The evolution from film to digital, and how it impacts the commercial production industry
Today, filmmaking has little to do with film. Digital technology has advanced so much that we can shoot quality video on our phones and share it on social media in seconds. Cameras the size of our hands can capture night scenes with almost eyesight clarity; technology that’s decreased our dependence on analogue processes, but dramatically increased our data usage and necessitated the adoption of complex and often laborious data management systems.
Here we’ll explore how the digital evolution has changed the way production companies manage footage, the procedures they should adopt to keep data secure, and where this new era of data management is taking the industry.
Evolving from film to digital
The progression from film to digital has changed, among other things, the way production companies approach, cost, and finish a shoot. Previously, when shooting on film, they’d choose the appropriate stock and send it to the lab for processing. But when shooting digitally, the decision of stock is largely covered by the choice of camera and its settings, like resolution, aspect ratio, bit depth, bit ratio and compression.
Digital technology also changes the workflow. With faster turnaround times, production can save time and money by delivering part of the post-production on set, like the offline edit, and even part of the grade. This means that high volumes of data are being loaded directly onto the camera’s SD cards; a process that necessitates stringent data management procedures just to secure the raw footage.
Data management methodology
Throughout production, a strict process must be followed to ensure that data is safe and insurable. To encourage industry industry-wide commercial-production protocol in this area, the Commercial Producers Association’s Executive Committee member, Glen Bosman, compiled a Digital Production Manual on the Association’s behalf, to cover data management workflow in detail.
In the manual, he lists a comprehensive methodology that covers everything from setup and gear testing, to shooting, safety protocols, the return of data to the workstation, and transcoding. It’s a rich and invaluable guide in this relatively new and complex space.
Despite its scope, Glen emphasises that the booklet is ‘a guideline and should be used as such’. At the rate that the digital world is changing, the role of production companies and professionals is changing all the time - into an environment that requires constant skill development and the habit of keeping one’s ear to the ground.
New expertise requirements
Processes aren’t the only thing that have changed. Since the onset of the digital revolution, two key professionals have emerged: Data Wranglers (DWs) and Digital Imaging Technicians (DITs). While there may be some overlap in these roles, their responsibilities are quite different.
DWs, for instance, have detailed knowledge of how footage is stored, coded, and processed, and they’re responsible for collecting, duplicating, and managing the data between cameras, SD cards, and hard drives.
A DIT on the other hand, is a DW who understands how the data, camera, and footage work together, which is specialised expertise that also supports the camera crew in capturing the most effective shots. On big productions, a DIT may also supervise and be responsible for several DWs.
As cameras become more automated, the services needed from these specialists continue to change. The traditional DIT role is evolving away from button pushing and exposure checking to luxury quality control. The responsibilities of DWs on the other hand, are increasing as the demand for storage increases. Who knows what their roles will be five years from now?
The future of data management
A single day on set can easily generate four to eight terabytes of footage between two cameras. But the ability to move this data is limited by existing technologies and their affordability. Anyone who’s worked in a production space knows how much time is consumed by managing storage devices, transferring data, and rendering footage.
Soon, we’ll be managing volumes higher than this, and the costs and pressures will increase with it. Already we’re seeing, on reality shows and studio productions, how teams of DWs work in 24-hour cycles, swapping out and picking up where others have left off. This mirrors through to commercial sets, where the available technology can’t process the material fast enough.
Manpower, electricity and security is required non-stop, either through mobile data labs, or by securely transporting footage to off-set facilities. DITs and gear houses managing big data like this supply equipment costing well over $2000/day; a factor that is spurring new business models, skill requirements, and technological advancements to the industry.
A constantly evolving industry
Motion picture production has come a long way in the last decade and it’s not stopping or even slowing down. Roles are changing, technology is developing, and new skills are needed every day. That’s why, sometimes, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come… And look with excitement at just how far we’re yet to go.
Having worked in film and TV advertising production since the early 90s, Glen honed his craft at Velocity with Keith Rose and Ricardo de Carvalho until 1996, when he started Freshwater films - now Bouffant - with Lourens van Rensburg. In 2008, Glen joined Catapult Commercials as executive producer, handling both local and international campaigns.
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