Screenvision & The Show Before The Show
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Tim Wilson : Screenvision & The Show Before The Show
So you get to the movie a little early, before the trailers. Up on the screen you see a show in itself, combining extended previews, TV promos, behind the scenes interviews, advertising, music videos, and animations to tie it all together.
The chances are good that you're seeing the work of Screenvision, one of the two major companies in the US who create this kind of programming for the show before the feature film -- the preshow. It's actually more complicated than it looks. Screenvision creates a variety of assets that they hand off to Technicolor. Technicolor then streams them via satellite or physical drives with playlists tailored down to the individual screen within a multiplex, so that each room is getting specific, appropriate content.
We caught up with Brian just as he was wrapping four months-long run of 24-hour, 7 day a week running renders on the latest version of their show.
Creative COW: What were you spending all those months rendering?
Brian Mason: Basically, we set up a whole new preshow. We used to have this silly little robot jumping around, and we wanted something a bit more mature, a little bit more techy. Cool.
We were going through months of testing and development, all which required test rendering. We'd have to make tweaks to those files because of issues we found in modeling or texturing and also from feedback from our marketing department.
Once the files were ready and approved, we rendered a minimum of three versions of each piece. Our primary scene takes place in a dark room, so we'd render one pass optimized for the room environment itself, then another pass that uses an HDRI environment to light all of the main focuses of the scene. We'd combine them in post, so our main elements were lit up nicely, but we'd have the proper reflections in the room from the dark pass.
Then we'd have a separate file that we would render with Cinema 4D's built in renderer that would provide us our Ambient Occlusion and our Object Buffer passes.
So, a half dozen or so different scenes, which needed at least three separate renders before going into compositing in After Effects. And then before that, all of our test runs and comps. It was a matter of getting everything to look right.
Our rendering included OTOY OctaneRender, an unbiased, physically based GPU renderer that gets you a much more realistic look, with much shorter render times, by keeping everything 100% in the GPU.
NVIDIA GeForce GTX Titan: 2688 CUDA cores, 6GB VRAM, 7.1 billion transistors.
Which GPU are you using locally?
We're using NVIDIA Titans, and we have 12 of them in the house.
Our plan from the beginning was to focus on GPU rendering and for that, we would need a gaming machine. And we would need a gaming machine that could basically be one of the most powerful gaming machines out there. We did some research on the different companies out there. We looked at a number of companies, and we looked at building our own. We settled on Digital Storm, because they were the only ones that would actually throw four Titans in a box and send it to us without trying to warn us not to do it. (Laughs)
Liquid-cooled Digital Storm Hailstorm II PRO workstation equipped with four NVIDIA Titans
I had also looked into their reputation, and looked in their customer forums. We came out of it thinking that they were the people to do it for us, and they've been great.
The Digital Storm boxes with these Titans are very quiet, but man, do they heat up. They're liquid-cooled, so we don't put them in our server room. We actually have them right next to our workstations.
The Digital Storm boxes sit right next to the workstations.
We've actually restructured our entire room for these machines. We had to get new electric put it in, because they're very power hungry. They're each on their own circuit. We also had to get some HVAC re-routed, with our own thermostat, because even with the liquid cooling, it gets really, really hot in the room.
But they're just incredible. They're super, super stable, just amazing machines.
Have you played any games on them yet?
No! (Laughs) I just haven't had a chance. But now that we've got our big show finished, I might have to rectify that.
So, two boxes with 4 Titans in them. That's eight. Where are the other four Titans?
We also have two Mac Towers that we've managed to fit two Titans into each, so we're running 12 Titans to get this thing out.
We are using Cinema4D with the OTOY OctaneRender GPU plug-in for all renders, before we go into After Effects for final compositing. Even with all that GPU power, we're still getting 20-minute frames on some of these things on some of our projects due to the complexity of the scenes.
What's the final output format for these renders?
We have two: an MPEG2 file at 720, and JPEG 2000 at a full 1080 for DCP. We're slowly phasing out the MPEG renders as more theaters move to full Digital Cinema, and we have a whole other team here at Screenvision that handles encoding for that.
Technicolor does their own encoding once we upload our assets to them. What they get are all the individual pieces -- the ads, videos, intros, "Here's what you've been watching," and so on. They track which assets go to which places, in what order to put it in, and for how long it should play. In the end, they get a whole bunch of individual assets, but what you see in the theater is one cohesive show.
Actually, it can go down the screen. Every screen can get different assets, so, even within a single theater, each screen can get a completely different show, or a show that's different at different times of day. It's actually quite impressive. It's very cool.
The scheduling of assets is determined by our team here -- our clients are the advertisers themselves. If we get, say, a Coke ad from an agency, we'll upload it with its own asset number and a specific place in the schedule.
There are still a few theaters out there that aren't digital. We send out physical DVDs to them, but there's not too many of those left. Otherwise, Technicolor takes care of format handling, refreshing the program as we upload new assets, and all of that.
Listening to everything that you do to put these programs together makes me wonder -- what's your background?
I've been doing this for so long. This pretty much is my background. [Laughs] But no, I started off doing actual t-shirt design and t-shirt printing in the mid-90s. I went to design school in '92, and there were pretty much no computers then, so all that stuff I learned is a complete waste. [Laughs]
When I started here in 2003, we were basically doing all Photoshop slides. You'd go to the theater and see a slideshow of ads and trivia. As the company grew, we started adding After Effects, and then eventually 3D, and doing animated ads. And then we got in cahoots with Technicolor to create these complete shows that we send out by satellite to all the theaters. From there, it's just been changing up our skill set every couple of years to keep up with what the company's needs demand.
Basically, we just got to the point where, "Okay, now that we have the technology, we have the staff, we have the people who know how to do it -- let's create an actual show out of it." So we started doing that a few years ago. We just released our new show.
Previously, much of what our department did was create ads for local advertising -mostly mom and pop shops, salons and that type of thing specific to a certain region. I, personally, have been doing a lot of assets for Marketing in the past few years. Until now, all of our preshow assets have been outsourced to design studios. We managed to convince the big wigs that we are more than capable of doing what these big studios can do, with a better knowledge of how our company works and how we should be represented. So we did just that, and we did that with only three people working on it. The company definitely thinks this is the best preshow we have had. We are quite proud.
Okay, so how's business?
It's stupid fast. [Laughs] It's doing great. There were a couple of years where cinema was doing well, but some of the advertisers were still slowing down. In the past year, everything has just been insane. It's back to where it used to be and then some. It's doing very, very well.
What do you see the coming year like for Screenvision?
Once advertisers see how moviegoers react to our new show, I am sure that we will be busier than ever, as advertisers and agencies will want tap into us to integrate within the preshow.
It is fairly simple. If we have a great on-screen experience that moviegoers enjoy, advertisers and brands will want to be part of the program. It makes the entire experience a great one for all involved -- the moviegoer, the theaters, the advertisers, Screenvision, and of course me and the team, as we get to do more cool stuff.