Disney Fast-Forwards Into the Digital Age

By John Brandon  |  Posted 2008-06-26

For a Hollywood studio, the transition from traditional filmmaking to digital shooting, storage and distribution can be a nightmare of complexities and interdependencies. The many steps in the moviemaking process rely on workflows that have been time-tested for a century or so.

Making a theatrical film is a monumental undertaking involving hundreds of contributors and a budget that can exceed the yearly revenue of a small business. Therefore, even minor workflow changes, such as switching from film to digital cameras or archiving footage on location, can have a significant ripple effect.

Like most of its competitors, Walt Disney Studios is at the crossroads of traditional and digital moviemaking. The move to digital is no longer about innovation or proving the value of this technology. The benefits are obvious to most studios: lower costs, tighter integration with post-production, more efficient workflow and improved quality.

Instead, digital moviemaking is about the transformation of an industry. The lessons Disney and other studios are learning could easily be applied to other industries as they begin adopting emerging technologies such as Web 2.0.
Art Hair, recently named chief technology officer (CTO) of the Walt Disney Studios , is a big-thinking technical wizard with Disney charisma: a big smile, warm handshake and a positive outlook. But his role overseeing the studio’s transition from film-based to file-based moviemaking will test his optimistic nature.

“We have great business networks, backbone transport and switching fabric [the myriad network switches, routers, storage devices and servers that compose the digital workflow],” Hair says. “But when you start pushing giant movie files and computer files through business networks, you start having problems. And we have to look at the problem all the way from the camera lens through to the theater screen and television set.

“The difficulty is that we’re going to make a formal conversion to digital. In the past, it snuck up on us a little at a time. Now, we’re going to plan this out and complete the transition so it’s institutionalized into the company.”
This migration requires massive changes to three workflow processes: filming, storage and distribution.

Most directors are accustomed to film-based cameras, Hair says, and in the switch to digital cameras, issues quickly surface. For example, multiple file-based cameras produce multiple data streams. The data flows from the capture device at a phenomenal 2 gigabits per second onto multiple RAID drives to ensure data reliability, which is essential on movie sets—especially in situations in which scenes can’t be easily reproduced.

And this issue will become even more critical as a growing number of moviemakers switch to digital cameras. “The day will come when everyone will be asking for electronic cinematography, and our entire workflow has to accommodate the massive data rates coming out of digital cameras,” Hair says.

Another catch: At such high transfer rates, filmmakers can’t do checksums (redundancy checks) on data. To compensate, they move the data asynchronously from multiple cameras to multiple drives, which complicates matters.

Perhaps even more important, Hair says, creative teams tend to be siloed based on long-standing moviemaking roles. But digital workflows force these disparate teams to mesh, a critical but laborious process.

Since creativity takes priority over technology at Disney, the CTO adds, the studio is implementing the new workflow processes gradually. This will give the various teams time to adjust. The changes in filming are the biggest step in the transition to digital workflows. In fact, these changes have actually redefined what a computer is.

“The computer is no longer just a post-production device,” Hair says. “It is going to be infused in the entire moviemaking and distribution processes. It will literally be in the sound stage, in principal photography and on location. Computing power will be in a Blu-ray player, a set-top box and a cell phone.”

After being captured to digital, data is moved to a raw repository: a storage area network in a data center. This repository creates the “digital intermediate” that post-production artists use to create effects. (It is the same process studios perform when digitizing film.)

A shift occurs in the workflow here: High data-transfer rates are not as important as what Hair calls “survivability.” Where on-set capture requires a high degree of reliability (movie directors often capture to multiple storage drives for redundancy), digital intermediates are held in storage for many months or even years. If they were lost, a director would have to recreate an entire movie set, actors included.

In the repository, the workflow takes yet another shift: The intermediates must be available for use in collaborative efforts involving effects supervisors, digital artists, film and sound editors, and archivists. And the switching fabric has to support the collaboration. This requires fiber-optic networks, secure access and massive redundancy.

One movie can become several hundred terabytes of raw data, which increases exponentially with each edit. A single Hollywood movie typically totals about 200 hours of raw footage.

“There’s no silver bullet to establish an end-to-end file-based solution,” says Hair. “It involves multiple solutions with their own requirement sets that feed into this overall workflow. If I trace back all the decisions that brought us to this point, they were evolutionary decisions that made things better one step at a time.”

One significant benefit of digital filmmaking is that it paves the way for digital distribution. After the digital intermediates are archived and post-production is done, movies can be prepped for distribution.

While most movies are currently sent to theaters on encrypted hard disks, in the future, they will be delivered over very high-speed Digital Signal 3 (DS3) lines direct to theaters—and, eventually, to homes. Of course, transmitting several hundred terabytes of data is a challenge: A typical movie is about 160GB and would have to be transmitted to many different locations simultaneously. What’s more, no movie studio wants to shoot itself in the foot. While digital filming can make way for digital delivery, studios make big profits when they sell DVDs. And most major Hollywood studios, including Disney, have invested heavily in Blu-ray, the high-capacity, high-definition optical disc format.

The transition to digital delivery will take time because it must be foolproof and easy for the consumer to use. “For Disney, the single most important consideration is the user experience—and that leads to interoperability,” says Hair. “So we’re looking at everything that’s available to us and to our customers.”
It’s not clear when Disney and the other major studios will complete the transformation to an all-digital workflow. Digital technology still lags behind film for very-slow-motion photography, Hair says, and the shift from workflow silos to a more collaborative process requires a cultural adjustment.

But the migration to digital workflow will happen, he adds, and consumers will benefit: Movie quality will go up, thanks to improved digital equipment, action and effects; prices will go down; and the public’s favorite flicks will be available even sooner.

Now, that’s magic.

Correction: Originally, the story mistakenly quoted Bud Albers of the Walt Disney Internet Group instead of Art Hair of Walt Disney Studios.