Disney Fast-Forwards Into the Digital Age

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.