Dave Ginsberg from the Elegant Workflow blog and Podcast series, interviews Brevity’s SVP of Operations, Jossi Fresco Benaim.
David: Welcome to another Elegant Workflow Podcast, a member of the Tech Podcast network. This week we are talking with Jossi Fresco Benaim, Senior Vice President of Operations for Brevity. Jossi, welcome to the Podcast. Please tell us a little bit about your career and how you ended up at Brevity.
Jossi: I started my career back in 1985 just as the personal computer market began to develop. I was in Israel at the time and I became Technical Director of MLL Computers, one of the largest computer companies in Israel, where I was closely involved with the development of the right-to-left technology for Hebrew with Microsoft. In 1991, I moved to the UK to start my first company, the company’s name was UCM and its focus was on the multimedia market at that time. A big word for personal computers that were able to display just a few colors, but we tried that. A few years later we developed one of the first media asset management solutions, and we did that in Israel in an Israeli-based incubator. We were hiring Russian immigrants that were software developers and we launched MediaForum, Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts. We developed one of the first media asset management solutions at that time. We sold the company in 1997 in a private transaction.
I then moved to Boca Raton, Florida where I started my second venture deploying Voice Over IP technology connecting networks between Argentina, Chile and the US. Later on, I directed the technical aspects of a boutique post-production facility in Southern California and we deployed one of the first DVD authoring systems to serve the local market. A few years later, I spent several years as the Director of Technology and as Director of Online Services for several non-profit organizations. We were focused on the production, post-production, and international distribution of broadcast and online content. It was there that I became very familiar with the pain points in file-based workflows and I worked hard with an international team of professionals developing innovative solutions in that space, finding a lot of problems and trying to resolve them, probably as many others in the industry.
I learned about Brevity from Timothy O’Brien, our current CEO, in the middle of last year. At that time he was an adviser for Brevity. I got very enthusiastic and excited about the technology that they developed and I visited them and became even more enamored, particularly with the team. A great team of people and a very interesting vision, and joined them in January of this year to develop and manage the West Coast operations for Brevity.
David: Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about what Brevity is and how the technology works?
Jossi: Well in one sense, you have to change the mindset to understand what Brevity does. Basically, the file based workflows we are currently utilizing are very much hardened workflows that have been there as we moved from tape-based workflows to digital file-based workflows. What we are trying to do at Brevity is to simplify those workflows by combining transport and transcoding into a single process and enabling the simultaneous delivery of video to multiple locations in multiple formats with the push of a button. So instead of having to do things separately in their own silos with different glues to connect the different processes, we’ve enabled a “pipelined” process from beginning to end, from ingest to transcode and transport all in one protocol. The way that we’ve done this is to utilize very advanced algorithms designed around the human visual and perceptual system that are optimized for high-end production and distribution workflows. We do this much faster than currently possible by applying bit-for-bit lossless and visually lossless compression algorithms to enable us to transport files at highly accelerated speeds while we transcode simultaneously at the edge. To put all this together, we have created a very beautiful and friendly web-based interface that enables our customers to take advantage of all of those elements, through an intuitive group-based and collaborative interface to actually make those workflows, work.
David: What have you found to be the most challenging issue with taking these large video files that people have and making them small enough for efficient transport?
Jossi: Well as you know, the files are becoming bigger and bigger. Now the industry is focused mostly on HD content, and it was not too many years ago when we started with that process. Now there are discussing 2K, and 4K, and we have 3D. The sizes of files are becoming bigger and the expectation of quality from consumers, be that television screens, movie theaters, or mobile devices, is getting higher and higher. All of the aspects of quality are very related to the original format that we start with and unless there is a way to optimize the transport of those files, the promise of a fully digital workflow, file based, becomes very difficult. We have the promise of cloud and bigger pipes, but at the moment we are simply throwing more money at the problem rather than trying to resolve it.
What Brevity does is taking those very large files, which will only become larger as we move forward, and finding a way to compress them in a way without losing the original quality of the source; transport that small file across the wire and then apply the transcoding and transformation processes at the edge. That is a winning combination, and that is where our value proposition lies. Is it possible to take a 35GB 30-minute show and reduce its size to, say 5GB, without losing quality while transporting that 5GB file? The answer is yes. It is possible because today we have very powerful GPUs and CPUs, and when you couple those with the visual science that our scientists and engineers have, it creates an incredible combination. We have a tremendous amount of headroom in that space. What we are achieving today is up to 30 times acceleration on uncompressed footage, meaning 30 times smaller, and that is only the beginning. Our engineers and scientists are looking at ways to improve that even further.
David: I think you had some interesting points there; that Brevity works with anything. Its not just dealing with HD files, but 2K and 4K. Even the other day you told me that Brevity can handle photos.
Jossi: Not only photographs, but also images. Currently
Brevity is being used in production by NBC Olympics to transmit RLE graphic files . All the graphics that you see on the screen—the overlays, the flags graphics during the opening ceremony—all of those files need to be transferred, transcoded, and imported into Avid for editing. Maintaining the alpha channel, doing the overlay, these are the kind of things Brevity can do really well. We are agnostic on what ingest file formats you have. We can create any of the files in any other format at the destination.
Going back to your original question about the technology, basically everybody uses compression, ProRes, DNxHD, etc. All of those formats are compressed formats. They have been optimized to be able to be utilized and uncompressed on standard computers. Because of that, they cannot really apply very high compression because otherwise it would be impossible to play back in real time or to utilize them for editing or for viewing. When our engineers looked at the problem, they decided they had to find a way to not rely on personal computers to actually do that aspect of encoding and decoding. If we can apply really powerful algorithms and use teraFLOPS of computing power using current GPU and CPU technology, we can do it way better. That was the starting point of the Brevity technology.
ImageWarp and DataWarp are algorithms designed specifically to compress and decompress video files or image files in a way that maintains the original quality of the source. We introduced a variety of methods, which I cannot specifically disclose what they are. But what is interesting is when we took 2K files and brought in the colorist of a movie and displayed it on a large screen to try and see if there were any differences between the original footage and the one that was created using ImageWarp, the colorist could not see any visual differences. The film grain was maintained, the quality of the overall video was maintained, and he couldn’t find any differences. When they put scopes on those files, then they could see the pixel shift here and there and the differences; but it was not possible to see it with their eyes. I think that is what our engineers have developed, this magic sauce that enables you to compress files at high rates without losing quality. As I said before, what we have now is only the beginning; we have a lot of headroom to improve those algorithms.
David: You’ve brought up a lot of interesting points, compression, it seems to be such a bad word to people, but the world is compressed. When we look at things through our eyes, we aren’t seeing really what’s out there; we are seeing what we are capable of detecting. There is infrared we cannot see and radio waves we cannot see, and that is all out in the world and I think people forget about that and also HDCAM SR, which is the industry standard. That has compression. That is about 200mb/second, so innate in our process there is some level of compression. I know that you probably get a little pushback about compression and people say “Oh, I don’t want my files compressed,” but they are already compressed.
Jossi: When we mention the term ‘visually lossless’ to industry professionals, people stare at you with a very strange look. “What do you mean visually lossless? There is nothing like that.” But actually we can demonstrate that and the only way to demonstrate it is actually to show you how it looks, because its quite fascinating to see a file that was in the hundreds of GBs, becomes a fraction of that and then when you see it you cannot really see the difference. That is a remarkable achievement.
One thing that suddenly opens up when you have this type of technology is the starting point. The starting point today for most people in the industry for archival is a ProRes 422 file, because anything higher than that takes too much storage, files are huge, so we are now storing a large amount of content for archival purposes using a compressed format. Meaning that 10 years down the line, even if that footage was captured at 2K or 4K, we still have our master source for distribution in an HD format that is compressed. The reason again is that we cannot transmit or store those files. They are too big. Now imagine if you can now take uncompressed footage and reduce it to 30 times the size (that is comparable to a compressed file), but you have the entire source material. All of the bits are there, the description, the definition, that video is contained within the ImageWarp format. Suddenly, you can start imagining workflows in which the starting point is not a compressed file anymore, but rather a 2K file. Now it is possible with this kind of technology, so Brevity opens very interesting possibilities.
David: Yeah I do think that is very interesting. Another point that you brought up earlier is the Brevity technology is format agnostic on the ingest side. So you can have anything and you can go to anything, so what you were saying with the Olympics is that the files can come into any format but they can come out on the other end in pretty close to real time in the Avid format so they can be edited. Whereas current workflows where you have a file, for example like you said ProRes that is an industry standard right now, but a lot of facilities are Avid. So it gets to the facility and its ProRes, you can edit in ProRes but some older Avid systems don’t like that so then you want to convert to an Avid format—so that takes time. Even if you’re editing in ProRes, it is not the most efficient way to edit on an Avid, you probably would want to put it into DNxHD or some other Avid format. I think that is another fascinating aspect of the system. You’re taking this transcoding out of the timeframe that you have to allot to get your files. So when it comes it can come in any format you want and I want to reiterate that it can be multipoint. So it can go to multiple places at the same time, creating different files at each place.
Jossi: I couldn’t have said it better.
We are coming to the industry with a solution that enables you to look at the problem in a way not only in the short term, but also for the long term. How many more servers do you need to buy? How many more transcoding farms do you need to buy? How much more storage do you need to add? That is going to continue going up and up and up. As files get bigger, more resources are required. I have had customers who decided not to utilize content because it is too expensive to monetize it, as it requires more storage, more people, and more processes. With Brevity, suddenly more opportunities open up because you can onboard a customer to which you want to send content at a much lower entry point than if you have to deploy additional server farms, transcoding farms, and people who do all of the processing, which can actually be automated with Brevity.
David: I think that is a great point for content creators, because now you’re allowing content that might not have been economically feasible to create or to deliver in the case of something that is live, now that can be available and monetized. Now you can have additional revenue strips for things that you might have written off or that are such a niche market that you figure “oh there is not a lot of money there.” Well now its not costing you as much money so maybe you can explore those markets and there is a bigger market there than you thought there was going to be.
Jossi: That is exactly the point.
David: So what do you think the industry should be doing differently to promote more efficient workflows and technologies, especially revolutionary technologies like Brevity.
Jossi: Well, I think what I have learned over my first year at Brevity is that there are several kinds of customers. There are some customers that understand the problem really well and they are very intrigued by the possibilities of what Brevity brings. Not only are they intrigued, but also they take a step and say “we’re going to try this and include it in our current workflow.” They take active action and they engage with us in onboarding them as a customer and facilitating the process of finding the exact mix that they need to make it successful. Others have been afraid to take the step into the unknown and they wait to see what others will do first. Then there are others who have a particular culture and are not so open to innovation internally in their companies. I think that probably applies to any new technology that shows up in a market. There will be those who are early adopters, others that will take some time, and others who will just do it at the end.
At this moment in the life of Brevity, we are working with those customers that are really interested in taking advantage and are not afraid to take a step. This industry is growing and across the board the whole aspect of digital is taking this industry by storm. It is huge and the problems are compounded by the size of these files and the expectation of quality by the consumer, and I think that the companies that take advantage of technologies like ours are the ones that are going to benefit the most. We are looking forward to working with many of them.
David: A lot of people are afraid of new technologies. I like to say, “no one ever got fired by saying no.” I think people usually get fired by saying yes. It doesn’t matter what you say yes to—whether its yes to making a movie or yes to a new technology—but on the other hand the fact that you’re about to complete the Olympics, I think that is huge. A lot of the really revolutionary technologies over the year, in Media and Entertainment, have been tested through the Olympics process. I think that kind of says this is a reliable, reasonable, cost effective technology because we’ve used it and it worked on a live situation with billions of people viewing. I think it’s a very interesting time and hopefully the Olympics will help bring a lot of focus on this and that this is a product that people can use and it does work.
Jossi: I think that there is another aspect, there are some companies out there that are still schlepping hard drives everywhere. That is their workflow: Courier, FedEx, a person hopping on a plane at the end of “wrap” every single day they are shooting and flying from Chicago to New York to deliver the files. That is still the norm in many sections of our industry. So there is the potential for post companies and producers to actually leapfrog the entire situation. We can transfer your camera files and your dailies from on-set to post-production; now this is possible. There are the early adopters, there are the laggards, but there are always the leapfrogers. Some of them are definitely intrigued by Brevity and are working to actually implement these solutions as well.
David: That is a good point about the hard drives. I actually know an executive who puts things on USB thumb drives because they’re smaller short format things and drops it in a FedEx envelope and ships it over to Asia and he says “look I’m digital.” My response to him was “yeah that’s a great idea, but you might as well make him a tape.” I mean it is kind of the same basic theory; you’re still shipping a physical asset versus shipping the file and shipping it as data over some type of telecom infrastructure. Now what happens when you have a change in that piece of video? You have to drop it in another FedEx envelope and send it again versus changing it and resending the file. I think you’re right that over time you’re going to have folks who will do a lot of leap frogging and jump right into this and they could be people who are tape based who see this and say, “Hey I just want to switch to this technology, I don’t want to do any of the intermediate technology because it doesn’t make sense anymore.”
David: So what is your definition of an elegant workflow?
Jossi: The problem is that many of the things we call workflows today are really not workflows; they have a lot of manual processes, the interface of the processes are very cumbersome and complicated, with lots of complications and human error introduced. So a workflow has to be something that you have defined in which you have a chain of events arranged in such a way that when you initiate the process, that process will move from one step to the next step to the next until it ends, in a seamless fashion. If you apply that concept to current workflows in media production, post-production, and distribution, you will see that in many instances we don’t really have workflows. We still have a lot of manual processes. When I press the remote control on my AV system at home, I press one button and my DVR goes on, my television switches on, my Apple TV turns on; I do not have to go and switch things on one at a time or connect things manually every time. I press one button and everything happens and I can watch television the way I like to.
In the same manner, if you look at workflows today, we don’t just press a button and everything is done. We press a button and the file lands here and then we have to copy it there and then we have to send an email to so-and-so to tell them the file is in FTP or on a server. Then the editor goes to the server and finds the file, only to find it in the wrong format. This is the way that post-production happens today; a lot of back and forth. That is not a workflow, some portions of it are a workflow, but some others are not.
An elegant workflow is one in which I have designed a priori on how I want my files to ingest, from where, how many locations I need to send them to, which formats the file needs to be sent in, and then I press a button and everyone gets a notification, its all in real time and the files land where I need them as I need them. That is an elegant workflow, and that is what we are trying to do with Brevity. With a push of a button, you ingest a file, or 500 files, and the process starts and ends seamlessly, in one step. That is an elegant workflow.
David: Yeah and as you were running through how workflows are today a lot of thoughts came up in my mind of different workflows I’ve had to witness over the years and I am the same way as you are. How do we make this so that it is more automatic? How do we make it so that it’s simpler? I remember when I was first starting out my career and I would say, “Why are we doing it this way?” and people would say, “We’ve always done it this way and it works. Having that guy over there doing all the files by hand; that works. And we know Jim is going to take care of it and we know everything is going to be good.” But no offense “Jim” wants to be an assistant editor, he doesn’t want to be doing files anymore. Lets get a computer and we can let Jim go off and move forward in his career and not just be sitting there clicking buttons.
Jossi: Exactly, and when you have a really nice and really elegant workflow, the talent that you employ in your company whether its an engineer, an assistant editor, and editor… everybody can actually benefit because now they have more time. People don’t have to do the kind of boring stuff where they have to copy files and wait for an hour until it copies, etc. They now have time to invest in the creative aspects of their work (everyone wants to be creative from the producer to the engineer), and enjoy what they’re doing. I think that taking advantage of computers, CPUs, GPUs, software, and incredible technology really frees us from menial tasks and enables us to spend our time in a much better way. We can be more productive and have more fun.
David: Yup, and I think that’s a great point to wrap up on. Thank you again for taking time out today and discussing the Brevity technology with us and I want to wish you and the product all the best.
Photo credit: Bass Images