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Reach out and edit someone: A look at some of the digital links that are turning commercials postproduction into a long-distance calling

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL COULD HAVE PREDICTED IT. No sooner could we send a voice from room to room than we wanted to do it from continent to continent. And if we could beam a voice, why not a piece of paper? And if paper works, well, why not commercials in progress?

Long-distance transmission and manipulation of commercial elements is becoming a reality, not that it will ever keep Minneapolis creatives from flying to L.A. for an edit in February. But some production houses, directors and agencies are experimenting with various forms of digital links, usually in limited partnerships, such as between bi-coastal offices of the same company, a production house and its favorite special effects facility or an agency and post facility that often collaborate for a major client. Not that any of them have a handy dandy trans- mission device on every desk. In fact, given the technological advances that have occurred in the past few years, especially in the areas of compression and bandwidth, few industry players are probably as far along as they could be. The usual bugaboos-money and compatibility-stand in the way.

Nevertheless, the industry plods toward the virtual studio concept. To understand it, consider telephone lines first. There are four basic types, and they're different. The standard phone line that carries a voice (and works by sampling that voice 8,000 times a second) sends this information at 56 to 64 kilobits a second-too slow, you can't send clips over this one.

Next is the ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line, which is twice as big, 112 kb a second. Now you're getting somewhere, but not very far if you only have one of these. Bundle 24 ISDN lines and you get a high-capacity T-1 line. This will transmit 1.5 megabits a second, and here's where video file transfers start to make sense. When you put 28 T-1s together, you get a T-3 (or DS-3) line, which moves 45 megabits a second. That can handle broadcast quality video. One of these suckers also costs $1,000 to $2,000 a month, not counting the equipment needed on either end to make it work, so they aren't exactly widespread yet.

Now we can focus on the methods of transportation. Drumroll, please: After a mere month, without even having all the bells and whistles quite worked out, Henry Sandbank of Sandbank Films is thrilled with Drums. Think of Drums not as hardware, software or phone lines but as a service that includes all three and is provided by a Sprint/Silicon Graphics joint venture. It consists of a T-1 line that links two SGI Indys and carries video and sound.

Why does Sandbank do it? "As a director, I get extremely frustrated," he says. "I do the live action, then I have to hand it over to a post facility, and they interpret what I do. It's a very unhappy situation. It's like parting with my left leg and two fingers on my right arm when I can't follow it through. But it's physically impossible."

No longer. Now his New York studio is linked with design and effects house Good Pictures, San Francisco, and his longtime working partner, Jonathan Keeton.

While Keeton slaves over special effects in San Francisco, Sandbank does other jobs in New York. Three or four times a day, the telephone icon on his Indy monitor rings. He clicks on it, and the link is made. A microphone picks up his voice, a small camera puts his face in a window on Keeton's screen, and he can see where Keeton is going with his spot. The two also have a shared controller, so Sandbank can paint, too. "And if I want to be a jerk, I can erase his line," Keeton says.

The image is not transmitted in real time; it has been sent before the session. (A :30 takes about 5 to 10 minutes to send. If it's D1, a single frame takes about 10 seconds). The resolution is high quality and can be blown up on a standard Sony monitor, so they can see work as it would appear.

Sandbank describes a Coca Cola project that involved 40 scenes and took weeks to post; he checked in several times every day. The agency creatives didn't have to travel or hang around, either. Instead, Sandbank kept control of his vision and presented work in progress at key intervals. "Creatives only have an attention span of 5 or 10 minutes anyway," he says. "They just get lethargic and eat too many bagels."

ADrums decision is not for the weak of heart or spare of pocketbook. An

Indy costs about $30,000, Sandbank says, and the service runs him in excess of $2,500 a month. Isn't that a tad expensive? "This is my yacht," he says. "When progress allows you to do a better job, it's a very happy day. Very often technology decreases quality, but this is a way to do it better."

On a considerably larger scale, BBDO and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners are two agencies that hooked up with such luminaries as Apple, Kodak and

Paramount Pictures in what Pacific Bell is calling a "technology test."

Called Media Park, it is essentially a broadband network that provides access to film and photo libraries, video and audio production facilities, and such services as image rendering, compression and data conversion.

Media Park operates in a Macintosh environment but crosses all bandwidths, meaning ISDN, T-1 or DS-3 lines all work. A monthly fee (not established until it becomes commercially available) covers access and shared space on huge servers. Individual services-stock footage, talent or location searches-are negotiated separately, online or in old-fashioned ways. Barry Cox, BBDO/West director of information systems, knows digital transmission. His creative department has long avoided L.A.'s rush hour by completing electronic mechanicals in the studio, clicking on mailbox icons for appropriate print vendors to drop in files, and sending them via ISDN lines. Although the Media Park test runs until November, BBDO didn't use it much, except to search for stock photos for comps, and the agency dropped out in August.

For one thing, they're already in L.A., where much of the work can be done on site. For another, it's too young, too new. "The content providers will have to reach a critical mass," Cox says. "We look for the best work, so we need to have the whole range available."

BBDO/Detroit, however, is connected directly to a post house, where it can pull dailies for Dodge. As in most cases elsewhere, the impetus for a link is driven heavily by the volume of work for a single client and the need for heavy post production. Whether it's Drums or Media Park, this way of working will "grow gradually over time," Cox predicts. "They're still working out what the requirements are and what has to happen to make it successful."

Over at Machine Head, a Venice music and sound studio, a proprietary system called 3D2 hooks up with its New York rep's office, where it was recently used for a Gillette commercial from Ayer. The system sends the time code and audio of a videotape dub (the tape itself is sent on in advance) so both parties can collaborate in real time. "When we push play, their tape runs," says Machine Head owner Stephen Dewey. "The synchronizer sees the time code and instructs their video deck to get with the program." A session may last 10 to 20 minutes, then the music folks do the tinkering while the agency goes out for Chinese. Then it's back online for approvals. The final can go straight onto a DAT machine at the other end.

Dewey says he had this idea two years ago, "but everybody looked at me as if I were mental. I persisted, and I wasn't committed." It was frustrating, though; the system requires six ISDN lines, which took 18 months to install, in spite of the fact the studio is located a mere 75 yards from PacBell. Some fine tuning remains-a slight time delay had to be offset-but the company is establishing a link with The Mill in London and looking to expand its continental business. It is cheaper than traveling.

"We're offering this service at our cost, about $500 an hour," says

Nansi Johnson-Bielanski, Machine Head executive producer. "We want to get people in New York to consider us in L.A."

In Tulsa, at a digital component transmission service called Image-Net, product manager Les Wood promises real-time, broadcast quality transmission over a fiber optic network called Vyvx. It allows for digital compositing but requires the same hardware and software configuration on both ends-equipment that is not yet available except through California vendors. It also requires DS-3 lines. Vyvx is available in 50 cities, where a "first video affiliate" (Ackerman McQueen, Oklahoma City, is one) can provide access through a local loop.

Wood cites several uses of the fledgling service, among them a spot produced by Busch Creative Services in St. Louis that was assembled in 24 hours from material pulled from four or five locations. The system also allows for joint editing sessions with multiple audio channels and remote machine control. Lack of interoperable standards is delaying progress, however. "One beta deck doesn't talk to another beta deck," laments Wood. "Equipment should be available in the next three to four months."

At Windmill Lane Productions in Los Angeles, producers of BBDO's award-winning Pioneer Audio flailing bridge spot, a VideoFax is used to communicate with New York's Messner Vetere on Nasdaq commercials, each of which takes about a month to post. It's silly to keep the creatives around for input that takes only about an hour a day, explains executive producer Ben Dossett. "But as we execute it, inevitably there are decisions no one can foresee."

The VideoFax, a black box with a keyboard connected to an ISDN line, compresses and digitizes the video, then outputs it automatically to a deck on the other end. The best quality takes about 30 minutes for a :30, but it is often used for much shorter cuts. According to Dossett, the cost is about $500 for installation, $550 per month for the equipment, and about $65 a fax. The ISDN line is about twice the price of a normal phone line.

After only two weeks of being digitally joined to his West Coast of- fice, Phil Price, president of New York post facility Click 3X, says he can't imagine doing business without ClickLink. Their proprietary system-they haven't done the marketing plan yet but plan to-transmits full-motion video over four ISDN lines. It is possible to send D1-quality, uncompressed video, although a :30 would take "a couple of hours" and is rarely necessary. A compressed rough cut takes about 10 minutes, and Avid's "broadcast quality" takes about 22 minutes. Generally, it's only necessary to send about a six-second clip. Price claims that resolution is better than VideoFax, although the latter costs less. He figures a basic ClickLink unit-a router box and software-would run about $8,000, not counting the computers (they use Avids), which have to be the same on both ends. A "plug and play" PC-based unit could be $10,000 when it becomes available. 'Our biggest motivation is that it's got to be cheap," says Price "It can't cost $1,000 every time you do it."

Fancy lines too much for you? Consider modems. At a recent shoot in Hawaii, Windmill Lane couldn't get its dailies turned around fast enough. Ben Dossett digitized the video into QuickTime movies and sent it via the cellular phone to the Avid back home, where the Flame operator took it off, Flamed it, put it back on the Avid and transmitted it in time for the next day. "It took about an hour for a five-second clip, but it would have been impossible four years ago," Dossett says.

Richard Winkler, executive producer at New York animation and effects house Curious Pictures, uses QuickTime movies, too-to send work to clients via America Online. "It's a little funky, but 15 minutes to Japan ain't too shabby," he says. Fifteen minutes will accommodate a two-second movie and costs a whopping $2.95. Winkler said he uses it primarily to get sign-offs on composited frames, the elements of which have been approved earlier. "The average Joe can do it," says Winkler. "I feel like Robin Hood, clueing in the world."

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