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April 2005

Movie magic: HP research helps transform film, TV distribution

Hollywood is going all-digital, with a little help from HP Labs


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The requirements of the entertainment industry really stretch the capabilities of traditional IT.

by Jamie Beckett

Movies and TV shows by entertainment giants Sony Pictures and Warner Brothers will soon make use of a system originated in HP Labs that dramatically alters how studios create and distribute movies and television programs.

The HP Digital Media platform makes it possible for studios to create content once and then reuse it many times in any standard or format. A film can be stored as a high-quality digital master and quickly converted for secure transmission via wireless, cable, satellite, DSL or the Web.

For entertainment companies, that has the potential to dramatically speed up delivery of the next blockbuster or hit show. At the same time, it gives studios immediate access to the vast collections of programming now stored in physical form in their archives.

Shane Robison, HP executive vice president and chief strategy technology officer, discussed the Digital Media Platform and other aspects of HP's digital entertainment strategy during his keynote talk today at the National Association of Broadcasters' convention in Las Vegas.

All digital, all the time

The Digital Media Platform is an industry standards-based framework of software, hardware and services that lets media companies digitize, store, process, manage, distribute and archive complex media assets securely and efficiently.

"It's something like an operating system for rich, digital media," says Nick Wainwright, research director, HP Digital Media Platform. "It's a platform on which you can create large-scale, distributed applications that link together the systems used to work with digital media."

These applications are needed as the entertainment industry shifts from working with physical files to a process that is digital from start to finish. In the past, producers who needed an alternate version of a television program, for instance, would have started with master tape, made a copy and then sent that via delivery service to a post-production house for editing, special effects insertion, audio mixing and other tasks that occur after the cameras stop rolling. The post-production house would then have sent a physical copy back to the studio.

"Imagine if you had to send a floppy disk every time you wanted to send a Word or PowerPoint document," says Wainwright. "Our goal was to allow studios to treat these 100 gigabyte files as effortlessly as possible -- ideally, much like shared documents on a shared drive."

Size, security challenges

Although digital formats offer much more flexibility and speed at a lower cost, they also present several challenges.

For starters, files are huge. Feature-length films are typically 80 to 100 gigabytes each, and large studios have libraries of thousands of these.

"That's an awful lot of storage," says Andy Morgan, a researcher on the Digital Media Platform Project. "These files require specialized management and a lot of processing to put them into a format for distribution."

Complicating matters further is the fact that different forms of distribution have different requirements. For example, video-on-demand requires bandwidth of 3-4 megabits per second, while high-definition broadcast transmits at 10-20 megabits per second.

Security is also an issue. Studios don't want master copies of films or television programs to be leaked, so they keep them in vaults and follow strict security procedures. Researchers had to make sure that security for the digital versions would be just as tight.

"The requirements of the entertainment industry really stretch the capabilities of traditional IT," Morgan says.

First users

The platform has already been put to work by Ascent Media Group (AMG), which performs substantial post-production activities for Sony Pictures Entertainment and many other media companies. AMG engineers worked with HP to develop the technology.

Now, Sony Pictures, Ascent Media and HP have formed an alliance to move the formatting, management and distribution of Sony Pictures' library of film and TV from analog to digital, using technology and services from AMG and HP's Digital Media Platform.

Since November 2004, AMG has completed digitization of about 600 Sony Pictures titles -- six times what it had expected to finish by this time.

Warner Brothers

There is much more planned for the Digital Media Platform, including a collaboration between Warner Brothers and HP to transform the studio's entire film production and distribution process to an all-digital, file-based system.

HP and Warner Brothers are formulating an architecture to make the transition possible. HP's Digital Media Platform provides the foundation for this architecture.

The project is huge: Last year, for instance, Warner Brothers mastered 225 feature films for DVD release that required 26,000 hours of color correction and 10,000 hours of dirt and scratch clean up. The company's global digital media exchange facility delivers about 172 hours of video programming weekly and last year produced more than 2,500 DVDs.

Earlier work

This isn't the first time HP Labs researchers have made major contributions to changing how digital media is managed and preserved.

Researchers played an integral part in the creation of ARKive www.arkive.org, a "Noah's Ark" for the Internet age. Launched in 2003, the online, searchable archive provides a catalogue of film, photographs and audio records for the world's endangered animals, plants and fungi.

HP Labs researchers and MIT Libraries jointly developed DSpace www.dspace.org a groundbreaking digital repository system that captures, stores, indexes, preserves and redistributes an organization's research material in digital formats. The free, open source software accepts and preserves all forms of digital materials, including text, images, video and audio files.

"This is the kind of work HP Labs is here for," says Wainwright, who managed researchers on all three projects. "Our mission is to create technologies for HP that have the potential to transform industries. That's what we're doing."

Related research

» DSpace

Other related materials

» HP CTO Shane Robison on the digital transformation
» Feature story: Convergence and content on the move
» HP Digital Media Platform

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