Linux for Suits - Penguins in Winnipeg

A conversation with Michael Collins about what's up with the Manitoba Media Centre.

Sometimes I like to get back to UpFront stories that deserve more than the few inches they get the first time around. Such was the case with the news that the Manitoba Media Centre (manitobamediacentre.org), a new “Open Source Entertainment Engineering, Innovation, and Production Research Facility” in Winnipeg, was already funded for seven figures with plans to push that number up to eight [see Doc's story in LJ's March 2007 UpFront section]. I got to thinking...“Why so much money? And, why Manitoba?”

So, I began corresponding with Michael Collins, the CEO of Linux Media Arts (LMA) and the prime mover behind the project. Veteran Linux Journal readers who followed Robin Rowe's coverage of Linux Hollywood Domination may recall Robin's encounter with Michael at the 2001 NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) show, where Michael said, “Our goal is to make Linux the premier multimedia editing and media production platform in the world, largely using open-source software” (www.linuxjournal.com/article/4743). The next year, Robin reviewed LMA's Broadcast 2000 nonlinear editor (NLE)—a product that has since been succeeded by Cinelerra (cinelerra.org), a Linux-based 64-bit open-source editing system, which, at last check, had around 700,000 search results on Google. Although this was a Linux Movie Mojo story on its own right, LMA's Manitoba move seemed too interesting to ignore. So, I decided to interview Michael, with interesting results. Read on.

LJ: What got the Manitoba Media Centre going?

MC: The concept for an Open Source Research and Development facility in Manitoba was first considered three years ago at the IBC show in Amsterdam. I made plans to meet up with a colleague from Winnipeg with whom I had been collaborating remotely in the design of a high-definition video board. His name is José A. Rueda. José is an experienced multimedia systems engineer with a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering and an MBA. José had a good understanding of the business side of media engineering and open source, and he was very willing to collaborate. José spoke glowingly about Manitoba's technological and financial resources and its highly stable professional population—something lacking in other regions. So, it looked to me like Manitoba might be a perfect R&D climate, and I kept that in the back of my mind while we moved forward with various other projects.

Then, business prospects rose dramatically, and with them the need for good R&D. So, last spring, I called up José to discuss establishing an R&D facility for LMA in Winnipeg. Then, I flew to Winnipeg in August for a four-day trip to meet with José and a few of his colleagues from business and government. José who is very well respected in Manitoba business and political circles, took me around town to meet with numerous people from the public and private sectors. We first met with Edward Suzuki of Destination Winnipeg, the economic development agency for the city of Winnipeg, and he was very keen in helping us and assisting us plan my itinerary for the meetings in my first visit and my future visits. We also met with John Clarkson, who is the Deputy Minister for Science, Technology, Energy, and Mines in the Provincial Government of Manitoba.

I laid out a vision for a worldwide center for open-source media technologies. John Clarkson was very curious, supportive and perceptive, and he surprised me at the end of the meeting by mentioning that the Premier of Manitoba, Gary Doer, was very interested in alliances with technology companies based in California. He said the Premier was scheduled for a trip to Los Angeles in a few weeks' time and might be interested in discussing the concept further.

A few weeks later, I got an e-mail from John telling me the Premier wanted to visit our Burbank offices and wanted me to present our vision directly to him. So, Mr Doer came accompanied by John Clarkson, and I laid out my vision for a research center in Winnipeg that took advantage of the professional engineering population and the supportive business community in Manitoba.

A week later, we heard back that the Premier wished to go forward with the concept. So, I took two more trips to Winnipeg to determine the project's viability and to make plans for its eventuality. José and I continued to meet with those interested in the financing, support and professional requirements for building a facility from scratch. Eventually, we came up with a viable plan and decided to announce the Manitoba Media Centre (MMC), along with the initial $20 million investment, on December 15, 2006, at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

LJ: Can you say who the investors are?

MC: I can say that Linux Media Arts is devoting $5 million in current revenues to the Centre to jump-start development endeavors. The rest is coming from a combination of investments from the province and from regional interests in Manitoba. The multimillion-dollar investment will enable us to engage in business opportunities and relationships that were not available to us before.

LJ: What projects are you starting out with?

MC: LMA has a number of complete systems architecture projects in-house right now. We will be hiring employees and contributors of the MMC to support key technology development. Additionally, the MMC will support technical development where markets currently exist and are not being properly supported by the industry, in our opinion.

LJ: What are some of those markets?

MC: Our focus is on larger markets such as broadcasting and film production systems engineering projects, particularly in Asia. Wherever people want their open-source multimedia project to be developed to a professional standard, we can help. Our engineering staff is very experienced. We have PhDs with qualifications from the largest media engineering and media production companies.

LJ: What do you expect to see coming out of the Centre?

MC: We expect to see the MMC become a worldwide leader in open-source development technologies, where a full-time staff will support research and development, and technologists will come to the Centre from all around the world. In fact, we intend to participate at NAB in April 2007. We also intend to host a three-day conference in Winnipeg in fall 2007.

In addition, we have plans to build a multimedia production centre for the Misipawistik Cree Nation in Manitoba. Users will be able to record and produce programming for the Internet, cable and satellite distribution.

We are also assisting in the development of a curriculum based on open-source media applications for the Red River College in Winnipeg. We are collaborating with the University of Manitoba Experimental Media Centre as well.

LJ: What are some of the technologies you're talking about here?

MC: Archiving, indexing, restoration, telecine and media distribution.

LJ: Let's look at the big Linux development picture and put these in context. Right now, the LAMP stack has grown to more than 140,000 components, if we look at the list of projects on SourceForge alone. What's still missing there for multimedia?

MC: In our opinion, what's missing is a professional perspective with the finishing touch and polish necessary to get professional attention. Open-source media applications and systems have to be better to achieve a larger reach in a competitive and dynamic market.

LJ: In the December 2006 announcement, you said the MMC would work on “an Open Source Media Distribution Operating System”. Is Linux not already that?

MC: Of course it is. However, what we intend to do is to release it strictly from the perspective of what is important to multimedia users. In other words, tool and applications and kernel changes that will improve the media experience.

LJ: Can you be more specific about kernel changes?

MC: Well, we stick pretty closely to what Red Hat and SUSE have been distributing for 64-bit architectures on the 2.6 kernel. The changes we make in the release and device drivers are more applicable to unique video cards, video networking devices, moving large files and adherence to SMPTE protocols. We also find it advantageous to remove some of the options for a typical production worker who is using a system as an appliance. Also, in streamlining the size and scope of the release, it tends to pick up speed, and this is also important for moving video frames.

LJ: What are some examples of archival and indexing tools or other open-source multimedia applications?

MC: MXF is a metadata-based archiving tool that is open source. We're also talking about many compression technologies, which have the ability to place indexable wrappers on them.

LJ: Will there be efforts to carry forward existing open-source multimedia apps that are already out there?

MC: Absolutely. There are numerous examples that will be included with the distribution. In particular, we expect to finally bring the promise of Cinelerra to fruition for professional markets on a wide scale.

LJ: How is Cinelerra doing?

MC: Cinelerra continues to be developed by its originator and main developer Adam Williams, and supported by an active open-source team from all over the world. Nothing proprietary will be implemented in Cinelerra on our watch. But, it will soon become clear that Cinelerra will compete favorably and beat the biggest names in the business. That is one of the main goals of the Manitoba Media Centre. We want to bring Cinelerra into its rightful place as a superior media software application that lives up to its original vision: to change how we edit and tell stories with video.

LJ: I see Cinelerra is GPL'd. Will the Manitoba Media Centre work to make other developments GPL'd as well?

MC: Absolutely. We have been very successful in developing and implementing GPL software on consulting contracts. We intend to devote a great deal of effort developing and promoting GPL software.

LJ: How will the development communities work? Who will keep the code repositories?

MC: Like other communities, these will attract contributors who have a stake in what the code will do. And, that's in addition to the professionals we're hiring to work on the code as well. Both the code and the repositories will be located on our servers in Winnipeg and mirrored elsewhere.

LJ: How is Linux progressing in Hollywood in general? Can we expect to see proprietary solutions increasingly replaced?

MC: Oh, yes. Linux continues to be high on the development agendas of numerous major studios. Current integrations are usually with in-house solutions. We expect efforts such as the MMC to change that by making more professional tools available on the open market for everybody.

LJ: How will it change your business in particular?

MC: Soon we'll be announcing a motion picture with a major Hollywood star to be shot entirely in Manitoba by a Canadian director and produced in collaboration with our team using our media production systems. All of our media solutions will be involved from pre-production to production to post-production to distribution. We can even provide the systems to project the film at an electronic cinema.

LJ: Let's look at developments on the demand side of the market, where more consumers are becoming producers, and the quality of digital goods is moving toward what you pros call “cine” quality. What's the biggest step for getting us there?

MC: Cheaper 1080p cameras, cheaper lenses and affordable easy-to-use tools.

LJ: How soon do you think 1080p shooting and production will be within reach of amateurs and low-budget independent moviemakers?

MC: It's already within the reach of people willing to take a professional approach to their production. In other words, it's very much in reach of the first adopters from a financial perspective. “The typical amateur” includes so many different types of people that we're bound to see lots of good work. To do that work, they'll find that software and systems are in place right now. The most expensive part of the production is the capture end, meaning the camera. After that, it's a storage issue. If you want to take it to film, then those are additional costs. It is expensive, but it's not impossible, as it was just a few years ago. If you want to have something professional for a film festival or even for distribution, you can do it.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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