So you wanna program media servers, huh? Well, why do you want to do that to yourself? You know that there’s only one department that usually has to stay after school longer than the lighting guys, and that’s the vid-iots. I guess that some of us are just not satisfied with the easy ways out in life. Let’s face it: Lighting’s easy, right? Media sever programming? That’s just not that easy, which is exactly why it’s a great segment of the industry to join.
There’s a lot more to programming media servers than what you might expect, and therein lies both the beauty and the curse of it. Becoming a media server programmer brings along a vast set of responsibilities that many who are new to it fail to truly understand. It’s safe to say that the majority of people who are uneducated in the intricacies of dealing with video have no idea how many things can go wrong throughout the process, and it’s the accompanying cavalier attitude toward the video creation process that often causes the end result to be lackluster.
Programming media servers requires significantly more knowledge than programming lighting, specifically due to the fact that a media server’s feature set tends to be much larger than that of even the most complex of lighting instruments. This means that not only does the programmer need to have an excellent grasp of his or her control console but also every kilobyte of the media server itself and, more importantly, its limitations.
Knowing the limitations of a video system is absolutely crucial because the quality of digital video signals, by nature, is only as good as its lowest common denominator. If you put a standard-definition movie into a media server that’s outputting a high-definition signal, you are not going to get a high-definition picture. It’s a pretty blatant statement when you read it in an article like this, but you’d be absolutely astounded at how many people in the field, including video content producers, do not truly understand this. This type of misconception goes hand-in-hand with thinking that having a massive video screen with tight pixel pitch will yield better picture quality. These two mistakes are all too common and lead us to two of the next huge responsibilities of the media server programmer: video encoding and the actual video hardware.
Video encoding is a wonderful voodoo. There’s really no other way to put it. When it’s sweet and going your way, it’s really smooth. When you’ve got gremlins in the mix, then it’s going to give you a lot of trouble, and it will inevitably be the media server programmer who is looked at to save the day when content arrives onsite encoded in the wrong format. All too often, video content producers still show up with their final deliverables in the wrong format. If appropriate diligence has been paid, then they will have asked (or been informed) as to exactly how the content should be delivered.
This, too, is usually a responsibility of the programmer. He or she should be prepared to produce a content delivery guideline, often referred to as the "media bible," which will clearly direct any video content producer to the exact content encoding specifications for the various playback devices on the production. Each of the different media servers on the market prefers its own specific codec for optimal playback, and this must always be heeded when it comes to this specification. Regardless, there’s always a piece of footage or three that will arrive in an unspecified codec and will require re-encoding onsite.
This is one of the more controversial responsibilities of media server programmers. Should the programmer be "required" to re-encode a piece of video onsite when such things usually require expensive rendering computers? I’ll leave the controversy for another conversation and simply say that higher value is always placed on the person that can pull a production out of the fire, particularly when you’re not necessarily expected to be able to do so. Every server programmer seems to have a special way of dealing with this. Some get called for future work, while others only get to work with that team once. Talk amongst yourselves.
Hardware knowledge is the other element that many aspiring media server programmers don’t truly grasp, so let me spell it out for you. The lighting industry invaded the video industry with filthy little media servers. Those lighting media servers can do way cooler things, in my opinion, than the video industry’s straight playback devices, so the lighting chaps win on that. However, if you’re going to invade someone’s world, then you need to be a gentleman about it and not just make a half-arsed attempt. You need to own it completely. Only going halfway and throwing your hands up in the air when a problem arises makes everything more difficult and inevitably results in an entire crew wanting to slap you.
The pain will be shared both ways, too, because there’s nothing that a video tech loves more than seeing static on a very expensive TV set on stage and saying that it must be a problem with those lighting guys’ equipment, about which he conveniently knows nothing. So as a media server programmer, you had better know both ends of the spectrum, because you will inevitably find yourself in situations where both teams are looking to throw you under the transaxle of the proverbial bus. And by now you should also be starting to grasp the fact that production politics play a significant role in one’s ability to be good at this position.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a media server programmer is an extremely rewarding job, and when you’re good at it, you’re held in very high regard and will reap its benefits. The key to being good is the same as it is with anything you attempt in life: Go all the way with it. "Good enough" is never good enough, so if you haven’t got that kind of fire in you, then perhaps you should start learning about amplifiers and speakers (only kidding, audiophiles).
Patrick Dierson has programmed and designed numerous productions, including tours for Jay-Z, Shakira, R. Kelly, Bon Jovi, and Rihanna, as well as shows for Wynn Hotel & Casino and the MTV Video Music Awards. He earned an Emmy® Award nomination for his work on the post-September 11 telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes. He is based in New York.