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Demystifying Avid Interplay: What is Avid Interplay? The Basics.

Only published comments... Mar 20 2013, 12:00 AM by Ian Krabacher
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The following is the second in a series of three blog posts from Ian Krabacher, Senior Principal Product Designer on Interplay, that will demystify the Avid Interplay Product Family, with a specific focus on Interplay Production. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @avidiank.


First and foremost, and perhaps contrary to what some may expect, Avid Interplay isn’t a single product … it is actually a family of products. This family is comprised of powerful asset management and productivity tools designed to give media enterprises an environment where creativity and collaboration can thrive. These tools also help them get the most out of their assets, from field footage to finished broadcast masters and everything in between. And while the phrase ‘media enterprise’ sounds a bit grand, it’s worth noting that we at Avid use it as simple shorthand to refer to all the different types of facilities we serve. The phrase also reinforces a recognition that not only do these facilities generate content, they also maintain and store it over a meaningful life cycle, repurpose it, reversion it, distribute it and often push to monetize it. So in Avid terms, a media enterprise can be a broadcast network, a production company, a post house, a sports team, a government bureau, a news organization, an ad agency or even a feisty indie filmmaking studio busting out an original web series.


Of course, the diverse needs for a list of businesses like this require a broad set of solutions, and hence why Avid Interplay has grown into a full product family made up of two complimentary systems called Interplay Production and Interplay MAM. I’ll talk about the interactions and also the differences between these systems at some point, but as mentioned for the purposes of this blog series, I’ll be talking about Interplay Production exclusively. The biggest reason for this choice is that of the two systems, Interplay Production attracts the most interest from and fulfills many common needs in post environments.


At its core, Interplay Production is simply asset management and productivity software running on powerful server hardware that is, in turn, optimized to run on Avid online and nearline shared storage. In short, it is the Avid workgroup amplified. An environment tuned for dependability and collaboration, where most if not all Avid products can converge and also meet up with 3rd party gear, if needed, from vendors such as Telestream, SGL, EVS, Front Porch Digital, Dixon Sports, and many more through some well published APIs. In addition to supporting all of Avid’s well-known creative applications, such as Media Composer, Symphony, NewsCutter and Pro Tools, Interplay Production offers native applications that allow team members outside the editorial or audio staff, such as producers, writers, loggers, etc., to work with material from a shared location and participate in the creative process.


A primary example of a native application is Interplay Central. As a unified web-based interface, it allows team members to search for and playback clips, drop markers, create sequences, monitor and mix audio, send-to-playback, and much more from any computer running a supported browser from anywhere in the world (no drivers, no dongles, no installer downloads for the user … just log in and go!). Much like workspaces in Media Composer, the Interplay Central UI also offers standard layouts that match many common tasks but also allows users to build custom layouts to match the way they work.


The Interplay Central web-based UI offers several customizable layouts
that let users match the task at-hand such as logging or putting a rough cut together.


The Central UI is easy to learn, is flexible and has been designed to be a great fit for staff members who may find the full palette of controls in a dedicated editor like Media Composer a bit intimidating or, for a clear cut task such as logging, really don’t need all of the control. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that anyone with any general understanding of any non-linear edit system (Avid or non-Avid) could be up and running in Central within an hour. I’ll talk more about Central’s sensible design and functionality in the next blog entry.


Another important facet of Interplay Production is the flexibility with which it can be deployed to meet the specific needs of a facility. Not unlike a car or a computer, it is offered in several base configurations that range in size and also levels of redundancy for ‘mission critical’ on-air or deadline-driven environments. Beyond base configurations, facilities can choose from a broad set of options that we at Avid today divide into two main groups: Media Service and Common Playback options. Media Service options are really workhorse options designed to push time-consuming, non-creative tasks to the background, leaving far more time for creativity. Here’s a list of the most common ones and what they do:


· Move: efficiently migrate media within Avid storage without performance loss

· Copy: mirror workgroup media within one geographical location

· Delivery: mirror workgroup media to a geographically distant location

· Transcode: converts media resolution, frame rates, etc., in background

· DS Remote: allows background rendering for Avid DS workstations

· Archive: push media to a hierarchical storage manager (ex. SGL, Front Porch Digital, Masstech)

· Restore: pull media from a hierarchical storage manager

· Publish: push a QT Reference to another piece of equipment or service

· STP Encode: ‘Send To Playback’; allows sequences to be played directly to air


As for Common Playback options, these are options that generally speaking leverage the playback of media from an Interplay Production environment to enable new ways of working. Interplay Sphere is a key example. This option allows editors who are working from any location outside of the facility (ex. on set, in the field, from home, etc.) to play back media from an Interplay Production workgroup, using only Media Composer and a simple Wi-fi or 4G connection. You can also upload media to the workgroup, but I will discuss Interplay Sphere in more depth in the next blog entry.


The big takeaway here with both types of options—Media Service and Common Playback—is that any media enterprise can build the environment that best serves its needs now and, if necessary, can later add other options either as a capital investment or as a rental (as many shops do with certain format HD tape decks that they only need on occasion).


All in all, Interplay Production set-ups can scale from workgroups with as few as five workstations all the way up to 330 workstations. I think it’s fair to note that in the smaller environments, many customers have typically found value in Interplay Production set ups that are running on 10s (meaning 30, 40, 50, etc., concurrent workstations) where either traditional ‘shared projects and bins’ workflows can become too cumbersome to manage manually, if the media being accessed by the workgroup is needed over longer periods, (ex. sports team who need media to be accessible over the course of a nine-month season) or the media library is massive as a result of high shooting ratios (ex. reality TV multicam workflows).


In the largest environments, our customers are running 100s if not 1000s of concurrent workstations by way of connecting in some cases close to 20 Interplay Production workgroups separated by large distances. It’s pretty amazing to see these operations crank away. But the scale of the vast majority of Interplay Production’s 1,300 worldwide sites is somewhere in between, having had the opportunity to build in the small or medium range at first and grow over time. One thing that is certain is each site is as unique as the workflows they take on, and in many cases, they’ve been able to use Interplay Production’s flexibility and customization to their advantage.


Given how specialized our industry is and certainly how ambitious Avid customers tend to be, it would be unfair to claim or even hint that Interplay Production has been perfect every time out and installed at each site. Avid customer support has received a call or two, sure. Maybe even three (attempt at understated humor). But it is reasonable, I think, to look at the wildly diverse customer pool Interplay Production serves today, the quality and consistency of work they are delivering, and see that Interplay Production has succeeded in taking on some very difficult challenges. I simply look at the seven years since Interplay Production was introduced to the market as a ‘good starting point’ for us at Avid to achieve something more significant for media enterprises.


For me and for our team, I think it’s just as important to consider what street conditions gave Interplay it genesis in 2006 and how the current media trends remind us of why systems like Interplay Production are a necessary evolutionary step for many facilities to have any shot of ever reaching the fabled ‘ideal creative environment’ in an era where we are all moving rapidly away from tape and toward file- and asset-based workflows.



A Brief History of Avid Interplay, Socrates & Pondering the Ideal


In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and a hit squad of likely over-caffeinated philosophizing, hipster chatter-boxes sit around contemplating the nature of justice and, among other topics, how to build the ideal city. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the people who are called to the grand game show that is post-production is that we tend to do something similar. We too have been known to sit around and wax poetic about how to build the ideal edit system, everything from lofty definitions of ‘performance’ all the way down to the minutiae of timeline interaction models. And if not that, then how to get our work from one system to another seamlessly is discussed, or from us to the producer, to the network, to the studio or to the client … anything to help tie the entire creative process together.


Post pros have always shared something in common with Socrates in that we tend to contemplate the ideal. {{PD-US}}


We certainly love our tools and why shouldn’t we? Most of us have spent more time under some preposterous deadline in cramped, often dark rooms staring at light twinkle on the wall trying to find the story, than we have with our own families. It is coal-mining conditions like this that forge a tight relationship between us and the tools we hammer on every hour of every day (and coincidentally the high probability of over-caffienation). As such, for us to fall into exalted discussions about how to improve the tools by which we earn our livings and have come to trust, is not only likely, it’s simply natural. And sometimes when we’ve got our togas tied a little tight, like Socrates and his crew, we may venture into the pursuit of how to build the ‘ideal post set-up’ or the ‘ideal creative environment.’


As for me (a guy who still edits even despite taking a design gig at Avid), I believe as professionals dedicated to a trade, it is right for us to constantly expect more of our tools as more is constantly expected of us. Our industry of media & entertainment has never been one fit for sissies, but the recent chapter whereby a spooked worldwide economy looms heavy over a rapid change in technology has been too much for some great facilities with solid creative talent. It’s been disappointing to see that some shops have disappeared and many an artist has sought a living in other lines of work. And related, it is especially tough to follow the news in the VFX community right now.


With media consumption models so rapidly changing, becoming more individualized to the viewer, and with production companies, networks, and advertisers competing for audiences by cautiously rolling out new and sometimes unproven distribution models, it’s easy to see how this is a formula that more often than not results in tightened budgets for many post facilities. Complicating matters is an incessant stream of higher resolutions spilling into our timelines as we weigh the risks/benefits of file-based workflows against the continued abandonment of tape and its dependable workflows both at ingest and at delivery. Our industry can seem like an unending grind in this way.


I suppose it’s no coincidence that back in 2006, Interplay Production emerged from a similar furnace of economic uncertainty and technological upheaval. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and tumult of multi-national war were followed, in many markets, by some of the largest decreases in advertising and new programming spending since the invention of the television. And just as many networks and facilities were able to dust themselves off from a prolonged dry period, they began the long struggle of adopting what was an unsettled field of High-Definition standards. In the end, the facilities that survived were the ones that found ways to stay lean and efficient, but could ramp up creative talent quickly when opportunities presented themselves. In addition, the artists who found work in this period began to find more than one skillset in order to stay marketable.


It was during this era that many networks and news organizations were desperate for help, particularly in shaping an editorial environment that was capable of handling enormous, bandwidth-choking volumes of HD media, on the one hand, and tying together a heterogeneous sets of personas and tasks (i.e. different folks fulfilling very different roles) on the other. Multiply that complexity by hundreds of workstations at a single site, and multiple geographically distant sites for one organization, and you get a sense of the need that technology of that day wasn’t quite ready for.


Evolution of the shared Avid environment.


So Avid, which by the early 2000’s had revolutionized the way our industry collaborates by tying Media Composer to fiber-based Unity shared storage to form the workgroup, stepped up and took a crack at this fundamentally different challenge where shared storage simply wouldn’t be enough to meet the need. After acquiring companies to bring some necessary technologies into the fold and a period of aggressive development, Avid launched Interplay (a product set that is now called ‘Interplay Production’) at NAB 2006 to grant its storage a far deeper and more diversified intelligence beyond shared projects and bins.


Touted as “The World’s First NonLinear Workflow Engine”, the design goal of Interplay was to ultimately give Avid workgroups a set of purpose-built productivity tools to address several important workflow needs:


· Provide powerful logging and search tools to sift through large media libraries

· Handle media at an appropriate mix of resolutions and frame rates

· Push non-creative, time-consuming processes to the background to allow teams more time to create

· Minimize duplication of source media and streamline the up-res process

· Manage deletion and archiving in order to retrieve needed media quickly

· Track versions of sequences and assets being accessed by many artists

· Allow workgroup members with different roles and privileges to work in concert under deadlines

· Exchange media and projects between geographically distant workgroups


Looking at this list, I think two things stand out. First, for as much as things have changed, they have also stayed the same. Many of the challenges networks and news organizations faced back in 2006 are today becoming foremost concerns for many post facilities as newer high-res formats continue to emerge, as file counts continue to rack up, as teams look to work more often over longer distances and, ultimately, as facilities push to spend as little time as possible on administrative tasks and more time on revenue-generating creative. We can’t always put the tape or film negative on a physical shelf any more. Interplay Production, having been refined over the years, offers a compelling way forward in the face of these challenges, not only for large operations but for the medium and small ones as well (particularly in post).


Second, I think our main man Socrates, pushing to understand the true nature of things, would declare the mere phrase ‘asset management’ as insufficient to describe the character of what Interplay Production seeks to accomplish. He would point out that while Interplay Production is indeed an ‘asset management’ system, it possesses particular characteristics that push it toward something larger, more idyllic in scope. Let me explain.


Where Interplay Production starts to diverge from simple ‘asset management’ is its inherent acknowledgement of personas. By ‘personas’ I’m referring to all the different roles we find in any post-production environment. If you are like me and an unrepentant media addict, out of respect you usually read through the end credits of TV shows and films. Ever notice how the editorial staff is but one team in an otherwise long list of credits?


One of the toughest and yet most rewarding aspects of any form of filmmaking is that it very often requires multiple people and their tools to complete a project. Since its introduction to the market, Interplay Production has sensibly offered UIs different from Media Composer and Pro Tools that are tailored to other members of the post staff, such as the aforementioned Interplay Central UI. Many have recognized the flexible and easy to use Interplay Central UI as a good fit for team members outside the editorial staff. And having those staff members connected to a shared environment with tools that allow them to contribute is huge.



Another aspect that pushes Interplay Production to be more than just ‘asset management’ and something a little more ‘ideal’ for many post workflows is a larger definition of connectivity. Interplay Production systems, offering options such as Delivery, have long supported workgroups separated by large distances (such as between NY and LA). And so for many years now, while Interplay Production has quietly been gaining market momentum, Avid has been successfully building expertise around remote workflows. In addition to Interplay Central released in 2011, the most recent expression of that expertise is our release of Interplay Sphere last year.


The implications of post houses being able to work with any talent in the world in any time zone or establish a more immediate connection between field production and post services are enormous. It is a safe bet that these kinds of developments will likely transform our industry by giving media enterprises powerful controls over how they make the best content possible and give talented post folks a pathway to creatively fulfilling work, regardless of where they are located. And maybe … just maybe …. these developments will give scrutinizing guys like Socrates and post pros alike, a reason to believe that the ‘ideal creative environment’ might just be possible after all.


In part three of this blog series, I’ll discuss tools tailored for post personas, web and mobile technologies and the concept of extended connectivity. We’ll gear down on Interplay Central and Sphere workflows and why both have the potential to help anyone pulling a paycheck in post-production, including independent editors and producers.





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About Ian Krabacher

A relative newcomer to the Avid employee ranks, Ian Krabacher has been editing for over 15 years and has worked on projects for Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, National Geographic, VH1, Sony, Travelocity, Rubbermaid and Samsung, among others. After long days spent editing, he has also worked as a freelance post consultant for many years providing budget, hardware, training, workflow and project consultation to post houses, advertising agencies, independent filmmakers and universities. Now spending his days talking to post professionals from around the world and designing for Avid, Ian finds time after hours to edit and collaborate on projects with artists he has met along the way. A confessed cinephile and media junkie, he considers Akira Kurosawa tops among his film heroes.

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