The Evolution Of IMF And What It Holds For The Future Of Post
The proliferation of content in the M&E space in recent years has led to the rapid evolution of post-production technology–and it’s important that your business evolve with it.
If you’re a content owner in the industry, odds are you’re asking yourself this question:
How do I stay ahead of the curve?
There’s one key phrase you need to know about staying ahead of the content production curve: Component-based media workflow.
Usman Shakeel, World Wide Technology Leader for M&E at AWS, remarked at IBC in 2018 that broadcasters, production companies, and streaming OTT vendors alike are looking at their supply chains in the context of the modern architectures of componentized media workflows.
One such componentized media workflow format that has caught the attention of industry leaders like Amazon, Netflix, Disney, 20th Century Fox, and several others is IMF– the Interoperable Master Format.
WHAT IS IMF?
The Interoperable Master Format (IMF) is a single, component-based master file package that allows you to specify a scene and swap out the localized metadata while preserving the original master file.
For an introduction to IMF, take a look at our article, “IMF: The Format of the Future You’ll Need Today.”
With IMF, you can create multiple versions of the same title that can be delivered to several different endpoints, all out of one master package.
Why is this important?
The content creation workflow is costly and onerous, with multiple incompatible processes, formats, and technologies failing to cooperate. Today, a mainstream feature film can end up with over 500 different versions: aside from all the different formats out there (LTO tapes, mpegs, etc.), there are also different versions and edits for lots of different languages, the theatrical cut, the director’s cut, the airline edits, TV censor edits, and more.
Now with OTT services cropping up regularly, all with their own preferred formats and specifications, workflow efficiency has never been more important. In addition, with 4k and 8k TV resolution quickly being realized, the need to lower the cost of handling such large files is even more pressing.
M&E organizations, from studios to post houses, are addressing these needs by transitioning their content libraries to IMF.
IMF exists to streamline this digital supply chain with a standardized set of processes that take your content from conception to distribution in a way that is both time-efficient and cost-effective, eliminating versioning and asset management pain points along the way.
Rather than sending multiple flat versions of a title to an endpoint, you can send one IMF package and include multiple composition playlists (CPLs) with instructions describing how to combine essences to get the requisite compositions.
With IMF, there is significantly less mastered data to store, manage, and transfer, which drastically reduces costs and versioning headaches. As IMF enters the mainstream, companies are benefiting from standardized and simplified business-to-business file-based content distribution workflows.
Now, we know what you’re thinking…
Where has this been all my life?
It’s a good question. But IMF didn’t just show up one day out of the blue to solve everyone’s post-production woes.
IMF has gone through several iterations and has evolved to become the format that it is today. It stems from established, tried-and-true standards, which means there’s plenty of proof it can work in the field.
Understanding the evolution of IMF and the impact it’s already had on the industry is key to learning what IMF holds for the future of post-production.
THE EVOLUTION OF IMF
The Early Years…
The changeover from analogue to digital video in the 1990’s marked a great advancement in the field of media technologies. But it didn’t come without some concerns, namely, that several competing, non-interoperable technologies were being developed and adopted across the board.
You can probably guess what began to happen–because everyone started adopting their own preferred formats and workflows, it became difficult to exchange content and collaborate on a single project, let alone distribute a project to multiple endpoints.
As a result, The Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) joined forces to standardize digital video and its elements for better asset management and exchange.
Here’s where we begin the evolution toward IMF:
- 1990’s: Advanced Authoring Format (AAF)
AAF is a file format mainly used for internal editing, designed to facilitate multi-platform, multi-vendor interoperability for digital video production. The development and adoption of AAF set a precedent and laid the groundwork for new developments for interoperability in post-production.
- Early 2000’s: Material Exchange Format (MXF)
SMPTE came out with MXF to standardize the exchange of content and metadata in a simple wrapper. Later iterations of MXF will become what wrap your IMF media essences, a key part of encoding and decoding IMF packages.
- Mid 2000’s: MXF Mastering Format
They soon realized that the initial specification of MXF was too broad and needed to be further constrained. This led to the MXF Mastering Format. These added constraints made the format better suited for standardization.
- Mid 2000’s: Digital Cinema Package (DCP)
SMPTE began work on the specifications for the DCP, the file interchange unit for theatrical content distribution to digitally-enabled movie theaters, an architecture that IMF will seek to build upon.
The MXF Mastering Format became AS-02 MXF. AS-02 was an attempt to address the problem of versioning, but focused more toward the broadcast industry than cinema. Then, Hollywood noticed the potential that AS-02 had to solve their own versioning issues.
- 2007: Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at USC
The film studios expressed a need for a better file format for the distribution of high quality films. Hollywood responded by forming a group of five (then later, six) studios under the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at USC. They took the best of DCP, an established and hugely popular standard for theatrical delivery, and AS-02, for extra granularity, and eventually combined them to form the Interoperable Master Format.
- 2011: Interoperable Master Format (IMF)
In February of 2011, USC ETC published IMF Specification 1.0. One month later, SMPTE began work on IMF, continuing to develop and refine different applications and specifications over time.
So as you can see, IMF didn’t appear out of thin air–it is based on years of existing practical knowledge and research surrounding, primarily, the Digital Cinema Package and AS-02 MXF.
One important player recognized the potential for IMF to revolutionize the M&E space and tapped into it early on–and it made all the difference.
Netflix–A Pioneer for IMF in the OTT Industry
Initially, IMF was strictly focused on the Hollywood film industry–it was all about the film studios better managing the process of versioning their content.
But in the Fall of 2014, Netflix came onto the scene and announced that they prefer all UHD content submissions for streaming on their platform to be formatted as an IMF package.
This was a game-changer for IMF adoption in the industry.
When the biggest SVOD provider modified its entire workflow to be component-based, you can bet that everyone’s heads turned toward IMF, and the acronym became a burgeoning (post) household name.
So, what compelled Netflix to make the switch?
To put it simply, the scale of Netflix’s operations made the benefits of a component-based workflow irresistible.
Before they made the switch, the folks over at Netflix suffered a number of problems mainly surrounding their volume of content as well as localization needs. Not only do they handle a lot of content, but they also handle myriad versions of any given title. Efficient asset management is critical to their success as the biggest OTT service in the business–and traditional formats were no longer cutting it.
Netflix licensed most of its content from other owners, sometimes years after the original assets were created, and often for multiple territories. This created a smorgasbord of formatting, dubbed audio, and subtitling discrepancies due to all the various file formats and specifications floating around out there. Netflix not-so-affectionately coined the term ”versionitis” to represent this asset management affliction.
Netflix also required that content be sent in its original format (with native aspect ratio, frame rate, etc.) in order to accurately portray the artist’s creative intent. Doing so meant extremely large flat file sizes being exchanged through the digital supply chain, incurring high storage and delivery costs.
Another important pain point for Netflix was the costly, operationally demanding process of making incremental changes to a version (or as was often the case, multiple versions) of a flat file. There was no way to make small changes that didn’t involve lots of time, energy, and money…
Until Netflix discovered IMF.
By utilizing an IMF-based workflow, Netflix was now able to store and handle a single package that consisted of the core assets for a title and the unique elements needed to adjust that title to make it relevant in a specified territory.
They also benefited from improved video quality, as they got direct access to high quality IMF masters. They didn’t have to sacrifice quality for the sake of ease and speed of the transfer of content.
In addition, making incremental changes to any given version of a title became exponentially simplified with IMF–IMF acts as a video “cut-and-paste,” allowing you to specify a scene and swap it out with a different component for that scene.
By switching their entire workflow to an IMF-based one, Netflix made their business operations significantly more efficient–saving them time, money, and manual processing work so that they could focus on getting ahead, and staying ahead, of the content streaming curve.
Furthermore, they kickstarted the second wave of the IMF evolution–IMF implementation in the OTT space.
Netflix has plans to become 100% IMF. And it looks like others in the space are starting to have the same idea.
THE CURRENT STATE OF IMF
In today’s streaming era, the demand for IMF is being driven primarily by SVOD providers, like Netflix, who understand the cost and time savings of a component-based workflow.
IMF has more champions than ever before, a major one being the Hollywood Professional Association (HPA). HPA is a trade association that focuses on serving the community of individuals and businesses who provide creative and technical expertise, support, tools, and infrastructure to the industry. HPA houses the IMF User Group, a forum for the worldwide community of end-users and implementers of the IMF family of standards. Netflix, Sony, Disney, Fox, Apple, Amazon as well as OWNZONES are just a few of the members included in the IMF User Group.
Since 2015, HPA has been in partnership with SMPTE, the association that’s been at the forefront of IMF’s evolution since the beginning.
SMPTE continues to drive forward the evolution of IMF in the post-production industry.
Currently, SMPTE’s goal is for content owners and post facilities to use IMF as an output format, and for broadcasters and distributors to receive IMF packages as an input format, using automation to extract desired deliverables.
In order to help implementers achieve interoperability, and avoid the pitfalls encountered in the early days of MXF, SMPTE organizes semi-regular IMF Plugfests. The IMF Plugfests–essentially hackathons for IMF practical implementation–provide implementers with opportunities to interchange test content with the goal of advancing interoperability and identifying areas for improvement in the standard.
IMF is continuing to evolve from being solely a tool for Hollywood studios to a tool specially designed to address the mastering needs for delivery to broadcasters and OTT platforms as well. If you’re looking to keep up with content production and delivery trends, implement IMF into your workflow.
If you’re looking to get ahead of the competition, rely on an IMF workflow implementation in the cloud.
THE FIRST CLOUD-NATIVE IMF IMPLEMENTATION IS HERE
Today, the most efficient IMF implementation is one that happens entirely in the cloud.
The nimbleness that is afforded to you when you work with IMF entirely in the cloud is unparalleled.
Most traditional hardware-based systems today require expensive upfront costs to maintain, support, and secure the hardware. They also don’t have the ability to run in parallel, meaning they are only able to run one job at a time from start to finish.
With the technologies available today, a hardware-based IMF implementation is not as efficient as you need it to be.
In contrast, a cloud-based IMF implementation is the most advanced, cost-effective, and time-efficient solution out there today.
Cloud giant AWS agrees: Shakeel (AWS) explained at IBC 2018 that when you implement a component-based workflow in the cloud, much less storage space is needed, and the storage that you do use is efficiently managed. Instead of storing multiple flat versions of a single title, you store one master package that is capable of spinning up multiple versions on-demand.
You can easily scale up or down in the cloud, so as your work volume increases or decreases, you only pay for the storage and processing that you use on a per job, per transcode basis.At OWNZONES, we utilize such cloud-based tools to our advantage with our product Connect, the first fully cloud-native IMF-based solution for the media supply chain.
OWNZONES Connect’s IMF Implementation Workflow
While IMF is gaining in popularity among content owners and distributors, there is still a need to be able to handle incoming and outgoing flat files. Aside from Netflix, most endpoints do not currently accept IMF packages, although that’s where many are headed.
When we receive flat files (e.g., ProRes, XDCAM, etc.), we run them through our own proprietary IMF transcoder in the cloud, taking the incoming media and converting them to certain “flavors” of IMF, depending on where the client wants to distribute them.
Our proprietary transcoder in the cloud works 35X faster than traditional transcoders because of our parallel scaling technology, meaning it can run multiple jobs at the same time because of our ability to scale up easily and rapidly in the cloud. Furthermore, our solution can divvy up parts of a job and have multiple machines working on it at once, repackaging it all at the end of the process.
Now, you’ve got your IMF package in the cloud, and it stays there taking up minimal space, readily available for the next time you want to spin up a new CPL to make a new version of that title. Our newest features allow for the easy archival and recall of CPLs, further automating the Connect workflow.
The Next Wave of the Evolution of IMF
IMF has come a long way over the course of its evolution–the IMF of two years ago is not the same as the IMF of today. And it will continue to evolve and advance to better suit the needs of content providers everywhere.
Cloud-native IMF implementation marks the next wave of the IMF evolution. We believe in the power of a cloud-based IMF workflow to revolutionize the post-production industry.
So, what exactly does the future of post-production look like in a world where cloud-based IMF is more widely implemented?
The future of post is a glass-to-glass studio in the cloud.
The studio in the cloud vision is to migrate the entire production process into the cloud. In real terms, this means that IMF would create a common language for components to come together in the end, meaning footage shot on set would go directly into the cloud and would be immediately available to vendors around the world who could work in parallel alongside each other. In a sense, it’s as if IMF acted as an API, helping different workflows talk to each other.
This would help shorten the production window overall and enabling faster time to market. All collaboration, from pre-production to editing to post-production to distribution, would happen seamlessly in the cloud.
OWNZONES Connect is paving the way for this end goal.
Our cloud-based IMF workflow is highly automated and takes a process that traditionally would take several team members and a whole lot of tedious grunt work and collapses it into the click of a couple of buttons. It removes the burden of scaling, so you no longer have to limit your throughput due to a lack of resources. And it enables a fast track to supporting newer, more advanced standards as technologies continue to evolve.Interested in implementing a cloud-based IMF workflow but not sure where to start? Reach out today and we’ll help you decide how to best leverage IMF for your business.