It's damp and cool in London — certainly not plagued by the deep snows of New York or the reported fall of brown snow in Colorado. What's that about, anyway?
In any case, we've been here for two months now, working out a new version of Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way. This time, he's live at the London Palladium, and in similar fashion to the previous Radio City production, the heart of the show is footage of Sinatra on big screens, surrounded by lush new orchestrations and fabulous dancers. The show has been an immense challenge for us, probably the most challenging thing we've ever done. Our sojourn here has brought us into contact with some new techniques and technologies that deserve our attention.
We've spoken a lot on the topic of the projection designer's basic toolkit. For us, one critical clogging point in our content pipeline has been the final encode, the stage where our media is put into the format most palatable for the delivery device. We do most of our authoring on Macintosh, so for us, Apple QuickTime is the final result there. But many of the devices we utilize for playback — for example, the Green Hippo Hippotizer HD — prefer MPEG2 formats.
Up to now, we struggled with some of the consumer or pro-sumer encoding solutions like Apple's own Compressor (a notorious time hog when rendering) or Discreet's Cleaner. Unfortunately, Discreet has pretty much dropped further development of Cleaner, so we were forced to reassess the issue. With Sinatra looming, a big tour for Nickelback in the pipeline, and two new Holland America Cruise Line shows, we were going to need to jam the content fast.
We researched the situation and made a dual-pronged investment. The first investment was to provide a permanent, powerful home for our encoding solution. So we bought two Boxx Technologies dual processor Render Rack nodes. The nodes are fast, fit into a rolling rack (along with an Apple X-Serve RAID storage system that holds 7.5 terabytes), and have gigabit Ethernet capability for quick connection to our workstations. We then chose our software, in this case, the fantastic ProCoder® version 2.01 from Canopus®. ProCoder works with any flavor of QuickTime, which made it perfect for us. It also easily digests AVI files, Windows Media, MPEG flavors, frame stacks, you name it. After feeding on these files, it will willingly spit out encoded versions in all of the above flavors. The encoding settings wizards are intuitive and deep, allowing us to really customize attributes like bit rate and custom aspect ratios.
Another feature that really appealed to us was the ability to set up watch folders. In the case of Sinatra, we have been producing media for nine different screens with unusual custom aspects ratios. When finished with development and render, all that was required was to drag and drop the QuickTime file into the watch folder for the proper screen. ProCoder then automatically places the file in the encoding queue and produces MPEG2 files at our chosen bit rate and ratio. ProCoder also has the ability to simultaneously produce multiple output files, allowing us to also make a compressed proxy that is easily viewable over the network by the creative staff at the production table. Oh, did we just mention the Encoding Queue? It's ProCoder's version of the waiting room, allowing us to set up a big list of files for encoding and then turn to other matters while ProCoder crunches on bits — simple idea, profound effect. Without ProCoder, we would be spending hours of time monitoring and shepherding encodes — hours we use, instead, to get other work done and some much needed sleep.
Another new (or newer) member of our toolkit is the fantastic 7.0 version upgrade of Adobe® After Effects®. First and foremost, After Effects has made the leap to 32-bit rendering. “Um, what does that mean?” you may ask. Well, it means that, for those of us creating images for very large screens, we now have an unheard of amount of quality in rendering color and detail. If you've ever projected a gradient of color or luminance and seen the less than beautiful banding that results, you know what I mean. With 32-bit depth, artifacts diminish and disappear, banding is a thing of the past, and for those working with imagery that has originated on film, the beautiful level of detail, color, and visibility deep into shadow is retained.
Another new feature, perhaps the most important one, is the new graph editing capability. Those of us who graduated to the world of projection from the world of lighting will recognize the fundamentals of graph editing in the ability of many lighting consoles to have a slow bottom on a fade or to adjust the dimming curve. This idea goes to a different level in a program like After Effects. Any and all attributes are generally keyframe-able, that is to say that you can make a change at different points in time and then interpolate between those changes. The program has always had a limited ability to adjust the curve between these keyframes, but it has been a longtime complaint among users that there has been limited capability to get really smooth curves or to define exactly and intuitively how to adjust these profiles. Different keyframe graphs now show up in different colors, and graphing presets are expanded a great deal, allowing you to quickly pick curves that smoothly ease in and out of keyframes and then tweak to your liking.
Speaking of presets, After Effects now features hundreds of new presets for many of the effects and internal modules. Designers who use Apple Motion will recognize Adobe's shift toward providing quickly accessible, beautiful choices for effects, particles, text, etc. It definitely makes generating cool rock-n-roll flash and trash very fast.
Chasing the right technologies to help us is an ongoing effort. With every passing day, there is a new option, a new functionality, or a new technique. We've been marveling at how much more stable and efficient our workflow has become since even two years ago. The odd thing is that it still takes just as long to get the gigs done. Faster flow lets us explore more options. Now if somebody would only invent a 30-hour day.