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In An Ideal World…

What if we all spoke the same language?

It’s an intriguing question when you look at it in a global context. Gone would be the inability to communicate with people in different countries. No longer would someone fear that a weaker grasp of a foreign language has the ability to hold them back. The world would have one less difference for people to discriminate with. For fans of Douglas Adams, it would be as if we all inserted a Babel Fish into our ear.

The same thought could be put into the world of editing systems. What if there were one format, one codec that everyone agreed upon? Right about now, anyone who has ever waited patiently for the blue bars of a conversion program to finish has dreams of a Codec Utopia.  Not only would it eliminate some of the “hurry up and wait” that all editors know all too well, it would help avoid some of the digital degradation of our footage.

Let’s take a step back for a second and relive the days of analog tape. Betacam SP, 3/4″ U-matic and other formats that gave us headaches with all their flaws. In those days, we were very cognizant of how many generations we lost through the various versions and dubs we had to make. Every time we went from one tape to the next, we lost a generation. If you were the kind of person to edit your stories on a work tape, and then edit from the work tape to package the show on to the master show tape, then you lost another generation. Then, if you had to do a “Best Of” show, you were probably cutting from a master onto a new master…you see the vicious cycle. Every generation meant you lost a little bit of the picture quality. The same went for ENG departments on a budget who couldn’t always go out in to the field with single pass tapes. Tape hits were the norm after a few run-throughs, and editors sometimes lost great shots because of simple wear and tear.

Nowadays, cameras shoot file-based media on to digital storage devices, and you can copy files as many times as you like without fear of quality loss. But when it comes to putting that media into a show, you run into problems. First, there’s the question of what system you use. Some programs, Avid, take your source media and convert it into its native media format. Yes, it’s high quality, but in essence, you’re taking the shots, breaking it down and re-encoding it in an entirely different language. Anyone who’s seen a badly translated sign will all of a sudden see the potential for error.

Now, what happens if you have a large shop with different edit systems? If one edit system’s high-quality export format isn’t read by the other system, you tend to have to find a compromise, which usually means a lower-quality, compressed codec. That means you aren’t working with the best quality footage possible. And then comes the occasional need to transfer media across the internet, either via ftp or other transfer protocol. In order to facilitate this in a low-bandwidth environment, you usually have to compress the file…another language change, which they may have to re-encode for their systems on the other end.

Even our country plays a part in the incompatibility of systems. In the world, there are 3 television formats…NTSC, PAL and SECAM. Each of these have different frame rates and scan rates. PAL, for example, works at 25 or 50 fps, while NTSC works at 29.97 or 59.97. To be able to cut something encoded at 50 fps for NTSC, you must first convert the file to the NTSC frame rate, which affects the overall look of the viz. I won’t even begin to get in to cameras that shoot at 24 fps that then need to be cut at 29.97.

You see, despite all of our advances in technology, we fall in to the same problems as we had 10-20 years ago. Commercial competition breeds not only better products, but the realm of incompatibility on a larger scale. Now, there are edit systems out there that read many different codecs and formats, and even read them off of the original source, without having to pre-convert the media. However, what happens when you render? When you export? It may be idealistic, naïve and entirely inconceivable for us to one day see one system that every newsroom, production house and editor working independently at home uses. It may never happen…but it bears some food for thought. Instead of making products that make our picture bigger, crisper and 3D, let’s remember the golden rule of television editing…Garbage in, garbage out. At the very least, it would end conversations like this…

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