Now What? The HDCAM SR Tape Shortage
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Debra Kaufman : Now What? The HDCAM SR Tape Shortage
When the earthquake and massive tsunami hit northern Japan on Friday March 11, few people could have predicted how it would impact TV production in Hollywood.
DigitalFilm Tree post producer Laura Haug was one of them. "Based on Laura's gut feeling, on Monday morning, we began calling around the country and aggressively bought all the SR tape we could," recalls DFT founder/CEO Ramy Katrib. "By the afternoon, there was a sense that something was going on, but it wasn't clear to what extent."
By the end of the day, news was widespread that Sony's sole manufacturing plant for HDCAM SR tape was located in Sendai, a city badly hit by the tsunami. The estimate was that Hollywood had a two-week supply…and pilot season was about to begin. When these shows begin shooting -- anywhere from the end of June to mid-August -- many will face an issue that didn't exist when they wrapped this season's production months ago.
Although Sony has stated that HDCAM SR production is expected to resume "around the end of July, followed by gradual increases in production," it may not be in time for the return to production of many long-standing primetime series, leaving show runners, producers, cinematographers, and post houses looking for a Plan B. We took this opportunity to ask them how the sudden disappearance of the widely-used HDCAM SR tape has affected their productions, and how it may have accelerated their moves into tapeless workflow.
Primetime, episodic TV production is the day part most impacted by the lack of SR tape. "Depending on the show, you could be dealing with 40 to 100 SR tapes per week," says Jake Aust, producer of the popular NBC show Community. "Production is the place where you use up tons of stock."
Before NAB and before the earthquake/tsunami, numerous primetime TV shows had already been moving towards the use of tapeless cameras, but now many more fast-tracked what had been a slower evolution.
That was vividly clear with the new pilot season. ARRI president Glenn Kennel estimates that approximately 40 pilots -- 80 percent of this year's crop -- were shot with the file-based ARRI Alexa. "Alexa has been the camera of choice this season," agrees Bill Romeo, Senior VP of Television at Deluxe, where 14 out of 15 pilots posted were shot with the ARRI camera. At MTI Film, Managing Director/ Executive Producer Barbara Marshall says that all six pilots they worked on relied on filebased cameras: three with Alexa and three with RED.
Senior Vice President Rand Gladden at Burbank-based post facility FotoKem estimates the TV shows shooting this summer will be "75 percent RED and Alexa." "It was just turning this season," he says. "About 50 percent were shot in RED or Alexa. These cameras offer a lot of opportunity, and the market is heading in that direction. The [earthquake/ tsunami] created a need to move that direction faster. And cinematographers, directors, producers are very happy with the quality they're getting from those cameras, so it's facilitating the change."
Nick Pavonetti, who is Assistant Producer of Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, worked on one of those pilots. "We shot the Warner Bros pilot, Awakening, with the Alexa," he says. "As soon as I heard about tapeless workflow two years ago, I thought, 'This is great! Let's get off tape.' The technology is there and we need to embrace it."
Left to right: Beau Garrett, Michael Kelly, Janeane Garofalo, Forest Whitaker and Matt Ryan star in Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, whose next season will be shot with ARRI Alexa. Photo courtesy CBS.
Although Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior was shot with the Sony F-35 this year, Pavonetti says it's moving to the Alexa next season. "Everything I've ever done on Alexa has been flawless, and every DP thinks it's fantastic," he says. He plans to get rid of tape by using a 10-bit Flash drive, which, he says, "will be as good a quality picture as the SR tape." Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior isn't the only on-going primetime show going tapeless. Kennel notes that numerous on-going primetime shows already shoot with Alexa: NCIS: Los Angeles, Brothers and Sisters, Chicago Code, Game of Thrones, and Law & Order: L.A.
Although the Law & Order franchise has moved towards a tapeless workflow, with both Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: L.A. shooting with the Alexa, co-executive producer Arthur Forney notes that Law & Order: SVU still shoots on the Panavision Genesis, and was impacted by the disappearance of SR tape. "When the earthquake happened, we still had four or five shows to shoot," he says. "We scrambled and bought some tapes. We also re-used some of our older tapes."
Forney is referring to a practice that many have resorted to since SR tape ran out: degaussing (that is, erasing) old tapes and running them through a series of steps to "certify" them as suitable for re-use. At Sony Pictures TV, Senior Vice President Phil Squyres says that this is how the studio has handled the SR shortage. "We've pulled quite a lot of original camera reels from cancelled shows and never-sold pilots and run them through an extensive recycling and evaluation program that has netted us enough stock to finish current production cycles," he says. "The issue, going forward, will be the timing of when the factory starts back up and when the new stock becomes available for next season."
Meanwhile, producers attempting to find new SR tape have had to be willing to pay inflated prices on eBay, Craig's List and other sites. "Even if you try to buy it, it's not out there and the prices have gone through the roof," says Pavonetti. "I'd been paying $140 for a piece of stock and now it's double that." At MTI Film, Marshall says she's been quoted up to $600 for a new piece of SR stock.
Other indicators that more TV/ film producers are planning on going tapeless in production come from camera rental houses. At BandPro Film & Digital, Marketing Manager Seth Emmons notes that, "people at a high level of production have been investigating tapeless workflow for the last two years. When the Alexa and ARRIRAW started to deliver in late February/early March, we were already seeing a ramp-up for highend production, meaning major feature films and episodic TV," he says. "That wave was already starting.
"When the tape shortage hit, it really kicked everyone into high gear," he continues. "The number of inquiries we got and the number of people who tested in the past and called to say they were ready is exponentially higher."
"The tsunami accelerated a trend that was already happening," agrees Codex Digital VP of Market Development Sarah Priestnall. Noting that there was already a "big transition underway from SR tape to SxS cards for Alexa and RED cameras," she reports that numerous pilots were already planning on shooting file-based. "With the tsunami happening right before they started shooting, they had no other option. All the TV series in production began to look at switching to file-based next season, even if they had enough tape to get through this season."
MTV's The Real World (currently airing its 25th season) is one of the shows that Bunim/Murray shoots on Sony XDCAM HD. Photo courtesy Bunim/Murray.
DISKS AND CHIPS
Not every show on TV has been impacted by the lack of HDCAM SR tape. Community, for example, relies heavily on Sony XDCAM. Bunim/Murray Productions, which pioneered reality TV, usually has about six TV shows in production simultaneously; currently they are Real World (MTV), The Challenge (MTV), Keeping Up with The Kardashians (E!), Saddle Ranch (VH-1), Bad Girls (Oxygen), Love Games (Oxygen) and Project Runway (Lifetime). Bunim/Murray Productions shoots on Sony XDCAM HD disk or EXCAM EX-chip based media. "We don't ever acquire on SR, so for us, this is a non-event," says VP of Post Production Mark Raudonis.
The disaster in Japan also impacted a plant manufacturing XDCAM disks, but disks are also available from Fuji and Maxell (although prices for these have shot up as well). According to Raudonis, discs are not a trivial budget item. "For Real World, we could use over 5,000 discs easily," he says. "And that's just one show. The same goes with Project Runway and Bad Girls. These are shows that shoot for going on two months, with 12 cameras. It piles up fast, so a six-fold increase in price is a big deal."
But Bunim/Murray Productions has no plans to change formats. "There is just too much to like about the XDCAM format to change," says Raudonis. "Hopefully we'll be through the worst of it when we start shooting again in June or July. But from my perspective, this isn't as big of a deal as you might think it is. We're muddling through it, and it hasn't changed our workflow much."
Band Pro Digital's Emmons agrees. "For more mainstream and lower end production that are used to working with Sony EX cameras, Panasonic P2s and REDs, they're already past tape," he says. "That's a very large segment of the market, and although discs for EX cameras were in short supply, we have an alternative manufacturer from Taiwan who suffered no impact.
"For all these people, the lack of SR tape has had little to no impact on their business."
Digital dailies solutions have been inching their way into TV production, and for those shows that had already adopted the use of one, the lack of SR tape wasn't as devastating a blow.
Productions often rely on a post house for a digital dailies solution. FotoKem offers its proprietary nextLAB solution, and others offering digital delivery services include MTI Film Control Dailies, Codex Digital Lab, Sample Digital, and Smart Jog. Law & Order is one franchise that's gravitated to digital dailies as a way to save tape and streamline production. "We use nextLAB to transfer all the footage onto drives for the Avid," says Forney. "Tape is only used for finishing.
"A tapeless show is one thing," he continues. "We're doing a tapeless show that doesn't do telecine anymore. With nextLAB, that's our telecine base where they apply the LUTs that we would have done in telecine. Telecine is four hours a day at $300/hour, so we save quite a bit of money. Now, the only time I need to do any color correction is when we do our finished product."
At Keep Me Posted, a FotoKem company, Director of Engineering Brian Drown notes that he's seeing more shows adopting a file-based process from camera through the post process, and definitely including dailies. "We are no longer doing video dailies," he says. "We're doing file-based dailies, and so the productions are saving a lot of stock up front." Drown notes that digital dailies from both Alexa and RED cameras have a standardized workflow through the Avid-based facility. "Many shows take our nextLAB and do their own dailies and go to editorial themselves," adds Gladden. "That allows them to work more efficiently."
Deluxe, which averages 35 to 40 TV shows among its post production facilities, has been promoting tapeless workflows for some time. "Two years ago, we bought Postworks LA, which had developed a file-based workflow," says Romeo. "At the time, shows wanted tape every step of the way, and we showed them how they could save money by going tapeless."
After the earthquake/tsunami, Romeo says he took a "proactive approach, calling the studios and the shows." When he told them that they would soon run out of SR tape, dailies was among the first aspect of production that changed. "People stepped back and asked what they really needed in terms of tape delivery," he says. "With dailies, that stopped right away." The solution has differed from show to show; some have gravitated to D-5, others use recycled/certified SR tape, others have gone -- or stayed -- tapeless.
According to Marshall, MTI Film just completed three pilots using Remote Control Dailies (in which the digital dailies system is near the set): Dallas (TNT), Longmire (A&E) and Cooper & Stone (CW).
JUGGLING TAPE AND TAPELESS
Although a handful of post houses opened their doors as tapeless facilities, most offer both tape and tapeless workflows. The sudden lack of SR tape is forcing those companies to speed up an evolution they began two or three years ago. Whereas a TV show can change cameras from season to season, a post house is full of legacy equipment. With SR decks at approximately $100,000 a pop, most post houses are still amortizing this tape format as well as other dedicated hardware.
Even more to the point, the post house has to accommodate all its clients' needs, including all the major tape formats and file formats. It's far from being an easy balancing act, and more than one post house has closed its doors due to the complexity and expense of today's post workflows.
A number of TV shows have been hybrid: shooting without tape but ending up in a tape-based post workflow. That's likely to change in the near future. Codex Digital's Priestnall notes that Bones has been shooting with the ARRI Alexa, but outputs to tape for post production. That post workflow may very well have to change, given the current situation.
Bones shoots with ARRI Alexa, but has been posting on HDCAM SR tape. Photo courtesy Fox Television.
"Any post facility that was using tape as an internal format is going to switch," Priestnall says. "Post facilities were already being pushed by their customers to look at file-based workflows, but there was always a bit of pushback because they had these SR tape decks. Now they can't make that argument. It was an inevitability."
In the balancing act between tape and tapeless, post houses are relying more than ever on the latter infrastructure they've built up. At Technicolor Creative Services, Vice President of Operations Jon Robertson notes that the facility, which houses more than 20 TV series, switched its DI process to file-based in 2000. "A lot of those workflows were dragged across for TV use," he says. "Most of our customers continue on conventionally, but many are talking about looking at file-based options for the new season this summer.
"One challenge is trying to make sense of the standardization of these workflows," Robertson continues. "It wasn't always easy with film or videotape, but years and years have gone by, and it's become standardized, with Sony SR being the world mastering format. File-based workflows include multiple resolutions, file types and compression rates. We have to go through these workflows customer-by-customer."
Nowhere is the challenge of juggling file-based workflows more evident than with the list of deliverables, perhaps the most intractable piece of the end-to-end file-based workflow.
The studios and networks are configured to distribute content via a well-honed infrastructure that's impossible to change overnight. And most of them want SR tape as a final delivery or, at least, as a backup in addition to a file delivery. And that is just for air -- ancillary departments from promotions to international also demand SR tape delivery and are unlikely to be able to change their needs overnight.
"In my opinion, the issues [related to the unavailability of SR tape] haven't been so much front end as much as delivery of the shows," says Deluxe's Romeo. "Each show would need six SR tape versions for delivery. Each show needed a lot of content on SR, even if they shot with the Alexa."
Bunim/Murray Productions's Raudonis, whose productions shoot with Sony XDCAM, says that the networks are accepting standard HDCAM, which is manufactured by numerous vendors. "But HDCAM has fewer audio tracks, which is why we like HDCAM SR, which lets you put 12 channels on one tape," he says. "Obviously we're impacted by that."
The producers of Community have experimented with delivering Apple ProRes files to NBC.
Photo courtesy of FOX.
Community has experimented with delivering its episodes to NBC via Apple ProRes. "For one or two weeks we delivered a file and a tape," says producer Aust. "Then the earthquake happened, so it accelerated the process. We now deliver files only.
"Because Universal is linked with NBC they have a fiber connection. They just drop the file on a server and send an email saying they've got it. It's very cool. Internally, on our show, for the entire course of production of the episode, we have one SR tape -- and that's just our internal master."
But that doesn't mean that Aust can forget about SR tape delivery. "We have to send an SR tape to Ascent Media for the satellite to Canada," says Aust. "International gets an SR maser for international delivery. NBC Promos also needs an SR tape. I would say we're dealing with six or so tapes per episode."
MTI Film's Marshall notes that they use Root6 Technology's ContentAgent to make all the varied file deliveries. But she also notes that not all the departments want files: promo departments still prefer a tape delivery.
But continuing to offer SR tape delivery is only one challenge that the post houses are facing. As file-based delivery assumes greater primacy in TV, post houses have to deal with the panoply of choices.
At FotoKem, Law & Order takes two ProRes 4:4:2 full-res files and one SR tape. "Every show has a different approach," says Gladden. "What NBC wants for one show might be different for another show." Drown adds that, "on top of ProRes, people are taking MPEG-2 and even MPEG-4 as broadcast delivery" with a different set of deliverables for different broadcasters.
Drown enumerates the file format requests he receives: QuickTime ProResHQ; QuickTime H.264; Quick- Time MPEG-4; MPEG-2 as a program stream, transport stream, MXF or MOV wrapped at 50 Mbps; QuickTime Avid DNX 115, 145, 175, 175x, 220 or 220x; IMX30 MXF; and, occasionally, uncompressed 10-bit 4:2:2.
The wide variety of file formats concerns, who believes that file-based delivery has a rocky road ahead. "Every studio has its own broadcast spec," he says. "There is no standardization. In fact, they are willfully different: each studio has its own approach philosophically, from how they run their internal operations to file types. Everyone was standardized over SR tape, and now we're losing it."
Ramy Katrib, Founder and CEO of DigitalFilm Tree. DigitalFilm Tree has been posting and delivering NCIS: LA and Cougar Town this season. The principle photography for NCIS: LA is with two ARRI Alexa cameras, recorded to Sony SR tapes at 10-bit uncompressed in Log C.
D-5 is still viable for TV delivery, says Katrib, but SR tape offered 12 channels of audio, which made it especially useful as a single tape archive. "Whether you're working on an indie film or a TV show or feature film, it was good to have the predictability of an SR tape at the end," he says.
The big question is, what will be required for deliverables going forward? "That's the $1 million question," says Romeo. "I think you'll see minimal tape in the dailies process and all the networks will look at file delivery instead of SR tape."
Several facilities already deliver digitally, via dedicated fiber lines. MTI Film's Marshall says they broadcast shows like Rizzoli and Isles over a 100-megabit line to TNT in Atlanta, and archiving to LTO-5. "For TNT, we were sending the show via the fiber optic line and sending an SR," she explains. "We wanted to make sure the line was working, and that the color and so on were the same." They were, and so now this will become the standard form of delivery for them.
Not every post house has access to a fiber optic line and Katrib is concerned that the impact of file-based delivery could squeeze smaller facilities. "Speaking as an owner of a small company, I just invested in LA DWP Dark Fiber -- and it is an expense," he says. "The installation cost and the monthly cost will be staggering, and the studios won't pay for those costs."
Though DigitalFilm Tree has successfully tested file-based delivery to a studio, Katrib worries about the chain of digital information. "I can't believe this is happening," he says. "In the back of my mind, I'm asking, 'How will you track this air master? Who's responsible?'"
Those questions may remain unanswered for some time, as the studios and networks test the waters, but have not yet committed to switching to a file-based delivery. "It's the networks holding [complete tapeless workflow] back, because they still want a tape back-up for future airing" says producer Aust. "It's about the networks building infrastructure to accept filebased delivery, and then we can go completely away from tape to a digital workflow that never sees a piece of tape."
Archiving content is another big issue. Romeo notes that most of his TV clients have agreed to LTO- 5 as archival back-up." Bunim/Murray Productions' Raudonis agrees that, "this will hasten the change to LTO-5 as opposed to dedicated tape. When it comes to non-TV 2K and 4K, it's already too much for tape."
But not everyone is happy with the idea of LTO as an archival medium. Katrib bemoans the loss of what he calls "the film ethic." "Film transcends technological change," he says. "You can always go back and get the image. SR was another predictable way to get the images back. Even if I don't have the EDL, I can rebuild the show visually.
"LTO, however, is an IT protocol and the quantity of data is exponential. It will become a mountain of data the likes of which no one can imagine. Managing that is my concern. How are you going to retrieve your master five years from now? The protocol for creating the original LTO is different for everyone who creates it," he says. "If that's not documented or the person who created that protocol is no longer around, getting that data back is going to be a huge issue. Archiving on LTO will be one of the biggest archiving disasters in Hollywood history."
Will TV productions and networks turn away from SR tape altogether? "SR won't go away 100 percent," says Romeo. "There will be files for the dailies process, and if we don't have tape deliveries for dailies, we can stay tapeless through color process, which is a big savings for the client. The question is, can we deliver a file to the client and to the sound houses for mixing? And as far as archival, can it be LTO as opposed to SR? Those are the questions we'll be asking."
Despite the concerns of some in the industry, the lack of SR tape is likely to give a boost to LTO-4 and LTO-5 as an archival solution. Robertson speaks for many in the industry when he expresses the hope that the industry soon standardizes file-based workflow and delivery. But he's also a realist about what that process entails. "I equate it to the way audio went several years ago," he says. "There was lots of analog. When the whole industry switched overnight to digital, it caused pain. But all these years later, nobody thinks about the pain. It's business as usual."
What is the likely outcome of this temporary unavailability of SR tape stock? In the short term, a healthy minority of TV shows is likely to move more quickly to a tapeless work flow. Especially with the advent of well-received file-based cameras, file-based production will soar in the coming season. By next year, a majority of TV shows will likely structure production as a thoroughly file-based workflow.
The same goes for post. Post production houses have, by and large, already upped their game to handle the file-based workflow, and the efficiency and cost savings of digital dailies has been proven. TV is well on its way to becoming a tapeless genre from production through post.
When it comes to delivery, however, change will be slower. The studios and networks have already begun to test out digital delivery. Perhaps the sudden, unexpected lack of SR tape has driven home the fact that the entire industry has depended on a single tape factory in northern Japan, making digital delivery an appealing option. But the entertainment industry, like the metaphoric ocean liner, turns slowly. Decisions will not be made overnight, and infrastructure will not be greenlit and built overnight either. This season's delivery will largely return to SR tape when it becomes available.
Archiving elements is perhaps the most tenuous arena. Archivists at the major studios and networks have already bemoaned the loss of film as the most reliable and desirable form of archiving content. Every choice since then has been less than ideal, and there's no real solution in sight. As SR tape returns, archives will continue to do what they have been doing up until now, be it SR tape or LTO. The future of the archive remains an open question.
Technicolor's Hollywood Facility, in hued in golden light true to the sunset glamour of the town.
Stepping back to see the big picture, studios and networks have busily been acquiring or being acquired, making alliances and deals with digital content and delivery behemoths. The future is clearly all-digital, and digital delivery will clearly be part of this platform-agnostic universe. Although it may be a little too early to ink the date in, it will happen and, with the increasing speed of technology upgrades, probably sooner than expected.