WFH: Baby Steps And Lasting Legacy

Until very recently, the idea that editors and VFX artists could work remotely from one another seemed a far-off reality. Yet, Work From Home measures mean media companies have had to pivot overnight to a remote work setup. Content creation may never be the same again.

When social distancing measures were mandated a few weeks ago the industry scrambled to set up remote workflows.

Chief among these was security. To protect yourself and your customers from theft of IP don’t directly connect your VFX or edit workstation to the internet. In the office the concept of ‘air gap’ is drummed home but at home the message can go out of the window.

There are practical health checks to prevent you from any liability around content being leaked as you are touching and shaping it in the creative process.

If you are working ‘alone’ and submitting deliverables via a file transfer service, this might be as simple as having a separate computer for browsing the internet and email. If your company helped you set up your home office, they likely briefed you on the best practical methods to ensure you are not connecting that premium content to the internet and how to shuttle the media from one computer to another for sending out deliverables.

However, if you are doing live review sessions from your creative workstation, the problem is harder. With a dedicated streaming device (ClearView, Streambox, Teradek), it is likely you already ‘air gapped’ - connecting to that device with only an HDMI or SDI cable and having that device connected to the internet, streaming encrypted real-time video to your colleagues and customers.

If you are using a desktop sharing application (Evercast, Zoom, Bluejeans, Skype, Microsoft Teams), then you have a tougher problem to solve. Best practice here requires a separate workstation and for you to push video from your unconnected / air gapped workstation to the second workstation via video HDMI or SDI typically with a breakout box so that the second device becomes your ‘streaming device’.

Whatever the tool is that is sharing the content, it should only have access to that content from a video input source and only during the actual live streaming session.

“While the world has had to make practical trade-offs to allow thousands of us to work effectively from home, no one will sign off on their content being directly connected to the internet nor will they waive liabilities to the same effect,” says Chuck Parker, Sohonet, CEO.

Those working with the most premium assets and projects on the cloud are advised to store content on platforms with security certifications from Trusted Partners Network and the MPAA.

Many incumbent cloud storage platforms do not hold these certifications, advises Frame.io so be sure to double check before you sign up.

“You’re also looking for compliances with SOC-2 Type 2 which basically means there was a known third-party audit to document all the safeguards of a tool in terms of confidentiality, privacy, availability, and security,” the vendor says.

Bandwidth

For many, the biggest hurdle to remote working, let alone a distributed production with various team members working from home, is whether you have enough bandwidth to do what you need to do.

Michael Cioni, Global SVP of Innovation at Frame.io advises you to find out by taking the speed test https://www.speedtest.net/. Average home internet speeds should yield about 100 Mbps download and about 20 Mbps upload, or approximately 12.5 Mbps per down, and 2.5 Mbps up.

Until conform and finish most will be made in proxy as a matter of course. Most collaborative edit teams are editing on Avid with either DNxHD 36 or DNxHR LB or on the Final Cut X or Premiere platforms using ProRes LT or ProRes HQ.

“If you’re working with 1080p material in DNxHD or LB, the bitrates average about 35 Mbps,” says Cioni. “If you have above average high-speed internet, your connection should deliver multiple minutes of footage per minute of download.”

Bandwidth impacts the whole point of collaborative distributed production – the ability to share. It’s always a good idea to limit other activity on your connection whilst your session is running if you don’t have ample connectivity at home but that is going to be hard when other members of the family demand access.

When thinking through this problem, Sohonet’s advice is to think about the video problem (frame rate, colour fidelity) and the people problem (how many remote viewers, is the sharing synchronous in real-time or can everyone comment on their own timeline asynchronously). You also need to think about how to share the ‘deliverable’.

‘Synchronising’ your tools works in the office is easy when you have tons of bandwidth for send and receive, but most home solutions are going to have an asymmetrical speed where the upload is significantly smaller than the download speed. In this scenario, sending the deliverable is a better approach than synchronizing everything, supplemented perhaps with a ‘sync’ at the end of the workday, which can work through the night if needed.

For those working with remote collaboration tool ClearView Flex, Sohonet advise that it needs a minimum of 20Mbps of upload bandwidth in order to stream successfully.

“For those on the viewer side, the bandwidth needed is dependent on the quality setting,” Sohonet suggest. Viewers, of a single stream, will need 2-3Mbps for the low setting, 4-5Mbps for medium and 6-7mps for the high-quality setting. Bear in mind if you’re also running the Presenter app from the same location as your Flexbox you’ll need 20Mbps up and up to 8Mbps down in order to view the stream in your browser.”

Colour grading is a different story entirely. It’s not unusual for colourists to take home their project on Baselight or Resolve but the catch now is that ‘critical review’ quality output is not yet possible from any cloud tools (though many industry players are working hard to solve this).

Restrictive home bandwidth will make SDR colour grade reviews tricky, let alone HDR passes. It is not possible to finalise work in a projection theatre or on professional grade reference monitors.

“Your studio can’t send someone to calibrate your home monitor and we can’t send you complicated pieces of kit and expect you to install it on your own,” says Parker. “Any solution in this unique situation has to be really simple, supported by phone, so we can get people working as best as possible.”

Project cloud

The cloud is by far the most seamless and sophisticated option for production teams that cannot compromise on efficiency or collaboration. In a cloud scenario, all media and edit tools are available directly in the cloud. Editors can access media, play it back, edit it, and collaborate with one another from literally any location in the world. They can archive media, access high-speed and high-quality playback, make real-time edits, and gain full accessibility to their workloads in the cloud.

“A fully cloud solution comes with a bigger price tag than its remote desktop or virtualized counterparts, and it also requires sufficient bandwidth to work well,” says Craig Dwyer, Vice President Global Cloud and SaaS Practice at Avid.

However, it can also be thought of as a valuable long-term investment. Cloud technology strengthens your business continuity posture, argues Avid, allowing your production team to remain resilient and keep working remotely right through crises like the one we’re experiencing now. Since the cloud frees you from having to maintain your own data centre, it also removes the administrative overhead that you might have to contend with in a remote desktop or virtualised scenario.

Although you might assume that the software licenses you already have automatically let you use the software remotely, that’s not always the case. As Avid points out, some software companies require you to have special licenses for remote access, so don’t forget to confirm that you have the right licenses in place. Licensing can be a major headache at a time when production teams are scrambling to keep their projects going.

Outcomes

Society will overcome the current situation and gradually return to work but there will be positive consequences resulting from production lockdown. Chief among these will be an enlightened attitude among production executives to the practicality and benefits of a distributed content-production workforce.

“Where remote collaboration was seen as a necessity for an overbooked director was the prerogative of a key creative to have review and approval dialled in to their location, it will in the aftermath of current events become the norm for any member of production to do more of their work together from where they live, reducing costs and improving speed and agility,” says Parker.

“We will move from a time in which 10% of the industry had tried remote to one where 85% did so overnight. And guess what? It’s proven, battle hardened in trial and error. Going back to a normal remote work environment with access to high bandwidth, professional grade tools and visiting tech support will seem like a breeze.”

Virtual remote work is no longer an academic exercise but one in which we all have real world experience.

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