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A Talk with SpectSoft's Jason Howard about Linux & Film Production

COW Library : : Jason Howard : A Talk with SpectSoft's Jason Howard about Linux & Film Production
A Look at SpectSoft RaveHD for Linux

A Creative Cow Linux Systems Feature


an interview with Jason Howard <>
Systems administrator,
Vice President of Product Development, SpectSoft LLC, Oakdale, California USA

©2003 by, SpectSoft LLC and Tippett Studios. All rights are reserved.

Article Focus:
Creative Cow's own Jason Howard, is helping bring Starship Troopers 2 to the big screen. His company, SpectSoft, has been working with the famed Tippett Studios to integrate SpectSoft's new RaveHD system into Tippett's workflow. Faced with creating a system that allowed customers like Tippett to work with many different formats and systems -- like accessing both Sony CineAlta's 1080p24 format and Panasonic VariCam's 720p60 -- and performing well with the very latest HD decks, etc. How well has RaveHD worked for Tippett over the last eight months of its use? Well, famed Tippett Studios used it for the HD editing workflow for Starship Troopers 2. Here's the story...

Who is SpectSoft and What Is Its Purpose?
SpectSoft LLC was founded in 1997 to specialize in Linux-based software for use in the film, video and broadcast industries. It was started by me and my mother, Ramona Howard because of our experience in both media production and open systems coding and solutions design. Our idea was to bring into SpectSoft both "open" software and the kind of Unix design philosophies that allow our customers the never-ending flexibility and freedom of advanced systems using our software. We felt the unix philosophy of making a particular software tool do "one thing, but one thing well" to be the perfect match for high-end film and video production -- this, as having to worry about stability of a tool is simply not an option in the world of high-end production. In the high-end film and video world, since being on the cutting edge is expected, open software not only allows bugs fixes and feature additions to happen more quickly, but also allows for configurability and integration on a scale that is just not possible with software from more conventional models.

Since its inception, SpectSoft has worked on technical projects with some of the industry's biggest and brightest companies like Dreamworks Animation (Glendale, California) and Tippett Studio (Berkeley, California) that have furthered the state of the art in high definition video's use in the film production work flow. Through it all, SpectSoft has been able to maintain a relatively small footprint as well as the original design values that make it so unique.

What is RaveHD?
RaveHD is the second-generation hybrid digital disk drive recorder (DDR) and uncompressed video editor created by SpectSoft specifically to suit the needs of the high end film and video post production facilities --or anyone else with the need to import/export uncompressed video.

Rave is an acronym for Raw Audio Video Editor. Its I/O support options span the whole video gamut, from Standard and High Definition video, to Dual Stream 10bit log 4:4:4 RGB, like that used in the Thompson Viper and Sony Cinealta SR.

Rave is a linux-based system that uses both custom software and drivers created by SpectSoft that can utilize off-the-shelf commodity hardware and can also include a selection of I/O cards from AJA Video, which we have worked directly with AJA to optimize for use in the world of Linux.

What Features Are Available In the Rave System?
An important part of our entire philosophy is that you must remember that while we have created specific tools to solve specific high-level concerns of our customers, there are always custom facets in each of our installations -- these customized "hooks" allow us to integrate our system into whatever system or systems our customers are already using. The basic system makes the assumption that our customers are running the software on the reference system, explained further down -- but the basic system includes:
  • RAID3 data protection with the Huge Systems media vault array
  • 10bit YUV, 8bit YUV (both UYVY and YUYV)
  • 8bit RGB (RGBA, ARGB, ABGR)
  • 10bit RGB (RGB packed and RGB DPX) color-spaces are supported. (Not all color spaces are available with SD)
  • RGB/YUV/3 WAY(Final Cut Pro-ish) LUT based color correction (HD only)
  • RS-422 machine control
  • Varicam™ (Panasonic) active frame tagging support
  • Frame-based file system (each frame can be made available via NFS, FTP, Windows File Share, etc)
  • RP188 timecode import/export (also can be used to record the time-code of each frame into meta-data for later use)
  • Realtime 2:3 (SD only, but HD 24p -> 60i/23.98p -> 59.97i is planned)
  • Burn-in of timecode, graticules, and other ancillary data
  • Open/Available source code (with purchase) to both the driver and application allows for a massively extensible DDR
  • SQL database tracking of clip, audio, and EDL assets across multiple DDRs
  • Scheduled/Interrupt-able job queuing support (allows for image conversion, color space conversion, file moving, or any other scriptable process to be scheduled for when the DDR is sitting idle.)

Why Did You Develop Your System Using Linux?
It would probably be easier to explain "Why not Linux?" Linux is an open-source and freely available operating system that runs on everything from small embedded devices to massive supercomputers. It is both incredibly stable and thus very reliable. This is a must for the high-end film and video industry. From a programming perspective, it is extensible, easy to alter, and has a very low system overhead.

What Are the Advantages of Using Commodity Hardware?
Quite simply, this allows for two things: It gives us the most "bang for the buck" and also allows for easy upgrades in the future. No longer does the system have a "product lifetime," or useful life. Simply upgrade the surrounding hardware to support tomorrow's technology. What kind of hardware is in the reference box? The system includes:

  • 4U Rack mountable (very cool looking) case
  • Huge Systems IDE 1.3TB Array (Media Vault) w/ Dual-SCSI U160 I/O in RAID3
  • Off the shelf Dual Xeon 2.4GHz, 512 MB RAM, Modem (for remote support), Dual U160 Controller, 1Gb Ethernet, RS-422 (Converted from RS-232), CD-ROM
  • AJA I/O CARD (HD, SD, or BOTH)
  • 1.3TB in RAID3, 1.8TB in RAID0

How was RaveHD used at Tippett for Starship Troopers 2 HD workflow?
The "Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation" principal photography was shot with the Sony Cinealta at 1080p24, however miniatures and elements were shot with the Panasonic Varicam at 720p60 (usually in some factor of 24). So right off the bat, we were faced with working with both formats, having both formats exist on the DDR at the same time. We also gained quite a bit of experience working with both Sony and Panasonic decks. Also, RP188 support was a must as we had to pull out the active frames from a Panasonic Varicam sequence.

All the visual effects plates were captured and exported via RaveHD over the course of about 8 months in post production. Also, finals of each shot were done on RaveHD by the director (Phil Tippett) and the visual effects supervisor (Eric Leven). Frames were moved on/off the DDR via NFS, the standard unix file sharing method. They were then converted from the YUV color space and they were captured into a floating point RGB colorspace designed by Tippett for use by the artists.

How Much Does RaveHD Cost?
The base system with the above reference box, software, and HD SDI I/O is $35,768. However, the software and I/O card are available for those that want to create their own DDR setup.

For more information on RaveHD, visit

To discuss RaveHD with Jason, visit Creative Cow's Linux & Media forum


Note: All of us at Creative Cow are doubly proud of Jason Howard as in all his spare time he is also our systems administrator and keeps our server merrily pumping along, even with pageviews getting to the point of 10 million and more each month. We introduced Jason to John Abt, president of AJA Video, when John mentioned that he wanted to get his line of 10-bit video boards into the world of Linux. We told John that Jason could do it and do it in "a few months" -- John was understandably skeptical but Jason did do it in a few months and introduced the system at Creative Cow West 2003, where studios like Dreamworks and Tippett took note of what SpectSoft was doing in the high power world of Linux media production. Jason is an amazing guy and we are proud of his accomplishments.

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