BBC evolves digital asset management with Life

The BBC’s Life series marked an ongoing shift from film to digital media that is making the need for rigorous metadata and digital asset management in broadcast media more pressing.

The evolution of the BBC’s digital asset management programme, known as its ‘Digital Media Initiative’, was borne out in its Life natural history series.

Executive director of the Natural History Unit Mike Gunton will tell the “behind the scenes” data capture and management story to delegates at a forthcoming data management conference in London -- both the broadcast footage and  how the BBC curated the greater mass of the footage not shown.

First broadcast in 2009, Life took four years to make, traversed 150 global locations, and involved 2,000 days filming and 3,000 hours of high definition footage. The series consists of 10 one-hour episodes, and was co-produced with the Greek Skai TV, the Open University and the Discovery Channel in North America.

“Cameras can see things that the human eye can never see, and the images we take are, in effect, data”, Gunton said in a recent interview with While other speakers at IRM UK’s compendium event in November – Data Management & Information Quality/Data Warehousing & Business Intelligence -- will hold forth on data architecture, analytics and technology, Gunton has 70 slides of animals to display.

The filming that makes up a series like Life is one place where “big data” comes alive, and it needs to be managed with foresight. “Getting the metadata right is fundamental”, said Gunton.

“An image of a lion hunting in the dry season in the Serengeti will need to be logged, in the field, against three key editorial criteria: What is it? Where is it? What’s it doing? It’s quite a fag when there is so much else to do in the field, but it pays off in the long run. It’s not the end of the metadata story because we add more detailed information back at base, including qualitative data, before editing and then a final pass after post production when we add information about rights, re-use limitations and the like”.

Gunton recounted an early experience in his career as a natural history film maker that illustrates the data management practice that the BBC’s Natural History Unit is establishing. It was his first year at the Unit, and some monkey footage from a recent shoot was lost. Recounting his woe to a cameraman, a solution appeared as they talked. The cameraman remembered filming some monkeys in Bhutan in 1986. Gunton went to a BBC archivist who did a card search and tracked down the film that would make the point of the lost footage.

“Essentially, that was a primitive metadata search", Gunton said. "We want to re-create that process now in a more sophisticated and systematic way”.

Three thousand hours of footage lie behind the ten 50-minute programmes in the Life series – each episode also has a ten-minute ‘making of’ addendum. The footage is digital since tapes have been replaced by memory cards.

“Tapes get lost, damaged, and are hard to archive", Gunton said. "They take up walls of space [unlike digital]”.

Nor is the BBC data explosion likely to abate. The Natural History Unit is moving from 1k to 4k [higher definition] cameras, and is shooting more footage than ever before, said Gunton.

But digital video data handling is more than just about saving on storage. The BBC wants to repurpose footage, partly to fulfil an obligation to license payers, who, effectively, partly own it, and partly to commercialise it. There have been around 100 requests to use Life footage, said Gunton. “But the frustration is that the same shots get over-used, so that iconic images – such as the chameleon’s tongue trapping a locust -- lose their iconicity. With better metadata and speedier and more effective retrieval systems it should be easier for say, an advertising maker to retrieve an alternative, and equally suitable, alternative shot from the archive”.

The data management behind Life was part of the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI), an effort to allow BBC staff to develop, create, share and manage video, audio and programming content on their desktop to improve production efficiency.

“With this, we are trying to speed up the creative process”, Gunton said. With digital video, material can be reviewed in the field. It can be sent around the business and, in the case of a series liked Life, can be shared with co-production partners in the US and elsewhere. “More collaboration is made possible”.

The estimated cost of delivery of the DMI to the end of March 2017 is £133.6m. In February of this year, the BBC Trust published an independent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) that concluded the early stages of the programme, hosted by Siemens, did not achieve value for the money spent. The BBC later took the DMI in house. The NAO report said that, by contrast, ‘in-house delivery of the system has started well, and, while there is a considerable way to go before the programme is complete, users have been positive about the elements delivered thus far’.

The data management needs across the corporation are varied, said Gunton, making a system that meets everyone’s needs a challenge to find. “Metadata design is at an extreme with Natural History." The BBC in Bristol, where the Unit has had its home since 1957, has petabytes of data with a huge archive value, whereas the BBC in London will shoot footage that will never need to be seen again. “And so, a deep and complex metadata approach will only be applied to certain projects. So, maybe not a studio insert for the One Show, but news footage shot in Libya three months ago might need to be retrieved at some future point.”

In the meantime, film makers in the field, like Gunton, have the frustration of animals not reading the script.

“That’s the pain and pleasure of this. They don’t have agents, which is a good thing", he said. "We want drama from them, though. For example, the takeover of a gorilla clan, when the silverback is deposed. You have to roughly gauge when that will happen. You can’t ask the younger gorilla to do it on a certain date.

“With drama, everything is totally data managed. Every shot is slate captured”. Natural history is, he said, more like scripted reality TV, such as, in the UK, The Only Way is Essex or Made in Chelsea. Neither is made by the BBC Natural History Unit, nor the BBC, though life on both can be pretty wild.

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