Workflow in the Digital Age: New Tools and Services Carve a Path
Arc 9
First in a series of Sponsored Entertainment & Advertising Technology features; this installment focuses on 5 pioneering cos.--ARRI Rental, Arc 9, Simian, Shotgun and Company 3

Film has been around for over 100 years and, for most of those years, the workflow from camera to silver screen has been relatively stable. Hollywood and everyone who works on films – and TV and commercials – got comfortable with knowing the path from Points A to Z. Then along came digital that wreaked havoc with all the standard operating procedures, including job classifications. What we’re left with is the concept of a “snowflake” workflow: meaning that each project requires a custom, unique workflow and that we are doomed to reinvent the wheel for every ad, every music video, TV show and feature film, for the foreseeable future.

That’s the story that is commonly told about today’s current workflow. But, although people hard-hit by changes wrought by digital can testify to parts of it, the real story is actually more nuanced. First, let’s examine the idea that film production has been the same since the Lumiere Brothers sent audiences running from a train coming into the station in 1896.

In fact, the number of changes in camera technology and production processes is daunting: frame rates went from 14 to 24 to, with TV, 30. Cameras went from hand-cranked to automatic. Black & white silent films gave way to color talkies. With each change, the workflow shifted to accommodate new technologies. True that many of the crafts remained rooted in their history of standard practices. But even editors transitioned to flatbed editing for film and video’s linear demands before they were faced with digital nonlinear editing systems.

The move to digital took decades; D-1 and D-2 videotape eventually gave way to HDTV, which itself had a 15+ year path to standardization. In recent years, we’ve seen resolution go from 1081 to 8K, frame rate to 60 and beyond, color become High Dynamic Range. But these changes aren’t anomalies; they’re part and parcel of the natural evolution of an always-changing medium.

In the workflow process, changes have brought new capabilities and freedoms. Digital cameras can do more with less light and at less cost. The collection of metadata–data about the camera and media for each frame–has proven a huge boon to workflow, especially in post and visual effects. ARRI Rentals is an example of how much the line between production and post has blurred, and how the right camera rental can make the difference down the line. Company 3, known for peerless Digital Intermediates, is another example of how those lines have blurred. For them, workflow begins in pre-pro consultation, and creates a pipeline that brings color decisions, among other info, from on-set to the finish line.

Another big change has been the movement of software to “the cloud,” remote servers that handle huge amounts of data, making it available to remote locations. That’s had a huge positive impact on the workflow. Simian has made it easy for artists, agencies and other creatives to create potent presentations and reels, creating efficiencies and cost-savings. Arc 9 has optimized the collaboration process, including review and approval, for the VFX and animation industry, educating the entertainment industry how to incorporate these powerful tools in their workflow. Shotgun built a comprehensive production tracking system with tools for supervisors reviewing artists’ work and a pipeline toolkit that enables studios to connect individual platforms.

These leaders in the new digital workflow space tell their stories of how their tools are helping to define today’s digital workflow.

Post starts in production
Workflow starts with the camera. “The production chain starts with acquisition,” explains ARRI Rental’s Digital Workflow Manager Chris MacKarell. “There used to be solid barriers between acquisition and post, but those hard lines are now more like permeable membranes. Post is creeping closer to camera, and camera/acquisition is creeping back down the postproduction chain.”

ARRI Rental, formerly ARRI CSC, is a leading provider of camera, grip and lighting equipment to the feature, TV, ad, broadcast and events markets, with rental facilities in the U.S. and across Europe. MacKarell was working at Deluxe when Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—the very first motion picture to be shot with the ARRI Alexa–came through post production. “It was a pioneering workflow, and I worked very closely with ARRI Rental, which was serving the camera, lighting and grip side,” he recalls. “A couple of years later, when high-end digital cine acquisition really took off, I joined ARRI Rental in a workflow-related role, since  their core business was changing and evolving with the onset of digital.”

In the last three years, says MacKarell, ARRI CSC has been deeply involved in consulting, planning, testing and clearing up problems during digital camera shoots.

“Let’s start at the very front, with lenses,” he says. “Lenses can generate lens data on a per frame basis, which is very important for visual effects. On a car spot, if there’s a move being made with the camera and the focus puller is adjusting the lens, the metadata can be used to reproduce that in a 3D CG system, where they use a virtual lens to copy the move.”

Then there’s metadata, which is the data that describes info about the footage, which becomes important for post and VFX. The ARRI Alexa records 135 distinct pieces of metadata, from time-code to “a whole set of accelerometer data that provides the pitch and yaw of the camera in space.” “All this data is, again, useful in the post pipeline,” says MacKarell.

The ARRI camera’s image data is another advantage in the digital workflow process. “It’s true ARRI RAW 1:1 data,” says MacKarell. “The sensor doesn’t record pixels, it acquires information through light sights and turns it into pixels, encoding color information using a Bayer pattern. Although ARRI can do compressed images, the 1:1 is the difference between video and high-end cine acquisition.”

The digital workflow that was pioneered on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was treading new territory: generating dailies from the data, and archiving that data to create a first layer of back-up, as well as cleaning the magazines to be sent back to the set. “This was all new at the time and primarily the systems were untried,” says MacKarell. “We’ve come a long way–TV commercials shoot RAW and a lot of the data is dealt with on the DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) cart.” Over the last few years, ARRI Rental has serviced Wolf of Wall Street, Noah, TV episodics Homeland, Elementary and commercials for Macy’s, among other projects.

Despite the fact that some workflow practices that MacKarell describes have become standard operating procedure, he notes that every project–be it commercial, TV show or feature–still needs some customized tools or processes to navigate the path from camera to delivery. “One of the things we do in my department at ARRI CSC is to account for those variations that productions may have,” he says. For example, for Birdland, the UPM wanted a redundant copy of the image and metadata very quickly. “We supplied them with a Codex Vault, which quickly reassured them that a second copy of their data could be passed down the post pipeline,” he says.

The digital workflow may continue to be a “snowflake,” meaning each one is unique but, says MacKarell, that’s not cause for worry. “A scant two years ago, everyone was saying that this chaos will settle down and a standard operating procedure will emerge,” MacKarell says. “It turns out that this really hasn’t happened. New technology happens, new products evolve.” In fact, ARRI has recently rolled out two cameras: the Alexa B&W and, more recently, the Alexa 65, which change the workflow to some degree. “Because the camera isn’t recording color information, it will yield more spatial resolution,” says MacKarell about the Alexa B&W. “The ability of each pixel to represent shades of gray is more than the regular Alexa, and there’s a very specific workflow attached to that. We had to give software developers and vendors an SDK (software development kit) so they could modify their tools to work with B&W files.”

For the new Alexa 65, a scaled up version of the Alexa XT, which features a CMOS slightly larger than a five-perf 65mm film frame with open-gate resolution of 6560×3102, the big change is the amount of data it records: 2.6 terabytes per hour. The solution came from a two-year development partnership with Codex to create a 24-core Vault that does “extremely quick de-Bayering.”

“Being flexible and thinking on your feet can solve some problems,” says MacKarell. “For the rest, we’ll continue to work with post partners to define the workflow of the Alexa 65. The art of the workflow is the selection of smart choices. That’s why it will continue to be a snowflake.”

Optimizing collaboration
The founders of Arc 9–Melissa Davies and Sukhi Singh–envisioned a virtual world where artists and contributors from all over the world could easily and seamlessly collaborate. For Davies, that vision came out of her digital effects experience, as owner of  Sight Effects, a VFX boutique, and The Digital Lab, a software company. The Digital Lab created plug-ins (including the video interface for what became Discreet Flame) and she learned first hand the power of using software to enhance and optimize the creative process. “In the early days of digital, we used to have to write the tools ourselves or find someone to do so,” Davies says.

What gave her the impetus to pursue virtual collaboration was an experience working on a campaign for Prada. “We had 13 companies, from graphic design and film to fabric design, working on the campaign,” she recalls. “Everybody was working in different applications. We couldn’t email the files because they’re too big. If you had a Photoshop file, you have to make a JPEG of each layer. It quickly became a conversion nightmare and very labor-intensive.” Davies began developing conversion programs that would allow the various file types to convert automatically. “We didn’t have this central machine room where someone took it all in, converted it and got it to the edit bay,” she says. “That was the biggest piece that was missing.”

Arc 9 was born in 2012 out of its founders’ desire to end that conversion nightmare, making it easy for far-flung artists to collaborate and thus putting the focus on the creative process. It currently supports over 300 file types and video codecs.

Davies uses the example of a production book, which can include Word and Excel docs, photographs, other images, a director treatment and even video, to show the advantages of digital over analog. “With Arc 9, you can put all these apps together and create a presentation with everything and any file type,” she says. “What’s core to Arc 9 is collaboration and workflow. We want creative people, whatever they’re creating, to upload and share so that anyone can review or approve it. We don’t want people to stop what they’re doing to convert.”

With Arc 9, the user has advanced rules and permission, with the ability to decide who can upload, download and/or view. “The full set of review tools includes the ability to do full annotations directly on the images and on every frame of video,” says Davies. “You can draw, add type, add shapes, magnify, pan and scan and it’s time-code accurate. And we have a very simple private client portal, so the client gets a link to go directly to the file they’re supposed to see, without ever seeing any of the internal communications. People want it to be very simple for their clients.”

Davies notes that Arc 9 is possible because the technologies behind it have come of age. “It’s really about being in the cloud,” she says. “What we want to do is add some standardization to the creative industry. In the current day scenario, people cobble together multiple applications or develop their own applications in order to file-share, review and manage creative content.” One of Arc 9’s differentiating features is Video Reviews. “With that, you can collaborate and make presentations with mixed media,” she says. “We believe that is one of the kingpins in today’s process. So many companies need to collaborate on media that adding in Video Reviews takes away some of that pain.”

“Arc 9 is about taking nine different feature categories – from file-sharing and annotation, proofing, IT development and versioning – and bring them all into one simple program,” she says. Now one of the challenges is educating people in the industry how to use the tools and incorporate them into their workflows. Here, Arc 9 offers another important feature. “Arc 9’s toolset is fully brand-able,” says Davies. “You can add your company logo on every screen and completely white label it. But the biggest advantage is making it simple for your clients. Our whole passion is to make a really simple, pain-free process.”

Presentations go digital
Partners Brian Atton and Jay Brooks headed up Volta, a web/software agency and were hired by a top Los Angeles modeling agency to create a tool to send digital presentations. “That was really the first iteration of Simian,” says COO Atton. Simian made a leap into the entertainment space when the PR company for Anonymous Content hired them to build a website. “During the process of building the website, we were asked to build a reel creator, which was nothing more than page builder for sending spots,” says  Atton. “They were looking for an alternative to their expensive solution and they thought they could do better.” What Anonymous Content got was a product that allowed them to easily build and send reels themselves – and to do it affordably.

Many creative companies took note of Anonymous Content’s website and began contacting Atton and Brooks for web development services. Prettybird, a production company just starting up, was one of them. During the web development process, Atton and Brooks ended up working with them to build a reel creator. “They needed a way to manage and send reels and projects,” recalls Atton. “They were forward-thinking and wanted to automate things, something that hadn’t been done before. Outside reels and projects, they wanted to tie in automated payroll and invoices, the whole production process.”

Working closely with Prettybird, Atton and Brooks built the first iteration of Simian. Another early customer was Wild Plum. “Working with these companies, we learned what they needed,” says Atton. “We spent days in production companies, studying their workflow. We thought there was a lot of room for improvement, and we really did our groundwork before we launched Simian.” Since then, Simian has worked with companies, including Craft NY (a production services unit within McCann), Aero Film, DirecTV, Venables Bell & Partners, and

After launching with presentation reels, Simian next added client review & approval and asset management. Next, the company added the ability to create micro-sites. “Microsite creation is a very popular feature,” Atton says. “This allows users to customize and tailor a presentation or pitch.” The micro-site feature has a multitude of uses, adds Atton. “It’s a digital presentation tool that really allows you to create a slick mini-website in minutes, rather than having to hire a developer who takes weeks and costs thousands of dollars.”

Simian has just released Version 3.0, which will make the workflow faster and simpler. “We’ve redesigned the interface and we’ve simplified the process to manage and build sales reels,” says Atton. “We’ve made it easier to collaborate with clients on projects as well as review & approval.” Existing Simian users will get an upgrade.

Another tool Simian released was a mobile app, Simian Go. “It allows users to get the full functionality of building and creating sales reels, in the palm of their hands,” says Atton “You no longer have to be tied to a computer. A salesperson can do his work at the airport. As long as you’ve got an iPhone, you can build a reel, send it out and check the analytics.” Atton reveals that Simian will soon release the same mobile power for review & approval. “We’ll be launching a projects app by the first of the year that will allow anyone to set up a project and send files for review & approval,” says Atton. “We’re also in the process of launching a reels app that lets you present reels offline.”

The advantage inherent in Simian’s solutions comes down to cost savings as well as efficiencies. “We see a lot of companies, especially in review and approval, that have their own in-house systems,” reports Atton. “And when they bring in freelancers, they have to spend so much time getting them up to speed and working out kinks in their system that they need to call the IT guy. We are the IT people. With cloud-based solutions like Simian, you can just pick it up.”

Atton sees the potential new technologies and innovative thinking that help to overcome the physical challenge of producing and moving content. In the meantime, Simian is focused on freeing production and post companies from doing their own IT, offering add-on services and more phone apps by the end of the year.

Tackling the snowflake head-on
Ten years ago, when Don Parker and his colleagues worked on the software tool team at a major Hollywood studio, they quickly realized that the studios needed many tools in addition to their major VFX and animation software packages. A big studio could afford to hire their own experts to write custom software, but there were dozens of medium-sized and smaller studios that couldn’t.

Shotgun started eight-and-a-half years ago with the mission of building project management and tracking tools. “We wanted to connect the supervisor, the manager, the artist so they could focus on the creative but also run a healthy business,” says Shotgun Senior Director Don Parker, who notes that Autodesk has acquired the company. 

The timing for the founding of Shotgun was fortuitous. “People started outsourcing labor and the profit margins started dropping, so we were in the right spot at the right time,” says Parker. Soon, Shotgun was working with large animation studios and VFX houses; they’ve done work on “all the big tent-pole visual effects movies,” for clients such as Laika, Double Negative, Blue Sky, and Tippett Studios. According to Parker, Shotgun has 600 clients, mainly in the VFX/animation portion of the entertainment industry.

In recent years, Shotgun’s creators began hearing about the “snowflake” concept – that every workflow would be different and unique – that meant it was difficult to build a standard system that would connect studios. In the highly collaborative world of VFX and animation, studios needed to be able to easily share data, both internally and externally. “We started working with more and more studios and began studying how they worked,” says Parker. “We noticed patterns and similarities. We started building our software to promote best practices based on what we saw.”

The first problem Shotgun tried to solve was a production tracking system. “There’s always someone at the studio – a coordinator or manager – who is asked to get their heads around a lot of information, which they usually do in Excel or Filemaker databases,” says Parker. “Because there were no tools, they’d have to build it themselves, and the information would be scattered across multiple spreadsheets.” This first Shotgun tool enables the manager or coordinator to consolidate all the information digitally in one spot, for real-time access. “Workflow optimization is to centralize the information rather than have it fragmented,” he adds.

Shotgun’s production tracking software was well received, allowing the company to take the next step. “The review process was another bottleneck,” says Parker. “In production, each artist is showing the progress of their work to their supervisors over and over again. Because the artists were distributed around the world, it became very slow and therefore expensive.” Shotgun built a set of tools on top of the production tracking, to make it easy and fast for artists and supervisors to communicate back and forth.

These review process tools were just rolled out on the iPhone. “Now supervisors can live their lives, still work and get feedback to the artists in a timely fashion,” says Parker. “We couldn’t have done it without the key first step of centralizing the information in one spot.” With these review tools in place, Shotgun has recently rolled out a client presentation site. “It’s very easy to put a list of media together, a playlist, that you can share with an outside client in a simple, secure way,” he says. “Connecting artists and supervisors to their clients is an area we are going to continue to optimize.”

Next, Shotgun built the Pipeline Toolkit. “We noticed many of our clients were spending a lot of time building little artist tools to connect the different software platforms,” says Parker. “The process is very painful unless you have the tools. The Pipeline toolkit are polished, individual tools that speed up the artists working within their creative tools.” Because Shotgun is now part of Autodesk, it is showing off integration with the Flame. “If I’m working on Flame, for example, and some artists need to do 3D or 2D work, I can easily set the file system up, organized for Nuke or Maya,” he says. “The tracking system is updated so the manager or supervisor can see what’s happening inside the Flame suite. It takes care of all the boring housekeeping, and let’s the artist focus on being creative.”

When he looks into the future, Parker sees a movement towards standardization. Within those standards, however, will be an ongoing need for flexibility, tweaking and, yes, some customization. “There will never be a static way to do a film project,” he says. “These projects are very creative and people will always invent new tools and new ways of working.”

“We’re entering an era in which it will be possible to start a new VFX or post house,” he adds. “Instead of building tools from scratch, you can buy other tools, like ours, and that’s a huge advantage.”

Creating a pipeline for color
This last summer, Company 3–a creative hub for services ranging from pre-pro consultation, through dailies, DI, and final output–handled the workflow for two technically challenging tent-pole features: Transformers 4, which shot in 11 different camera formats, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was shot in native 3D. Company 3 provided a range of services including on-set dailies, color correction and, of course, the Digital Intermediates the company is so well known for.

Company 3, with locations in L.A., NY, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago, also helps filmmakers navigate their digital workflows. Company 3 Director Non-Linear Workflow Dylan Carter remembers when workflow became such an important topic. “In October 2007, RED burst on to the scene, and Company 3 got Gamer, completely shot in RED without any post workflow at all. They were bringing us files out of a beta RED camera, and the guys in post had to figure out what to do with it.” Among the solutions was working closely with Assimilate to come out with Scratch, a toolset that marries dailies, conform, editing, color grading and other tasks.

“For the next five years, every job was new,” Carter continues. “We were continually reinventing the wheel, finding a cheaper, faster way to do things. Or the way we were doing things was perfect, but a new camera entered the scene and broke the mold.” Of course, after RED came the ARRI Alexa, and new cameras from Sony, Canon and even GoPro, often used together in one feature film.

Company 3 devoted resources to make sure that the entire workflow, from camera(s) to final delivery, would work without a hiccup. Carter is clear on the best first step. “The earliest we can get involved the better,” he says. “If we get to talk to the director of photography before he shoots, we can make it work better. If the production doesn’t have the foresight to get us involved early, there’s a good chance they didn’t do things the way we wanted to. Preparedness is the key to keep away from emergencies.”

Carter describes how Company 3 is involved in pre-production. “We listen and help educate,” he says. “We act as a bridge sometimes between the cinematographer and the VFX and editorial departments.” Company 3 also gets involved in how the filmmakers deal with color during production. “On set, we want to know if they want a creative look applied because we have tools that sit between the camera and monitor that allows someone to adjust the color,” he says. “If they like what they see, they can save that as metadata and sent that to the dailies color artists. We want to know what tools we have that can help them or if they’re using tools we can put in our pipeline.”

With a dedicated software division, Company 3 has created a wealth of proprietary tools that are aimed at making the workflow efficient, fast and drama-free. Among those proprietary tools is Colorstream, which gives the DoP on-set color management that translates all the way through dailies. Another tool, Portal, allows the client to automatically pull all the VFX shots needed, scale and color them, all automated and send them to the vendors with notes to the VFX team what’s been ordered; and eVue offers encrypted dailies that hooks to a laptop and play-out to a plasma screen.

“We now have an entire department, called EC3 On-Location, devoted to dailies and anything that happens not related to the final,” Clark adds, noting that the team can travel with “a post house in a suitcase” to anywhere in the world. Company 3 also offers Virtual Outposts, which allows them to send a video feed from CO3’s color correction bay to a remote location equipped with a calibrated monitor. “This allows clients in a remote location, like Austin, to review a color session that is happening somewhere else, like Los Angeles,” says Carter. “We can also do a virtual session from one Co3 facility to another.” CO3 offers 25 Virtual Outposts, nine of which are in international locales.

Workflows are now more stable, in part because of CO3’s proprietary tools and off-the-shelf offerings, says Carter. “A big advantage of a company of our size is not just the massive footprint, but the brain trust of so many smart people,” he says. But nobody at Company 3 is resting on their laurels. Upcoming technology challenges, including increasing amounts of data and the quadrupling of size from 2K to 4K, make workflow an ever-changing challenge. “Apart from our workflow tools is our experience in creating and managing workflows,” says Carter. “We started with the first RED show and we’ve been going strong ever since.”

In the end...
Though everything digital from toolsets to file formats and the cloud have made the production and post worlds more complicated, it’s also opened up doors to more creative possibilities for anyone in the film/TV/advertising business. The idea that “snowflake” workflows would be a blizzard of pain and difficulty no longer seems to be the case. We don’t have standards–or standard operating procedures–everywhere in the workflow. But Arc 9, ARRI Rental, Simian, Shotgun and Company 3 are just some of the companies out there trying to ease the pain points and make the workflow smooth.


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