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Tackling the Format Explosion at the second annual HPA Tech Retreat UK

The HPA Tech Retreat UK is fast becoming a must-attend event for the cognoscenti of professional content production in Europe, as it already is for the US community who meet in Palm Springs each year.

Those who gathered to retreat at Heythrop Park Resort in rural Oxfordshire for three days in July came from locations as diverse as France, Poland, and East and West Coast America.

Unlike at trade shows where most of these senior folk meet, there is a real chance at the event to relax into proper discussions and connect and re-connect with contacts.  In addition to the programming, continuous opportunities for conversation and exploration took place at breakfast roundtables, cocktail receptions, lunches, dinners and parties.

Cutting across much of the agenda, and front of mind for everyone from CEOs to engineers –– is the explosion in format and versions to serve the international market on ever multiplying platforms.

Setting the scene, delegates enjoyed an invigorating keynote from Eric Pearson, Home Entertainment Supervisor at Pixar Animation. He explained how, with just a team of seven, they created a remarkable 7482 new shots for international versions of Cars 3.  This picture localisation entails catering to the nuances of culture which Pixar takes extremely seriously by making artistic changes to frames or whole sequences. For example, it regularly substitutes cultural and language appropriate text in newspaper headlines in backgrounds to ensure a joke or plot line is followed.

“We’re creating an experience for the Mandarin or Thai speaker so they can be lost in the movie as if it were made natively in their language,” said Pearson. “This dramatically increases the complexity but we think it’s worth it.”

MESA estimates the annual cost of localizing TV content for EMEA markets alone at $2.5 billion.

“For the same amount of money you spend on a transcription house you can use machine learning to deliver speech to text, localization and an almost infinite other variety of data tasks – and you end up with richer content,” said Josh Wiggins, CCO, GreyMeta.

Machine trained automated speech to text may not yet be good enough for BBC One, admitted Stephen Stewart, VP, Global Content Operation, BBC Worldwide. “But if you have an opportunity to push content where it’s not economically viable at present and you can inform people about a subject they would not otherwise have seen, then it is worth it.

“Machine Learning is getting there,” he added. “We can expect to see artificial intelligence encroaching more and more on the content creation, production and delivery ecosystem in a very short time.”

Lydia Gregory of Jukedeck demonstrated two music tracks – one composed by human, one by computer – illustrating that the line between art and science is already blurring.

SMPTE Fellow and BBC standards lead Andy Quested chaired a discussion of the format minefield that went into creating BBC Natural History series Planet Earth II.

“If you’re going to the ends of the world you want whatever you do to be futureproofed,” explained producer Elizabeth White. “What we didn’t know then was how it going to be post produced so we recorded with no real knowledge it was going to be finished as UHD let alone an HDR product.”

This staggeringly complex show was made over four years, shot on at least 16 formats and accumulated a 400 to 1 shoot ratio.

As it was being postproduced, BBC R&D’s Andrew Cotton explained how the broadcaster helped devise the HLG format of HDR in order to serve both legacy and new TV sets with dynamic range.

The event began with a series of expert reports on VR, AR and MR. While there is exciting work being done, the tenor of discussion was that the industry needs to take a reality check.

“Perhaps the biggest problem is that there is no audience for VR yet,” said Zillah Watson, a former current affairs producer, who is now editorial lead on future content and storytelling projects for BBC R&D. “We haven’t got a way of distributing VR to an audience to find out what they want from the experience.”

She said the industry has come a long way in terms of creating hard news programming in 360° since the BBC’s first news experiment from the Calais migrant camps in 2015 —but it was clear that there are still challenges to overcome before VR news goes mainstream.

“360° has been justified by the broadcast news industry as a gateway to VR. It is not. I question if there is any evidence that watching 360° will make a user want to watch on a VR headset. 360° video on mobile or in browsers will not drive people to VR. If we don’t create a good content ecosystem that people want to explore and view and we don’t make headsets better, then the whole thing won’t work,” said Watson.

Evidence that VR can attract a positive response from audiences was provided by BT Sport’s Andy Beale. He shared the background to the live streamed VR experience for the UEFA Champion’s League final earlier this year.

“We’re not doing VR just because we can but only if it adds value,” said Beale.  “Rather than saturate viewers every week with it we want to keep it as a tool for big occasions.”

One of the best received sessions was a call to action to extend racial and gender diversity across the industry. IBC project manager Jay Sakallioglu moderated a talk with Geoffrey Okol of ITN Productions, multi-cam operator Abigail Dankwa, and BAFTA’s Emma Perry, rejecting tokenism and calling for a pro-active stance to encourage greater range within craft and technician levels. “Diversity is not only common sense; it helps media companies adapt to the fast-paced environment, capturing ideas and delivering on innovation,” said Okol.

The HPA Tech Retreat Innovation Zone included a roster of companies whose experts were on hand to lead attendees through new technologies and products.  Featured companies included AJA, Avid, BASE, Codex, Dolby, GreyMeta, Image Matters, LiveU Ltd, Motion Impossible, NexGuard, Pixelogic, Pixspan, RED Digital Cinema, Signiant, Sohonet, Sony Digital Cinema, Sundog Media Toolkit, Teledyne LeCroy, XTFX Unlimited. Visit here for a complete list of companies and products.

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