This conversation was conducted via Zoom with Nicol Verheem, Founder & CEO of Teradek and CEO of Creative Solutions. My questions have been cut out and what follows is a monologue by Nicol Verheem.
Getting back to work
I’d like to make the case that getting back to work in the media industry, and maybe in Hollywood specifically, is very important for all of us to prevent a landslide change that could permanently damage the industry that we know and love and are part of.
Certainly, you have to walk a fine line and balance human lives. It’s not just economic interests. I do see a few outcomes in which we can make a difference as a group. We may even become stronger as a result and play a larger role in society. I also see some outcomes where, if we don’t act appropriately, 2019 will be remembered as having been the heyday of content and it will never come back. It’s not a pessimistic message. It’s actually a message of hope. I think we can do it.
Let’s look at how we see life changing. There is less travel. You and I often meet at trade shows in various places around the world. Ask yourself, what is the likelihood that you’ll go to NAB 2021? Even though it’s a long way off, it’s very unlikely even seasoned travelers like you and I will feel comfortable sitting in a tin can at 30,000 feet with 200 other people, half of whom might refuse to wear masks. I think travel will be affected for quite a while for the same reasons as big sports and live events. Probably dining indoors, another one of our favorite things, will have to wait.
Entertainment Methods will Change
Our entertainment methods will change. They might be impacted for quite a while. These are some of our escape mechanisms or coping devices. If all of those mechanisms of entertainment are not attractive anymore or not even possible, I think people will rely heavily on television, home media entertainment, online movies and streaming shows. This is going to be one of the few things that we can escape to.
If we can’t travel, can’t eat out, can’t watch sports, how are we going to cope with life? If we have to work from home every day for the rest of our lives, just sitting and looking at Zoom meetings, we’ll all go nuts. We might think the entertainment industry is a luxury but it’s actually a very important part of humanity. It’s an escape but it’s also a way for us to relate to each other, to have hope, to tell stories and share moments, whether it’s sadness or happiness. It’s an important part of what humanity is about: to keep perspective and hope and still relate to life through some entertainment.
Second point, related but different: theaters are also important. I want to highlight the difference between theaters and TV. A theater still allows you to get out and escape your reality. You sit in a darkened room and once everybody’s popcorn is finished, you become immersed in the movie. It’s not just IMAX or 3D. Even a normal movie is very different than watching in your living room with the kids walking by, the dog barking or the neighbor’s leaf blower blasting. It’s a more efficient escape from reality. That’s why people love it.
What’s important to note is that the theatrical release window has been highly optimized economically over many decades to provide the maximum return on investment that a media company can get. If you make a $100 million movie, you need many hundreds of theaters globally to show it over and over again so that you can get a good return on investment or even just to break even. If you have a $100 million production budget, then you probably have an additional $100 million promotion and distribution budget. That means you have to make more than $500 million just to break even. A lot of that revenue is dependent on the theatrical release, the first pay window. It’s subsidized to some degree by $20 popcorn sales. That $20 popcorn in reality has paid for a lot of jobs in Hollywood over the years.
To me, it’s important that theaters prevail and thrive. But I can also see, by the same arguments we made earlier about travel and dining, that theaters will have a very hard time.
One of my recent favorite memories was watching Ford v Ferrari with my 12-year-old son. I can remember walking out and he said, “First off, that was a really good movie. And second, when can we come back and see it again?” I had already ordered it for home viewing but he wanted to see it in the theater again. It is a different experience.
Hollywood and the media industry are dependent on theaters. I want to see them survive and thrive, because the danger is that we are now consuming almost all of our content on the streaming platforms or normal television. I don’t want to talk too much about cable cutters but it’s clear that trend is not going to go away.
Streaming: Everybody gets a medal
Cable cutting will increase, linear television will continue its demise and advertising on television will decrease. “Streaming wars” is a misnomer. It’s more like an AYSO soccer game or a Little League baseball game where everybody gets a medal. Anyone who shows up wins because all you need is a server in the cloud and some original content and then you get to make $10 a month per person. There is an insatiable appetite for more content. You’ll benefit as long as you crank out content, get subscriptions and all you have to do is show up on the internet, not via a cable or satellite box.
However, the economics of a subscription model do not quite add up to the economics of a theatrical release. Maybe there will be a hybrid model of a $20 on-demand premiere release in addition to the regular subscription. But that hasn’t being fully realized.
Right now, we are happy that Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Hulu and a few others have achieved what they did. But the problem is that people are consuming more content than ever. I have data that says people are watching 40 to 50% more content than before COVID-19, which makes sense. There’s almost no sports and many are fed up with news and even politics. And so we’re watching more entertainment.
My concern is that if the catalog of original content is completely consumed, if there’s just nothing left that’s worth watching or watching twice, what will people do at that point? They’re either going to watch TikTok, YouTube, Quibi or Instagram.
Who knows, reading might make a comeback. Lego is certainly having a moment with kids.
More stories to be told
But for all of that to happen, we must get productions to reopen again. And this is where the message becomes one not of doom and gloom but one of hope. I believe there are more stories to tell and there is a more receptive audience than ever. We must figure out how to reopen studios, sets and locations and to produce more content while staying safe.
I’m sure there will be some changes in how content is made. I’ve seen some media companies say it was fun making Zoom calls into an episode on Saturday Night Live or to shoot a movie on an iPhone. It was a fun experiment but we don’t really want to watch those forever. We don’t want that to be the new normal. We want to revert back to the way we used to make content. It was beautiful and long-lasting.
So how can we all achieve that? One of the things, and I don’t want to sound self-serving, is wireless video. It is going to play an important role in this reopening. Certainly, if you were a drone operator on a major production, you used some form of wireless video and that was a necessity. But, in many cases on many sets, wireless video was a convenience, maybe even a luxury. Now it’s going to become a necessity because we’re going to have to minimize the number of crew in proximity to the cast. Because if the star of a movie gets sick, they’re not going to shoot that movie. So, you must limit the amount of risk by limiting the exposure.
You have to remove the crew physically. You also have to change the vectors between crew members on set. It’s not only about protecting the cast, it’s also about protecting the crew. We must disperse the crew over a larger area. Very simply, it’s all about social distancing. A lot of our Teradek BOLT products have been used on movies with A and B cameras. There was a wireless transmitter on each camera. The video was streamed to two monitors, each connected to a BOLT receiver. A large number of crew would congregate in video village to watch those monitors: Director, Producers, DP, script supervisor, and so on.
Video village is now pretty much a no-go. But it’s not a problem that cannot be solved. We can have multiple mini-video villages spread across a much larger area. The wireless technology these days allows for that. We can send video from one BOLT transmitter to up to six BOLT receivers. Our latest BOLT 4K not only transmits 4K HDR but also allows you to have more receivers, with higher reliability, greater signal strength, and higher security.
Teradek Serv Pro
Many people use our little blue box, the Teradek Serv Pro. It was originally intended for users who do not need to see a zero-delay uncompressed feed on their monitor. Serv Pro is quite different than BOLT. It’s not a proprietary point-to-point system. It’s a standards-based WiFi transmitter system. We can stream to any iOS or Android device. For example, a boom operator who just wants to see that the microphone is not in frame, makeup, hair, props, art department, wardrobe, continuity and production departments all can watch the shot on an iPad, tablet or phone rather than on the monitor in video village.
There are many Serv Pros out there; it’s a pretty popular product. We made an important addition because of COVID-19. We added remote monitoring capability. You connect the Serv Pro (with a free firmware update) to the internet using our CORE cloud-based streaming management service. Again, it’s standards-based. That means it has H.264 compression and we’re sending the video over a standard TCP/IP interface. It could be wired internet or it could be WiFi. Because it’s on a network, we can connect Serv Pro to the cloud and then reach customers remotely via that cloud. Users watch the stream on VUER, which is the name of our free app for iOS or Android. As long as you can connect your iPad to the cloud, no matter where you are, and the camera’s HDMI or SDI output is connected to the Serv Pro on set and that is connected to the internet, you can remotely view from one to four cameras on your iPad’s VUER screen in very high quality.
VUER has all the tools that a typical SmallHD monitor has: frame lines, crosshairs, aspect ratio choices and all the tools necessary to compose, expose and focus.
Since it is web-based, we handle security with two-factor authentication. I send the person who wants to see my stream an email with a unique authentication code. Those streams remain completely under my control. I can see who’s actually dialed in to watch the stream and I can revoke that privilege at any given time. For example, I can send the A camera stream to a lot of people but send B camera to only to a few, such as the Director and DP. Or I can stream to 10 people starting exactly at 10 o’clock and I’m going to turn the stream off at 10:30.
This is all part of the Serv Pro (hardware), Core (service) and VUER (app) ecosystem now. And it has now created a completely new paradigm for remote monitoring.
BOLT and Serv Pro Hybrid System
You can also have a nice hybrid for near-set monitoring. Everybody knows Teradek for on-set monitoring using a BOLT Tx (transmitter) and Rx (receiver) on the same soundstage or studio. Because crew may now be separated, we might have Stage 17 reserved for the cast and camera operator. The focus puller and director might be immediately next door on smaller Stage 18, all with remote control capability. They are near the set, but not in the same building. Because they want zero latency, no delay video, they will be using BOLT systems with the longest range.
The rest of the crew could be on the larger Stage 19, nearby. They would be viewing the video with the Serv Pro, Core and VUER system. The delay is about 120 milliseconds, which is 2 to 3 frames if you’re shooting at 24 fps.
If you already have a Serv Pro and VUER, you just need to do a firmware update on Serv Pro and then download the newest version of VUER. We also have the VUER app available for free on the Apple App Store for Mac OS on your Mac Pro, iMac, Mac Mini or MacBook. If you’re a DIT, now you can actually run the decoding while viewing on a large monitor eg your iMac rather than only on an iPad.
Even cooler is that the app now runs on Apple TV. So, if you have someone viewing remotely—for example, a producer or client who doesn’t necessarily need a super bright, robust reference display like one of our new SmallHD 4K Monitors—they can use their home OLED TV connected to an Apple TV device and get a much higher quality viewing experience than Zoom, Skype or other web video conferencing platforms. We are working on full support for HDR in the next generation of products, so keep watching this space.
Captain Hook and Masks
In the low-tech-but-useful hardware department, we provide a touchless hook. It’s quite strong. I can open a door, lift 100 pounds, carry a case with it. It is made of brass and copper which is antimicrobial. Nothing grows on it. Even if you touch a contaminated surface with the hook, you’re very unlikely to pick up any contaminate from touching it afterwards. It is attached to a cool, little lanyard. It comes with a little welcome back card that says we’re back in. It’s now shipping free with every product that you buy from Creative Solutions—whether it’s SmallHD, Teradek or Wooden Camera.
My point is that I think it’s necessary for all of us to find the way in which we are going to get back to work. We all strive to develop ways that will enable us to get back to creating great content safely. It could be something really small like a little hook, or Teradek masks or our hardware or software.
My wife started making masks because we couldn’t find enough for our teams. She started making hundreds and hundreds at home. They are multi-layer. There’s a specific guideline from the CDC on thread count and fabric. Even finding the fabric and the elastic straps was a challenge in these supply chain deficient times.
If we all work together, there’s going to be a way that we can get back to creating great content. Great content must prevail and we’ll do what we can to facilitate it. I hope that all of our colleagues in the industry feel the same way, recognize the need and the important contribution that everyone can make to open up production wherever it may be. And get back to work.
I’m very thankful that our company managed to survive through this crisis. We kept the factories open and everybody employed. We had an absolute minimum number of people on furlough or part-time work. Most worked from home. Some were in the factories because of products being used in news, which was considered essential.
We also see that there’s a big opportunity for us to now contribute to post, especially where the client is working from home while the editor is working elsewhere or the colorist is working in a grading suite. The products that we’re working on now will allow you to do HDR compliant content. It’s a new product that we have announced, called Prism. It’s a 2RU rack mount 4K HEVC video encoder / decoder. We think it will be used by post houses and grading suites for remote collaboration. It would be as if you took your Avid output and connected it to a SmallHD 4K or a Sony or an LG monitor right there. Or, for example, the colorist is grading in the suite, with the director and DP at home or on location. We can basically give you the same experience anywhere at home.
Initially our target market was broadcasters or webcasters. One of our most prominent users is SpaceX. Every single pixel of video of the SpaceX launch was through our Teradek encoders. Teradek Prism will do 10-bit HDR video through Core to an iPad or Apple TV. We worked with several post houses to develop HDR-compliant workflows. We also worked with Technicolor and Netflix.
Content must prevail
Content must prevail. In the past, we had an internal slogan, “We help tell stories.”
This has changed by one word and it’s an important distinction. It’s no longer that we help to tell stories, it’s that we make it possible to tell stories in this new environment. In this pandemic, all of us should figure out what can we do. How can we pivot? How can we adopt?”
You shouldn’t measure yourself by your product. You should define yourself by this cause. We’re all in this together. I’m not a chemist or virologist; I can’t cure the disease, but I can help people stay sane by telling stories, by allowing storytellers to tell their stories.
What I hope for our industry is to come back together, to be productive and produce great stories.
I see a role for us and I’m very motivated to do it. I hope everybody else in the industry can pivot and be even stronger so that we can continue to strive forward.
Thanks to Greg Smokler for streaming and explaining 4 camera feeds live via Serv Pro and CORE from Creative Solutions in Burbank to FDTimes in New York. Latency was less than 2 seconds.
(This is a “reprint” from August 2020 FDTimes issue 104.)