Ever since production and post-production went digital, a steady wave of delivery formats has cycled in and out of favor. Now, all types of platforms—including social media websites, broadcast outlets, and streaming services—have created an alphabet soup of acronyms: SD, HD, UHD, HDR, XAVC, IMF, and ATSC, to name a few.
Here's a look at what's driving the delivery format trend and what it means for the future of video post-production.
What's Driving the Format Explosion?
One ongoing driver behind the push for new formats and their adoption remains compression—a critical component of being able to access content in all shapes and sizes and on any devices. "The Holy Grail for codecs has always been improvement on compression rates. Having seen dozens and dozens of codecs over the years, none were successful unless they fundamentally [and] dramatically improved the compression rate over the current technology used for that specific environment," says Stan Moote, CTO at IABM.
The content boom, courtesy of streaming services, has also played a role. In particular, Netflix's need for higher-fidelity media opened a path for new standards of quality for delivered files and boosted interest in high-quality formats like UHD/4K on the consumer end. In response, formats and codecs continue to develop in order to handle the image fidelity experienced on various endpoints.
Netflix has also had a hand in growing IMF, says Chris Lundy, mastering supervisor at PostWorks New York. "Five years ago, it was only accepted by a small number of vendors," he says. Given the service's international reach, the need to streamline packaging multiple versions of content for different audiences has become critical—and that's likely to remain true going forward.
What Are the Implications for Video Post-Production?
Delivery formats are fundamental to post-production. Embracing more of them naturally comes with implications for the industry, not all of which are positive—for instance, creatives may have to switch back and forth between compression formats for different tasks.
Looking beyond day-to-day workflows, IMF may simplify delivering different versions of content, but it can introduce complexities as well. It's why, for example, Lundy has seen IMF outsourced to facilities like PostWorks New York. "While editorial teams can produce a lot of their own standalone delivery files, the IMF package is complex enough to warrant them going to providers like us who stay on top of the most recent updates," Lundy says. "I think the IMF/IMP is the most complex of the formats."
Licensing can also present a challenge. "The best compression codec for a particular task may not have appropriate licensing terms," says Moote. "I have met many CTOs that have decided not to use certain codecs due to concerns over unknown and often convoluted licensing terms for fear of litigation." It's why, even though HEVC (h.265) has gained momentum because of its ability to reduce file sizes further than before, licensing has limited broader adoption. It's also why alternatives like the royalty-free codec AVI1 is used by the likes of Amazon, Google, and Netflix.
Moote points out the further implications of transport formats. "With terrestrial and satellite, transport stream worked well and could also allow for many programs. As these systems are migrating over to IP, this has opened the door for change—not only allowing for hybrid broadcast operations but also allowing for yet another Holy Grail of dynamic ad insertion."
How Is the Post-Production Industry Adapting?
Amid all these changes and formats, how are post-production teams keeping up? "There is a steep learning curve to many of these formats, and in the hands of an untrained operator, they may not produce the desired results," says Lundy. "Whether it's HDR color settings, [Dolby] Atmos® audio configurations or captions, or even metadata information, it all takes some digging to understand." Ultimately, most of that complexity revolves around HDR finishing and mastering to IMF/IMP.
As a result, post professionals have to stay abreast of updates by continually training and acquiring talent. That comes with both human and technological costs: "More work? Longer hours? These can mean frustrated post-production teams," jokes Robert Rodriguez, product marketing director, video and post at Avid.
"We find some facilities have even opted to establish teams that specialize only in IMF and DCP mastering", states Rodriguez. "In fact, that can be a crucial differentiator."
"We do need to stay at the forefront of understanding and implementing each new format so we can provide our clients exactly what they need. In the end, it's people and their skills that keep us competitive," says Lundy. "We don't just compete with other facilities like ourselves but also with the individual editors/producers who can now finish and deliver direct from their editing systems. We need to make sure we have the knowledge, skills, and equipment to stand out."
The Road Ahead
Will there be a slowdown in the proliferation of delivery formats in the video post-production industry? It's unlikely. "Inevitably, things will evolve, and change will continue. What remains uncertain is the pace at which change occurs," Rodriguez says.
Innovation, encouraged by new expectations from both platforms and consumers, will continue to bring changes ahead. For example, the IP broadcast side may see more pushes toward continued variations like CMAF to achieve low latency.
On a socially conscious level, this technology has also brought new environmental concerns. "Software encoding codecs and networks currently have a huge carbon footprint. Certainly, the move to digital terrestrial created huge power savings, yet the whole multicast-unicast 'stream of one' question needs to be answered to reduce the carbon footprint," says Moote.
That's not to say that some post-production professionals don't dream of what a more simplified delivery format future might look like. "The Holy Grail is to have a single format that fits all—which is a huge challenge, as it hits the cost/performance curve," says Moote. "Wouldn't it be great if all codecs worked with a single player?"