The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) convened its annual Media Tech Summit in person for the first time since 2019 late last month at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, where Arizona State University associate professor Ana Herruzo, who works in emerging and computational media, gave the keynote address on “Enhancing Creative Disciplines Through Emerging Computational Tools.”
Director Ang Lee was awarded an Honorary Membership, SMPTE’s highest honor, “in recognition of his extensive pioneering innovation in [the] deployment of new technologies to enhance theatrical storytelling,” as was Charles H. Jablonski “in recognition of his decades of pushing the state-of-the-art in entertainment production and distribution, as well as his service to the education and mentorship of young entertainment engineers.”
HPA Women in Post and SMPTE Hollywood combined forces to produce a down-to-earth conversation with notable key players at the forefront of technological change in the M&E industry. Moderated by Universal Pictures’ Annie Chang, panelists included Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Emmanuelle Borde; Blu Digital Group’s Paulette Pantoja, Lionsgate’s Theresa Miller, and Blockchain Creative Labs’ Gia Elliott.
Chang first asked what new technologies these executives are looking into, to which Borde, Pantoja, and Miller mentioned the cloud and automation, while Elliott mentioned blockchain and the metaverse, naturally.
“We’re looking at how to optimize the cloud,” said Borde. “The limitation is the price compared to on-prem.”
Pantoja said her company is focused on cloud-based post workflows and, “as much as possible, automation so we can leverage what humans do.”
Miller also mentioned “ML/AI in terms of data science on the corporate side, to look at what movies will bring people into the theaters.”
All the executives stressed that staying curious is key to staying relevant in the industry.
“Technologists love learning new things,” said Miller, while Borde added that she likes to “look at how other industries solve problems.”
When Chang asked them what technologies they predict will impact the future, Borde mentioned virtual production and AR; Miller pointed out “AI coming into the workplace,” and Pantoja pointed to AR and the metaverse.
“Blockchain is now the wild west,” said Elliott. “I see a future where there’s actual ownership of digital assets and the fan gets closer to the process of creating content. That will mean better content, more diversity, and more voices.”
Several of the executives started their careers as software developers. Miller started as a developer at MGM and then got involved in technology auditing.
“I also did other kinds of auditing so it really taught me the business,” she said. “Then I went back into IT in an executive spot.”
Elliott revealed that she never thought she’d go into technology. “I thought I had to be super good at math,” she said. “I never considered it a creative medium. Now that I’m doing it, I can’t believe I ever thought that.”
Chang asked them if they ever experienced “imposter syndrome” from being one of the few women in a male-dominated tech sector.
“Constantly questioning yourself isn’t a bad thing,” said Pantoja. “It’s only a problem if it prevents you from asking for a raise or a different role in the company. Eventually, you find out that no one has all the answers, but I still question myself, which keeps me on my toes.”
You have to “fake it until you become it,” advised Borde.
The executives also talked about the various ways they mentor women in their companies as well as students seeking STEM careers.
“We support local charities that focus on women and underserved communities from grade school to women needing a second career,” said Lionsgate’s Miller. “I also support STEM Advantage that matches Cal State University students with internships.”
Elliott noted that, as a person facilitating ideation sessions, she likes to keep track of who is talking. “I always go back to people who had a point but are less outspoken, to make sure they have a chance to get heard.”
In another session, data scientist Yves Bergquist, director of USC’s Entertainment Technology Center’s Project Hedy blockchain initiative, talked about the evolution and promise of blockchain in the M&E industry.
“We’ve found about a dozen use cases,” he revealed. “They include content security, NFTs, the metaverse, community management, and archiving.”
Bergquist added ETC launched Project Hedy “to create an industry-owned and operated metadata repository on [the] blockchain.” “Right now, that’s being monetized by private companies,” he said. “Our goal is to have an industry-wide group for a repository that can be trusted, resilient and secure.”
Later on, SMPTE Hollywood produced a discussion on “leading-edge technologies and the effects on creative choices.” Moderated (and co-produced with Belinda Merritt) by Marvel Studios’ Marc Zorn, panelists included Cinematographer David Stump, ASC; SMPTE Hollywood Region Governor Kylee Pena; Marvel Studios’ Danielle Costa; IMAX’s Bruce Markoe; Paramount Global’s Josh Limor, and Barco’s Joachim Zell.
Zorn first brought up extended reality/virtual production stages as an emerging technology that impacts creativity.
“It’s actually gone from being a novel and enormously new technology towards just being another tool in the box,” said Stump. “And it’s changed a couple of paradigms. We’re accustomed to leaving choices to post-production and making up our minds at the last minute, but XR doesn’t afford you that luxury: now you have to commit to something when you go on stage.”
Markoe added that “using these tools in live environments, there’s a wide variation of knowledge and skillsets on producing this kind of content.” “We’ve done a lot of virtual set tests in IMAX and some of them look really bad,” he said, underlining the need for training.
Pena agreed, adding that “the vocabulary isn’t there …and there’s a domino effect of poor creative choices.”
Finally, Stump revealed that ASC is “just getting started” on a master glossary of relevant terms.
Limor went on to point out that there have been “many iterations” of virtual production, starting with greenscreen and bluescreen. “It’s about the foreground space as well as the background space we have to pay attention to,” he said.
Zell said that “we always need to mix real shots with XR production shots – the trick is to make it look the same, which is where the color scientist comes in.”
Stump agreed that “color management is very difficult in LED wall production,” and Limor insisted that the “LED [screen] was never designed to be a lighting source.” “We know we have to add additional lights,” said Limor. “Once you step into a volume, the bulbs will skew different colors on each side of the volume.”
Costa revealed that Marvel Studios used LED walls for three films, two of which have not yet been released. “The only thing we’ve found to be very successful is what we’ve done with the poor man’s process,” she said. But, she added, although LED monitors add a lot of costs, it can be an ideal method to, for example, create 12 hours of magic hour or for productions that can’t afford to go on location.
Emerging 8K resolution quickly became a contentious topic towards the end of the panel.
“We’ve done endless testing comparing HDR at 2K vs. 4K and, yes you can see the differences in certain types of shots,” Costa said. “But it’s rare and, generally speaking, you don’t always want things so crisp. Sometimes less is more.” She reminded the audience that “all VFX shots are finished in 2K” and up-resed to 4K when required. “Nobody has any interest in 8K, but everyone is very excited about HDR,” added Costa.
Stump noted that “among cinematographers, the discussion always comes back to lenses.” “A very small percentage of the time, you talk about getting most of the resolution,” he said. “But most of the time they’ll talk about lenses from the 1950s or 1960s and the great look they got.”
Pena — recently employed at Netflix and about to move to Adobe — made the strongest statement. “I think largely 8K is a waste of time,” she said. “It has validity in sports, but as a post-production person, I don’t want you to shoot in 8K and dump all that footage on the editor to finish in HD or 2K. The benefit-to-suffering ratio is not worth it to me.”
Instead, Pena mentioned the potential power of Web 3.0 that “will change the notion of ownership and the creator/fan relationship” as well as generative AI.
“The tools of production don’t push creativity,” concluded Stump. “Creativity is what pushes the tools of production and it should always be that way.” He added that he “want(s) to see technology in the hands of kids for whom the technology has always been there.”
A group of those young people attended a speed-networking event held by SMPTE and SMPTE’s Hollywood section for students in the M&E sector. At a dozen round tables, each one devoted to a topic such as broadcast, editing, and sound, among others, two industry experts answered the questions of students who moved from table to table in a “speed-dating” format.
Judging from the robust attendance of young people, the animated conversation, and networking, future technologies will be in good hands.