Beyond Crypto-Kitties – Blockchain technology in post production

January 25, 2019

Maybe you've heard of blockchain? Learn how this new technology is going to impact the post production industry (and what's holding it back).


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Day 25: 25 Insights in 25 Days 2019 New Year Marathon!

How Blockchain is breaking free from the chains of financial markets

Blockchain technology was first developed as a solution to the problem of trading on the black market: How can I, Evil Henchperson, buy a Death Ray from an equally Evil Villain, with the transaction being completely secure? Both parties need to remain anonymous, yet we both need to to trust the others’ integrity in completing the transaction. Thus, blockchain was born to provide secure, anonymous transactions that are verifiable.

So what is blockchain, exactly?

According to Wikipedia, a blockchain is:

A distributed database that is used to maintain a continuously growing list of records, called blocks.

These blocks of records grow like a chain. Because it’s distributed across lots of different computers, any break in the chain is impossible, since the lists would become inconsistent when compared between databases. Blocks are constantly verified across the whole chain.

To make this system work, each block contains metadata which describes:

  • Where the block is in the chain
  • What block came before it
  • What’s in the block
  • A timestamp
  • Plus a few unique IDs to help verify it.

Blockchain is often referred to as “distributed ledger technology”.

The intersection of Blockchain and post production

This article isn’t about explaining the Blockchain, or distributed ledger technology. Instead, I’m going to jump ahead and point out three emerging areas of blockchain use, which are relevant to the post production industry. These three simple applications are becoming part of our world in the next year or so, as they sneak across from adjacent industries.

Not only will post production likely adopt models from the music industry, gaming and asset management, but we will combine them to solve our industry’s unique problems. Let’s start with the fundamental building block of our industry, our raw material: Digital assets.

infographic overview of the blockchain ecosystem
Blockchain project ecosystem at October 2017, by Josh Nussbaum. Cryptocurrency is only a single use-case for the technology.

Scenario 1: Digital Asset Management

The least exciting, but probably the first place, we’re likely to see blockchain used in post facilities and studios very soon is with Digital Asset Management.

In 2018, the film & television industry’s major conferences were all about Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. But nearby, our friends in the world of Digital Asset Management (DAM) and Media Asset Management (MAM) were getting saturated at their conferences by blockchain. The overlap between our two industries is significant, and it’s where I first started exploring how we can best use blockchain technology in post production and studios.

Blockchain and DAM, Today:

Blockchain technology can provide foolproof chain of custody on any piece of data. What’s more, it can ensure every piece of data is uniquely identified along the way.

Modern DAM supports digital transformation through digital supply chains (transcodes, file management, versions), cloud infrastructures, and application delivery. Companies like Viant are an example of blockchain-enabled asset management throughout the entire digital supply chain workflow.

While the DAM community are still working out the various faults in rolling out blockchain-based solutions. Most agree that it’s the way forward and much better than the old enterprise hardware/software model. The biggest issue in the past few years is interoperability. More digital assets means more requirements and more software that has to play nicely together (but doesn’t always). If the whole DAM ecosystem was reduced to the single protocol of blockchain distributed ledger technology, it could be theoretically made simple, secure, agile and scalable.

“Blockchains act like a kind of shared whiteboard where each participant can read what everyone else has written and then append data to it, with a snapshot being taken after each contribution.”

Ralph Windsor , Daydream

What we might see:

Video production companies, studios and distributors use common enterprise DAM solutions already. As blockchain-based systems mature, expect to see those databases switch over.

Blockchain allows for a transparent chain-of-custody. It’s possible to see where an asset is, where it’s been, and who has had it before. Supply-chain models can be applied to production workflows, reducing errors and improving asset tracking at scale.

Scenario 2: Smart Contracts

Smart contracts are the coolest thing about blockchain technology, and the aspect being applied the most widely at the moment across most use-cases. There’s a really simple explanation of smart contracts here if you’re looking for more info.

 

A smart contract embeds code which triggers a chain of events automatically. Because it’s on the blockchain, it’s immutable and could be “witnessed” by millions of other users. In creative industries we’re already seeing smart contracts being used by independent artists, especially those who publish on the Internet. Revelator is one company popular with recording artists, using smart contracts to ensure that any time their song is played, they’re paid. Kodak has launched a stock-footage version of this already.

Smart contracts and blockchain today:

There are a few examples and active use-cases being explored already in the creative industries. Aerum is implementing smart contracts in gaming, and it’s being proposed as an answer to tracking ad revenue and general media DRM. DECENT is a company targeting media, gaming, and digital advertising amongst its line of blockchain-based products. The DRM and payments-based products we are seeing now are likely to keep developing and be more widely used. Beyond independent artists and creators, we should expect to see a version of these concepts behind future streaming and distribution products, like Spotify and Netflix.

What we might see:

Imagine this:

  • A successful upload to the client’s server of the final film you’ve finished for them, triggers their bank to automatically transfer an agreed amount of money to your bank account.
  • How about a distribution deal on a film whereby every time it’s streamed, a smart contract triggers agreed micro-payments to everyone on the crew?

Just like various logistics use-cases, smart contracts could revolutionize workflow and deliverables. They are essentially automation, but on a global scale, outside of your computer. Like in the example of getting paid upon delivery of an asset, we can expand that further. Upon the delivery of camera originals, several other processes could be triggered:

  • The DAM system logs all the footage
  • An automatic QC system checks the footage.
  • The rental companies are notified to pick up the kit.
  • Payments are made to the camera department for their day’s work.

Further down the line, delivery of final approved media could trigger a Rube Goldberg-style chain reaction of deliverables creation, payments, archiving, and the automatic acknowledgement of any completion guarantee.

Scenario 3: Distributed storage and processing

The security advantages to using blockchain technology in cloud applications can allow for more widely distributed storage and processing. Going global with a render farm is a possibility. Blockchain technology allows it to be done securely, giving tiny bits of encrypted data to a large number of widely distributed machines to process.

Distributed storage and blockchain today:

Livepeer does this already, building remote rendering on an “Uber for RAM” type model. The concept works like BitTorrent, but smarter and more secure. Storj is working on decentralized data storage with a similar business model. 

While the encryption of blockchain is still hackable, the nature of it means that not only would a hacker only uncover a tiny fraction of data, but the hacker would be exposed. Any time a piece of the chain is modified or broken, it is seen everywhere else. Custos has a novel solution, where they use “digital watermarks” and incentivize reporting of infringement. It’s secure enough that NASA is proposing using hyperledger cryptography for communications, including sensitive air traffic management systems.

What we might see:

Industry trends are leading toward more decentralized post production. Creatives work on projects from all over the world. A lot of research is being done into how VFX, an obvious use-case, can leverage different models of decentralized work. A lot of streaming distribution uses these concepts at a conservative level, for delivery to remote audiences.

As this technology matures, I expect to see blockchain-enabled cloud workflows becoming popular. The industry is moving away from tangible assets, such as dongles and real estate. Studio-scale cloud based production is just waiting for greater security and efficiency. Blockchain technology gives the security, and the efficiency isn’t far behind.

Problems with blockchain

There are a lot of problems with blockchain, at present. They are widely documented. The three main problems we’re seeing through the cryptocurrency boom are:

Problem 1: Crypto-jacking

Crypto-jacking is an issue we’re seeing now, due to the blockchain being used for crypto-currency. Hackers are injecting code into websites, which lets them use your computer’s RAM while you’re visiting that site, to mine a specific cryptocurrency, called Monero. This highlights security concerns that need to be solved.

Problem 2: It’s slower than current database solutions

At present, for many of its more practical uses, the Blockchain is little more than a database. Futurists describe various laws of future adoption, but most agree that any new technology must be an improvement on the current solution. Blockchain databases are slow. They rely on the speed of a distributed network of computers, across the Internet. Not only does this slow interconnectivity slow down blockchain, that connectedness has additional security concerns, such as the recent hacking of a post audio house.

Problem 3: Massive energy consumption & environmental factors

The crypto-currency boom has brought on another concerning problem. Crypto-currency mining at present levels, uses as much electricity as the whole nation of Iraq, or New Zealand, or Singapore. Projections suggest that by July 2019, Bitcoin mining will use as much electricity as the entire USA. These problems are serious. It’s not clear what kinds of pressure wide-scale blockchain databases will have on our grids.

Bonus Scenario: A blockchain recipe for awesome

The scenario that excites me most combines the three emerging use-cases above: A decentralized, cloud-based studio. It harnesses security and asset management via blockchain allowing any production to work seamlessly with a range of talent across the world. It automates tasks like deliverables and localization. This scenario makes sure everyone gets paid for their work, almost immediately.

Blockchain and the cloud-based studio, today

Current technology being developed for other uses exists as the ingredients for this model. Computer and internet speeds are improving at a healthy pace. I expect soon, both the hardware and the platform will be mature enough to improve significantly on our industry’s current workflow solutions. Some version of these toolsets will emerge.

Looking forward, today

I am someone whose professional life requires me to make smart predictions about the future of our industry. I’m asked to speak and publish on the topic frequently. I prefer to offer you ideas and clear explanations of the concepts while demystifying the process of making such predictions. I get excited by other people’s ideas of how technologies will impact their own communities and areas of expertise. Just remember, trends are not linear from the present state of technology. We must be careful to never overestimate technology and underestimate society.

Problems with forecasting

Forecasting trends must take into account the assumption that science and technology constantly evolve. Often, problems with early versions of any innovation are solved before it becomes widely adopted. The blockchain-enabled tools we can expect to see in our industry soon will be a much more mature version of those being shown today.

Blockchain as a concept is one with enormous potential to have an impact on our industry.

My own ideas are just a fraction of that potential. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.

-Katie

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