A Creative COW In-depth Industry Report
It's official. Media 100's new 'Pegasus' 844/X has been announced and Philip Hodgetts has given us the definitive analysis of the new product. You won't find a more in-depth report.
My review of Media 100's 844/Xis separately available here and focuses on the features and capabilities of the product. This article is my subjective assessment and analysis.
Long before I ever saw Media 100's "Pegasus" friends of mine who worked at the company would ask if I'd seen it. When told "Not yet" (as a preview had been organized) they'd say "You're really going to like it" with such a gleam in their eyes, I really wondered what was up.
Even the day of my visit to Media 100, every one of the people I knew that walked past would ask if I was there to see the project and would re-iterate the mantra that I was going to like it.
And they were right.
However, this visit to Media 100 was really strange, because the focus has shifted so far with a new product aimed at a new target audience very different from the original and a new image for the company, that it's probably not unlike the experience of discovering your father is gay - something you thought impossible but none-the-less is true.
What was surprising is that Media 100 have totally changed their market focus as they move forward. There is no abandonment of the current products but clearly the future for the company is totally aligned with the success of the "Pegasus" product range.
A new focus
Unlike the 1984 release of Media 100, the new product range is not designed for 'everyman'. In fact, long time Media 100 customers may be a little disappointed that the company has gone off in a new direction, but in reality, the opportunities for integrated hardware and software editing packages - particularly one created with a deliberately simple interface - are becoming scarce and Media 100 has lost a lot of ground against newer software-based Non-Linear Editing applications.
Media 100 may have been responsible for initiating the "finish on the
desktop" and general democratization of video editing, but time has moved
on and the opportunity for a company with hardware expertise within the video
editing market has faded. Media 100 could have done a second generation "me to" type of hardware system - similar conceptually perhaps to Pinnacle's Hub3 architecture that powers the T3000 and Cinéwave product lines, but that would have been simply reacting and building new versions of "last year's" high end tools.
That approach does not suit the visionary stance of President and CEO John
Molinari. (Of course, most visionaries are self appointed!) Rather than do a good job of an old style hardware suite, Media 100 took a look at the evolving industry and determined that they could make their best contribution - and make the best return for their shareholders - by creating a new market niche for a new customer base. The opportunity in the "dual stream" market had come and moved on toward software based solutions.
Modern graphics design has tended increasingly toward more heavily composited graphic "looks" and as the look becomes more layered, more complex and using many different composite/transfer modes, the time it takes to preview and render interferes in the creative process. There have been proprietary solutions that provide real-time or near-real-time feedback on the creative design for many years, but those solutions carry very high price tags for both purchase and maintenance, in part because they ran on complex or proprietary hardware.
Creative Design has not been restricted to the expensive, high-end solutions. At the other end of the spectrum, software solutions like Adobe After Effects, combustion and Digital Fusion give great creative flexibility for low cost, but at the expense of substantial rendering time - render time that increases exponentially for some effects.
Long before it was obvious to most observers, Media 100 divined that the industry was moving away from simple transitions and "Picture-in-Picture" moves reminiscent of broadcast Television of the early 1980s toward the looks that we now get on some commercials, Sports interstituals and many News and Current Affairs programs.
So, Media 100 spent some $30 million dollars on Research and Development to
solve the price/performance conundrum and make the sort of real-time
performance necessary for true Content Design - working as fast as you think -
that has previously been the province of proprietary platforms or high-end
Media 100's solution was to build proprietary hardware - 3 different
Application Specific Hardware Designs on 3 inter-linked PCI cards - that sits
in a standard, off-the-shelf PC. Although Macintosh diehards might be disappointed that it's a Windows
only solution, reality is that there was no choice. During the design phase Macintosh did not have the requisite number of PCI slots and to this day PCI bus speed is well behind that of the Compaq workstation chosen for the host. Even with the Compaq W8000 the PCI bus throughput it very close to maximum.
Two patents issued, and 5 pending, later Media 100 have produced a new solution to the price/performance conundrum and not only created a new entry point for high-end real-time solutions but provide performance not before available on any platform at any price.
A new product range
Media 100 844/X is the first product in a new family of editing and compositing applications based on the hardware "Genesis Engine". The Genesis Engine is the name that Media 100 have given to the supercomputer hardware heart that has been surrounded by a completely new software interface. This first release is positioned directly at short form, heavily composited Content Design, because it only works in uncompressed making the storage requirements for long form editing onerous.
However, the interface and software future are designed as a complete editing and compositing hybrid - something not seen before.
But right now it's "only" a leading edge compositing tool. One that works with 4 channels of real time uncompressed YUV 4:4:4 video each with a real time animated alpha and very large amounts of real time effects.
Before I had the opportunity to preview Pegasus I had formulated a couple
of "deal breaker" considerations for the software and hardware
engine. I figured if it didn't meet these minimum standards then they would have indeed "missed the boat".
I had also thought the limit of "4 real time video streams" to be a little on the low side given that there were already other systems "doing 4 streams or more".
My "deal breakers" were:
- Must have real time compositing/transfer modes
- Must support an industry standard for additional filters - preferably the After Effects API
- Must render intelligently if it's only 4 streams
- Must be more than just a compositing tool
- Should have an HDTV future/upgrade path
- Should have nested composition capability
- Should be more than "just a compositing tool".
Each of my concerns were more than adequately addressed in 844/X - if not immediately available, in the planned pipeline.
Before I get to the specifics of the performance, there were some other
things that really appealed to me in the presentation. As with the original
Media 100 products, the company is clearly focused on their market. As anyone who professes expertise in Marketing will affirm, knowing your market is as much about knowing who your market is not, as it is about knowing where the opportunities are. It is not possible to make any product that suits all needs.
Media 100 was very clear with their original product range that they were
not producing an editing solution for experienced editors: those people were
better served with Avid or other solution. In the original product range, Media 100 focused on providing an editorial solution for non-editors and, while they took a lot of criticism for that, they remain true to the original vision of a simple, elegant edit tool that is easy to learn for professionals who are not focused exclusively on editing: journalists, camera people, directors, producers and other non-editors.
Concurrent with the release of 844/X Media 100 have relaunched the company
to emphasize the change of focus. A new, streamlined, more "corporate" logo replaces the
'everyman oriented' stylized eye. Media 100 have deliberately chosen to downplay the 844/X product name to focus on the corporate brand. As the product line evolves there is less work in rebranding or promoting individual products. This is also a good thing for existing Media 100 customers as the "Media 100" brand gets a new pro image which will filter down to all Media 100 lines.
On the new website, the original product lines have been moved to a new subheading - "Dual Stream" and the entire focus is on 844/X with the tag line "You're going to want one".
And I do.
I want one badly. I want to find a way to justify my owning one. I suspect I've committed the sin of lust on many occasions since seeing 844/X perform, but no matter how much I try, no matter how perfect the original Media 100 was for my business in 1994, there is no way I see myself, or my business, justifying an 844/X.
And Media 100 know that. They are very clearly focused on a very specific market niche at the launch: those folk doing heavily composited interstitial work.
The are not targeting film, ever. Genesis Engine is not built to work at film resolution. They have put back HDTV for a future release and they are not focusing on 844/X as a editing solution during the initial launch.
Even so, I want one. I want one for what it is now, and for what it is planned to become. (Remembering always to only buy the present, never the promises.)
No deal-breakers, anywhere
For every one of my potential deal-breakers Media 100 came through with flying colors.
Real time compositing modes
are probably one of the coolest features in 844/X. Media 100 designed one of the custom ASIC (Application
Specific Integrated Circuit) chips specifically for this function. The Holmes
chip - named after engineer Dan Holmes who designed it - combines the 6 video
inputs with the standard Transfer modes from After Effects that can be applied
to each layer. The 6 inputs are the 4 streams of real-time video (and associated alpha channels), the output of the 10 Mpixel Graphics buffer and the return from the "external" send. Neither the Graphics buffer nor any external processing are enabled on the Version 1 release.
After Effects API for 3rd Party Filters is fully implemented in version 1. Although to date, Media 100 have not
qualified any 3rd party filters, other than those the company owns,
they expect that compatibility will be similar to other non-Adobe applications.
If a filter works in, say, Final Cut Pro, it's likely to work in Media 100's
844/X. Media 100 are including the full set of "ICE'd" filters. Rendered by the host processor there
are 80-100 filters packaged, including the Final Effects Complete filters. Host
rendering is fast and happens "upstream' of the real time processing. Render once and, as long as the
settings for the AE filter don't change then you don't need to re-render for
other processes. After Effects filters added appear in the same curves editor as the real - time controls and full curve control of interpolation is available for every parameter.
Recursive Rendering which
I'd describe as "incredibly intelligent" rendering makes the
"limit" of 4 real-time streams (with real time alpha) much less
significant than ever I expected.
The top 4 tracks always play in real time. There is never an "unrendered" display on the
monitor. If you want to see any combination of tracks than the top 4, you can always play any 4 tracks in combination using VisualVoicing - Media 100's way of soloing track combinations. Even when tracks have been rendered, Media 100 never breaks the render when Visual Voicing.
When rendering is required, it is incredibly fast and intelligent.
Essentially, the same ASIC used for real-time - the Hatalksy chip (engineer
Jeff Hatalsky) does the rendering in real time. Each group of 4 layer is
rendered in real time. 4 tracks
are always real time; 8 tracks requires 1 real time render and the other 4 play
without rendering; 12 track require 2 renders and so on. Render time is entirely predictable within the Genesis Engine - 4 tracks real time; 8 tracks 2 x real time; 16 tracks 4 x real time; 80 tracks 10 x real time. Blindingly fast and intelligent.
When you make changes to a layer, only the 4 track group it's associated
with needs rendering, and only for the duration of change. Media 100 automatically clears out redundant renders although it is possible to gain access to the render file. Hard to know why you'd want to since pre-renders are pretty much automatic.
More than a Compsiting tool. Media
100 are positioning it for the short form market and playing down the editing
tools, but in fact, there is a full suite of editing tools. There are not 17 ways to do every
function - mostly only 3-4 - but it is a complete edit tool right now. Media
100 are not positioning it for longer form editing simply because right now it
only works with uncompressed video. 10 bit, 4:4:4 60 fps (50 PAL) Progressive
uncompress video with no compression. (In fact that's the only input or output
as well - analog input requires outboard converters as it does for many other
products as well). Uncompressed
video has some pretty severe storage requirements making long form an unattractive
proposition. The standard package
from Media 100 includes 360 GB of Ultra SCSI Array, with an option to go to 720
GB. Even so, that's only 6 hours of uncompressed footage at single layer density.
Compression is planned into the product. In future releases there will be on-board hardware MPEG 2 compression for long form editing. The Genesis Engine will use an MPEG 2 chip on each video channel for real time decompression into the standard 10 bit 4:4:4 signal path for compositing, even from MPEG 2 source. MPEG 2 compression will be available in real time on the output for DVD/Digital TV distribution.
HDTV path is provided. Sensibly, Media 100 have focused on the
current opportunity which is most definitely not in HDTV. 844/X works extremely well for Standard definition and there are thousands and thousands of Standard Definition projects done every month compared with a handful of HDTV projects. None-the-less, Media 100 have a clear strategy for HDTV in the future. HDTV will work with Standard Definition proxies during all editing and compositing work to take advantage of the real time performance of the Genesis Engine. Users will have the choice of scaling the high quality output to HD formats in real time; or working back to the HDTV source for a non-real time single pass render of the final result after program approval. HD support is a future expansion and no definite timeframe has been provided. (In other words, if you need HD now, 844/X is not for you.)
Nest Compositions are fully
supported and very similar to After Effects' for Final Cut Pro's nested
compositions. When used 'downstream' each Composition is rendered and that render used as the input for real time performance in the same intelligent rendering that happens with more than 4 layers.
Beyond the Deal breakers
Overall, I was very impressed with the design of both hardware and
software. The interface will be familiar enough for anyone who's ever used a
timeline-based NLE before. For this Media 100/Final Cut Pro/After Effects experienced editor/compositor the interface was eerily familiar despite being new.
Filter and effect editing is familiar, the curves editor for effect parameters is comprehensive and the 'render queue' of effects can be modified in very familiar ways. I also like the ability to stack Filters and effects for re-application similar to After Effects' Favorite effects.
In fact, that's one thing you could say about most of the 844/X software features - they are all in some way "similar to" something else. No surprise since Media 100 researched market needs and the competing products deeply before specifying the feature set.
There is a built-in Vector-based Matte Generator where simple mattes can be
drawn including gradient softness. In time Media 100 expect to develop the Matte Generator into a full Paint and Rotoscope tool, but right now it's a competent mask tool. (I am unclear as to whether it can animate in the first version, I suspect not.)
In the editing environment Media 100 844/X is equipped with a dual display editing monitor and transitions open with curve control of the application of the transition.
Device control is handled by VLAN and there are full batch capture capabilities and even the capability to burn TC into an output in real time.
Character Generation is provided by Inscriber and once generated is considered as an alpha channeled video clip.
Each of the 4 video channels has a full animated alpha channel associated with it for 8 channels of video for real time processing.
Alpha can be embedded in the file, provided by the Vector tools or from
another file. Alpha channels can be generated by "pulling a key" from any existing Clip which naturally happens in the duration of the Clip (real time) because it uses the real time keyer.
There is full processor amp control of the incoming digital signal,
something rare for a digital input. All incoming video is bicubically upsampled to full progressive frames.
(Bicubic is the sampling method used by Photoshop's scaling). All incoming
signal processing - de-interlacing, scaling, proc amp control, is handled by
the 3rd ASIC design - (Bruce) Foss. There is one Foss, One Homes and 5 Hitalsky chips in the Genesis Engine on 3 PCI cards connected with a 240 MB/sec bus. The hardware talks to the software in Very Large Instruction Words - 32,000 64 bit words in every instruction. There'll be no communication hang-ups between hardware and software in this system!
Right now you get EDL import. Media 100 have decided not to support OMF for
video since it is still pretty much limited to Avid. There are plans for AAF support when that standard is more widespread.
Media files are QuickTime files and there is a QuickTime codec available for "InstantMedia" import. Media 100 files can be opened in any QuickTime aware application.
The video hardware can be used to output a RAM preview from After Effects or any application that wants to call the VOUT QuickTime component provided.
Audio is well catered to in 844/X. All incoming audio is converted to 24 bit 48 KHz if it is not already in that format.
Audio is handled with 8 parallel inputs and 8 parallel outputs - 8 in/8
out. No need for multi-pass recording whatever the input or output format.
There didn't seem to be much in the way of audio signal processing, but then again, I forgot to ask.
New levels of cooperation
Another indicator of corporate culture changes at Media 100 is the high
level of co-operation and licensing of 3rd party technology, which makes excellent sense. There is no point re-inventing a wheel that has already been well done by someone else.
Device control, as I've noted, is handled by integrated VLAN. Media 100 licensed VLAN technology and built it into the Genesis Engine on a daughterboard. Whenever a device is qualified by VLAN it is qualified for Media 100 without further effort.
MPEG 2 technology is being supplied by IBM chipsets licensed and integrated by Media 100.
If you must work in 8 bit output, Media 100 have licensed the "industry leading" Dynamic Rounding algorithms from Quantel and incorporated them into the Genesis Engine design. Quantel's Dynamic Rounding has a great track record in creating the best looking 8 bit results from the 10 bit files.
In practice, this is one kick-ass environment. Media 100 have clearly set
their sites on a very specific market and built a tool for that market. It is a market they have quite a bit of familiarity with, given that many Media 100's were sold to facilities that were doing more in After Effects than in Media 100 - in fact Media 100 was used to input and output video.
It is facilities like that, who do not have the budget or payback for discreet Flint/Flame or Quantel Henry that will benefit from this tool.
What it does it does incredibly well. At version 1 it's a great tool. By Version 3 who knows. (Always buy for today.)
Media 100 have not yet unlocked all the hardware capability of the Genesis Engine. The 10 Mbit Graphics buffer, with the same real time position, scale, color correction and other Hatalsky-chip provided features as the Video streams has not yet been turned on, nor has the expansion port.
MPEG 2 hardware support for compressed source files is planned into both hardware and software and no doubt once implemented, Media 100 will reposition the 844/X more as a combined editing and compositing tool.
The next 2 years of software development have been already mapped out and Media 100 believe there is a much longer development path available on the software side.
Advanced Authoring Format (the successor to OMF) support is planned for about the time it will be useful.
Just over 6 years ago, I purchased my first Media 100. Without a doubt it
was the best business decision I ever made as it catapulted my small video
production and post production company from somewhat "behind the
8-ball" into the leading edge of editing. Access to digital files opened
up the entire world of digital compositing and effects through 3rd party software.
I believe that there will be many, many boutique (and larger) Content Designers (Media 100's term for their target market) who's work is focused on modern, heavily composited looks that will benefit from the new price/performance paradigm that Media 100 have set.
If my business was still predominantly in the Post Production area I would
be doing some serious cash flow analysis and business projections to determine
how I could grow that business by catapulting it into a whole new real of
performance. Industry leaders profit by adopting technology that gives their
business an advantage over competitors. 844/X might just be that.
In any case, Media 100 have created a new paradigm, and may well revolutionize the industry a second time.