WORKFLOW SERIES ARTICLE 2b: Emergence of Workflow Management Systems

22 October, 2013 by John Fleming

In issue #153 of IF Magazine (June-July 2013), IF launched an exclusive workflow series written by one of Australia's leading post-production and digital media practitioners, John Fleming. To be released in four instalments, the series will explore the different approaches to workflow associated with digital content production.

Introduction

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Early attempts at workflow management systems were expensive, came largely from the print market and were hindered by the ‘closed’ nature of post productions systems. The new generation of workflow management systems has evolved with the move to digital acquisition and the more ‘open’ nature of the technologies being used across the content production pipeline. This article briefly explores the evolution of these technologies and options for content creators.
 
The Issues

Our industry is generating more content than ever before. It’s one thing to store the content but another to quickly find a specific asset when you need it. There is a genuine need for easy to use systems to manage this ever expanding pool of rich media.

As specialists continue to mobilise around the country, and indeed around the world, efficient and easy to use ‘connectivity options’ are vital for effective collaboration throughout the entire production process.

As the size of a project increases, there is a proportional increase in the number of people who need to be ‘kept in the loop’ e.g. investors, marketing, legal etc. The speed of decision making has become critical as production schedules tighten.

In the future, workflows will need to meet the demands from a heightened sense of ‘immediacy’ in content production and delivery; an increasing ‘directness’ between producing a master and getting it to an audience. 

The Difference between Workflow and Media Management

We now have systems to manage the chaos of ‘work in progress’ and move approved shots into a ‘published’ space for use in the ‘master’. The master evolves until it is considered ‘locked off’.

Other systems see these approved components that make up the final master as ‘work in progress’ and the completed singular master is ‘published’ into a digital archive where it can be re-formatted into whatever delivery format is required. 

These perspectives differentiate the two primary areas of asset management involved in content production. For the purposes of this article these are termed Workflow Management and Media Asset Management (MAM). 

Workflow Management

Born out of the complex production world of VFX and Animated feature films, workflow (or pipeline) management systems are now permeating all areas of production and have become mission critical technology where large quantities of digital content are being created. Whilst much work is occurring on how to link and manage the core picture and sound assets, there is also work occurring on how to manage all the other elements created by the production e.g. scripts, storyboards, designs etc.

Media Asset Management

MAM systems focus on long term storage of completed masters – a digital library. Generally they are considered more ‘enterprise’ like, managing information relating to rights management and connecting to business processes elsewhere in the company e.g. contract schedules and billing. Operationally they are very secure, incorporate high levels of automation, can deal with multiple content libraries and efficiently transcode, adapt and deliver files to global delivery points.

Workflow Management Systems

It is now possible for Workflow Management Systems to accumulate and share data generated by all production departments; research, casting, locations, art department, production, camera and sound departments, editorial, VFX, and sound. They not only provide ongoing access for those involved directly with the production, but also deliver materials and manage the review and approval process with outside suppliers including Trailer and EPK producers, app developers, product placement agencies and content distribution and delivery services.

To be effective these systems must be open, easily connected, very secure and must be adopted by everyone across the production. They must to be easy to use, low maintenance and allow automated metadata collection.

Metadata

Metadata is the information attached to the media files that describe such things as image size, colour depth, image resolution and so on. However more complex information can also be captured, for example user generated information about camera settings that can be used by VFX artists to quickly set up their first passes.

The openness and the level of metadata exchange provided by SGO’s Mistika platform, allowed Park Road Post’s to use it as the hub of its large and very sophisticated DI infrastructure used for the 3D and High Frame Rate (HFR) production of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

So this is not just about the depth of metadata available but more the ease in which it can be captured and merged with data from other technologies.

Collaboration

Successful Workflow Management Systems are recognised as highly effective collaboration tools, not just a tracking tool. It is an up to the minute, intuitive window into the production. The ability to review rushes or view and comment on the latest cut from an iPad anywhere in the world will make it easier to manage relationships with offshore co-production partners, investors and increasingly mobilised creative resources.

The Options for Workflow Management Tools

The different ‘off the shelf’ systems in the market usually have a ‘personality’ defined by the environments that spawned their initial development. Whilst these products usually evolved in larger businesses who could afford the development costs, the good news is that these systems are becoming increasingly scalable and therefore more affordable for small to medium size businesses and productions.

Shotgun

Shotgun is a workflow management tool now commonly used by VFX and Animation Studios. Acting as the operational backbone of a studio, it directly interfaces into a number of commonly used production tools. Autodesk recently announced a deep integration of Shotgun into Maya, allowing access to the Shotgun’s workflow management directly from the Maya application. Revolver is an all-in-one review toolset developed in partnership with Tweak Software’s industry-standard playback tool, RV. Pitched as a “personal screening room”, Revolver is intended to enable artists to view their work in the context of the latest cut without the need to go directly to an editor.

Avid

Avid Technology are now offering a totally integrated solution; sophisticated picture and sound editing tools, intelligent storage solution, production asset management system accessed from either desktop and browser, a powerful media asset management (MAM) system that provides for customisation and integration with other technologies and a cloud based post production environment for those on the move. At each level, there is some form of ‘openness’ to plug in specialist tools and systems. The recently announced Avid Interplay MAM appears focussed on the broadcast market responding to a perceived market need to create more content under tighter deadlines and distribute that content to an ever-growing array of platforms.

Adobe / Cantemo Portal

Adobe has taken a somewhat different approach by integrating third party media asset management products into their increasingly comprehensive workflow solutions. An example is Cantemo Portal. Whilst providing an elegant interface into Premier Pro via the partner panels API, Cantemo continues to evolve as a standalone workflow and asset management tool.

This is similar to Adobe’s presence in the print industry and is consistent with their apparent goal to position Premiere Pro as the Photoshop of video production. 

Parham Azimi, founder of Cantemo believes that “a single software manufacturer can’t solve all of a customer’s problems”. Their highly customisable ecosystem provides considerable flexibility. As well as Premiere Pro they also interface with FCP and currently in Beta with Avid Media Composer. The entry system costs around $15K with the Enterprise version starting around $90K.

5th Kind

5th Kind is an example of a sophisticated enterprise class system that captures and manages every element associated with a production from day one. Developed by Aussie Steve Cronan, cornerstone client Marvel Studios uses this workflow management system across all of its projects. Steve comments “when you get inside that ‘work in progress’ environment you create, as a side effect, an extremely rich archive. You not only know what that asset is, you know why it is there. You know the process, the versioning, the executive approval, the creative approval, the legal approval; all the decisions that went into publishing that asset.”

So the system can sit across all aspects of the workflow and recognise the creative preferences for certain production technologies, much of the development over the past decade has been focussed on automating the metadata capture process and minimising the disruption to the creative process.

With security as its key priority (and therefore clearly defined privileges) it makes the entire content production process available to other parts of the media and entertainment value chain e.g. sales and marketing, audience aggregators. 

Axle

Axle Media Management presents as a very simple and relatively inexpensive entry level tool for solo operators or smaller post production facilities and productions wanting to ‘organise their life’. Axle is focussed on tracking ‘work in progress’ using a simple web interface which allows you to find, annotate and collaborate on media files from your phone, iPad or laptop. They have integrated a transcoding engine along with connections into Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro.

A key difference is that it maps the content of your existing storage systems and simply ‘watches’ your existing workflow for changes. There is no need to radically change the way you work. In a practical sense this means that while it recognises the files there are no guarantees it can reliably play it, unlike the more structured systems that only accept certain files types given an expectation they will guarantee playback.
MAM as a service

There are also companies building a service around workflow and media asset management systems. Some traditional services companies, like Cutting Edge, have developed their own MAM systems. Built on an open source database, it continues to evolve around client and project needs. This is not only integrated into their post-production activities, but also manages video assets on behalf of major clients. 

Technology company, Future Reality, is about to launch a hosted service out of their data centre in Lane Cove focussed on ‘after post’ media asset management and distribution. Typically, clients with content catalogues can have their assets managed and published with a view of ‘monetising’ their assets into the global market.

The Benefits of Workflow Management Systems

Having all production related assets stored in one place can realise significant productivity improvements across the entire production. This includes:

• Removing duplication of storage and service costs from one department to another.
• Improved efficiency from increased levels of sharing and remote collaboration and being able to quickly find things when you need them.
• Faster time to market from increased levels of automation and speeding up the decision making process.
• Moving ‘process’ into the background and allowing a concentration on the creative outcomes.

From a business perspective these systems represent a form of ‘knowledge management’ as they accumulate the learnings and developments from individual projects. This not only saves money, it has the ability to generate real value for ongoing businesses. 

After Post Media Asset Management

It is important to recognise the linkage between the producer’s world (workflow management) and the distributor’s world (MAM) and that connecting these two different ‘cultures’ is of considerable importance to creating an efficient asset lifecycle. There is now an extraordinary amount of information that must accompany the master into the MAM whether that is metadata that feeds a website or rights and clearance information for the increasing number of ‘transactional’ licensing arrangements.

A key consideration for setting up an ‘after post’ MAM is the difference between a ‘first day of the rest of your life’ system and a system that recognises years of legacy assets. Workflow systems are usually a ‘first day’ experience (the assets do not yet exist) however the upfront cost of implementing a MAM can be significant. Unless you have a large scale distribution business and a viable business model for monetising the stored content it may make sense to consider developing a close relationship with a MAM services provider.

In Conclusion

Workflow Management Systems can improve process, save money and help content creators remain relevant to the demands of a changing media landscape. However the first steps do require consideration.

The big challenge is to confront the natural ‘zoning’ of the workflow as defined by the associated service providers, technologies and processes in each phase of production. A more singular approach to workflow management will streamline the entire production process, reducing costs and improving the way people engage in what is now a highly ‘mobilised’ industry. 

Whilst scalable enterprise systems can benefit large or rapidly growing businesses, in the first instance, keep it simple, choose a scalable architecture and build it up based on the demands of the business or projects. 

Ensure the system is ‘open’ (file and device agnostic, aligns to industry standards) and can adapt to your changing needs. 
Security is critical, and not just from hackers but also data loss due to system failure.

Keep in mind that the clever technologies are easy to use; they move the complexity of process to the background and allow the ‘creative conversation’ to begin.

This article first appeared in IF Magazine issue #154. 

The third instalment of the workflow series is now available in IF #155, on sale now. 

Articles relating to the first instalment can be found at the below links: 

Article 1a: The New Bridge

http://if.com.au/2013/09/05/article/PUNWOSLZCM.html 

Article 1b: Building a workflow 

http://if.com.au/2013/09/05/article/WORKFLOW-SERIES-ARTICLE-1b-Building-a-workflow/DPXPOKUEIB.html 

Article 1c: Focus on feature films 

http://if.com.au/2013/09/05/article/WORKFLOW-SERIES-ARTICLE-1c-Focus-on-feature-films/QIWXVAHMGG.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

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