Discreet and Colorfront alliance for Digital Grading.

Discreet has entered into a strategic alliance with ColorFront, a privately-held software company based in Hungary, to jointly develop, market and sell a powerful new generation of digital color correction systems.

FXGuide has an exclusive interview with Maurice Patel, Discreet Systems Product Marketing Manager, and Product Manger Bill Roberts of Discreet about what this means to the visual effects and color grading communities.

The foundation for today’s announcement probably came back in March of 2000, when ColorFront announced the availability of color*star — the discreet spark which provided digital film grading and color correction capabilities to post production workstations. What was interesting about this announcement was that in conjunction with flame/inferno tools, it could potentially provide colorists with the additional creative tools effects artists have grown used to — tracking, unlimited spline-based masks, keying, and sparks effects tools. It could also provide support for working with multiple resolutions, all within the same box.

Interestingly enough though, it was not Discreet that took this software to the next logical step. Early in 2001, ColorFront teamed up with 5D in a joint technology and marketing initiative when it was announced that 5D became the marketer of the star*dust film restoration tool. star*dust was also made available as a module within Cyborg. It was an interesting announcement, since controlling the front end of the digital finishing process could give an effects manufacturer a leg up on the competition in providing creative tools for visual effects and finishing.

It was only the start, because the digital grading system 5D Colossus was announced at IBC in September 2001. At the heart of Colossus was technology developed by ColorFront, initially for their color*star plug-ins. 5D Colossus is fully resolution independent on a shot by shot basis, with an internal 16-bit architecture. Images are acquired via film scanner, data-capable telecine, or digital film cameras. (5D had announced support for HD and SD video i/o prior to their closure).

New to the digital grading world is Colossus’ ability to grade in multiple modes — either printer lights and f-stops or using more traditional video style color grading controls. This brought a way of working to film that was familiar to the film post production process, and quickly caught on.

The system was used to grade “Lord of the Rings”. Fxguide spoke with Peter Doyle in May of last year about the digital grading process for the movie, as well as visited EFILM in Los Angeles to discover more about the process.

However, in October of last year 5D Solutions, Ltd. shut their doors due to financial problems. This was a surprising event, since the positive buzz for Colossus and Cyborg was growing week by week. And left the short-term future of digital grading uncertain, while ColorFront additionally always directly sold their product outside the 5D sales deal, it had been 5D that had made the technology most widely known. Shortly after the announcement, ColorFront announced that in the short term they would support its customers and all Colossus customers directly and release a version 2.0 of the software by the end of the year.

Discreet and ColorFront have agreed to enter into an exclusive strategic alliance that may well have implications for years to come. “We are delighted to be working with Discreet in bringing this technology to market,” explains Mark Jaszberenyi, ColorFront Founder and CEO. “Discreet is established as the leading supplier of high-performance post-production systems, and we believe that credibility will give us the extra momentum we need to successfully bring our new technologies to market.”

The Discreet and ColorFront deal will not effect or involve the Colorfront plugins but it does mean “Discreet to market and sell ColorFront – as well as assist in R&D”, comments Patel, while ColorFront will still do “the lion’s share of the development work”.

What has industry sources extremely interested is that Discreet will be looking at specific ways it can contribute technology, for example Discreet have revealed that at launch time the new product will have a Discreet UI. Product Manger Bill Roberts pointed out that ColorFront are “an excellent group,..,very well respected by Discreet’s clients and we have spent a year talking to them (our clients) generally about digital grading”, and in that time he added ” it became apparent that Colorfront had very unique ways of solving multiple problems”.

This deal actually started some time ago and is not the related to the closure of 5D, since 5D had a non exclusive deal with ColorFront. Discreet already had “healthy partnership” with Colorfront since they sold the color*star Sparks for Discreet systems. Negotiations began seriously last September when the Discreet team were in Europe for IBC. Discreet had two levels of customer “validation” and as Patel states ” they found the best technology fit” with ColorFront of any the companies Discreet looked at. These discussions particularly gained momentum after the sudden demise of 5D.

While 5D’s deal was non exclusive arrangement, the collapse did leave ColorFront without a sales force globally. It is now Discreet’s aim to release a “new distinctly Discreet product (which will admittedly show some of its technology heritage from other products such as color*star and Colossus)”, so that they can “provide our clients with a compelling solution for digital grading” states Patel. As for ColorFront, Patel believes that they were attracted by “the marketing and sales strengths of Discreet”.

Unlike the 5D deal, Colorfront’s deal with Discreet is exclusive. Surprisingly, Discreet claim that the technology in Colossus was not the most up to date that ColorFront had developed, so the new Discreet product will be far from just a rebadged 5D box. But Discreet is far more able to move into various areas explored by 5D as they purchased part of the 5D technology assets after its demise.

The Discreet’s documentation team have already started on producing new more comprehensive manuals for the new product. Discreet has stated that it will try and address workflow issues in the new documentation and look at whole problems, ” as we do from a clients point of view” stated Roberts. “We’ll treat it fully like a real new product and try and address how a user does this or that, rather than just each button does this”, he said. Stage two will include tutorials and workflow white papers etc. he added.

While Discreet is unwilling to comment on price, it did indicate an understanding of the market having different price points and different grading environments from client in attendance – telecine style sessions to larger long from episodic production pipeline processes. Speculation about the price is that the systems will be marginally cheaper than 5D, but not drastically, although Discreet has refused to comment.

While Discreet will also not publish the configuration, they did state that “we are not initially planning on offering an IRIX solution”. It is worth noting in this regard that the product manager for the as yet unnamed product is also the product manager for the Toxik new product development, a project shown as a technology showing last NAB running on an extremely fast Intel based solution.

Discreet do think that having a mechanical grading desk is very important to some customers and we expect that a physical desk will be a key part of the 1.0 release, but they hastened to add such a physical panel would not “greatly” add to the price of the system.

Under the terms of the agreement, Discreet is not bound to support existing 5D colossus customers, however Discreet is very keen to find ways to allow these “customers to transfer to the new solution as painlessly as possible”, points out Patel.

The digital grading world exists in two main workflows, grading data from a server or as Roberts jokingly explains “everything goes into a bit bucket and you grade from that”, or grading from real time devices such as tape to tape grading, and real time telecine transfers. Discreet have indicated strongly that they are not looking to get into the scanning or telecine market, and they say that they will continue to work with daVinci to promote backdraft for this market. This is even in light of the daVinci and Snell and Wilcox joint agreement to market the rival Picasso LT.

In ColorFront’s primary market segment of data/server based grading, the company was not known for its advanced EDL tools, and media management. A Cut File is often needed to be manipulated manually, and the Colossus relied, at least in part, on the 5D Commander system for media assistance. The Commander provided 2K realtime playback and media tools, without which server media fragmentation can be an issue. With Commander gone, Discreet were cagey on discussing media integration but did imply it was their aim to have the new Discreet Grading product freely exploit the Stone file system. They recognized that multiple file transfers and file handling is a major annoyance to end users and aim to “minimise network traffic” stated Roberts.

The iQ has been very successful in the Digital grading market by providing servers with ASIC level resizing, panning and conversion as well as mixed resolution media conforms. While Discreet would not be in anyway discouraging Quantel in this regard (especially as the iQ – like the Commander system, supports a HSDL interface), industry sources expect Quantel to more closely align themselves with Pandora and their MegaDef system, while daVinci sides with Snell and Wilcox.

Roberts added that in the area of conforming and media management increased use of the DPX file format and headers was something that Discreet was keen to look into, and that the “timeline is central to this trend”.

More than just build the use of digital intermediate feature film production, the ColorFront technology has the potential to redefine the concept of telecine. A combination of Discreet and Colorfront opens the door to being able to grade data in a color grading session but not committing to the grade. Roberts pointed to a typical pipeline path that might on a series involved 3 or 4 grades, transfers and regrades. If such a process could be performed with ‘soft edits’, it would be revolutionary. One could grade a clip without ever affecting the original and only the meta data would be passed down the pipeline and only committed to at the end of the process. This adjust and ‘bake at the end’ approach is of interest to Discreet, but they refused to be drawn on an specific plans or any release timetable.

What is of great interest is the extension of the CF technology to renderfarm batch rendering. Roberts comments that the “Simple answer is that remote background rendering is key to all of our systems products. We’re hopeful to have a complete remote background rendering strategy available to make the system as productive as possible, meaning render farms + more.” This addition of renderfarm capabilities will both fit nicely with Discreet’s own product lines future directions and be a major bonus to large feature film companies on extremely tight deadlines.

While the CF technology is undisclosed, it is understood that even when processing in a 10 bit log Cineon 1K proxy pipeline, keys in the ColorFront box are converted to linear data, an HLS key was pulled and then a 2K matte returned for use in the 1K proxy pipeline. In this case it would appear that one area the new product could really benefit from is scalable advanced keying from Discreet. Similarly many industry users are surprised at how well some aspects of the ColorFront/5D product solved traditional problems such as tracking. This opens the question of cross fertilization of technologies. Discreet commented that what they want to do is “collaborate in delivering solutions that will involve technology from both companies”. While this may occasionally involve an actual exchange – Patel points out that, “that is not the real goal.”

Given how happy both companies seem with the deal, and how well the technology seems to fit with both companies, one might be forgiven for asking, will Discreet buy ColorFront?

Discreet claims that they will not be buying Colorfront, as it is not seen by either side as being in their best interest. Discreet seems to feel that the passionate nature of the small dedicated Colorfront team is to be fostered and that this is best done remotely. ColorFront has only just moved into new office in Budapest and is not inclined to relocate.

Discreet will be formerly launching the new system in Vegas on Monday, the 7th of April, when the doors of the NAB show open, until then we will bring you any updates as we get them.