Digital planet

Natural History New Zealand has evolved from a division of TVNZ into an award-wining producer of wildlife and adventure documentaries. Darren Greenwood looks into how the Dunedin-based media group harnesses technology to meet the needs of a global audience.

There's more to Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) now than making movies of mating mammals and filing the films for TV One. Though still based in Dunedin, NHNZ is today part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, making 90 per cent of its money offshore. Since NHNZ became part of Fox Television and Newscorp in 1997, it has diversified from just wildlife and natural history to cover adventure, travel, health, science, archaeology and general documentaries. Now, instead of making just ten films a year, some 70 are planned for the coming year and these will be sold to 160 countries worldwide, with Discovery's Animal Planet as the biggest customer.

"Fox is a very good and supportive shareholder and given us the ability to expand. We could never have grown the business as much (as we have) under TVNZ," says general manager John Crawford. A major challenge for NHNZ is producing quality programs for a media savvy global audience. "The audience's expectations have changed and are driven by people's familiarity with the internet, hi-tech movies and video games. They expect life-like computer graphics to reveal far more about a subject than they expected in the past.

There are hundreds of channels competing for audience share, so we also have to have a strong entertainment element in many of our programs. The story has to be as gripping, as exciting and interesting as anything else being screened. Computer graphics and animatronics help us enhance the storytelling process," explains Crawford.

Broadband blues

As such, storage and bandwidth represents the "most significant issue" for NHNZ. The company is joining the screen industry in general in pressing the government to improve bandwidth speeds, or let it use the government's own 1000Mb/s advanced network for Crown Research Institutes, which is due for launch in October 2005.

Recently, NHNZ had to film a shark program in Los Angeles and the only way to get it back in time was either to get Federal Express to bring it back, which would have taken six days, or fly someone in from Los Angeles. However, in some countries with cost effective bandwidth, such footage can be downloaded over the internet in minutes.

"We have to have the tools our competitors have to operate on the same level. We have to make the tyranny of distance not a factor," says Crawford.

Thus, a major business constraint is its ability to move files around the world, not only for the finished products, but acquired contents. Currently, NHNZ uses FTP files and it takes 36 hours to receive two minutes of standard definition video from Washington DC.

"We haven't even tried HDTV yet, we would just fall apart," he says.

NHNZ has been a pioneer in New Zealand in HD (high definition) production and many of today's programs are typically shot in HDTV, which is usually 1920 x 1080 pixels, compared to the 720 x 570 pixels of traditional TVs.

NHNZ uses a variety of digital tape cameras and still has a few traditional film cameras.

To get graphics from Sydney, for example, they would just have to get people to fly the materials in. At present, NHNZ has a 2Mb/s connection through its ISP ClearNet, which is internationally capped at 1Mb/s. Recently, it received a $40,000 per month quote for a 30Mb/s connection to the USA. "The economics simply did not add up," says Crawford.

Crawford believes sufficient capacity exists in Dunedin through unused 'dark fibre' networks that have no equipment at either end. But existing telco pricing models are for full-time services when NHNZ just wants occasional fast 'bursts'.

Protecting intellectual property

NHNZ also faces major issues with protection of its intellectual property. The company receives much revenue from broadcast licence fees but the proliferation of TV channels, boosted by global and satellite TV, plus the rise of the internet, means keeping an eye on what is rightfully broadcast is almost impossible.

The broadcaster has some 70 programs in production and several hundred concepts sitting in development. It has developed its own CRM system to keep in touch with its vast network of scientists and other experts around the world. Related to this is a production management system, which was developed in-house with IBM in 2003 because such a concept did not exist on the market.

"It's important to know where you have sent these concepts and pictures out," says IT systems manager Wayne Poll.

A further rights management system was also developed by eGenuity Systems of Dunedin to help the business manage the sale of programming rights. A new footage management database will also help NHNZ keep track of film clips licensed by its image library. Tied to this as well, Deloitte's has just been contracted to produce a production management accounting system to manage production, finance and spending. This will replace an existing "basic and not user-friendly" system built around Lotus 123.

Recently, a NHNZ agent in Amsterdam alerted Poll to a Dutch mobile phone supplier using its penguin footage in a mobile phone advert. One of its documentaries was also found on the web available as a free download, but the website owner did not know the material was there.

NHNZ's lawyers are pursuing the offenders, but at present IP protection is complicated, as the internet has no boundaries, so whose laws have been broken?

"We have already invested reasonable sums to bring these people to task and protect our intellectual property," Crawford explains.

Rapid technological change presents NHNZ with further issues. Poll has worked in IT for 15 years and says his TV engineering background helps him understand the business processes behind television production processes, placing him in a unique position. "An IT person would not have an idea and this gives me a head start with the digital media revolution. I have been working on Codecs (a device or program that performs transformations on a datastream or signal) for a very long time," he says.

Poll has an IT team of two and sees himself as a line manager who gets his hands dirty at the coalface. Sometimes this meant going out filming to help crews with technical demands like needing infrared or remote cameras; which, he says, "gives me a real feel for the job".

A technology translator

Poll's philosophy is "doing smart stuff with dumb technology", which has led to rooms full of a myriad devices, such as sensors and triggers for various cameras, extra-small cameras for close shots, cameras that work underwater, infrared cameras for night-filming and equipment for remote video-monitoring.

To keep up with technology, Poll is active on the digital media forums he subscribes to. He attends many trade fairs and has a network of international contacts. Dunedin is reasonably well served by some vendors, but without the web and email, keeping up-to-date would be much harder.

"Part of my role is also being a translator between English and geekspeak, to take on board these technologies and disseminate them to our company using information that is easily digestible," says Poll.

"HDTV, for example, is littered with acronyms and jargon. Unless it is something you spend a significant of time learning, it's difficult for people to understand the finer points. It's too complicated. People just want it to work and they don't care how.

"My job is to understand how. I want to get under the bonnet and find out what makes it tick. It's a level of understanding other people in this organisation do in other areas. My brief is the range of technologies."

Poll says NHNZ is a very early adopter of new technologies. "We assess them as soon as possible and see if there's a way they can improve the business, give us a competitive edge," he says.

But using technology is not always successful. In 1994, early Iridium satellite phones were so delicate that they would easily move out of synch and not work. But Poll used an Inmarsat phone to show a camera crew by satellite how to repair a camera using a screwdriver and Swiss army knife while filming in the Gobi Desert.

More recently, a camera crew was stranded in Siberia and their hut was surrounded by hungry polar bears.

The crew could email Dunedin but there was no way to get them off the island until NHNZ called in a rescue organisation to get them out. The rescue organisation worryingly subcontracted the work to the Russian Mafia.

Making movies

NHNZ's field tapes go onto the AVID digital editing system, with the data stored on disks for the first stages of post production. On average, 30 to 40 hours of material will be edited down to the commercial duration required (usually 43 to 52 minutes for a commercial one hour slot in the broadcaster's schedule). In these "offline" suites, the material is edited into "rough cut" then "fine cut".

At this stage the material is sent to the 'co-producer' (production partner) for comment. Any suggested changes are then made. At "picture lock", the program is exported to the "online" suite, where the post produced sound and graphics are added to the high resolution material.

This master material is then transferred to high quality digital tape and clones are dispatched to the co-producer and international distributor. If time frames dictate that material must be sent electronically, it is sent via satellite (expensive) or via the internet (currently very slow).

Poll says the share given to computerised animation (CGI) is growing from maybe a minute an hour to 20 minutes. Simple text credits are out, and computerised graphics from a 3D Studiomax animation tool and Adobe After Effects are expected all the time. It is not just movies like Lord of the Rings driving such customer expectation. In health programs, for example, it is hard to show brain neurons or stomach bacteria, so computerised wizardry is the preferred way to tell the story.

Occasionally customer demand can slash the turnaround time of projects. Following the Asian tsunami last December, US cable channel TLC (a division of Discovery Networks) commissioned a program about the survivors. The documentary was made in just 18 days, including multiple camera crews spending eight days shooting in seven countries.

Because such filmmaking involves global communication, email is essential, with some NHNZ staff receiving more than 100 email a day.

"If we did not have email today, I don't think we could do business," Crawford continues. NHNZ has 120 PCs, mostly HP, including 35 laptops and a dozen servers. IBM laptops are used because of their 'robust' Accupoint (keyboard mouse pointer). No editing is done on laptops, because NHNZ customers expect superior picture quality.

This means file sizes are large and NHNZ is always seeking ways of compressing such file sizes down. Systems used include Windows Media and Quicktime Codecs. A standard definition video is about 250Mb/s, while high definition is 1500Mb/s, meaning its storage demands are huge. NHNZ has some 10 terabytes of storage around the facility, though it could easily fill 20 terabytes.

A three terabyte LAN-share storage area system installed six months ago will soon be expanded to meet collaborative editing requirements. NHNZ has made many one-off documentaries but is increasingly making series from which material can be shared. One hour of programming can consume 600GB; which, multiplied over ten programs is six terabytes. Such shared storage can reduce disk storage requirements by 50 per cent.

Site and sound wizardry

A tour around the site uncovers three sound suites, with staff placing the narration words of a program using a narrator from the US and music from England. There are also ten editing suites all linked together by 7 kilometres of ethernet cable for radio frequency, IT and video/audio data, using 16 distribution hubs.

There are two LANS, a 100Mb/s IT LAN with internet access and a 1Gb/s LAN for media. This media LAN features $70,000 PCs used for editing, but not surfing, so anti-virus protection is not needed.

Poll reveals a couple of tricks of the trade. Sugar and water together sounds just like grinding ice and sound tape makes great foliage sounds - useful for recreating sound when the audio engineer needs extra effects during post production!

"I have the greatest job in the world - I get paid to play with all sorts of cool technologies and toys. But it all has the serious purpose of making the great programming that Natural History New Zealand is famous for," he says.