Workflow efficiency on a large scale5 May 2010
Hogarth Worldwide is a revolutionary ad agency. It doesn’t create advertising campaigns, but it does get them on our screens. It calls itself an ‘advertising implementation agency’, and relies on Media Asset Management and automated workflows to produce around 35,000 ads a month for different media platforms across Europe.
"Hogarth is a new breed of video production facility" that was only possible because low-cost systems from companies like Apple "enabled us be very efficient in a repeatable business" at a low cost, says co-founder, Mark Rhys-Thomas. "The tools suddenly got very good and we could produce a facility for next to nothing."
In just 18 months, it has gone from three people to more than 200, with a new office in New York and looking at another in Shanghai. It has become a part of WPP (the world’s largest ad agency) and already runs double shifts because it is so busy, and will go to three shifts soon, which will make it even more efficient.
Hogarth produces multiple versions of ads, for broadcast, cinema, online and print, for companies like Pfizer or Unilever, for use around the world. "We don’t create new ads, we take what people do and transcode and deliver it," to "make people’s marketing dollar go further." While it isn’t replacing the creative agencies, it removes the need to have lots of local offices repurposing material, as it handles all the different versions. A single 60-second commercial could require 400 different iterations – with cut downs to 20 or 30 seconds, local market voiceovers, translations, different pack shots, or the need for different sound levels for different broadcasters. Rhys-Thomas maintains that "the quality improves because you are doing everything in one place."
About 40% of its work is broadcast, with the rest print and online. To do this efficiently, it relies on automation. "A lot of what we do is automated workflows," such as automatically putting the clock on the beginning of each clip, which saves a lot of time. He is especially enthusiastic about Apple’s broadcast systems, and believes that Apple has done to the broadcast industry what it did to the print industry 15 years ago.
Hogarth is the third facility that Rhys-Thomas and his partners have built based on Final Cut Pro. "Our experience with Apple is that when things go wrong problems get solved." He particularly likes the way that FCP, QuickTime and Apple’s Xsan work together. More than 160 clients work off its Xsan. It helps considerably that FCP is so widely used that it is easy to find freelance editors to work for them. "Typically you find the talent is ahead of you. When the industry moved to Photoshop from Barco Creator we found that designers were ahead of the curve, because they know which way the industry is moving. And it’s the same with Final Cut."
Hogarth spent a lot of time creating a unified workflow, including developing some of its own software. This allows there to be a direct link from before the media is even created all the way to delivery. Ingest is done at full master quality, which is kept available to the end, without transcoding or conversion (which would slow down the process). It relies on the ProRes HQ codec (sometimes with 4:4:4 or Alpha channel versions), preferably in HD.
It uses multi-purpose hardware; with only one kind of production machine and one software build with all the applications included (such as Apple, Adobe and Smoke — which took a lot of negotiation to get on a floating licence). This makes it easy to maintain and a lot more resilient. Users can access their "portable home directories" from any machine. "That’s quite challenging, but we’ve got it working very nicely," says CTO Mark Keller.
The delivery and asset management is taken care of by Final Cut Server, with the added "secret sauce" of continuous status tracking using its own system, FIDO (Fully Integrated Data and Operations) – which is more of a way of working than a piece of software.
This was very complicated to set up, requiring a combination of third-party software and its own. "We pick the best in class and try to stick them together and present the information in a simple interface," says Keller.
The system knows what is happening on the disks that hold all the data, so will update whenever anything changes. It uses a hub and spoke production model, which encourages a non-linear workflow, with the master files held centrally, alongside the rushes and production elements, accessed by whatever specialists need it.
Hogarth is completely tapeless (with no tape decks even for ingest), and therefore has to be able to do quality assurance on the digital files rather than some interpretation. This is principally done in Tektronix Cerify (having previously used Baton QA), and it is hoping to use Eyeheight for audio loudness checking once that software is finished (it already uses Eyeheight plug-ins for FCP). It also uses Harding FPA (Flash Pattern Analysis), which tells them which frame failed.
They don’t do offline and online. "It’s just editing and finishing for us," he says. It is more to do with handling media. On a digital shoot, they often have Macs on set at the studios in West London, and put the media straight down a Gigabit Ethernet link to its HQ (often 4k Red files). This means they can log and capture on the spot and start editing very quickly.
It also archives all the elements of the production: all the selected shots, all the edits and the different elements, rather than 300 10-bit clock master files. Doing it this way takes up a lot less space. Hogarth also keeps proxy copies locally, but users can hit the restore button to pull back the full resolution versions, again via Gigabit Ethernet, which isn’t instant, but is relatively fast (at about 500Mbps depending on the type of content).
Final Cut Server can autoconfigure and pull out metadata and proxies. "Even on its own it is very powerful, but it doesn’t do money, or people or timing." So, Hogarth has done a lot of development to integrate it with the rest of its business. It has written its own web APIs for Server, which interrogates the master copy. Then there is the FIDO interface (basically a MySQL database), which hooks to Server to allow metadata, proxies, etc., go back and forth.
FIDO (which is an implementation of Encode) sits in the middle of all the processes, reports back to any client software and interacts with business and other systems. However, one problem with trying to keep everything trackable by one system is that account managers often use their own email systems as a database, something Keller tries to discourage.
Apple’s latest OS version (Snow Leopard) has helped a lot, making everything faster and more stable (especially the personal directories). It has a Promise-based SAN of about 120TB, an Infortrend nearline SAN of about 140TB, a Dell Blade server for Maya, and 10-Gigabit links within the building, linking about 230 Macs. There is local networking on each floor, in one single rack cabinet, so only one 10Gb link is needed between floors. It also has offices at two London ad agencies (which need to be able to edit material on its SAN), as well as a further office on the English coast. It has about 15 people in IT, most in development with only three in IT support.
It uses JVC HD monitors, which Keller says are "very, very good." The finishing suites also have JVC calibrated projectors (for colour grading). If something is shot at 4k, it is edited at 4k – "We keep the integrity of the picture all the way to the end."