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Global collaboration in a new digital frontier

In February last year (2011), Natalie Portman won the coveted Best Actress award at the American Academy Awards for her performance in Black Swan. In her acceptance speech, in which she acknowledged the director and her fellow actors, Portman also took time to thank “people on films who no one ever talks about”, name-checking camera operators, costume designers, make up artists and choreographers.

Whilst such platitudes from triumphant actors standing at the awards podium are nothing new, Portman’s speech specifically highlighted the paramount importance of collaboration in filmmaking. Whilst set design, costuming, special effects and dozens of other departments are compartmentalised for logistical reasons, none of them are isolated from each other. It is essential for these different groups to work together to ensure that disparate elements coalesce into a coherent final production.

The strongest collaborations are achieved through free and open communication with the people around you. As the film industry has grown and flourished, the exchange of ideas and information between personnel has been increasingly facilitated by technology.

The rise of the Internet has put innovations like e-mail and video conferencing at the heart of collaboration in filmmaking. In addition to these tools, newer technologies, such as dedicated high-speed connections and digital negative management systems, have allowed productions to share their data safely and securely, informing key decisions and facilitating collaboration across continents and time zones.

Over the last decade, I have seen the way in which secure connectivity and data management systems have become increasingly central to the filmmaking process on some of the industry’s biggest productions – irrevocably changing the way in which we collaborate.

Harry Potter and the Magical Connectivity Solution
Our work with the Harry Potter movie series, since 2000, is a prime example of the impact that optimum connectivity and data management systems have had on the workflow of big budget productions over the last decade.

Sohonet became involved with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) in late 2000, providing a high speed, secure 100 Mbit Internet connection (upgraded to 1 gigabit in 2005), to enable swift data transferral between the filming base at Leavesdon Studios in England and the Warner Bros offices in the United-States. This connection, put in place for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), opened up a greater level of electronic collaboration, allowing data to be sent to VFX companies such as ILM, MPC, Framestore, Double Negative and Cinesite. Visual effects have been a vital component of the Potter series, and without such high speed, secure data transfer systems, the timely delivery of key FX shots would not have been achieved.

By the time Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) went into production, Digital Intermediate (DI) theatres had been constructed at Leavesdon, Warner House and Soho Square providing a connectivity solution that synchronised all three DI sites. This allowed production staff to move data between any of the theatres and seamlessly continue work across sites. Where previous films had moved to Central London after filming was completed, post-production was now localised at Leavesdon, enabling complex CGI and editorial decisions to be made on site, whilst significantly streamlining the production’s workflows.

In just over a decade, the Harry Potter movies have gone from utilising satellite technology to relying on a dedicated high speed connection so the production team could stay linked to collaborators around the world, and confidently send sensitive data such as rushes, VFX material and completed scenes across our Sohonet Media Network (SMN). The production’s connection has recently been utilised to collaborate with Prime Focus in Soho to facilitate the 3D conversion of the series’ epic finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two (2011).

A Tapeless World
Productions are increasingly embracing a tapeless, filmless approach to acquisition – shooting scenes before transferring data to hard drives or onto computers. Our involvement with the production of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) is a good example of the way in which fully digital productions can benefit from data management and connectivity solutions to support collaboration.

In 2009, Sohonet provided Dawn Treader with a secure high-speed connection and digital negative management (DNM) service. This to automated and simplified the production’s digital workflow, facilitating instant access to every frame of the film, whenever and wherever the production team wanted it. This meant that the movie’s various migrations during production – from America to Australia to the UK – were hugely simplified. The DNM system, coupled with the production’s dedicated Internet connection, meant that shots could be cut as they were uploaded from the set each day, markedly increasing the speed of the editing process. This enabled shot material to be handed over to Dawn Treader’s dedicated VFX team far quicker than would be possible under a tape-based system.

Digital Collaboration in TV
The evolution of data management and connectivity has also impacted upon television production over the last ten years. Initially, HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001), shot in England, sent dailies to the US via tape or a tele-stream system. This approach was quickly deemed to be unreliable and unnecessarily time-consuming, since important information sent from the UK to the US was often not downloaded in time for day-to-day production meetings. This meant that key decisions were often delayed, unnecessarily slowing the rate of production.

Sohonet were consequently contracted to provide a dedicated connection that would facilitate the swift transfer of dailies and other data from the UK based production to HBO in Los Angeles.  As a result of the connection, rushes were now downloaded in a timely fashion for each daily meeting – which significantly increased the pace of decision-making, and minimised wasted time for cast and crew. Within a week of becoming Sohonet customers, the production team completely stopped sending out tapes, confident in the reliability of their connection.

A similar approach was utilised for both seasons of HBO’s Rome (2005-2007), filmed at Cinecitta Studios, in Italy. The production used its SMN connection to turn the time difference between Italy and America to its advantage to dramatically increase productivity. During the first season, film was developed at Technicolor in Rome, shots were selected at Cinecitta and editing was undertaken in both Italy and the US – this was a true global affair. This meant that whilst Rome’s main editor was based at HBO in LA, work could effectively carry on almost twenty-four hours a day, which markedly increased the pace of Rome’s editing process.

The new digital frontier
The industry has increasingly come to rely on high speed, secure data transfer and connectivity services over the last decade. Technology has undoubtedly become a key tool in the collaborative process on productions ranging from major blockbuster franchises to hugely popular television series.

The reasons for this increasing reliance are clear – this technology demonstrably saves productions not just time, but money too. The amount of time it takes to do anything – from the film set to the editing suite – directly impacts upon the amount of money that a production expends.  Perhaps most importantly for creatives, Rushes reaching decision makers faster across a reliable, dedicated network means that shots can be signed off faster, expensive sets struck quicker, costly location shooting completed earlier and productions wrapped sooner. By maximizing productivity and minimizing wasted time, editors have longer to spend refining their work in post-production, enhancing the quality of the final product.

With benefits such as these, it is easy to understand why large and smaller production and post-production companies are increasingly signing up to bespoke data management and connectivity services to look after their highly valuable digital assets. Collaboration lies at the very heart of successful filmmaking, and robust connectivity and data management technologies will continue to unite production personnel across the globe, underpinning the collaborative process, and driving cinema and television into the future.

Submitted by Ben Roeder, CTO Sohonet

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