of tomorrow’s marketplace
The exponential growth of digital technology has many of the world’s footage archives dusting off old film cans and transferring their footage onto digital formats. It’s a daunting job, and costly too, considering that most footage libraries hold thousands and even hundreds of thousands of hours of film. But many feel that they can’t afford not to go digital in order to survive today’s highly competitive footage market. Why is digitization so key to the future of the footage industry?
The answer is access. Digitized libraries will provide producers with the quickest, simplest, and many believe, most affordable access to collections which have traditionally been held in expansive and sometimes remote storage vaults. Says Andy Roeder, president of the Canadian arm of The Image Bank: ‘In the old world it was an analog process, you had to search through paper logs or description logs instead of visual logs. In tomorrow’s generation and even today’s generation, a person can log on, type in a key word, see all the different selects, watch them in motion, download a lab ready or broadcast quality element, and be done with it – people will be able to self serve and get lower prices.’
The following is a look at a selection of commercial footage libraries to see how they are gearing up for the demands of future consumers.
Digitizing the collection
U.K.-based archive British Movietone News has just recently completed digitizing their newsreel collection. Traditionally a 35mm film library, the decision to transfer their newsreels onto digital tape was a practical one. ‘We decided for commercial reasons that it would be easier to run the archive on a tape-based system,’ explains Barry Florin, managing director for Movietone. ‘We started, and have completed transferring all of the newsreels onto Panasonic’s DVC Pro format.’
Opting for the `right’ format is a great concern for footage businesses, as they fear that the technology might go in another direction, rendering their considerable investment obsolete. Says Florin, ‘As you know, if you buy a computer, six months later there’ll be something twice as good and the one you bought is half price. But sooner or later with technology, you have to jump in. Eventually you’ve got to go for it, otherwise you can wind up being like a 93-year-old virgin. In three years, or in five years, there’ll be better technology, but you’ve got to go for it sometime.’
Movietone went for DVC Pro ‘because of the quality of the images, and because it’s physically not a very large medium, so it takes less space to store and is easier to handle.’ To Florin’s delight, other libraries, like Reuters News Service, have also gone for the DVC Pro format as a news-based system.
Transferring the newsreels from 35mm film to digital tape cost around US$400,000, but Florin felt that the transfer was a necessary move for the archive. ‘Right now we are lumbered with a warehouse full of nitrate and safety film and we wanted to have the flexibility not to have a warehouse on the premises . . . Now the whole collection basically fits into a large cabinet. The DVC Pro tapes are a bit bigger than an audio cassette tape, but they’re substantially smaller than vhs tapes. The physical space required to store a 90-minute betacam tape, gives us about 12 hours on a DVC Pro.’
The increased accessibility of the collection has opened new avenues for the archive. According to Florin, they are currently preparing about 100 hours of material – on digital tape – for their foreign agents to have physically present on location in their respective countries. The digitized collection has also added to the efficiency of Movietone’s in-house productions. Says Florin, ‘We produce documentaries in-house, and having all the newsreels and outtakes available on digital tape has made it much easier for us because our off-line and on-line editing also runs on the same digital tape.’
But while the collection includes footage dating back from 1929 and includes about 700 hours of newsreels and about another 1,100 or 1,200 hours of outtakes, Florin says that it would not have been practical to digitize all of their footage. He explains that it’s a matter of assessing the overall cost to make a piece of footage available in digital form, relative to its salability. ‘We have a team of people looking at the cuts and outtakes saying, `This is worthwhile putting onto digital tape and this isn’t.’ For example, we have all these years of black and white images of the Chelsea Flower Show – what’s in the newsreel is enough, we don’t need the outtakes.’
The role of the internet
Many footage libraries, such as British Movietone, British Pathe and Survival Film Library in the u.k., also have text-based, on-line catalogs, with detailed descriptions of each piece of footage in their collections.
Survival’s catalog has been available on-line for several years now at www.survival.co.uk. Says Peter Schofield, production controller for the archive, ‘We’ve cataloged all our footage and devised our own computer system which we call surcat. We bought the database but modified it ourselves.’
A quick look at Survival’s website reveals a description of the archive, contact information, a searchable database and instructions on how to use it effectively. Registered users can tap into the database by doing a key word search. For each match, the computer lists the tape’s catalog number, its time code on the tape, a brief explanation of the shot (i.e. ‘MS African elephant drying off, PAN from elephant to lions on bank, one drinking’), where it was filmed
and what the conditions were that day (i.e. sunny, rainy, night, day, etc.).
The database is augmented by a thesaurus, which pulls out related items to the search term even when the search term is not found in the match – the website uses the example: ‘On searching for the words `mountain lion’ – `puma’ will appear. The same could happen with locations – you might enter `Africa’ and find that you are getting `Serengeti.” The site also contains a number of ‘interest words’ that are frequently asked for, such as ‘ugly’ or ‘humor,’ which, when entered in the search box, will reveal any footage which may exhibit these things.
According to Schofield, surcat is at the early stages of its evolution. ‘[The catalog] is just text-based at the moment,’ he explains, ‘but now I’m looking into new websites with thumbnail pictures, or moving pictures of some sort. The only problem is it’s a bit difficult because if you’ve got a shot that runs 30 or 40 seconds, you only want to put a couple of seconds of the image on. But where [in the shot] do you take it from? That’s our concern, because some people might want the beginning of the shot, others the end.’
For Peter Fydler, commercial manager of London’s British Pathe News, web development is an integral part of their business strategy. Having completed ‘Phase One’ of their plans – putting their catalog in text-form on the internet – the library is currently embarking on ‘Phase Two,’ a project that will see browsable, low-resolution video files of their newsreels on the web. According to Fydler, one of the main reasons they are going through this process, is not to increase the efficiency of their business to business operation, but to find new revenues for the library. ‘We have a fairly substantial share of the market as it is, and by spending millions on the library to digitize it, wouldn’t increase our market share enough to justify doing it. What does justify it commercially, is finding new markets to add to our existing ones.’
Fydler sees huge opportunities in domestic, educational and lower budget corporate users – ‘the sort of people who have never in their wildest dreams thought they would buy anything from British Pathe but would increasingly do so if given the opportunity to say, download a film clip for a few dollars that they might include in a school project, or in some corporate presentation, or because it happened to be the village where they lived or the town where they grew up, their favorite football team or movie star – more domestic, low value, high volume usage.’
Calling the Pathe collection ‘highly internet friendly,’ Fydler explains that, ‘[the newsreels] are all divided into 50,000, neat, short stories of around 2 or 3 minutes long, so you have a highly professional, polished, edited three-minute story of an incident or an event. If you find a story that’s relevant to your needs, you can just click on the video icon and watch that three-minute story. The quirky clips alone have a certain cult value. The subjective commentary on the news, which by modern standards is quite hilarious and almost obscene, has a sort of cult status which we think could well be a hit in the internet community – that’s just a hunch really.’
At a projected cost of us$1 million, Phase Two started in November 1999 and will be completed within the next 12 to 18 months. Fydler says this deadline coincides with British Telecom’s two-year plan to introduce high-speed internet access to at least 70% of British homes via ADSL phone lines. He explains, ‘Basically, British Telecom are re-engineering their exchanges so that people can access video through two-megabyte subscriber lines – just about enough bandwidth to watch low-resolution video in real time.’
Having recently completed the digitization of their entire collection of newsreels and a percentage of their outtakes, Fydler says, now that the films are in digital video form, actually cloning them into an internet-friendly file ‘is a quite simple and easy process.’
When asked if there will be a ‘Phase Three’ for Pathe, Fydler replied, ‘Phase Three is for us to retire. And then all we have to do is log on every day and see how much money we’ve made. No, really, Phase Three would be for e-commerce. To re-master the whole library and have a completely enabled e-commerce system that people can actually browse and research the library, watch bits of it on a TV, then download a very high-res clip to edit into their program, buy the rights and do the whole transaction on-line. But that’s a long way away still.’
The issues, he explains, are storage and bandwidth. ‘Bandwidth is basically how wide your pipe is – digits or oil, it’s all the same. The thicker the pipe the more you can deliver. At the moment, people are relying on phone lines which have a very narrow bandwidth, whereas ISDN has two or three times capacity bandwidth and adsl will have a two-meg bandwidth with which you can almost watch things in real time. They say that in two years the whole idea of downloading anything will disappear because the bandwidth will be there to get stuff in real time.’
As for storage, Fydler says that in the near future, libraries will deliver their material via near-line systems, ‘whereby there would be a series of robots and tapes that would play out the actual broadcast material . . . 3,000 hours of video, at the sorts of standards people want to edit, goes into terabytes, which would be very expensive to store if you want it to be on-line.’
Despite the obstacles, Fydler can see the incredible potential for e-commerce in the footage industry. ‘The wonderful thing about video is unlike most e-commerce, you still have to fulfill orders. Amazon still has to send books, Wine on Line still has to send bottles of wine, Gap still has to send jeans. There’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done off-line to fulfill the transaction, which is why most of these companies aren’t making money. The wonderful thing about video is that the whole transaction and the product are all delivered on-line, and no one has to get off their ass to do anything. The product is delivered automatically . . . the middle man is left out.’
Survival also has long term goals to develop e-commerce capabilities on their website. Says Peter Schofield, ‘We’ve been to fairs demonstrating this over the past year and we’ve met various people to discuss it. There are ways of downloading material that’s good enough for editing, and you can also download material that’s good enough for transmission. The only problem you have then is the copyright, and to know who’s taking what off the internet – that’s the major problem with allowing people access to transmittable material, and that’s certainly our concern.’
Schofield also sees e-commerce as a potential tool for educational applications. ‘It would be good to help those who never get access to footage because they just can’t afford it. We’d have to charge a few dollars, but we’re really open to the idea of new markets opening up from downloading off the internet. Our whole intention of making wildlife programs is to educate people about wildlife, and if it helps schools, then we’re all for that.’
At U.S.-based web developer Footage.net, the word of the day is e-commerce. ‘Certainly the Holy Grail all along has been the delivery of footage on-line in a digital form,’ says John Tariot, company president.
An early proponent of internet technology for use in the footage industry, Footage.net is the leading aggregator of stock footage information on the internet. The company runs a network of around 30 websites which they build, host and maintain. Their client list includes such heavy hitters as NBC News, Paramount Pictures, National Geographic and The Image Bank, among others.
Tariot believes that as digital video technology and increased internet access speeds become more commonplace, more companies will devote money toward developing on-line catalogs of low resolution, preview quality clips, ‘so a user can get a sense of a particular shot and give them a sense of, `Okay, I was really looking for something in color, not black and white, or I need something that’s a wider shot or a tighter shot’ . . . With a few exceptions, the typical growth curve I think you’re going to see are people gradually building up repositories of DV clips for preview . . . and once these shots are digitized – store them, manage them, control access to them and integrate them into their sales processes.’
One company who has done this is The Image Bank, who launched their website in 1998 and have since made leaps in the development and integration of digital technologies into their operations. Rick Wysocki, senior VP and managing director of TIB explains that the site already has the capability to let customers access over 100,000 digital video clips on-line. He adds that registered users can then ‘move whatever shots they want to a clipboard, which is then stored on our server. They can then forward that clipboard to a tib office and request that an analog viewing cassette be put together.’
When asked how important TIB’s site is to their business, Wysocki replied, ‘Extremely. We’re getting a terrific amount of traffic on the website. While we can’t deliver final elements, it does help the customers narrow down their searches [and] it allows a customer and one of our salespeople to be on the telephone and on the internet at the same time. With a salesperson saying `Okay, punch in 203-111. Is that the kind of shot you’re looking for?’ It’s become kind of an interactive platform. Now, we’re fully aware that this is not where the technology is going to end up. But given that we’re sort of in the midst of a transformation, from a relatively low bandwidth to a high bandwidth environment, it’s about the best we can do at this point in time and it really has proved invaluable.’
For Tariot, higher bandwidth will open a floodgate of possibility for companies like The Image Bank. ‘Ultimately there will be broadcast quality digital video available to users on high-speed connections,’ he explains, ‘who, either through a corporate account or a credit card, can pay a licensing fee – either in the royalty-free model or the traditional licensing model, and take same day delivery on-line . . . It will all be in digital format, available to internet web servers and ftp servers – so at 2:00 a.m. you could select, purchase, and take delivery of a broadcast quality clip.’
Although this is not going to be a reality on a dial-up connection to the internet, he explains, Footage.net is currently exploring ways of providing high-speed access to suppliers and buyers ‘who need it the most.’ With that in mind, he’s convinced that a 10 to 20-minute download of a broadcast-quality video clip is ‘something that they’re going to be able to tolerate’ to avoid the lengthy process of ordering the footage off-line.
Undoubtedly, the greatest advantage to this system is its immediacy. ‘The biggest enemy of the footage business is time,’ says Tariot, ‘the amount of time it takes from initial contact, to reviewing a written list of shots, and receiving preview cassettes to make selects – it’s a lengthy process.
‘It’s estimated that it costs about $75 for every five minutes of material that a film and video library sends out – whether it’s for a purchase or not. That takes into account duplication, tape costs, shipping, packaging and staff time to do all of the above. [The new technology will] create a virtually hands-off operation that users and buyers can operate on their own, with no hand holding – at least in the traditional sense. So it shrinks the time period down from maybe a week to a few hours, and that’s an advantage for both the supplier and the buyer.’
As for accessing film originals for feature films or high-end spots, Tariot says those transactions are still going to have to happen in the traditional analog fashion. ‘But,’ he explains, ‘for anyone who is working in 90% of all broadcast television right now, they’re working in a completely digital environment on digital video non-linear editing systems like Avid or Media 100. And, 90% of the time when video material and even film leaves our film and video library customers locations, that film is getting digitized for use in these systems. And we’re going to have plans afoot to help these libraries – once that stuff is captured – to save it, either on fixed media or on disc so the cost of it being digitized is lowered.
‘Our goal is to make this a no-brainer for as large a swath of the industry as possible,’ says Tariot. Footage.net aims to help make it feasible for footage libraries to operate, run and manage their own on-line, digital video e-commerce and archive systems. These barriers include the high cost of digitization, storage and providing access, as well as having the resources – from both a technical and a personnel point of view – to pull it off. He adds, ‘With the services that we’re going to be offering, these things are going to go away or become so minimal that it will be of benefit to the biggest libraries and the smallest libraries.’
As for formats, Tariot is uncertain about what will emerge as the standard of the future. ‘That’s the big thing that everyone is talking about I’m sure. Right now, 100% all of the digital video, non-linear editing systems out there rely on the Quicktime digital video architecture from Apple.’ He adds that it’s usually a version of either Quicktime or Kodak within Quicktime (called Motion-JPEG – a.k.a. M-JPEG). These formats are the most easily imported into digital video, non-linear editing systems.
‘You can achieve broadcast television quality with Quicktime – however it is not as efficient at compressing video as other formats – specifically MPEG-2. MPEG-2 is widely used for
distribution of satellite television content, it is the format that is used for dvd and quite a bit of television broadcast systems rely on systems that take MPEG-2 for automated ad insertion and things like that. The advantages of MPEG-2 are that it is more efficient than Motion-JPEG. That means that it creates smaller files than the same material compressed in Motion-JPEG, so it’s cheaper to store and faster to transmit over the wire. The downside is that right now, other than in the broadcast facility environment, nobody is working with MPEG-2.
‘Last year at NAB [National Association of Broadcasters], both sony and Avid made announcements about future plans to harmonize on some version of MPEG-2 that would allow video production professionals to take advantage of all the benefits of MPEG-2 in the production process, but right now, MPEG-2 is strictly a distribution format for finished programs, rather than a production format. What this means is that for now I think you’re going to see the majority of material initially available in this Motion-JPEG Quicktime format and then ultimately more material on MPEG-2. Part of the problem, in terms of people who just want to preview stuff, is very few modern PCs are MPEG-2-ready right out of the box. That usually requires either hardware or software to view it.’ Tariot explains that for now, consumers are going to continue seeing the low-resolution web formats – like highly compressed Quicktime, Real Video and Windows Media – which compress video into small frames at fractional frame rates, making them quick and easy to download and cheaper to store.
‘Our goal is to be completely ecumenical in terms of format – even standard PAL, secam and NTSC. Those are all issues we want to make sure we have firmly in hand as we develop the new services. To us, it ultimately won’t matter what format it’s in.’ Tariot says that Footage.net will pick the most useful format for their needs, and if their clients want to follow the lead, they can. However, if a client has some particular reason for sticking with a different format, Footage.net will certainly accomodate. ‘Ultimately it’s the customer that’s going to drive it all and as long as we’re satisfying the customer’s needs then I think the rest will fall into place.’
Tariot expects these developments to come into fruition sometime this year. ‘We have aggressive long-term plans, but the project to bring this all on-line started last week [mid January]. We’re putting the resources of a company much larger than Footage.net behind the operation
to make this a reality by the middle of the year. I wish I could tell you everything we’ve got up our sleeve – but we’re really going to be radically changing the landscape in terms of the amount and quality of footage that’s available on-line.’