborative production is becoming more and more of a fact of life. While in many ways collaboration has been made easier by the advent of the internet, broadband, T1 and T3 lines, etc. --many of the frustrations that collaborative projects create seems at times nearly insurmountable to those of us in the trenches. At last there is a standard which will help us circumvent the barriers to easy and effective collaboration: AAF or the advanced authoring format.
AAF and MXF: What ARE They?
To understand AAF and MXF you first need some terminology. There are two aspects to any piece of media (be it video, audio, still, print, etc). They are:
Essence is the media itself. If this media exists in an open format (one with a standard codec or for which you can supply a codec) then cross application use of that essence becomes possible. There are many essence formats which can be used comfortably on almost any system - some open (standard) formats you may be familiar with include quicktime, mpeg1, mpeg2, wav, targa and tiff. But essence alone, while nice, doesnt lend itself to an easy back and forth collaboration - for that you also need the other part of the equation, metadata.
Metadata is information about the essence (media). At its most basic level, metadata provides information on how to combine or modify the essence. At its root, metadata is data about other data. Metadata information includes (but is not limited to) such things as reel identification, shot description and timecode. It can also include information about what has been done with the essence -- heres where the super EDL part kicks in.
One of the goals of AAF is to be able to exchange not only raw media files but also project data between divergent systems without having to step back and reinvent what has been already done. For example it will allow you to recreate a 15 layer composite with applied filters and effects just as it was originally created, or do your rough cut SD and then move to an HD finish with all the transitions and audio work you did in the low-rez version kept intact.
MXF (Media Exchange Format) is a standard which defines the data structure for audio and visual material (essence) at a point of exchange (that is over networks, not internally within a system) it defines a header and footer as well as the manner in which metadata is packed, however, it does not set a standard for essence metadata's format (that is, information about the material from it's original acquisition through all the steps up to the present form), although it does define how the metadata must be written to "plug in" to MXF. MXF is more of an end of the chain wrapper, designed for completed content which will not be further reworked, or, at most, a cuts only assembly of material. This is especially important in a broadcast environment or for broadband content delivery.
AAF (Advanced Authoring Format) covers exchange of essence as well as it's associated metadata in one standard. It covers a variety of categories of metadata including: Identification & location (how the item is uniquely identified) Administration (rights, access, encryption & security, etc) Interpretive (names, artists, etc) Parametric (signal coding & device characteristics) Process (editing & compositing data) Relational (describes the relation between various pieces of metadata & or essence - in effect the "verbs" in the equation) Spatio-Temporal (places, times, things, camera angles, etc) The advantage is, of course, the ability to bring in the metadata from someone's edit or composite and be able to KNOW which wipe at what speed, what the original file format was, and where the original piece of media resides, what shows (and how many shows) it's been used in before, who shot a particular piece of footage, and when, and where - etc, etc. Although the standard is still under development it promises a tremendous leap forward for those of us struggling with such things as EDL imports - imagine if every EDL from ANY system came in perfectly, every time (including transitions and audio effects, speed changes, etc, etc).
AAF - Why do I want it?
AAF will allow our creative energies to be more focused on the quality of the compositions rather than dealing with difficult compatibility and exchange issues, and allows software development to focus on improvements to the application's feature set. In other words, we can all get back to creative issues and get our heads out of the (for many of us) painful world of techno-speak.
Non-AAF compliant authoring applications (NLEs, compositors, etc) read and manipulate certain types of essence and save the resulting file to their own proprietary format, which is usually specific to a particular hardware platform or operating system. This closed approach generally makes reuse or repurposing extremely difficult. In particular, the compositional metadata (the data that describes the construction of the composition and not the actual essence data itself) is not transferable between authoring applications. So when your package of choice is discontinued or you need a feature not available in your system you must revert to the inefficient EDL workaround and the metadata information you have already created once you will have to either recreate or lose.
AAF: Who Has It?
So, now that we know what it is and, I hope, why we want it, the next question is who has it?
The following breakdown by manufacturer, system and software, reflects what is currently available as of NAB 2003 and some recent events that happened afterwards such as the release of Adobe Premiere Pro. There are also some products that have been promised in the future. The list, obviously, does not include every manufacturer. As I am looking for an NLE and compositing solution, I have mainly focused on those areas. If your manufacturer or system is not mentioned I would strongly suggest that you contact them to find out what they are planning.
Also, please note that I am only stating what the manufacturers choose to show or say about their product lines. If they have not shown compatibility outside their own product line, and it is a must have for you I would strongly urge you to see it in action before committing you hard earned dollars. In particular, make sure that the products you are interested in can talk to each other through AAF metadata exchange. This is especially important with a new standard in development like AAF.
Adobe: AAF is now supported in Adobe Premiere Pro which, according to Adobe's website, "can output AAF files for sharing with other professional editing systems." At NAB, the Adobe Team showed a Premiere file with all its picture-in-picture effects, paths, and dissolves opened up perfectly in After Effects. Adobe has been involved in the AAF group since the beginning.
Apple: Automatic Duck Inc.'s AAF plug-in, implemented to work with Apple's newly announced XML interchange format was shown providing high level metadata exchange between FCP 4 and the Quantel Q series editors to provide a seamless, single-step transfer operation for the user. This will allow for industry-leading levels of editing data exchange between long-form SD, HD and 2K film projects offlined with Final Cut Pro 4 and finished with Quantel's generationQ range of high-performance, high-quality finishing systems. Extrapolate this further and I see the possibility of FCP communicating via this plug in with any AAF compatible NLE.
Avid: Avid is another longtime member of the AAF group. They claim full AAF support in their products. However, I was again disappointed to see that no demos were shown of AAF support between Avid and other manufacturers.
AIST: Cinegy from AIST is a collaborative environment which is AAF compliant. The editor/compositor available for this application is Extreme. Currently AIST/Cinegy does not have a US reseller, although they are looking to bring one on-line shortly.
BBC: Technology BBC Technology introduced their new offering at NAB - Colledia. Colledia is a collaborative production solution which includes ingest, media management, multiple formats, desktop editing and playout. It is fully AAF compliant and uses open non-proprietary formats for easy integration with your IT infrastructure as well as with systems from other AAF compliant suppliers.
Discreet: Although Discreet joined the AAF group in 1998, they have not implemented the technology into any of their products.
Incite: No AAF or MXF at this time, however, with Incites push into broadcast and workgroup editing, I would be surprised if it didnt appear in a future version of the software. For now, though, its not part of the currently available feature set.
Leitch/DPS: Advanced Authoring Format (AAF) and OMF import and export will be offered through a new interoperability option for the upcoming 8.2 version of dpsVelocityQ and dpsVelocity from Lietch/DPS. Both the Velocity and Velocity Q were shown in the pro-mpeg forum demo suite talking to a variety of things, including one of the new Sony e-vtrs.
Matrox: No AAF compliance at this time
Media 100: No AAF compliance at this time
Pinnacle: Pinnacle and Sony showed collaboration via MXF transfer (again, an important step for the beginning and end of the production chain as well as for broadcasters). For editing and news production systems, Pinnacle and Sony showed interoperability between Sony's new optical disc systems for ENG applications and Pinnacle's Vortex news systems and Liquid blue non-linear editing systems. Pinnacles products will offer native support of both DVCAM (25 Mbps) (MXF) and MPEG IMX (30/40/50 Mbps) MXF formats. For digital video field editing, Pinnacle Liquid purple v5 non-linear editing system now supports the SBP-2 protocol. As a result, Liquid purple connected to the Sony DSR-DU1 DVCAM hard disk recorder enables easy access to the camcorder's metadata and presents the editor with shot lists complete with in/out points ready to use as a native Liquid media bin.
Quantel: All of the Generation Q product line is fully AAF compliant. In addition, the new plug-in from Automatic Duck will allow FCP 4.0 projects to port with all their data into the Q series workstations.
Sony: Showed MXF capabilities in their new e-vtr and optical disk camera lines, and highlighted the usefulness of this technology in demonstration with Pinnacle newsgroup products. The Sony approach is more of a beginning and ending of the process and leverages metadata in the form of UMIDs (unique material identifiers) as well as metadata tagging for low rez proxy browsing over the network. Although AAF does not (as yet) extend to their NLE offering (Xpri), the tools to manage metadata need to exist in all parts of the chain, and this is a good start.
Sony Vegas: No AAF compliance at this time
AAF: How Do We Get It?
So, bottom line -- whether we know it or not, we all really do need AAF, it will make our workflow more collaborative and hopefully allow us more time to be creative. However, without all of us (the guys in the trenches who create the content) actively lobbying for it, AAF implementation will be tentative for some time to come. If you are interested in purchasing an AAF-compliant system, let all the manufacturers reps you speak to know that -- the more people that ask for a feature, the more likely it is that a manufacturer will implement it. If someone says their system is compliant, ask them to show you -- demo any and all products that need to talk to each other and make sure that they do talk to one another. This technology shouldnt be a lot of smoke and mirrors, so make sure it actually works in real world situations. Agitate to get the technology we need to make our jobs easier and more productive. We need to actively push manufacturers to implement this technology now -- well all be glad that we did.
For more information and developments in regard to Advanced Authoring Format, contact your manufacturer or visit the official AAF website at http://www.aafassociation.org