Rob Pinniger, (ex) Technical Manager,
Abbey Road Interactive, UK
Meet Rob Pinniger--a learned professional in the interactive media
field. You can say that he has been doing interactive media jobs even
before ipods, iphone 3g s handsets, and other gadgets became a fad. Those who want to know him more can check out the interview below:
"What I particularly like about this whole DVD interactive media thing is the chance it gives somebody like me to combine an aptitude for technical things with a sense of doing something creative as well."
"Yeah, I mean even if it is something as simple as hiring a room above a pub and getting people to come along and just put faces to names. And it would be great to actually phone some of these people up and having met them and really get into sort of re-generate some of that sense of community."
DVDA (Bernie Mitchell, President): Rob, give us a bit of your background, where did you come from? And how did you come to Abbey Road?
Rob Pinniger: Umm... Ok, well, I did a degree in Metallurgy and Science of Materials. Which was no grounding whatsoever for interactive media, but it did tell me that I didn't want a job in that field., having done that degree. So, I literally, just had a sit down and though what would be a cool job to have and I decided I would do special effects in films. So. I applied for a company in London, which did special effects, computerized special effects, graphic effects, that sort of thing. They were called Telecine Cell, but Cell did the effects and Telecine were a more traditional post production house. And my CV got intercepted by the wrong half of the company and I got offered a job at Telecine, rather than a job at Cell. So, I figured I would take the job and wangle a move sideways into Cell at some point, but it never happened. So, I started at TeleCine in the traditional manner by being a runner in the dispatch room. They were getting into at that point, doing MPEG encoding. They thought that they would get into that for the airline business, so that you know you are making encodes of the feature films, and various programs on the planes. Just at that time the airlines were starting to put in computer based systems, rather than having racks and racks of high 8 tape machines. So, I literally just walked into their MPEG encoding department one day and said, "You'll need somebody to help you out here, and I think that somebody should be me," and they said ok. And they literally sat me down in front of an old Minerva Compressionist system and said, "Learn that". The clients that they were doing video encoding for, said, "well, how can I deliver this video , I want you do do some corporate thing, or my show reel," or what have you. So, we thought we could offer CD-ROM's, so they sat me down in front of Director and said, "Learn That". That involved learning a bit of PhotoShop and AfterEffects and things like that. Although the designers here would laugh if they heard me to admitting that I had done any design work in the past. So, basically, I started doing that multimedia CD-ROM stuff at Telecine, and obviously when DVD started to happen then, that seemed like a very natural progression, We already had an MPEG encoder. We had experience in encoding MGEG. We had experience in interface design and interactivity and that sort of thing. So, we were just thinking about doing DVD when another company in London, called One UK was set up with the specific intention of being a DVD facility. I was one of the people that they asked to go and sort of form the core team at that company. This would have been in 1998 or 1999, something like that.
Now, unfortunately, in the way of those companies that are first on the scene, we did lot of research and work. We were actually appointed Daikin's technical support center in Europe. The idea was that other European companies would phone us for technical support rather than waiting until the guys at Daikin got into the office. Which was a string to our bow, but caused some elements of stress because some other companies didn't want to call one of their competitors and explain how they were having problems with Scenarist. We were very much on the front line in Europe and definitely in the UK. We did a lot of bug finding in the PAL version of Scenarist. So the company has a whole had a lot of difficulty, and was a little bit under funded as well, and eventually went bankrupt. So, I swiftly jumped ship and moved to and started working at a place called TVP Digital Media. And then you know Liberty 4MC started buying up the whole of SoHo. So, they bought TVP and then they bought TVI, which was a different company. TVI had a DVD department called Stream, so they merged my department TVP Digital Media and Stream and we became Stream Digital Media. I was the technical manager there. I was there for a couple of years and then Abbey Road phoned me up and said, "We need a technical manager, will you come and do it?" That's how I ended up here and I have been here for getting on for five years.
DVDA: Abbey Road is a world famous recording studio and Abbey Road Interactive has become world famous as well. What type of projects do you work on?
Rob: We pretty much cover the whole range. A lot of people do associate us as just being a music facility, and it is true that we do a great deal of music based work. But that is by no means all that we do. We do feature films, TV. We did the Coen Brother's film, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" That's a very nice disc, which we later sort of revisited and made into a two disc edition with some extra features and new things that they had found. I like that one particularly because Andy, our designer here, did a great job in getting the menus to reflect, really nicely on the sort of style of the movie. It's very sepia, the film, it has a very specific visual look to it. And I think that Andy captured that very nicely in the menus. It makes the whole disc seem much more of a whole. Rather than just a film with some extra things bolted on to it.
DVDA: Does Abbey Road Interactive also do websites?
DVDA: What percentage of your business is DVD? What is web? And how much are your DVDs web connected?
Rob: I would guess that the overwhelming majority of what we do is DVD. We don't tend to see ourselves as a Web design studio. In the sense that we don't sort of hawk those services around to people. If one of our already existing clients comes along and says will you do our website then, of course we say yes. But we don't tout for trade as a web design studio, if you see what I mean. We see it very much as an additional service to our DVD clients, if you like. We do Abbey Road's website the EMI Studio Group, Olympic Studios, BMW loudspeakers and stuff like that. And then of course we do microsites for our own DVD projects, like Coldplay that we did recently has a little microsite that you can access from the disc. Coldplay as a band was getting very into fair trade charities and wanted to publicize that quite a lot. They had a lot of information and assets to deal with that and didn't really fit on the DVD itself. So we made a little microsite that contained all of that information about the charities that they wanted to support and so on, and you can access that from the disc. We do a fair number of discs that are web connected. We don't really get asked to, occasionally we try to push it. But I am not seeing a great deal of interest from clients in the more involved web connections, where you might envisage, I suppose the classic example is some sort of catalog where the video footage is on a DVD but you have live updates of pricing and availability information on the web site and feed the video assets from the disc thru onto the web page. We don't get a lot of interest in that sort of integrated solutions. We have done our own testing and built our own discs with bits of assets that we have lying around. But nobody yet seems to want that. But I guess that is because we are an entertainment facility. We don't do a great deal of corporate work. If we were doing work for Ford cars then I guess we might have done something where we put all the adverts for their models on a DVD and allowed access from a website, where you could browse the different models and that sort of thing. But because we are just doing entertainment titles, our clients, see this as a way of getting their concert and a surround sound mix out to the public. If we can put on a web link to the band's web site or the record company's web site then all well and good. But they are not really seeing a great deal of commercial benefit to them in terms of increased sales of really going out there and making it all singing, all dancing from a web connected point of view.
DVDA: What project was the most difficult, the most challenging and why?
Rob: Several spring to mind with a variety of reasons, causing difficulty. Certainly our first few DVD Audio discs were something of a challenge, especially given the state of the authoring packages at the time. We are fortunate, I guess in that we had some projects from EMI Classics which enabled us to break our duck there, and actually make some mistakes. We had to go thru god knows, how many DVD R's on the first few, just checking out the foibles of the various players. You know really getting it bedded down to the extent where we could actually arrive at commercially releasable projects. So they were certainly difficult. We have got to the stage now where we are almost getting a DVD Audio project thru the facility in a similar time frame that we would for a DVD Video project.
DVDA: Speaking of the different manufacturers, players and the compatibility issues, I noticed recently on the list that you were having some challenges with one manufacturer in terms of compatibility with the player. Are you still seeing these problems, or is this settling down?
Rob: Actually that is the first time that we have had something like that for at least a couple of years. We have maintained a test bed of players for a long time. Some of our players are very old, and so still show foibles that you don't see out in the players that are currently being sold in the shops. But to actually find an error that shows up on almost every single model we tested from that one manufacturer, that's quite rare.
DVDA: Let's talk about the physical plant, how big is the staff and give us a breakdown on the type of gear, the hardware and software and the tools used.
Rob: We started off with 4 people and now there are 23, I think at the moment which is a handful of producers, a handful of authors, a handful of designers, video encoding, audio encoding which is generally done by the audio engineers in the studios and a couple of QC guys. In terms of kits, we've got what is pretty much the standard spread of stuff. A bunch of DigiBetas, IMX tape decks, DA88 and DA98 and DAT machines and so on. God knows how many different graphics packages upstairs in the design suite. All the standards, of course, PhotoShop, Illustrator, Quark and AfterEffects and what have you. You can guarantee that whenever you take on a new designer, you suddenly discover that what they really like to use some design package that you don't currently own. You have to go out and spend a thousand pounds to get some project from Adobe. About a year ago we took delivery of a Media 100 844X, which is their video compositing system. That's quite cool. We started using that to do some motion menus. It is a real time, non-compressed video system. When you are working in short form programming which is really what DVDs are, it is very handy to be able to capture something in, resize it, make it into thumbnails, drop it on to a background that you have designed in PhotoShop and it is composite in real time. Your 30 second menu takes 30 seconds. That is a big advantage over something like AfterEffects where one project we did awhile ago, The Beatles Anthology, we had a main menu that was quite involved and lasted 2 or 3 minutes. Rendering the whole 3 minute menu in AfterEffects took, you know 15 hours or something because of the large number of effects and filters that the graphic designer was using. That makes a big difference if you can go from 15 hours of rendering to 30 seconds of compositing in 844X, that's a huge bonus. There are a couple of other companies in the UK that have it, but we were certainly one of the first. We have quite a good relationship with Media 100. We have a couple of their off-line editing systems, Media 100i.
DVDA: What about from the DVD Authoring side, what tools do you use there?
Rob: We have five Scenarist NT, one Scenarist SGI, one Spruce, and one Sonic. So, it is pretty much a belt and braces approach. We do occasionally get, you know clients come along and maybe in the past they have used somebody else and now they want to revisit their project and add a director's commentary, or what have you. Or add some extra sub-titles and sell it into a different territory and then they will come to us with a DLT project back up and say "Here you go can you add Korean subtitles to this?" So we've got to really have everything because we don't what another facility will have used. Project back ups are very rarely properly written up, so we quite often just get a blank DLT and you have to try it in Sonic, no it's not a Sonic back up. Try it in Spruce, no it's not an NT back up, try it in Scenarist until you find out which one it was. About the only thing we don't have is DVD Studio Pro.
DVDA: That begs the question as to why?
Rob: We have never come across a situation where somebody had brought us a project that had been authored in it, that we've had to do anything with. I mean if came to it, we would probably buy a copy. But, I guess what initially put me off was the fact that the sort of scripting language that they've used, or that they used originally in the first version and probably still do, I am not sure, I haven't seen it for awhile. There was obviously some impetus from Apple to make the scripting language in DVD Studio Pro like Apple Script. So, it doesn't really bare any resemblance to the actual DVD commands that our authors are familiar with in using Scenarist. So, if we were to buy that software they would have to learn a whole new script in order to make it work nicely. I mean I am sure that you can do most things thru the interface, as you can in most of these packages. But quite often, if you want to do something really snazzy, you really need to sort of understand low level commands that are going on. And the way that DVD Studio Pro has another layer of interpretation, doesn't really appeal to me.
DVDA: Let's do the time honored thing and ask you to gaze into the crystal ball, what trends do you see coming in DVD? What to you see happening with audio, with Hi Def? What is your take on the future?
Rob: The sort of looming shadow of HD is the big issue really. Like I said we have been doing some DVD audio projects and it is a format that I am personally a supporter of. But when you have these new HD discs coming along you are going to be in a position where you can have High Definition video running along side MLP surround. So you are getting uncompressed surround, great quality video pictures. The impetus behind DVD Audio is going to tail off. I mean the dual disc format is very exciting, but I am beginning to see it as a bit of a stop gap to be honest. And that is a bit of a disappointment, really. But not disappointing if you look at it from the other way, which is that the next format of discs looks like a one size fits all, at least in terms of functionality and getting great pictures out and great audio at the same time. I am not sure what is going to happen with the whole Blue-Ray vs. HD-DVD. I mean I can't really see how it has to be sort of forced into ending up with a one system that plays everything. I mean, based on past performance, Pioneer is going to release a player that will play everything. The player under my TV at home is a Pioneer for just that reason, because it plays DVD Audio and it plays Super Audio CDs and obviously DVD Video and CDs and all that sort of thing
DVDA: The London Chapter of the DVD Association was just launched. What activities would you like to see the DVD Association pursue? What would be helpful for you?
Rob: The big thing for me is perhaps not so much the technical committees and that sort of thing. I was thinking about this the other day. In the early days of the DVD industry in the UK, which basically meant at that time in SoHo, it was a very, very tight knit community. Everybody who was doing it knew everybody else. And that was a very powerful thing, because at the time when I was working at OneUK and Andy was working at Stream, Brett was at TVP before I joined there, there were a handful of people, probably 6 or 7 people who had got their heads around the whole concept and were doing it right. But even so, you know you come up against bugs, problems, player glitches and so on. At that time it was very noticeable, in comparison to today anyway, that we knew each other, so we were able to phone up and say, "you know I am having a big problem here with this Sony player" and somebody might say "Ah yeah, we had that last month with this other disc and we discovered that what you have to do is add an extra cell of black video." And then two weeks later they would be phoning me and saying, "I just can't figure out how to do these anamorphic sub-pictures or whatever." And so, it was good in that sense because we all knew each other. There was a much stronger sense of community than there is now. Obviously, that is unavoidable to a large extent because of the number of new players that have moved into the business since and the way that some of the companies have approached it. They are sort of factory places where you just got authors who sit at their desks and metaphorically they are just handed a cardboard box full of assets and told, "Here are your assets, here is your project plan, it needs to be finished by 5pm this evening, get on with it." We don't follow that philosophy and never have. Our authors are often to be found in the encoding room or talking to the designers or producers about what would be good ideas about how the project should function. Or getting involved in meeting the client, those sort of things. We have never compartmentalized it. But quite a number of companies have, obviously if you are going to be trying to knock out a thousand titles a year, you need to become a factory. We don't make anything like that number of titles every year, but we would humbly suggest that we make slightly better titles, but fewer of them.
DVDA: So the sense of a community then, is something that would be appealing to you?
Rob: Yeah, I mean even if it is something as simple as hiring a room above a pub and getting people to come along and just put faces to names. There are so many people whose name you are familiar with, because you have seen them on the DVD list, or you saw them to give a talk at some DVD Forum or at various conferences that happen around Europe or the States, but you haven't got a clue who these people are. And it would be great to actually phone some of these people up and having met them and really get into sort of regenerate some of that sense of community. Because to me anyway, it is becoming a bit lacking.
DVDA: If there wasn't DVD, what would you be doing?
Rob: Very good question, maybe I would be doing special effects in films. I know for a fact it would be something technical and 90 percent sure it would be something to do with computers, but not traditional pure IT. I don't know, it would have to be something. What I particularly like about this whole DVD interactive media thing is the chance it gives somebody like me to combine an aptitude for technical things with a sense of doing something creative as well. To often creative people are perceived as being technophobes. Fair enough they can use a Mac, but if it breaks or it won't talk to the network then people perceive creative people as being a little bit scatter brained and not really up to dealing with technical problems. And vice versa, they perceive people who are good at that sort of technical side of things to have no eye for design or sense of creativity. And I think that in this industry anyway it is a massive plus point, as far as I am concerned, in that you can do both at the same time.
Thanks to Rob Pinniger, Technical Manager, Abbey Road Interactive. www.abbeyroadinteractive.com