Videography - December 1997

Crawford Digital Adds Some SPACE
by Sheldon Liebman

Crawford Communications, based in Atlanta, has been an industry leading post production and video effects facility for the past 16 years. The company has grown beyond offering traditional video services to include film, computer graphics, multimedia and satellite services, among others.

Most recently, Crawford launched Crawford Digital, a new 15,000 square foot environment located at Crawford's Atlanta headquarters. This new area offers advanced 3-D computer animation, on-line suites, high end compositing suites, 2D/3D paint and offline editorial. Everything is digital from start to finish and HDTV formats will be supported.

Finding Storage SPACE
Storing the digital video information during a project and accessing it from the various suites requires the use of high end DDRs that are as comfortable in the computer environment as in the video environment. When Crawford went shopping to meet this requirement, they close three Pluto Technologies VideoSPACE Digital Video Recorders. Each recorder holds 30 minutes of digital video and two of them also support audio. The non-audio machine is used by the graphics workstations.

Pluto was formed a few years ago "to provide solutions which eliminate or minimize the hazards" associated with the transition from analog to digital technology, according to company literature. All of the company's products are built around the "SPACE" name, which is used to describe the basic platform.

VideoSPACE is Pluto's core product, a full-bandwidth Digital VTR that connects to both the video and computer worlds. According to Mark Gray, Chairman and CEO of Pluto, this dual connection is critical to the long-term success of the product. "There are two facilities within every facility," explains Gray. "One is the traditional video plant with switchers, character generators, DVEs, etc. Even a digital video facility is done this way. The other facility is a workstation-based facility. Applications on the workstations are doing many of the jobs that black boxes used to do." In the past, adds Gray, "it's been tough to move material between and among the workstations and even more difficult to move it between the two sides."

Pluto designed the SPACE platform so that it would look like a VTR to the video side and a disk-based storage device to the workstation side. This was one of the keys to Crawford's decision. "VTRs are very expensive to maintain," says Charles Eaton, Vice President of Engineering for Crawford Communications, "so we don't want to buy many more of them. One of the things we were looking for was a storage solution that would let us do edit sessions without so many VTRs."

At the same time, Crawford found that their technology for doing frame by frame animation was dying. "Our DDRs were getting ancient and hard to maintain," comments Eaton. With the VideoSPACE, "we could use it for that type of application as well as using it real-time in the edit bays as a recorder substitute."

Pluto worked hard to make sure the VideoSPACE looks like a standard VTR to other video equipment. As far as Eaton is concerned, they succeeded. "The Pluto was one of the few machines that had the handles and hooks for doing VTR substitution," he says. Tom Goldberg, Director of Marketing for Pluto's Production Products Group, explains further. "You can divide the (VideoSPACE) up by raw time code or by frames," says Goldberg. "The clips are contained within these areas. Each one is like a little piece of tape and an editor can get to them in a traditional online environment by referring to the absolute timecode." Control is accomplished through an RS-422 port just like any other video device.

More Efficient Use of SPACE
On the computer side, Pluto has developed the Pluto File System, or PFS. PFS is a way to mount the recorders as standard disk drives. "We've developed something that doesn't require any software on the user's side other than mounting the drive using the Operating System tools that came with their workstation," explains Goldberg. "Once the drive is mounted, they see a huge virtual drive that shows all the frames of video in whatever format they choose to use."

If a software program generates a series of TARGA files, for example, those are written to a directory on the VideoSPACE recorder. A simple utility creates a link between those files and a time code range on the video side. This allows the video equipment to see the animation as just another clip on the recorder while allowing the workstation side to use it for rendering individual frames.

In a similar manner, frame by frame painting and/or special effects can be done. You can take a true video clip and map it to the virtual drive. Once that's done, the workstations can read individual frames, change them, and then deposit them to the same time code location or to another one.

Currently, the management of this mapping is pretty basic, but Crawford and Pluto are working together to put a nicer front end onto this process. "The user needs to figure out where to put clips on the tape and what can be erased," says Goldberg.

Moving Material Around Your SPACE
Just having the three VideoSPACE recorders available to the workstation side of the facility isn't really enough. You also need a way to move data as quickly as possible. For now, Crawford has chosen to use Fast Ethernet, or 100BaseT, to meet this challenge.

"We hope to be able to share these things around the digital plant with Fibre Channel," explains Eaton. "Once we can do that, we'll be able to move data faster than real-time." Although Fibre Channel has gained a lot of supporters and is being installed in many video facilities, Eaton wants to be cautious given the fast changes in the networking arena. "We hope to start gearing up for Fibre Channel early next year," he says.

Making the Jump to HyperSPACE
There's another reason that Crawford is very interested in adding more horsepower to their network. With support for data transfers at 100 MegaBytes per second (MBps) or beyond, they will also be in a great position to move around Advanced Television data including High Definition video. At their recent open house, Crawford demonstrated this capability using equipment from a number of manufacturers including a prototype of HyperSPACE, Pluto's ATV recorder.

"VideoSPACE records SMPTE 259M format video at 270 Megabits per second (Mbps)," comments Gray. "HyperSPACE records the same resolution using a 16:9 aspect ratio, which translates to 18 MHz rather than 13.5 MHz and 360 Mbps instead of 270." The interesting thing about the 360 Mbps data rate, says Gray, is that "it's a wonderful common denominator for any of the other (ATV) formats. We can record a D5 signal and pass it between HyperSPACE recorders or back to D5 without recompressing."

For true uncompressed HD applications, Gray indicates that Pluto can stack four HyperSPACE units together. For 480P60, he adds, "we can stack two of them." This flexibility is very important to Crawford as they move in this direction.

"At the open house," states Eaton, "we wanted to do a technology demo of HD. We put HD boards into our (Phillips SPIRIT) datacine, added HD versions of (Discreet Logic) FIRE and INFERNO and connected everything with a high-speed network." High-resolution video was then moved around in both video and data formats. "It came out pretty well," adds Eaton.

For now, says Eaton, Crawford is most interested in upgrading the existing VideoSPACE recorders to the HyperSPACE model and using them individually rather than hooked together. "On the HD side, I'm kind of enamored with the compression idea," explains Eaton. "It looks so good and everything costs so much that we're trying to start with one stream of HD that we can own."

If that's the route they choose, Crawford should have no trouble moving between standard and ATV video formats. "HyperSPACE can be instantly reconfigured to be a VideoSPACE," claims Gray, so Crawford will have a lot of flexibility.

And flexibility is going to be one of the keys to the future for this high-end facility and others like it around the world. After all, it's not just how much SPACE you have, but how many ways you can use it.

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