Keeping it Together: Issues & Trends in Digital Asset Management

Rick Baumgartner investigates the hot area of digital asset management and how keeping track of ones stuff can give companies a leg up on the competition.

Mark Brown, vp of Rhythm & Hues, and his team developed the Production Tracking System that his growing company uses for its projects.

Mark Brown, vp of Rhythm & Hues, and his team developed the Production Tracking System that his growing company uses for its projects.

Lets face it: We humans are not very good at keeping track of things. We become less good at it as the number of things we need to keep track of and organize increases. Keeping oneself in the loop becomes harder still when things change as they increase in number.

Organizations creating visual experiences for television, game, feature, Internet and other audiences suffer from a similar affliction. Mislaying ones car keys for a few hours is an inconvenience. Losing track of an element for which you laid out tangible and intangible resources is bad business. Companies that fail to take digital asset management seriously risk paying penalties in terms of reduced team morale, missed deadlines, increased production costs, reduced client goodwill, reduced ability to generate future revenue and a host of other avoidable ills.

Organizations create thousands of digital assets as they generate visual experiences. Digital assets record a projects journey to its destination. Digital assets embody investment in people, rent, software, hardware, taxes, utilities and other resources required to create that asset. Some consider digital assets instances of an organizations intellectual property. In visual effects and its sibling fields, digital assets include computer code, scans of concept artwork and storyboards, image elements, image versions, notes, authoring tool setups, textures, plug-ins and so on.

What is Digital Asset Management?

Digital asset management (DAM) systems consist of human and automated systems, processes and methods relating to rapid and reliable recording, annotating, storing and retrieval of an organizations digital work products during and after production. In game development, for example, DAM systems address productivity tasks such as version control, incident tracking, automated builds and centralizing image and code check-in/check-out.

But a DAM system is more than just software or an IT team. A DAM system is anything that helps people in the organization answer fundamental questions about their work products: What is it? Where is it? Who is working on it? When is it needed? Who needs to see it? Is it the most current version? Is it approved? What changes need to be made to it? What is its priority? What is its relationship to other work products?

Smart content creation organizations focus on digital assets for the same fundamental reason they keep track of their human and financial assets because they believe the assets have (or will have) monetary and or creative value to the organization. Each organization has its own criteria for selecting or developing a DAM system: accuracy, ease of use, speed, flexibility, scalability, cost, timeline and so on.

But Google the phrase digital asset management and chances are youll get links to companies specializing in document management and brand management (logos, packaging art, key art, etc.). Storage, search and retrieval (catalog, library or archive function) are key parts of any DAM system. But whats unique about DAM for digital production is that assets change extensively as they move through production. In this context, assets become stable and catalogable only at the end of production.

Of course, the point is not just to have organized assets its to do the best work with the resources you have. Even the slickest DAM system wont make a lousy production into a masterpiece and great projects have been made with rudimentary DAM tools. The goal of a DAM system is to reduce the risk and cost of rework, enabling people to spend more time creating assets than on finding assets.

George Johnsen of Threshold Digital Research Lab partnered up with IBM to create an in-house DAM system.

George Johnsen of Threshold Digital Research Lab partnered up with IBM to create an in-house DAM system.

Dollars or D.I.Y.

Organizations take a number of factors into account in implementing DAM systems: budget, time to market, team size and skill set, business model, number of simultaneous projects in production, project complexity, company culture and other factors. As with most everything in production, you have two basic choices: buy it or do it yourself. Same goes for DAM systems. Either you pay someone to design, build and maintain your own in-house system or you pay a service provider to do it for you.

Many larger digital production studios operate DAM systems developed in-house and adapted to fit their specific workflow. Mark Brown, vp, technology at Rhythm & Hues (Cat in the Hat, Daredevil, X2 and many other projects) estimates that a show like Scooby Two (currently in production) has upwards of 200,000 assets registered in the companys Production Tracking System or PTS.

Brown and his team developed PTS over the past several years as Rhythm & Hues grew from a medium- sized to a major effects studio. He credits PTS with helping the company manage projects of increasing size, scope and complexity. He doesnt foresee a shift to third party solutions for R&H any time soon: There are great packages out there, but they just cant do what we can do.

Forming Alliances

Some digital production companies form relationships with technology partners from traditional data processing and computer equipment providers. One example is Santa Monicas Threshold Digital Research Labs relationship with database and systems giant IBM. Thresholds chief technology & animation officer George Johnsen works with IBM to continually expand the functionality of Thresholds custom in-house DAM system. The system helps Threshold manage its production across the globe on animation and CG projects such as Foodfight!. For Johnsen, it was important that the companys DAM system fit the particular way Threshold works. I wanted the software to adapt to us, not the other way around, says Johnsen.

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NXNs founder/ceo Gregor vom Scheidt (left) offers data management software to companies that dont build their own DAM systems. Threshold used their in-house DAM system to manage the data for its upcoming digitally-animated feature film Foodfight! (right) © Threshold Digital Research Lab.

Off-The-Shelf

Other organizations turn to software providers such as market leader NXN for turnkey DAM solutions. NXN offers systems integrated with development tools, processes for recording and disseminating creative feedback, and other industry-specific features. Says NXN founder and ceo Gregor vom Scheidt, One of the reasons why we are spending time in this market is because customers want to get away from managing data. They would rather focus on the making the best possible movie or the coolest visual effects. NXNs biggest competitor is not another software company but companies that create and maintain their own in-house DAM systems.

So what are some of the trends driving the growth of the DAM industry?

Getting Photoreal

Its become a truism that audiences demand increasingly realistic visual experiences from content creators. The need for realism increases the size, number and complexity of digital assets. Each second of the final visual experience might require dozens of digital assets to realize and each of these assets must be organized and tracked. Its reasonable to expect this demand for detail and complexity to increase, further driving the need for effective DAM systems.

Oh, the Humanity

Although software is getting better at helping people organize, track and distribute digital assets, humans are still the best gatekeepers. Why? Because humans are generally better than software at identifying and dealing with the exceptions and special cases that arise in any creative endeavor.

In a smooth-running DAM environment data wranglers or production coordinators act as interpreters and detectives, knowing the project well enough to know where an asset really belongs. They provide quality control, reality checks and security for the ever-changing dataset. Humans also decide what is a digital asset and what isnt.

Not Just for Studios

According to Tim Bicio, one of the developers of Zion the in-house DAM system for EON Ent.s Matrix feature, game and anime properties the point is to make sure each incoming work product is properly identified and shuttled to the right set of eyes. Says Bicio, Zion allows the [Wachowski] brothers to stay in close creative touch with EONs vendors (including CIS, Sony Imageworks, ESC and many others) across several time zones. Bicio and his team developed a homegrown combination of PHP, Perl, Javascript, and MySQL for Zion.

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Tim Bicio (left) co-developed Zion the DAM system for EON Ent. John DJ Des Jardin, also of EON, views Zion as a way for the Wachowski brothers to better exploit all their creative assets.

EONs Zion DAM system underscores a trend toward increased use of DAM systems by production companies specializing in digital content. This suggests that more and more people in roles allied to digital production (marketing, publicity, engineering, administration, training, for example) will be interacting with DAM systems.

According to EON visual effects supervisor John DJ Des Jardin, Zion provides a foundation for generating revenue streams and future projects. As long as Zion exists, says Des Jardin, the Wachowski brothers can make other forms of entertainment based on what is in the database. Expect more production companies to take an interest in digital asset management systems to maximize the current and future value of their digital assets.

Global Beats

Increasingly, image production occurs at diverse locations outside of the organization. DAM systems help organizations communicate across countries and cultures by providing a common project structure and protocols for creating, naming, changing and storing assets. As studios outsource more and more digital production to teams across the world, it becomes increasingly important that the production be backed by a robust DAM system. Effective DAM systems enable companies to benefit from round-the-clock production as assets journey across the globe toward their final version.

Alien Brains

Perhaps the biggest trend is that there is now a viable marketplace for companies specializing in developing and selling turnkey DAM systems to digital production firms. Companies now have the option to purchase turnkey products such as NXNs Alienbrain and extend the feature set of the purchased system to mesh with the organizations workflow.

NXN, a leader in the DAM field, has convinced major content creators such as Sony Imageworks, Electronic Arts and Pixar to adopt variations of NXNs core digital asset management suites. Born in the asset-intensive world of game development, NXN will continue to expand its offerings into the content creation marketplace by adding functionality to handle project management, scheduling and billing. NXNs vom Scheidt calls this enhanced DAM approach digital production management.

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Zion managed all work product for the Matrix universe: the feature Matrix Reloaded, Animatrix and Enter the Matrix the game. Matrix Reloaded photo by Jasin Boland and courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures; Animatrix image © 2003 Warner Home Video. All rights reserved.

Staying in the Loop

When many of the established digital production companies in the effects field started years ago, asset management was much less of a concern. You created a file tree. You put files in it. You backed it up occasionally. No big deal.

Not anymore. Digital asset management systems are as essential to the health and growth of a digital production business as any other financial or physical asset. It is the DAM system that organizations use to communicate its work to the rest of the marketplace. So its important for producers, coordinators and project managers in digital production to contribute to understanding and improving DAM systems. After all, nearly everyone in a digital production environment spends a significant portion of their time interacting with the DAM system. Why not make sure it works well?

As Brown of Rhythm & Hues puts it plainly: If you dont know where things are and how things are supposed to be put together you are in big trouble. So the next time you consider working with a digital production entity ask about its digital asset management system. See if it shows you where things are and how things are supposed to be put together. See if the system provides the information your team needs to get the project done.

Visual effects producer Rick Baumgartner was recently nominated for a 2003 Primetime Emmy Award for his work on the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is currently producing visual effects for the new primetime NBC show Las Vegas at Stargate Digital. Visit Ricks Website for more information on producing visual effects.

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