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Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 11 (November 2003)

Covering Your Assets


By Jenny Donelan

According to scholars and business pundits, we are leaving the Information Age and entering the Attention Age. Knowledge—the mere possession of data—is no longer power. Data—as represented in books, e-zines, market reports, newspapers, and a plethora of other media—is now plentiful enough to be deemed cheap. Power now lies in knowing which data is important, and even more, having the ability to manipulate data so that your information rises to the top, drawing people's attention away from competing content.

Digital asset management is technology for the Attention Age. It enables those who possess digital assets—photography scans, video clips, e-books, 3D animations, and the like—to organize that material so it can be efficiently located and used, and shared and sold. Digital asset management is at work any time an organization creates structures and procedures for the use of its electronic files. A magazine production staff that uses file directories for storing different versions of an article—from the raw manuscript submitted by the author to the finished piece with photographs—is using digital asset management. So is the National Geographic Society when it makes more than 100 years of professional stock photography available for online purchase (www..ngsimages.com). And so is a game development house when it organizes models, 3D animations, video clips, and effects into file structures that complement its fast-paced work flow.

As a technology, digital asset management is about as old as digital assets themselves. But in recent years, companies that own digital assets have become more aware of them, and are increasingly eager to profit from them. Digital assets also have burgeoned, such that some content creation houses are trying to manage more than 100,000 image files, for example. For these reasons, digital asset management has become a hot topic with its own acronym—DAM. This month, in fact, a new trade association devoted to the subject of DAM will hold its first conference on the topic (for more information, visit www.g-sam.org).

Digital asset management projects can be divided into three categories, based on content. In practice, these categories overlap, but it helps to look at them separately to understand where the technology is headed. The first type of project involves the organization of text. An example might be an online newspaper archive. Users can search, sort, browse, and purchase articles that date back days, weeks, or years. Photographs, drawings, and video footage are available from many newspaper archives, but these take a backseat to the main asset—text.

The second category of asset management involves digital imagery to a greater degree. The National Geo-graphic Society's photography archives, for example, make early autochromes, maps, color transparencies, and so forth available to advertising agencies, editors, and corporations seeking stock photography. These assets have been held by the National Geographic Society for more than a century—long before they were digital, of course—but only recently has a selection of the images been systematically digitized and made searchable, sortable, and salable.

Images courtesy Beverly Joubert/National Geographic Image Collection.









With help from IBM, the National Geographic Society recently posted 10,000 of its 10 million photographs for sale on its new Web site, www.ngsimages.com. The collection is scheduled to grow by thousands of images a year.




IBM's Global Media and Entertainment group helped National Geographic make the images commercially available on the Web, according to Steve Canepa, vice president of global media entertainment for IBM, and put a front end on the data so that customers could sort through it. Asset management is an important enough market for IBM that its Media and Entertainment group has made a business out of offering complete systems, including hardware, software, and consultation. In addition to National Geographic, the company has helped the British Broadcasting System, CNN, and the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather manage their digital assets.

The third type of asset management project includes animations, video clips, 3D models, textures, and rendering with the mix. Advertising agencies, such as those mentioned above, often need this kind of system, as do design engineering firms, game developers, postproduction houses, and film studios. But in the case of these latter four examples, digital assets are not merely reused, but constantly revised and worked on by numerous parties. According to Canepa, this paradigm has brought about a change in asset management, particularly at the entertainment level. Until recently, he says, "the focus has been archival," meaning that systems heretofore have been designed primarily so that files can be checked in and checked out, and their whereabouts logged. "Now," he says, "we're seeing asset management more tightly coupled to the production process." This is where production asset management systems—DAM.systems geared especially for DCC applications—come to the fore.

A computer game under development involves myriad parties and processes. Artists create sketches and maquettes. Writers develop story lines. Modelers bring characters and backgrounds to 3D life. Animators add motion to the project, and then of course, there are textures, rendering, and so on. These processes cannot happen in linear fashion, one neatly after another, or the game would take so long to create that it would be outdated before it hit the store shelves. The production staff, which can number 50 or 60 people or more, has to work in parallel, and here's where things get tricky. Where are the files, and who should work on them when?

Jacob Hawley, CEO of game developer TKO Software (www.tko-software..com), discovered production asset systems while working on Medal of Honor: Breakthrough for Electronic Arts (EA). They didn't have much choice in the matter, he says, because EA specified that TKO had to use alienbrain software from NXN in production. "After a few days," notes Hawley, "we loved it so much that we deployed it across the company."

TKO Software used NXN's alienbrain to manage assets while working on the game Medal of Honor: Breakthrough with Electronic Arts.
Image courtesy of TKO Software and copyrighted by Electronic Arts.




"I think the number one thing people are looking for," says Gregor vom Scheidt, founder and CEO of NXN Software, "is organizing their data and having well-ordered processes to work with it. They want their data in a central place, they want control over who can see the files, and they want a version control system that allows users to go back to earlier versions of files if modifications don't work. They also want a locking system to prevent multiple people from accidentally working on the same file at the same time, which generally results in data loss—whoever saves last, wins."

Big-budget film studios have had these kinds of systems for some time, notes Dave Campbell, product marketing manager for 3D software at Discreet. "There has to be some system in place or the studio will fail." Because they often have specialized needs and big talent, many studios have created their own asset management systems, says Campbell. "Or, some build well-defined directory structures and create a system that requires input from the artist, but in an ordered manner, so that everyone can find all the assets."

Game development, film, and broadcast production studios currently are meeting their needs for production-related asset management in one of three ways: proprietary systems, off-the-shelf systems not developed specifically for DCC production but adapted to the content creation pipeline, or off-the-shelf software devoted to DCC asset or production management.

Images courtesy NXN Software




NXN Software makes both alienbrain Studio for DCC asset management and alienbrain VFX for large-scale CG production management.




"I don't think anybody's particularly keen on building asset management systems in-house," says vom Scheidt, "except in the entertainment industry, where, if they have to build these kinds of systems to do a project, they do it." Widely used off-the-shelf digital asset management programs from companies such as Canto and Artesia Technologies, however, can be used in conjunction with proprietary programming to create systems to manage production.

Specifically devoted to DCC asset management is NXN alienbrain Studio. NXN Software is in the enviable position of having identified a niche market just as its services were needed. Though film studios, as already noted, have used some kind of asset or production management in recent years, many game studios have not. As game assets multiplied in size and quantity, many houses struggled to keep up.

"If you think of a game like Monkey Island," says vom Scheidt, "it's incredibly complex. That's how we got started, writing asset management tools to address the kinds of problems that game developers have and helping them to organize their files, be more productive, and spend less time searching for content." Though DAM systems have proved invaluable in design and manufacturing applications, these systems were not tailored to artists' needs. Notes Hawley, "Most of the tools out there are designed for people with a technical background. And it's easier for an engineer to go to a graphical interface than it is for an artist to go to a command-line interface."

With its straightforward user interface, NXN currently is filling the bill for game developers and other DCC studios in need of production-related asset management. In fact, according to vom Scheidt, approximately 85 percent of total seats in entertainment-based studios in Europe are outfitted with alienbrain systems. There has been a flurry of "strategic partnership" announcements recently that demonstrate that 3D tool developers, such as Alias Systems, Discreet, Kaydara, Right Hemisphere, and Softimage, are incorporating alienbrain compatibilities directly into their programs. A user of Discreet's 3ds max, for example, can access alienbrain as a menu item in 3ds max. Says Discreet's Campbell, "The impetus was our desire to make it easier to manage the increasingly larger data sets and sheer scene complexities that arise in any 3D production scenario. Our integrity as an authoring solution is highly dependent on how good the connections [along the production pipeline] are."

For all its buzz-worthiness, the question remains: Do production houses really need asset management or production management systems, be they alienbrain or the proprietary products of individual brains in production departments? After all, if you're producing great content, who cares how that content gets from start to finish? The answer isn't simple. Says vom Scheidt, "What we find, in general, is that unless you're looking at very complex processes, like creating computer games and CG feature films, that just cannot do without an asset management system, the primary advantage is a productivity advantage. And whether people consider a productivity advantage a must-have really depends on whether that system has critical mass in the industry. In the computer game industry, for example, asset management systems definitely have critical mass. If you don't have one, you're at a disadvantage with your competitors."

What it comes down to, in the end, is how much control you require over your company's digital assets. Says Campbell, "Digital assets can get out of control when you are versioning your files and tracking hundreds or thousands of assets between groups of artists. It is increasingly noticeable how issues of complexity and scalability are affecting more and more of our customers. Giving the artist an easier way to know exactly where assets lie and ensuring they are using the right version is critical when building a professional 3D pipeline."

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World.

TOOLBOX

Artesia Technologies www.artesia.com
Canto www.canto.com
Discreet www.discreet.com
IBM www.ibm.com
NXN Software www.nxn-software.com
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