Web tool splices filmmakers' global divide

Software in the works for use over a high-speed fiber network would make it easier to collaborate from two different cities.

Behind the making of the upcoming animated film "Happy Feet" is a tale of two film producers struggling to work together from different continents.

Like most global team efforts, the story features off-hour conference calls and a lot of e-mail trickling in overnight. But for a small digital-effects house like San Francisco's Giant Killer Robots, it also meant sending large, bandwith-hogging digital video files to the director's company, Animal Logic, in Sydney, Australia.

That's not an easy task when you're a little company that can't afford fiber-optic lines into the office. But if an innovative joint university-government project pans out, like the one behind "Happy Feet"--due in theaters Nov. 17--could have an easier time getting their jobs done.

"It's a two-cans-and-
them kind of problem. You're really trying to break down the walls of globalization. And it all depends on really wide pipe."
--Pete Oberdorfer,
co-owner of
Giant Killer Robots

A small group of engineers in San Francisco is developing a Web browsing tool for use over a high-speed fiber network that would allow animation and film producers to co-produce a movie in real time. The application, called Sebastian, would work over a dedicated, point-to-point Internet connection, or so-called dedicated light paths, and would let remotely located artists accomplish tasks like marking up frames, editing video and changing color palates as if they were in the same room.

It would make a huge difference to smaller outfits like Giant Killer Robots. When the two "Happy Feet" teams were collaborating over broadband from different time zones, using a QuickTime video editing tool called CineSync, the video clips were more like watching a YouTube clip than a high-resolution wide-screen shot, which made it hard for the director to form an educated opinion on the fly. That sometimes painful process, suffice to say, slowed the movie-making process.

"It's a two-cans-and-a-string-in-between-them kind of problem. You're really trying to break down the walls of globalization. And it all depends on really wide pipe," said Pete Oberdorfer, co-owner of Giant Killer Robots.

Sebastian is under development at the Digital Sister Cities lab, a research and development team that's part of San Francisco-based Digital Sister Cities Initiative (DSCI). DSCI is focused on connecting cities and promoting economic development through advanced technologies.

One of the major goals of the organization is to get high-speed fiber connections beyond universities and big companies--right now about the only entities that can afford them. By first working with data-intensive businesses like movie outfits, DSCI hopes to begin seeding a market and sparking demand that will eventually convince big telecommunications companies to decrease their sometimes dizzyingly high fiber-line rates.

In other words, build the market, and just maybe the carriers will come. Of course, it won't be easy, but DSCI researchers see their project in two parts: First, give filmmakers the tools to collaborate remotely. Second, and likely more difficult, give them the high-speed network to make real-time collaboration possible.

Companies such as Cisco Systems and Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic "can burn thousands of dollars to create infrastructure themselves," Oberdorfer said. "Companies (like ours) don't have that option. As this progresses, we see it scaling so that anyone can get access to it."

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