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The Real Meaning of “High End”

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Phil Rhodes
There was a time when the world was simple. Ampex made video tape recorders, Pye made cameras, and the western world had manufacturing industries. Even in the modern world, where we’re more likely to be using specialist software running on commodity hardware, there are go-to names for the big stuff: Digidesign for audio editing on Pro Tools, da Vinci for color correction, Teranex for standards conversion and Cintel for telecine.

No, wait, hang on.

I don’t mean to single out Blackmagic unfairly as the absorber of all ailing companies, but its spate of acquisitions over the last couple of years does highlight a theme of big names brought low, or at least bought out. This isn’t new, of course, nor does it necessarily indicate a lack of success. Adobe didn’t invent Photoshop – the genesis of it was written in the late ‘80s by Thomas Knoll, brother of John Knoll, known for involvement at ILM and the Knoll Light Factory plugin. Da Vinci, however, did indeed invent, or at least greatly popularize, the concept of color correction as a creative technique as well as a technical one, and they developed increasingly advanced tools that will long be remembered as a key player in the art and science of color correction. Cintel was instrumental in the transformation of telecine from something that solved the problem of broadcasting film-originated material, into a fully-fledged part of the postproduction world, right up to the development of digital intermediate.

This is really supposed to be the sort of behaviour that brings success, and for a couple of decades, starting in the early ‘80s, it did. Manufacturing real physical hardware and selling it to well-funded clients at boutique prices has never been a bad business model, although it’s interesting that da Vinci’s current owners have made a great success out of the opposite approach. It’s hardly a controversial assumption that part of this was a simple matter of technological obsolescence. In the case of da Vinci one might reasonably conclude that the rise of GPU processing, at a cost of a few hundred units of currency, is what pushed their custom-built FPGA racks, at a cost of a few hundred thousand, into irrelevance. In 2004, when the original Xbox games console was already starting to look old-fashioned and what was then called “pixel shaders” had been around for a couple of years, they released the original Resolve grading software. Resolve still needed proprietary processing hardware made by da Vinci, and it wasn’t until 2008 that it was rewritten to use NVIDIA’s graphics hardware. ATI had released their R300 microprocessor, which would be sold to the public as the key component of Radeon 9000 series graphics cards, which would have been quite applicable to this sort of work – six years previously.

So, okay, with 20:20 hindsight these things are obvious, and the short-termism of western business practice can often make it cripplingly difficult to get financial executives to commit R&D funding to anything that’ll take more than a few months to pay off. It is also notoriously tricky to completely alter the tech base on which a company operates, with new facilities and different staffing requirements. This may well be what happened to Cintel. While I’m sure it’d have made a lot of noise about being high-end and exclusive, the gradual fall of film was inevitably going to lead to their principal product line becoming obsolete. The fact that they’ve just been absorbed may be partially due to a failure to innovate, but it’s also due to the imminent obsolescence of their entire field.

The thing is, I’m not sure either of these is really the whole problem, particularly with companies that like to consider themselves “high-end.” I spent more than a few minutes at various trade shows talking to da Vinci people about pixel shaders, the idea of which was received with a sneer. “High end” often really means that the company has customers who make a lot of money using hard-won expertise on the company’s products. The other, less charitable way to put that is that high end simply means that people get stuck in their ways, then charge enormously for it. I get the feeling that this situation, however you want to describe it, is the reason Pro Tools still exists in a world where there are comparable and cheaper alternatives for an awful lot of its traditional use cases. Pro Tools itself is a strange, idiosyncratic piece of software and the brilliance of it is not obvious to me.

So, until moments before the end, people from da Vinci were claiming that they were a high-end company, that their products were high-end, their users were high-end and they were therefore immune from the march of technology and the market forces unleashed thereby. It would be easy to interpret the current state of Avid – trading at $38 a share in 2007, and sevenish now – in a similar way. And they don’t even have much of a shift in the underlying technology to blame, they just have Final Cut. I have spoken about Final Cut to Avid people who attempted to dismiss it as somehow not “high end” in a fundamental way, as if Avid had access to a special version of reality in which mathematics operated differently. After you’ve heard this line from a series of technological incumbents, it starts to look like a bad excuse for lagging behind.

Whether you choose to interpret this sort of pomposity as a normal part of corporate public relations or a particular disease of those serving the creative industries, I don’t think there’s any doubt that it hurts companies in the long term. This comes to a head when the pretenders turn out to be perfectly competent, or at least grow to be, then get used on a couple of prestige projects, revealing that the high-end airs may be as insubstantial as a certain emperor’s smart new clothes.

To bring things full circle, the world seems to have recently realized that Adobe’s Premiere Pro is as capable of editing video as anything else, and Apple seem to have made a few enemies with FCP X. That’s a great example, because most nonlinear editors do more or less the same things. Could you cut a releasable feature film on Sony Vegas? Can you do colour grading on a consumer-level graphics card? Can you mix audio in Reaper?

Well, I hate to jump on the bandwagon of every independent filmmaker out there, but as a practical matter, of course you can, and we generally don’t because of things like attitude and skill set, more than any concrete issues of actual capability or the underlying technology. It’s probably worth pointing out here that we might not be able to assume Blackmagic’s acquisition of Cintel will make telecine cheaper, at least not cheaper to the enormous extent we saw in da Vinci and Teranex’s products, which are software and electronics respectively. Film transfer machines are mechanical devices involving precision engineering that can’t readily be mass-produced, and this is not a problem that’s reducible without performance compromises that might be unacceptable to the majority of people. Software can mitigate some of the demands for mechanical precision, such as scanning a sprocket hole with the image sensor and stabilizing the frame with respect to that, a technique already used (in one dimension) in the Spirit. Even more, this assumes that Blackmagic is actually after Cintel for the telecines. If our supposition that Cintel became acquirable because its market was evaporating, well, nothing’s really changed and I suspect that even a very cheap full-size telecine is a device with a limited market. Suspicions that something other than the obvious may be going on here may be well-founded, no matter how much independent filmmakers would like to celebrate the idea that a 35mm HD telecine might soon be available at cost achievable by private individuals.

Even so, there are times where genuinely high-end products, from genuinely high-end companies, are necessary, but in a world where more and more of everyone’s job is done on commodity computer hardware with zero-cost-to-replicate software, it shouldn’t be any surprise that a lot of previously exclusive things are being made, well, cheaper. While technological development has always caused this, I think there’s been a big uptick in the last 15 or 20 years because of much-improved communication and design tools, almost exclusively related to cheap, fast computing and the internet. If you’re willing to reach for science fiction, writer Vernor Vinge talks about a technological singularity, in which these effects combine to create an exponential growth rate leading to advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence. Until we have cameras that can literally shoot the show for you, we might not quite have reached that point, but better-known rules of thumb such as Moore’s law hint that the first signs of that upward slope of achievement may be starting to emerge.

Or, if you like, this can all be written off as the cut and thrust of normal competition, but I shall be watching the Lightworks project with interest because once that’s mature, the list of things that Avid can do and that Editshare can’t will be quite short, other than the simple fact of Avid’s incumbency.

And that, as we’ve seen, is not nearly enough to rely on.

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