“And every one of those words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul”
“Tangled Up in Blue”
The challenge of being a visionary is that your vision is apparent to you and by definition, not always apparent to others. After all, the very essence of being visionary is that you can literally see a future that others may not.
Now, I am not saying that I am necessarily a visionary, but I have spent my entire professional career running to the intersecting edge of where technology meets and impacts creativity. And at that edge, is the promise of how new tech, tools, and ways to create content fuel the talents and abilities of incredibly creative and singularly, unique people
It is a most critical time in our industry, not only because of the pandemic, but also because technology itself has brought us to a crossroads. It has upended our business models. It has created deeply complex workflows. At the same time, we are in the midst of a technical, creative renaissance where the tools and ecosystem of media creation might finally fulfill the promises of the “digital age”. But only with some considerable effort.
And that is because the evolution of how film met the “electronic” and then the digital era created quite a mess. Especially when you compare it to from whence we came. For almost 100 years, no one in our industry uttered the word “workflow”. They did not need to. Because everyone knew how to make a film – on film.
Over the past 40 or so years, while we have prided ourselves on “digital transformation”, the reality is, much of what we have really done is created digital ‘analogs’ of our analogue, film-centric process. And while we traded our film labs for digital ones – our non-linear film cut with scissors for non-linear film cut with computers – and while we swapped our film projection and distribution for digital, we have for the most part emulated the serial, step-by-step processes and hand-offs of our 100-year-old film legacy.
And during this same timeframe, the technology that enabled and accelerated this digital transformation – the growing power, speed and density of networks, computer and graphics processing, memory, and storage impacted society and global businesses at all levels. And of course, had a profound impact on our industry as well. New incredibly expressive digital pens, pencils and brushes began to explode and expand the creative palette enabling the ability to tell pretty much any story that the creative imagination might conjure. Digital ways to get content to audiences created new distribution models and industry economic opportunities.
In our production and post production world, it was like Christmas morning. We unboxed every new digital toy, thing and way we could find. Then some brilliant technical people helped some brilliant creative people figure out how to get it all up and working. As we continued to unbox these new toys now strewn over our industry’s living room floor, we began to notice that while these digital tools were just supposed to work together, because of the myriad of choices, things were getting quite complex. And unlike the ubiquity and the simple elegance of the 100-year-old ecosystem of film, we began to find that in this big, evolving world of digital choice, nearly every project had its own way.
I even coined a phrase for it that seemed to resonate with the industry. I wish I was able to license the term – “snowflake workflows’ – because it’s still snowing.
This snowy industry crossroads has been further affected by another wave of technological innovation which is certainly causing deep disruption. but also presents incredible opportunities. The integration of hardware and software in computers and storage on networks in the cloud has fundamentally changed the way we bank, the way we shop, and the way humans interact with each other socially. And like every business, this profound shift in communication and human economic and social interaction has also had a significant impact on our industry as well.
This shift in the commercial ecosystem has fundamentally altered the media landscape as cloud-based streaming entertainment has refocused our industry on a more direct-to-consumer engagement model. And at the same time that the Cloud is increasingly becoming an important means of content distribution, there is a huge opportunity for the Cloud to become our industry’s literal “means” of production.
Using this term – “The Cloud” – makes it sound so fluffy and light and like one big thing in the sky or wherever “the cloud” is. But the truth is, as amorphous as a real cloud is, if we do not create some structure for our industry’s adoption of cloud models, I am deeply concerned that the future industry will become increasingly even more complex. Think ‘blizzard workflows.’
The holidays are over – it’s a brand new era – It’s time we clean up our industry’s messy, techy, living room floor. The goal is to emulate the elegance of that ‘film technology system’ where everyone was on the same ‘gauge’ – but with the virtually unlimited possibilities of creative, connected, collaborative interoperability. The industry in the Cloud realized – finally, the ability to get all that friction and needless repeated tasks like endless file copying and rendering and exporting and transporting and waiting and ingesting. How is it that we are 40 years into the so-called digital revolution and our workflows still demand countless, ad-hoc, messy, inefficient, hard to control hand-offs – like bucket brigade, content baton passes?
The ability for content to not have to move but to be securely and effectively accessible to the multiple participants in the creative process simultaneously and dynamically would help create a virtual creative time machine. And those incredibly creative and singularly, unique people will gladly use that time and thank us with amazing content. Oh to be able to allow every creator their very own snowflake workflows and because of the power of software defined automation and interoperability, that the work just – flows.
But in order to be on the “same gauge” for our industry’s cloud future, I do think the industry needs to find the same literal page, where we can agree on common models, specifications, interfaces, and language at deep levels.
The alternative is that everyone goes their own way. Some might be tempted to think that if they “figure out the cloud for themselves” there might be competitive advantage. I hope that does not happen as that looks like a forecast for blizzards to me. The real opportunities and progress in our industry have always come from our expanded community of technical and creative stakeholders coming together to dream, solve and iterate the next new big tech thing.
I’ve seen it many times before in my career. I sometimes think of myself in Forrest Gumpian terms as I have been able to have had both a front row seat and a hand in so many of our industry’s technological transformations over these same 40 plus years. And as complex as the introduction of non-linear editing, digital audio workstations, the move to DI, digital film scanning, ever fantastical VFX, DVD, Blu-Ray, Digital Cinema, HD, IMF, ACES, UHD, HDR, the myriad standards, tool iterations, the considerable amount of intellectual and monetary capital, change management, education and user challenges as these transformations entailed – the industry’s potential migration to “The Cloud” will absolutely be even more complex than all of these, maybe even combined.
With my own head in the clouds, I’ve been thinking and dreaming about this challenge for a long time, naming my first own “vision” of this dream – Project Blue Sky. That was back in 2016 when a small group of us inside one Studio were whispering about how to do this.
And then it became apparent that there were many people in our industry “suffering” from the same vision. And it also became apparent that the sheer scope of work necessary to create a cohesive, collaborative, interoperable industry ecosystem would demand an equally cohesive, collaborative, and aligned industry. And with the release of “MovieLabs 2030 Vision of the Future of Media Creation” whitepaper, this vision became apparent and available to all. We could all be visionaries, especially for a vision that so many of us now share.
And as I read the whitepaper with trembling eyes (I read it on a computer !) every one of those words rang true, and glowed like burnin’ coal, pourin’ off of every page, like it was written in my soul. The next words in this song are… ‘from me to you’. Yes! What a time in our industry. I am so honored to have been invited to join this initiative. To be part of MovieLabs. Join me in this vision. Join me in this effort. I so look forward to helping to enable and encourage our industry’s considerable energy, brainpower and innovation skills – working together, as we invent our way to an industry future that is truly worthy of our past. Tangled up in blue, sky.