Emerging Technologies: Interoperable Master Format (IMF)
Daniel Germain
Issue: July 1, 2015

Emerging Technologies: Interoperable Master Format (IMF)

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that “nonlinear file-based workflows” was all the buzz as the industry transitioned from traditional tape to more general purpose computer style storage, filing systems and processors. Ironically, though the workflow process was dramatically altered, the files being created were just digital versions of the tapes that were being replaced. So, what was the benefit? Even worse, some master files included black frames rendered into the timeline as place holders for commercial inserts. It seems like madness when you think about it; somebody has to open a video file to view a slate at the beginning on a physical screen, for example, just to know how the audio tracks should be mapped.

Shouldn’t all this be handled in metadata with pointers to reference where the inserts should be made? After all, we are in the age of cloud computing! 

Moving forward a decade or so, version control is the single biggest issue with today’s digital supply chain. Mismatched assets from different versions account for more than half of failed deliveries. A text file that slips out of sync because video is native frame rate and the text is from a broadcast file; audio in a language other than the expected language; and blended frames from assets telecined for broadcast are among the major culprits driving the lion’s share of the defect rate. 

Thanks to the great work by the IMF forum (www.imfforum.com), chaired by Annie Chang, different workflows from studios have now come together under a single SMPTE standard with the Interoperable Master Format or IMF. It won’t necessarily fix all the mismatched assets of supply chain days gone by, but IMF establishes a standard moving forward. A framework for the needs of the future, where platforms are truly global and content owners must vault their assets and repurpose to accommodate all their different applications in one efficient manner. Airline versions, multiple broadcast versions, Blu-ray, DVD, OTT — for every territory — can all be kept in a single set of assets separated by small meta-data instructions in the form of Composition Play Lists (CPLs).

Having a single standard wrapped around file-based options will allow a focused engineering effort both in the manufacturing of those files and on the receipt of them. Today, those efforts are diluted across all territories and stakeholders of that content.

More importantly, though IMF solves a great number of problems intelligently, it borrows some technology from the established Digital Cinema Package standard and builds on that model to allow for additional considerations that are required by broadcasters.  

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Digital Cinema and not mention the R&S Clipster, a product in the digital mastering and deliverables world that is as ubiquitous as the VTR. R&S Clipster has played a role in the standardization of IMF for years, and has been a logical platform for larger studios and post house groups to utilize existing hardware as the standard grows. With Netflix lighting the industry on fire and making IMF the preferred method of delivery for its content simultaneously as SMPTE standardized the format, Rohde & Schwarz released a version of R&S Clipster at NAB 2015 dedicated to IMF. This IMF-only Clipster incorporates all the flexibility of the input formats needed, including resolution independence, with a high quality hardware scaler and removes all the uncertainty with IMF deliverable by creating output wizards which ensure compliance of any deliveries that are made in a few simple clicks of the mouse.

Moving forward, the great thing about IMF is that it has a core framework for handling the metadata in human readable XML that dynamically points at the essence identified using UUIDs, and then around that it has many application layers. App #2 is where we are today, which is a JPEG2000-based HD essence. App #2 extended is still J2K based, but allows for extended color gamuts and UHD rasters. Then we have App #3, which is for MPEG-4 SStP, and as time moves forward, there will be other applications such as archive or other emerging technologies yet to be revealed.

The industry went through a massive upheaval when it transitioned from linear tape to nonlinear editing. Today we are seeing the same sort of paradigm-shattering changes in the digital supply chain. Large studios and OTT providers, born out of necessity, have to become more efficient to satisfy consumers’ insatiable and demanding appetites when it comes to media supply — no matter how challenging the reality of delivering this may be.  

Daniel Germain is the Segment Marketing Manager for Broadcast & Entertainment at Rohde & Schwarz USA, Inc. (www.rohde-schwarz.com).