Making movies in the cloud using Microsoft Azure

Making movies in the cloud using Microsoft Azure

Unsplash/Chris Murray

Microsoft’s Andy Beach discusses the benefits and challenges of media companies shifting from on-premises systems to cloud-based alternatives 

Alex Smith |

The broadcast and movie studio production and distribution workflows are both intense workflows involving a huge amount of people, assets, infrastructure and processes. Any tiny mistake can cost significant money and time. The physical delivery of finished assets could be a logistical nightmare and lead to disjointed distribution where global audiences couldn’t experience releases. 

Technology has gradually introduced speed to the process, and today almost all media is filmed, stored, edited and distributed digitally. The next step in the journey of the media supply chain from those early days is into the cloud – but what are the opportunities and challenges this shift offers? 

Andy Beach, chief technology officer for worldwide media and entertainment at Microsoft, outlines the media supply chain as a process of transformation. 

“In its simplest terms, a media supply chain is about how content is organised and maintained, then transformed for whichever output it needs to be delivered to,” he explains. “Whether that’s for Netflix, a TV station or a movie theatre in another country, that’s all the work that goes into it. Traditionally, this has all been carried out on-premises, as all media production was. It’s only been in the last decade that the industry has begun really exploring cloud-based options and how they can help. It’s also only in the past few years we have begun looking at how artificial intelligence can also offload and assist the content creators with these supply chain automations.” 

While an on-premises environment can certainly fulfil the need for storage, the transformation described by Beach takes significantly longer. He points to the limitations placed on the transfer and editing of assets as some of the main problems with maintaining supply chains based in these environments. 

“The biggest weakness of staying on-premises is that you’re restricted to the people that are in the same location as the content,” he explains. “If you’re a movie studio in Burbank, all the assets are in a building, and it’s only the people that have access to that building that can work on it, which becomes a bottleneck. Then, the movement of files becomes the hardest part. Studios very rarely do translation in house, for example, and so they would need to send a tape or lower resolution digital file out and wait for them to come back from the company they’ve outsourced the work to. There is therefore a significant amount of time that’s just spent waiting.” 

As media organisations look to become more flexible and responsive in a world where trends come and go in a matter of hours, the delays caused by these slow transfers are starting to become an unacceptable inefficiency. By moving assets onto the cloud, the limits of location can be eliminated, and new tools can be brought to bear much more quickly. 

“One of the main advantages you should be looking for in a cloud-based environment are the increased number of people able to access content and the ability to use capabilities such as machine learning to automate tasks,” says Beach. “To return to my previous example, the task of translation is no longer as time-consuming with our speech-to-text capabilities.” 

Another important benefit is the ability to label content using metadata, which identifies details about what each piece of media contains and makes it searchable. Beach points to an example of Microsoft’s work with Warner Bros. Discovery to demonstrate how the archives of historical content owned by the traditional media organisations can become a much more powerful asset with a cloud-based supply chain. 

“Some of these studios are now over 100 years old,” he says. “Over that time, multiple companies have been merged together to create these truly vast archives, to the point where they simply don’t know what they have. When these archives are moved onto the cloud, they become active – I can go back and find a clip on the cloud in an instant, when that might have taken me weeks before. For example, when we worked with Warner after they were acquired by Discovery, we did a search for the word ‘shark’ to find clips for Shark Week. We came up with thousands of references to sharks in clips that you would never think of. It showed what is possible.” 

However, standing in the way of these new opportunities is the level of investment required to move content entirely over to the cloud. While the massive archives of content owned by large media organisations can deliver huge value, organising them initially requires a huge logistical effort. 

“It’s not just a single process,” says Beach. “There are so many different systems that need to be moved over and organised. Then there’s the question of how you’re going to give people access, then revoke that access when those people are done with a particular project, since you don’t want them to be able to access raw assets years afterwards. The logistical challenges during that initial effort are the biggest obstacle.” 

To help in overcoming the technical challenges of a transition, Microsoft can provide the core components on which to build a whole new ecosystem.  

“For supply chains, the most important aspects are ingress and egress – how do you get big files in and out of the cloud quickly and securely?” says Beach. “It’s very important to have robust security, two-factor authentication and roles-based access to assign specific people to specific resources for a limited time. In addition, you have to be able to shift petabytes of data from cold to hot storage when you’re actively working on them to ensure you’re not overspending. Those fundamental pieces of ingress and egress, identity and security are what we can bring with our cloud infrastructure.” 

On top of those building blocks, Microsoft’s wide partner network enables it to work closely with partners in the media industry to deliver the third-party tools and solutions that companies need as they shift toward a cloud-based supply chain. 

“Our media approach is very much ecosystem driven,” says Beach. “We turn to our partners in the industry that have the right tools and solutions which build on top of the core components that we can provide. Examples include MediaKind, with the processing engine tools necessary to transform and distribute media to the cloud, or MediaValet, who perform a lot of image asset management for newspapers and news providers. Vubiquity (part of Amdocs) is doing some great work as a system integrator, helping companies introduce the tools and processes that helps them manage their ecosystem.” 

Beach believes that transitioning to a cloud-based supply chain offers a huge opportunity for media organisations to make better use of their assets. 

“These projects can be years in the making,” he says. “There are immediate benefits with modern cloud-based tools. And once they get past that big initial effort, companies can start to see the full value of their most lucrative assets.” 

Partner Perspectives  

We asked a selection of Microsoft partners about they are building on Microsoft Azure to transfrom workflows within the media industry. 

“Ateme’s TITAN File is engineered for Microsoft Azure allowing for hyper-scale, rapid delivery with distributed transcoding technology in resolutions up to 8K. It manages both the daily workload and peak volumes efficiently,” says Jean-Louis Lods, vice president for media and monetisation at Ateme. 

“Azure gives us the cloud infrastructure that we need to scale streaming to millions of viewers and guarantee uptime for our most demanding media customers,” Eric Gallier, vice president of video solutions at Harmonic. 

“The foundations of Azure provide both the scalability and resilience necessary to underpin the world's video information and entertainment services with protection of their business streams,” Olga Kornienko, chief operations officer and co-founder of EZDRM.

Read more from these partners in the Spring 2023 issue of Technology Record.  

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