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Cinnafilm Eyes the End-Game With PixelStrings Cloud Transcoding

Published: March 21st 2018

PixelSrings offers pristine conversions for all formats and frame rate, via the cloud, with Pixelstrings Cloud Transcoding.

Cinnafilm, which has been an industry fixture for close to a decade, has always been interested in finding ways to make pictures look better at a reasonable price. Their latest product doesn’t veer from that goal — PixelStrings combines Cinnafilm’s image processing technology with cloud computing and storage, and it’s accessible via a web browser, with PixelStrings Cloud Transcoding.

We reached out to Cinnafilm founder and CEO Lance Maurer to find out more about the company’s evolution and its latest product.

You’ve been offering technology in this industry for years with Cinnafilm and its products. Can you talk about how that all began and how it led to PixelStrings?
I love a good back story, and I think ours is a great one. As with any technology, Cinnafilm was born from a recognized technological gap in what was available to me as a creative. I worked as an aerospace engineer, but spent most of my free time (and money) trying to make my independent 16mm movies look right. After going through countless iterations, transfers, NLE filters and getting crazy quotes from facilities with expensive boxes I found that nothing accessible was even close to being good enough. This drove me to Chris and Ernie (my co-founders) to ask, “Can’t this be done better and less expensively?” That was 2004. By 2009, we had a patented software technology good enough that ARRI OEM’d it, and Kodak used it to “regain” production content.

PixelStrings Cloud Transcoding
Photo: Paul Saccone

In 2010, when cinema tools went “commodity,” we decided not to go down that dark path and transitioned instead to the more stable broadcast market, where we could be disruptive again. Over the next eight years, we established a reputation for solving the hardest imaging problems for all areas of professional media. We know how to make smooth, pristine pictures for any format regardless of the source. Cinnafilm technology works on the front end to fix issues before they go to editorial (which saves considerable time and money) and on the back to ensure all revisions look their best. And when cloud compute embraced Nvidia GPUs, the stars aligned for us to evolve once again.

PixelStrings is the evolutionary sweet spot. It combines our image processing with infinite cloud computing and storage, all in a simple browser. The platform is designed to ensure the right creative intent with minimal input. The term “Every Frame Matters” is our underlying philosophy.

What does PixelStrings do? 
PixelStrings is a platform as a service, and the superset of our ideas. After a decade of solving problems for all levels of pro media organizations, we have learned a thing or two about pain points and workflow. PixelStrings is focused on the end game — making your content play back as smoothly and as beautifully as possible in all formats and frame rates. The tool is built top-down with that in mind. All of our best algorithms in motion comp frame rate conversion, artifact removal, telecine pattern and noise removal, grain modeling, retiming and rescaling are here.

For example, if someone had a 23.98 asset in SD that was 23 minutes long, and they wanted to retime it at 22:30 and convert to 25p, while removing the chroma and digital signal noise, then upres it to HD, and lastly adding a nice 35mm film grain which is so good it has fooled experts, you could do that in PixelStrings in one pass for less than $46. And if you had 100 files, the system scales up the machines in the cloud to get it done in the same amount of time as the one clip.

Who do you see using the platform and in what environments?
PixelStrings is a BYOS (bring your own storage) system, so it operates in the cloud, connecting to your storage. Users are content owners who need image processing done on the front and/or back end of the pipe, from dailies to deliverables. Since it operates in the cloud, it is aimed at facilities transitioning away from on prem buildouts and into cloud environments — i.e., for those shifting away from capital expenses to operating ones. However, there is no limit to who has access to this tool — it is open for all to use. I see a lot of folks who could not afford these tools in the past finally having easy, affordable access. It is meant to support both facilities and individuals. We have customers who have already committed entire libraries with thousands of titles to the cloud who are testing now, and some who are just starting to put their toe in the cloudy water.

What are the benefits of working this way?
I assume you mean cloud workflow versus pretty pictures. For facilities, it represents a predictably priced burst capacity. For many of our forward-thinking customers it represents a complete shift to an operating expense mode, which is a new way of doing business that scales with heavy demand more easily than pricey on-prem stacks and metal. The savings are considerable — no need to buy expensive machines, involve IT or consume unnecessary electricity and space.

The benefits of automation are what we are talking about here. To be frank, making things easier to scale and use, while delivering content that looks right, is critical for the facilities that plan to be around for the next 100 years.

Can you describe the workflow/ease of use and how people pay for the service? 
It’s pay as you go only. No subscription fees. Per-minute pricing covers all the processing, compute and third-party technology costs. The only expenditures the customer has are our costs and their own storage. The pricing scales with image resolution and we publish our pricing on our site. All billing is tracked in the user’s ledger, which is exportable for the folks who need to track the finances.

For workflow design, those familiar with our tools (Tachyon, Dark Energy and Wormhole) will notice that the same features are here. We have designed a very simple workflow template builder for users, which we store and keep in their profile. For newcomers to the game of making pretty pictures, we are working hard to make the interface simple and educational. We even have a test mode where people can pay 50% of the normal rate so their testing costs are minimal.

Watch our video from the HPA Tech Retreat with Cinnafilm’s Lance Maurer.

Have others been doing this as well? If so, how are you guys different, and if no, why not?
Transcoding in the cloud is not new. So while we are pioneering some things, we do not claim to be Lewis and Clark. We are leveraging some incredible technology developed by very smart people wherever we can, i.e. cloud compute, fast storage and data transfer, billing, etc. But I think focus on image quality at our level is new.

Two things make PixelStrings different: 1. We are focused on making great-looking, playable content a priority and 2. We are making it easy to understand and pay for our service. Users pay by the finished minute only, similar to how film processing in Hollywood used to be. No subscription or minimal buy required. This way, anyone can budget for this process without the added strain of calculating how many machines they have to install, etc. PixelStrings manages all the back-end compute necessary to get it done fast. If you have 1,000 minutes of HD content to convert, it will cost you $2,000. End of story. And it will take you about as long as the longest clip.

How do you see PixelStrings evolving in the near future? What is the philosophy behind it?
Interesting question. When I set out in 2004, I wanted to simply make a video-to-film digital conversion filter that empowered the artist. Now, with PixelStrings we have come full circle to that original vision, because there are no boundaries in the cloud… well, limited boundaries. Literally anyone can log into their laptop and make pretty content with this tool. I will say that there are a lot of incredible companies doing incredible things as well as us, and this is why we are building out a platform as a service — so we can bring those technologies to bear in our ecosystem. For example, we are adding CineCert’s IMF wrapping technology now, and will be providing an API in the fall.

There are a lot of killer tools we are keeping an eye on. This product will continue to grow for years, I think.

What do you say to people in the industry who haven’t embraced the cloud and its workflows because of piracy concerns? 
“That, Mr. Anderson, is the sound of inevitability.” One of my all-time favorite movie quotes. This is where we are going with AI and cloud compute, and it is undeniable. Yes, security concerns are valid, but users may be at more risk not going into the cloud. Realistically, risk is everywhere because anyone with an evil heart can create damage in and out of the walled garden. But I believe Amazon, Microsoft and Google have vested interests in making the cloud as secure as possible for our industry. When people ask me this question I point to the Oklahoma land grab. Yes, it will be dangerous, and likely a wild ride to boot, but the payoffs for those willing to go for it are immeasurable.

Visit Cinnafilm at NAB — Booth SL11510


Originally published on Post Perspective.