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Cinefex, 32Ten Studios, and the passing of the old guard

The now defunct 32Ten Studios: once here was magic
4 minute read
The now defunct 32Ten Studios: once here was magic

Phil Rhodes on how the times they are a-changing and what is being lost as we move towards the ubiquitous cloud and the virtualisation of, well, everything.

Between 1980 and 2021, there was a magazine – actually more like a book in periodical form - called Cinefex, about special and visual effects for film and TV. It was founded by Don Shay, whose work just in the first year included Alien, The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s a good twelve months when work of that stature could appear in consecutive issues of such a specialist publication. Anyone who owns a making-of book from the same period is quite likely to have encountered Shay and his regular collaborator Jody Duncan.

Sadly, Cinefex ceased publication in 2021, with Gregg Shay (Don’s son), who had by then become editor, reporting that the pandemic had been a key issue [As per Jody Duncan's note in the comments, Gregg was actually publisher by this point. Ed.]. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that part of the reason for its demise was that by the 2020s, the vast majority of visual effects work boiled down, essentially, to we wrote a Maya plugin to do it. If we’re only interested in results, that’s fine, though the efforts of one Mr Nolan and his determinedly in-camera filmmaking suggest there absolutely are points for effort in film and TV. Or at least, blowing things up is more fun than tweaking FumeFX.

Speaking of blowing things up, Cinefex wasn’t the only recent casualty. 32Ten Studios in San Rafael, California, closed at the end of October last year. The studio was named for its address at 3210 Kerner Boulevard, a disarmingly conventional title that rather obscures the history of the place. This was nothing less than an early ILM facility, into which the company moved after its work on the first Star Wars wound up in Los Angeles. These were the stages where where all those X-wings were blown up, giving rise to stories of being able to dig bits of slightly-singed Star Wars memorabilia out of the impact marks in the walls. Now it seems likely to go for offices.

Next in the firing line

Sad as it is, what does the demise of a major industry periodical and a storied studio have to do with us as we line up for the 2024 trade show season? Well, something alarmingly similar is happening to the world of production technology, both on single-camera sets and, particularly, in the world of broadcast. It’s already happened in post production, as we highlighted back in 2021 when DuArt in New York City closed its doors for good. The sad reality is that what was done there can largely be done now on a computer in anyone’s back bedroom, or, increasingly, a computer not even in the back bedroom, but on a server farm in an adjacent time zone.

This is old news in post, but it’s only been a few years since it began creeping into production, and if there’s a theme right now, that’s probably it. In the beginning, adding networked features to camera and monitoring gear seemed like a solution in search of a problem. It’s not hard to do, given the parts and know-how to build WiFi devices are available off the shelf at commodity prices. There’s a lot of software involved, but there’s far trickier hardware in a near-zero-latency video link like Teradek’s, for instance, than in that same device’s cloud features. Possibly that’s just a matter of commoditisation, but it’s true nonetheless.

Either way, it’s in live broadcast that software is really displacing hardware. Contribution via the cloud is established, now. Making a 5G cellphone replace a satellite truck economises on such a big pot of gold that it was quickly willed into being by people with a gimlet eye on the end of the rainbow. What’s newer, and maybe even more impactful, is that it’s increasingly possible to contribute, mix, encode and distribute without much more than a monitoring signal going anywhere near the poolside recliner from which one is remote-directing a major sporting event.

There is no truck anymore, or not much of one. That’s new.

The everywhere cloud

Okay, perhaps the idea of sipping a piña colada while calling shots is a bit ambitious. Perhaps it’s not quite that good, not yet (be good, though, wouldn’t it?). Either way, the inbox of the average journalist has recently been bulging with emails from PR companies eagerly promoting cloud-based things that directly replace things that used to come in a pelican case. There are a lot of options, including aspects of connectivity, storage, mixing and distribution. Sometimes, it’s a standalone product, although most of the big names in broadcast infrastructure have an in-house offering.

For now, this sort of thing is often targeted mainly at small to mid-range productions, educational and corporate studios who under the most pressure to economise. The trend is certainly upward, though. NewTek turned a large suite of hardware into a single server with Tricaster, and now seems likely to turn that, again, into not even a single server. As long as people want to record the real world and relay it to someone else, there’ll be camera gear, but at some point it’ll start to seem that recording things to an onboard flash card is downright risky compared to uploading it to the cloud in real time.

There’s also a contrast with the sad loss of places like 32Ten. Models have been replaced by CGI, and CGI often doesn’t get a lot of love. Conversely, some of the infrastructure changes which arise from cloudifying TV production hardware have more obvious upsides. It could save a lot of people a lot of travel. It’s hard to object if someone gets to spend many hours extra a week with the kids as opposed to in a seedy departure lounge. That’s the sort of technological revolution which actually makes people’s lives better.

It does mean that life just turns into more and more IT work, though. Most people would rather see the world than the inside of a datacentre. Happily, one of the things that’s sternly resisted the temptation to go online is the international trade show, and we’ll be able to follow up this line of thinking at NAB. 

Tags: Production Cloud