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What's Cutting Edge in Hollywood Today, Will Be In Your Hands Tomorrow...

COW Library : : Jason Howard : What's Cutting Edge in Hollywood Today, Will Be In Your Hands Tomorrow...
From The Creative COW Magazine

Creative COW Magazine presents What's Cutting Edge in Hollywood Today, Will Be In Your Hands Tomorrow...

Jason HowardJason Howard
Oakdale California, USA

©2006 Jason Howard and All rights reserved.

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In this Creative COW Magazine interview, Creative COW talks with SpectSoft's Jason Howard, a systems engineer, about technologies that are changing Hollywood forever.

In today's rapidly developing production arena, it's a known fact that much of what is used on computer desktops today was considered the private property of highly funded film and effects houses not long ago. So what is going on today that is pushing the edge and what can we expect to see trickling down onto the desktop of "middle market" artists and producers very soon?

We wanted to find the answer to that question and so we went to Jason Howard of SpectSoft. Jason is a 26 year old wunderkind whose company, SpectSoft, has developed workflows and infrastructure for some of the top studios in the world, where he has been involved in such highly visible projects as Sin City, Constantine, Hellboy, Ice Age 2, Starship Troopers 2 and others.

In the following interview, we asked Jason what major studios are doing today to reach the next level of productivity. Because of the nature of this industry, we can expect to see these same things on desktops everywhere not too many days in the future...

CC: In the work that you are doing, what are some of the big developments pushing the "engineering creative envelope" in the studios and what are you doing to meet these requirements and new ideas?

Jason Howard: A big move is underway in Hollywood to cut costs. Films have become so expensive to make, that studios are seeing the benefits of moving to an all-digital workflow. An all-digital motion picture workflow differs rather significantly from that of a purely broadcast television workflow. All the requirements that are normal for a broadcast television scenario must be amplified in scale and demand to meet the data-intensive massive file sizes in the film environment.

To meet these kinds of demands, the biggest requirement that we have had to perform here at SpectSoft has been to understand and transparently conform to a motion picture workflow that already has a bit over one hundred years of evolution. Naturally, moving this into an all-digital realm raises standard IT issues that must be solved. Yet this isn't your average IT business and the requirements are quite unique.


The biggest challenges we face can really be broken down into three key issues:

1). Media Management:
Dealing with huge amounts of data. Ideally, in a motion picture pipeline, we need to know where every frame is. Not only that, but greatly compounding the problem, we need to know where every revision of every frame is - as well as any element needed to create that frame. So you can see that media management is a critical concern and one that must be met and solved with solutions that work within the understanding of how artists think.

2). Moving Data Easily:
Our "data" is really a bunch of usually sequential images. Sometimes it makes sense to move data around as video but other times, it makes more sense to move the data around as actual computer data. This "data wrangling" is one of the most important factors in an all-digital motion picture production: this, as it has the most immediate and potentially detrimental effect on the schedule.

It's just not feasible to have a production crew waiting around for data to move. So, not only must media management be a primary concern, but it must include flexibility that allows things to be done in a manner which best serves the circumstances. You cannot shoehorn a movie into a workflow that constrains the overall project.

3). Bridging Technologies:
A modern motion picture production is a massive dance of hundreds of technologies. A good example is the ever expanding usage of video equipment to replace portions of the workflow. The lines are certainly blurring but they aren't doing it on their own.

CC: How do tapeless acquisition and DDR-based systems play into this?

JH: The quick answer is "Instant gratification." The quicker you can estimate the quality in a shot - or lack of quality - the faster decisions can be made about it. In a tapeless production using a Digital Disc Recorder (DDR), images can be immediately viewed. This is a huge advantage to a production wherein costs must be controlled and human resources utilized to the utmost.

Storage is fairly inexpensive, far less than wages and other costs associated with the personnel involved. You can quickly compound these personnel-related costs as today's directors tend to shoot more footage than ever before. Anything that streamlines efficiencies and cuts costs is welcome; especially anywhere human beings must interact with this wealth of footage. Tapeless technologies do just that and much in the same way that nonlinear editing did years ago.

Each new step in the evolution of the production process brings new levels of productivity, eventually replacing the way that things have been done before.

CC: For those not familiar with DDRbased systems, how would you describe this technology - especially when applied in terms of the film industry?

JH: You can think of a DDR as pretty much a tape deck, except that it's using a disk drive and because of that, it's random-access. Tape is linear and just as nonlinear editing tools replaced linear technology, many feel that tape has its days numbered.

In a DDR-based system, images are actually data on a computer hard disk and because of that important difference, other things that weren't possible before are now possible. One of these is networking, which greatly streamlines the workflow across the production pipeline.

With our RaveHD™ system, for example, we are able to link video technology with a filmic, frame-oriented workflow. Just as video editors have long had the ability to access any part of the job on their timelines because of nonlinear tools - something that was unimaginable to editors that came before and who used a razor blade to cut actual film - the DDR-based systems bring this same kind of flexibility to film situations.

Project management issues are much more demanding in the world of film and I tend to believe that as the film houses push higher and more flexible solutions, users at all levels will see themselves benefitting from these efforts.

CC: How do your clients deal with archiving the massive file sizes and huge number of files that result from the filmmaking process?

JH: That's the magic question and everyone deals with it differently. There doesn't seem to be a wrong answer. Some studios simply add more storage and keep everything online, while others back-up finals on tape and then manage an online database. I know of one big company that backs up (or at least did a while ago) everything on recordable CDs. If it made sense to archive to USB thumb drives, I bet you would see someone doing it.

CC: What kinds of savings do these new innovations bring?

It's not feasible to have a production crew waiting around for data to move. Not only must media management be a primary concern, it must include flexibility.

JH: It's hard to tell if people are actually saving money. The really important thing that I see are the savings in terms of how much a person can get done in a given amount of time. New developments allow artists more control over their data and allow pictures to be delivered much faster then in years past. An excellent example is the color correction process. It has evolved from a photo- chemical timing process at a lab to a single guy at a computer. Did it lower the cost? No, not at all. But the increase in the amount of control and the time savings makes it worthwhile.

The fact of the matter is this: People make movies not computers. More control and quicker feedback loops are surefire ways to help people make better movies. In the end that is what we are doing, facilitating the storytelling process. The best tools get out of the way of that process and like great effects, don't call attention to themselves.

NAB 2006 attendees can find Jason Howard in the SpectSoft booth at C-2548. You can reach him at jason@ or you can visit his website at

SpectSoft's Jason Howard is a systems engineer with credits that include some of the biggest films in the last few years. What does he see coming? It's about media and project management and the flexibility to mimic known workflows.

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