Cine-Live and the Future of Mixing Workflows to Tell Better Stories

Thinking back to some of my earliest days of analog, standard definition, video production with tube and early chip cameras, there was always a desire to capture and deliver the “film look” to show a more polished and professional finished project.  Whether it was a commercial, music video, documentary, or other high-profile production, we were always chasing that elusive goal of making what we had just that much better.  At that time, early 80’s through early 90’s, you had two choices, shoot and finish with film, or spend a fair amount of your budget on the “Film-Look” process to give it that particular look.  The “look” is the same one we see today in the majority of our theatrical releases, one-hour dramas, mini-series, many commercials, and other big budget productions. 

Today we all know this “look” as shooting at 23.98 or 24 to give that theatrical story-telling look and feel, driving away from the “reality” of 60 FPS video, or even 120 FPS for hyper-reality, as well as a shallow depth of field to drive home the focus point(s) of the storytellers.  It’s been around as long as film has, and the debates about what frame rate to shoot at appears to have gotten fiercer today as we have more options.  48, 72, 120, 240, where does it stop?  What are the goals, what are the tools, who’s the audience, what’s the emotions desired to invoke and convey to the viewer?

For the most part there’s always been pretty clear-cut lines of demarcation between video story-telling and film story-telling.  I think those distinctions have been challenged over the last decade and even more so today as we continue to fight to make our projects stand-out against the heavy competition from all directions.  Now that feature films can be shot entirely on an iPhone, camera kit that is affordable for story-tellers with minimal budgets and great ideas can land huge deals that the post production can be completed in your room, basement or local coffee shop.

Over the last couple of years, when my phone rings with a potential client on the other end of the line, I’m being asked more and more, “Can you shoot multi-camera “live” with a larger than 2/3” sensor camera, at 23.98, or 24 FPS, giving me a different look, and helping to craft a more emotional and evocative story, that will help set my company, my corporate spokesperson, my product, my music, my career, apart from what the majority of others are doing in the world of video production today, and to do it at or less than a traditional multi-camera video shoot using a remote mobile truck or fly-pack system?

Throughout our current time period, there have been pretty clearly defined lines of demarcation between scripted television, live entertainment and live sporting events.  A typical scripted, North American, television (this includes dramas, documentaries, sitcoms, commercials, mini-series, movies of the week, etc.) production usually works off of a typical “film/cine” camera such as an Arri, Red, Venice, film, Canon, Blackmagic, or the like.  It involves a cinematographer or DP, it has one or more camera operators, DIT’s, Lighting Directors, AC’s (camera assistants), Utilities, grips and others that all have jobs that are well known and understood within the industry.  Before shooting begins there is usually a period of time that is dedicated to camera testing that may include multiple cameras, different lights, filters, lenses, wireless focus, zoom and iris controls, and other operational workflows designed to capture and deliver the desired end result to the viewer.  Once the equipment decisions have all been made there is a period of camera prep time (1-4 days or more depending upon the complexity of the project) where the cinematographer, camera assistant(s) and potentially one or more camera operators all get together to assemble and do full working tests of each system so that when it’s delivered to set it’s all ready to go and any potential problems have been worked out in advance.  The majority of these productions are captured at a frame rate of 23.98 or 24 and use a larger format, single image sensor, to provide a more emotional story-telling feel.  Between the “suspended-reality” of shooting at 23.98 and the much shallower depth of field using a larger single image sensor, we have a look and feel that we’re traditionally used to experiencing in a theatrical environment with a feature release.

In the world of “Live Entertainment” (awards shows, talk shows, variety shows, concerts, live multi-cam sitcoms and dramas, reality shows, etc.) there are some of the same testing procedures with a scripted television show but in many instances these are produced with remote mobile production trucks or trailers, or large “fly-pack” systems housed in a room near the stage or shooting area using a fixed complement of equipment.  The mobile unit may arrive 1-2 days in advance of the production, with a fixed set of cameras, lenses and accessories that have some flexibility for mixing and matching but not to the level of what we normally find in the scripted television pool of equipment.  The majority of these shows are captured with cameras that have 3 sensors of 2/3” inch diagonal measure at a frame rate of 29.97 or 59.94 and are the traditional “live video” that we’ve experienced most of our lives.  In this environment we may find some of the same crew as in scripted television but more than likely we’ll see a cinematographer/DP, camera operators, lighting director, Utilities and grips but the job of recording falls to a “tape op” inside the truck and not a DIT on set, and there may, or may not, be any camera assistants if the camera systems are all pre-configured and only need to be removed from their cases and assembled.  For shows that are on-going (daily or weekly talk shows, game shows, etc.) everything may remain in place for the duration of the show and the crew arrives a couple of hours before the start time to turn things on and assure that nothing has failed and needs repair or replacement.

For the majority of sporting events the world moves even faster for the cast and crew.  With the exception of large events like the Super Bowl, Masters, World Series, etc., the large majority of sporting events unfold with the mobile production truck arriving the night before, or the morning of the event, unpacking the cameras, lenses, tripods/heads, microphones and other gear and putting it in place, turning it on and being “ready for action” within 2-3 hours of arriving.  If cable is already in place at the venue it makes it even faster.  Once the event is complete, the process reverses and the truck may be on its way to tomorrows production before the clock strikes midnight.  Like the “Live Entertainment” world the cameras, lenses and recording options are usually fixed to the equipment that travels with the truck and the workflow is adapted to what’s available.  The crew is usually smaller and does not have the need for extended preparation or set up time.

Each of these three basic workflows have their benefits, challenges and limitations. 

Enter the (relatively) new “hybrid” workflow that we’re seeing more and more of in the community.  With the newer “cine” cameras being a bit more “plug and play” that is lending the ability to incorporate those tools into a more traditional “broadcast” workflow that derives the benefits of cine with the workflow speed of broadcast.  Over the last few months we’ve seen an uptick in customer requests for quotes for this workflow as well as in the use of it for their productions.  Recent projects include a Billie Eilish concert at the Greek Theatre, 34th Annual ASC Awards Show at the Ray Dolby Ballroom, and a large corporate (Fortune 100 under NDA) product launch with a streaming distribution. 

With a director and producer that understand the storytelling values of this technology it’s now possible to incorporate this into productions that may have been previously cost limited to a traditional television broadcast production. Using these cameras, with a pre-configured and tested set of lenses and accessories, it allows the truck and crew to roll up to the event the day before, or even the day of, perform the power, set up and test in just a couple of hours and be ready to “roll tape” in a shorter period of time, at a cost that is relatively the same as if using broadcast cameras and lenses.  During pre-prep calls with the production team the workflow of shooting format, frame rate, Camera LUT (look up table), recording format, camera control and other requirements are set in advance so that everyone is on the same page as the truck parks and the equipment is pulled for set up and test. 

Moving to this hybrid workflow provides some great benefits for productions that require some additional storytelling capabilities.  The majority of broadcast and cine crews are already familiar and trained in many of these areas so little or no additional time is needed to bring everyone up to speed.  It also brings both of these groups together, blending the best of both worlds to benefit key stakeholders, from content producers to the viewers.

OTT Streaming: SVOD and AVOD Business Models

NAB Show recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dan Rayburn to discuss his outlook on the broad competitive landscape of OTT Streaming and the various business, technological and consumer factors that will effect the industry over the next year. The below is an excerpt from our conversation. 

NAB Show: With new streaming services including HBO Max and Peacock coming to the market in Q2, consumers continue to have many options when it comes to both live and on-demand video content. With so many choices available, what will be the primary differentiating factors for near term and long term success of these new OTT platforms?

Dan Rayburn: As consumers we all like having lots of choice, but with so many OTT services available for live TV, sports, movies and TV shows, consumers are definitely feeling overwhelmed. Many are going to have to start making hard choices of which content is most important to them and how much they are willing to spend per month, to get their video fix. The good news is that we all have different tastes and we also have a lot of AVOD services offering content without a subscription. These free services tend to lack premium content and newer TV shows and movies, but for some, that’s a tradeoff they are ok with. The good news is that new services like Peacock will offer a mix of different business models, with both live and VOD content, with different price points based on what you want to consume.

Measuring the success of OTT services will be done using different metrics, based on the business models of the parent company. For example, AT&T said if HBO Max helps to reduce the churn of AT&T Wireless subscribers by one basis point month, that would save AT&T $100M per month. But services from Hulu and Apple don’t involve wireless customers, since neither of those companies are a mobile carrier. So all of the OTT providers will measure success from different business standpoints, which is separate from how the industry and consumers measure the “quality” of the video. Content has and always will be king and reliability and ease of use come in just behind that. But we also have to keep in mind cost. Consumers have a limited budget and there will be different thresholds on what their maximum spend will be per month. It will vary, since we have different content tastes, but once it all shakes out, I expect many U.S. households will take 3-4 OTT services per month.

There are a lot of opinions in the industry on what the tipping point is for the number of services in the market and it’s a topic we’ll be discussing at the Streaming Summit in detail, with speakers from HBO Max, Starz, Amazon and others.

NAB Show: For subscription based services, will the measurement for subscriber growth be harder to quantify because of free trial offers such as we’ve seen with the launch of Disney+ and Apple TV+? 

Dan: Disney just recently released subscriber numbers for Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ saying that as of February 3rd, Disney+ had 28.6M subscribers, ESPN+ had 7.6M, Hulu has 30.7M. Disney also detailed what the average revenue per user (APRU) was and did comment that it was a little lower since Disney+ came to the market, do to all the discounts at launch. Apple hasn’t disclosed how many subscribers they have to Apple TV+ and since you get a free account for one year if you buy a new iPhone, iPad, or Mac, even with numbers we wouldn’t know how many subscribers Apple TV+ has that paid for the service. Over the last year we’ve seen much more transparency from companies on subscriber numbers and I expect that will continue. Alphabet, for the first time, released subscriber numbers for YouTube TV in February which hit 2M. So more data is coming to the market and the majority of it is being done to help keep investors updated, since these companies are all spending billions of dollars to launch new services in the market.

NAB Show: What will be the impact this year of all the AVOD services in the market that allow free streaming with advertising? 

Dan: We’ve seen a big growth in the number of AVOD services in the market which now include Tubi, Xumo, Pluto TV, IMDb TV, YouTube, Roku Channel and others. For some consumers, they are most interested in free content and aren’t looking for the newest content or popular live sports. The majority of these services are also owned by larger companies where the free services are part of a larger business model. ViacomCBS owns Pluto TV, IMDb TV is owned by Amazon, Google owns YouTube and the AVOD services are part of a larger video content strategy. It’s too early to know the impact to SVOD services from AVOD offerings, other than the fact that all of these videos services are competing for out time and we only have so many hours in the day we can watch video.

NAB Show: With Netflix recently announcing that consumers will be able to stop preview videos from automatically playing, and with the OTT landscape becoming increasingly competitive, do you anticipate more of an emphasis by OTT plaforms on enhancing the overall consumer experience? 

Dan: Every single OTT platform, be it live, SVOD, AVOD or a combination of them are heavily investing and focusing on the user experience and have been for years. From video startup times, search and discovery, voice control, player UX/UI features and HDR, to the reliability of the video playback, quality of experience (QoE) is priority one. With new OTT services coming to the market they have to look and work just as good as their competitors, if not better. There are a lot of very talented engineering departments at all of these companies pouring over tons of user experience data, to see how they can continue to improve on the QoE, with many making changes in real-time. We’ll have multiple sessions at the Streaming Summit talking about QoE, including a presentation by the former Director of Operations Engineering at Netflix, who will discuss how Netflix achieved insane video streaming QoS through deep integration.

NAB Show: Recently, the media reported that Apple had hired one of Netflix’s engineers. Would this be considered a type of precursor of a future technological arms race to ensure that all these streaming services are on the leading edge of innovation?   

Dan: The success of any OTT service is based on a large volume of talented engineers, not just one person. One new engineer hire does not change a company’s strategy or success in the market and many media outlets, like the one that reported on the hire, simply want to write for headlines. That said, there are a lot of companies spending money right now to get the best talent possible as they grow and build out their video services. Developers, product managers, data analysts and others that know the streaming video stack are high in demand right now and that’s not expected to slow down any time soon. If you add up just the top six OTT platforms by the number of subscribers, combined, they will spend more than $25B this year to license, produce and deliver content. It’s a great time to be in the streaming media industry for those that have the expertise.

Dan Rayburn, Streaming Media Expert, Consultant, Chairman, Streaming Summit, NAB Show and Principal Analyst, Frost & Sullivan, is considered to be one of the foremost authorities, speakers, and writers on streaming media technology, content, and business models. An avid blogger, author and analyst, Dan is often referred to as the “voice of the industry” and has been quoted in more than a thousand news items by nearly every major media outlet over the past twenty years. His blog is one of the most widely read sites by content owners, Wall Street money managers and industry executives in content, broadcast and media sectors.; 917.523.4562