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“Metadata is everything”: Deluxe Group’s Jack Watts on prepping your IMF workflow

The Deluxe Group have long been one of the most recognisable brands in creative services, post-production and content distribution. Since 1985, they’ve kept pace with technology, leading the way when it came to developing workflows for file-based editing, HD, UHD, 4K, HDR and now IMF.


Liz Sunter

We first started talking to Deluxe about the Interoperable Master Format (IMF) five years ago and have since supplied them with support, plus essential hardware in the form of Rohde & Schwarz CLIPSTER, one of the most established finishing tools to support IMF. We caught up with Deluxe’s Head of Technology and Development, SMPTE member, DPP member and IMF User Group participant Jack Watts to find out how the first five years of IMF implementation have gone for the team, and what advice they have for anyone thinking of adopting the standard now…


What was the initial appeal of IMF? Why did you decide to adopt it so early on?

Being a service provider who is regarded as technologically innovative, we’re always going to work with the newest file formats to support our clients, but it’s driven by what they deem is necessary. That said, as we’re also a digital cinema facility and IMF is based on the original Digital Cinema Framework, we were in a very good position to advise clients and say, “Look at the benefits of Digital Cinema, look how we structure these compositions in such a way. In that, look at how a componentised workflow benefits you by reducing storage capacity and optimising digital deliveries. Look how easy it is from a supplementary perspective to fix issues and to reissue new versions.


So part of the work so far has been educating clients about the possibilities of the format?

When people started adopting IMF, we were getting file-based deliveries that were packaged IMF but structured in the same way as a simple tape capture from an HDCAM, so the deliverable may as well have been ProRes. A lot of my advice back to clients at the time was “I’m happy you’ve adopted it, but you’re not leveraging the benefits that this framework has to offer you.” And I would leverage the Digital Cinema experience that we have to influence [how the client approached] the composition structure and the packaging aspect of an Interoperable Master Package (IMP), and their delivery such as file size and transmission. 


Is IMF particularly popular with any specific client group?

What’s interesting is that, given the time frame and the constraints involved, the finishing phase of post really hasn’t adopted IMF yet. It’s used more on the downstream side of things: home entertainment, video on demand, and various other platforms, purely because we have the means to work on and structure those packages correctly. We’re also seeing it being adopted on the broadcast side, so the likes of top tier broadcasters and groups have now selected IMF as their format of choice.


What do you think is driving this?

I think now broadcasters are starting to adopt the experience from the theatrical branches of their respective companies, who have been using DCP. They’re starting to see how a componentised structure within a composition, enriched metadata and extensional references from within that metadata all benefit a project, especially when it comes to driving MAM systems, delivery mechanisms and automation. A good example of this is the strategic effort between SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers), the DPP (Digital Production Partnership) and NABA (North American Broadcasters Association) and their utilisation of the format with their Specification for IMF Broadcast & Online Application Constraints


Why is the metadata aspect so crucial to IMF?

There’s a general underestimation of [the importance of] the actual core metadata constraints within the package itself. There’s a problem in the industry with [things like] some providers using IMF as a buzzword. You’ll see statements like, “We can transcode and render a full three-hour feature in six to ten minutes and deliver it as an IMP,” which is all well and good, but if your compositional structure and packaging is below par or malformed in any way, then you run the risk that the system you then present it to may not ingest or interpret that package. Therefore, there’s no benefit to having it made in rapid time.

And this is the thing: metadata is key. Metadata is what is required to drive automation and MAM solutions, so it’s important for people to focus on the constraints of that metadata, and make sure that it adheres to the standard. That way you guarantee interoperability across all the systems that you present that package to.


So, there’s a lack of consistency in how different clients are adopting the standard at the moment? 

Correct. Every client is utilising IMF how they see fit. Even though we are referencing a ratified standard, we see people interpreting these standards in a subjective manner that suits them, so we’re starting to see the likes of Client A bringing in their interpretation, then Client B, then Client C, then Client D, and before we realise it, we have a mess. There needs to be that level of uniformity in the industry.


And that’s something you’re trying to solve in the IMF User Group?

Yes. The IMF User Group (IMF UG) brings to the table everyone who is effectively an end user of IMF. Its purpose is to address these issues that we see cropping up within the industry, because no one can really predict what challenges we might face until people start adopting and using the format. The IMF UG aims to be an industry collective steering committee for the format within the industry.

Setting aside the wider application for a moment, can you tell us about the IMF workflow Deluxe currently employ?

We interpret whatever the client’s delivery requirements are and incorporate that into our workflow. So, the parameters associated with that deliverable (ie it’s IMP) will get put into our project management system. It then goes into the pipeline of the facility, which is presented to the operator. We will then interface with our packaging tool of choice, in this instance a CLIPSTER, and we’ll use CLIPSTER to facilitate the IMP creation, output and validation for that client’s requirements. 

It is very streamlined. Ironically, a lot of the packaging and IMP creation is relatively simplistic due to the Herculean effort the likes of Rohde & Schwarz, Colorfront, Fraunhofer and Marquis have put into their respective products. But like everything, there can be interoperability issues. So often we see IMPs that we create on one specific platform being rejected when delivered to another, and it’s not necessarily an issue with the package, it’s an issue with the system. And again, that’s another reason why the IMF UG exists!

Once we’ve created that package, we validate it accordingly to make sure that it satisfies all IMP standards and constraints, along with the applicable delivery requirements for the client in question.


How do you store the package? How do you place it within a Media Asset Management system (MAM)? 

The metadata that you input is key. There are various stages in the packaging process where you can add that metadata. There’s metadata in the PackingList (PKL), but all required metadata should be contained within the Composition Playlist (CPL). You’ve got to treat PKLs and ASSETMAPS (AM) as system files: they are redundant, they can be dynamically created and destroyed, and they are there to facilitate system processing and interchange of data the IMP contains.

It also comes down to the MAM in question. For example, if one were to design a MAM, you should devise how you want that MAM structured and how you would deem it necessary to index IMF packages. That would not necessarily be for a client to dictate. Simply put, our clients concern would be ‘If I want to restore/retrieve a specific version, can you retrieve it and all the respective assets which that composition references?’ The complications of facilitating this request in an efficient and timely manner fall to us to determine.

And then there’s the relational aspect, where you may have a relationship between that CPL from other CPLs, be it supplying fixes or new audio, so you also need version control with respect to which compositions are active and which ones are currently approved. So, as well as the IMP creation stage, there’s also the IMP storage side of things, or the CPL storage side of things, which is an ecosystem unto itself. Such storage requirements can’t really be addressed and defined until people have a common agreement about how they want to record their datasets with respect to the metadata in whatever MAM system they want to use or create.

The below infographic outlines a simple at-rest/restore concept of this practice (click here to download full size version).


Why do you centre your IMF workflow on the CLIPSTER? 

We have a very longstanding relationship with Rohde & Schwarz – we had a lot of input into the development of their Digital Cinema Platform tools, and that same contribution and partnership transitioned over into the various AS-11 and AS-02 delivery packages, but also IMF.


Is it important for facilities who are implementing something as “new” as IMF to keep in touch with OEMs?

That relationship is paramount, because although Rohde & Schwarz or whoever are implementing these tools into their platform, they have no visibility over the real-world issues that we have when a client rejects a package for an invalidity, or because it interpreted something incorrectly with the image. They rely on their end users for that feedback. Having that relationship with Rohde & Schwarz allows me to work with them in realtime, providing back reports and logs. We have a variety of NDAs with them so that they can mitigate and address an issue relatively quickly. I cannot stress enough the importance of facilities like Deluxe having a relationship with manufacturers like Rohde & Schwarz.


What are the consequences when a client rejects a package? 

There are a lot of factors one needs to determine. Has there been incorrect information from the client supplied to us? Is it an issue with operator interpretation? Has an operator made a mistake that just wasn’t caught? Has the system just outputted that file incorrectly? The majority of the time, with a new format like IMF, the issue can be the system writing out something incorrectly before there are QC systems developed to catch that particular error. That ties into the relationship factor.

Again, where IMF is concerned, it’s not been heavily utilised in the theatrical environment, where the release dates are being advertised on buses as we’re working on them, so deadlines just don’t move. Often on the home entertainment/downstream side there’s a little bit more leeway. If you’re putting in the work to try and address the issue, you’re working with the manufacturer and clients can see that, they’re relatively OK. 


One aspect of the IMP workflow that seems under-utilised at the moment is the OPL. Is that something that you’re using operationally yet?

Although there is a ratified standard associated with the Output ProfileList (OPL), it is not yet adopted by the industry at large. An OPL XML document is written out by manufacturers purely to satisfy the packaging constraints of the format. There is no production adoption of the image or audio macro usage just yet. It is something that we are working on as are others. Because OPL contains information that influences the manipulation of our clients’ content, we are not in a position to dictate how that OPL should be governing that content, but rather in a position to advise, based on our experience and what we’ve seen and our knowledge of what works and, more so, what doesn’t. We contribute to our various clients as to how they could implement the usage of OPL correctly. I’d rather not name anyone specifically, but we are hopeful to see OPL macro usage in the very near future. Keep an eye out other side of IBC.


What do you think’s been holding it back so far?

These things do take time. There must be a level of interoperability governance surrounding the IMF systems from different manufacturers. Each of them needs to be reading from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, and that’s where plugfests, user groups and participation in technology committees come into play.One of the key focuses that’s superseded OPL has been sidecar composition, which is the ability to include auxiliary data pertaining to the CPL in question, be it the likes of QC reports or additional information that the production may require. So that is something that has been of much more paramount importance operationally, rather than [focusing on] OPL at present.


What’s the main thing you’d like people to think about before they try their hand at implementing an IMF workflow?

Take the time to read the standards and understand the format that you’re working with, and why you’re working with it. It’s important not to just jump on IMF because everybody else is jumping on it. You need to jump on it because it does what you want, it’s right for your business model and it satisfies your business strategy – you want to drive the likes of automation, MAM and all the intelligence and efficiencies that bring cost savings and efficiencies to your business. And remember that package structure, composition detail and metadata are key.


Where can people find more information?

IMF UG is a good place to start for reference. It is a professional body, but it does provide the relevant references for where people should go and what they should read. We encourage people to take part in the standards community. Invest and acquire the 35pm suite of standards so you have a point of reference, especially if you’re a manufacturer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more people there are who understand this format, the better it is for this industry.


IMF User Group 

SMPTE TC: 35PM – Media Packaging and Interchange

DPP IMF APP Constraints



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