Evolution of a Digital Production Studio

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Planning, Funding, Developing and Implementing a State-of-the-Art Production Facility

Over the last 20 years, inexpensive microcomputers brought affordable computing to business, educational and home computing environments. More than ever before, people are using computers as communicative and productive tools to accomplish tasks and obtain information on a daily basis. In the past, business schools provided microcomputer instruction mainly for the purpose of improving job productivity. Recent advances in microprocessor chip design and enhanced multimedia technologies have led to the widespread adoption of CD-ROM-based multimedia applications. Recent developments also promise to bring a variety of exciting multimedia experiences to the average end-user via DVD, streaming video and streaming audio delivered through the World Wide Web.

A goal of higher education today is to provide students with the technical knowledge and skills required to compete in the global economy. States like Ohio have developed the Ohio Information Technology Competency Profile to identify technological knowledge and skill areas, such as graphic and digital media design; video, film and audio production; Web page design; and interactive multimedia production. A quick job search on the Web also reveals the abundance of jobs available requiring skills in multimedia design, development and production.

Job-sector demand for those skilled in multimedia production augments the need for business schools to provide students with knowledge and training in dynamic multimedia and Web-based applications, in addition to customary microcomputer applications, such as word processing, spreadsheet and database. In response to this demand, the Technology Support and Training Department (TST) at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's (IUP) Eberly College of Business and Information Technology (ECOB&IT) and IUP's Center for Vocational Personnel Preparation (CVPP) applied for and received a Link-to-Learn grant to create a digital production studio. Facilities like the studio hold great promise to provide faculty and students with an opportunity to learn and apply leading-edge multimedia technologies to both business and educational environments.

Background

To keep up with rapidly evolving technological advancements, Pennsylvania's Department of Education awards Link-to-Learn grants to support the state's initiative to stay at the forefront of technology. TST and CVPP received a $410,000 Link-to-Learn grant with matching funds of approximately $400,000 provided by ECOB&IT. Link-to-Learn is a $20 million program "designed to supplement local and regional investments in educational technology" (Pennsylvania Department of Education 2001). The funds are used to strengthen IT programs, such as computer science, network engineering and telecommunications, as well as provide knowledge in disciplines such as graphic and architectural design. TST's three-year grant features two phases. Phase I is designed to teach high school students about careers in technology in partnership with industry; it also funded the studio. A distance learning lab is planned as part of Phase II. Butthe focus of this article is on the studio.

Planning the Studio

As part of the grant-seeking process, members of the grant committee devised a detailed plan regarding facility usage, funding and budgeting. A primary obstacle was deriving clearly defined functions of the studio in view of the overall goals and requirements of the Link-to-Learn grant. Another important planning hurdle involved environmental constraints, such as finding a suitable room and determining specifications of the studio's physical infrastructure. ECOB&IT's network administrator also had to review and approve the schematic of the physical layout of the studio for feasibility within the existing university network. With the help of a systems expert, the planning committee developed a budget. This process required several brainstorming sessions concerning equipment and personnel costs for the studio, as well as other projects unrelated to the studio.

Once the grant was awarded, the real work of putting the studio together began. Hardware and software have changed dramatically in the last eight years. According to Moore's Law, as each new chip is made, computing power rises exponentially, containing about twice as much capacity as its predecessor. In addition, each chip is released within 18-24 months (Intel Corp. 2001). The effect of Moore's Law is evident in desktop computer evolution. For example, a state-of-the-art multimedia lab in 1993 might have consisted of 486 DX PCs with 16 MB of RAM and 340 MB hard drives. By contrast, the most modest system in the current studio contains Intel Pentium III processors, 128 MB of RAM and 80 GB hard drives. Multimedia applications, such as video, sound, animation and 3-D graphics, infused with the demand for Web-based access, will continue to drive the need for faster computing speed, more RAM and larger hard drives.

Following extensive vendor research by the project director and studio staff members, it was decided that each workstation would be built component by component, rather than buying an out-of-the-box workstation. In addition to computing resources, studio planners also had to spec-out adequate furnishings, such as secured and unsecured storage cabinets, ergonomically designed computer/peripheral tables, functional computer chairs and spacious worktables. Throughout the process, the creators of the studio sought to obtain the highest quality equipment to bring the latest in multimedia application development to faculty, students and business professionals working with IUP.

The Studio's Technology

The studio has five main components that can be used for production and training in the areas of:

- LAN operation, security and management;

- Web site development and administration;

- Multimedia authoring/desktop publishing;

- Digital video/audio production and editing; and

- 3-D computer graphics rendering.

As of September 2000, the selected hardware was advanced. However, some of the components, such as microprocessors, are already outdated - a fact that illustrates the reality of Moore's Law. Windows 2000 was chosen as the operating system for all desktop workstations. The technology selected for the studio includes:

Servers. The studio's LAN is managed and secured by a logon-authentication/file server consisting of a Dell PowerEdge 4400 system customized with 1 GB of RAM and five 36 GB SCSI hard drives running the Windows 2000 Server with a firewall. The studio also features a Web server consisting of a Dell PowerEdge 4400 customized with three additional SCSI hard drives running Windows 2000 Internet Information Server.

Multimedia Authoring, Web Design and Desktop Publishing. The studio features two Dell 620 Mini Towers and a Canon Powershot S20 digital camera for still photography. Each of the workstations has the following software installed: Macromedia Director 8; Sonic Foundry; Sound Forge 4.6; Adobe PageMaker 6.0; Macromedia Web Design Studio, which includes Dreamweaver 4, Freehand 9, Fireworks 4 and Flash 5; and Adobe Web Collection, which includes GoLive 5.0, Photoshop 6.0, Illustrator 9.0 and LiveMotion 1.0.

Digital Video/Audio Production and Editing. Generally, the studio component includes audio, lighting and video production/editing equipment. The video production/editing hardware in the studio consists of: a PIII Xeon Dell Precision 620 MultiTower, further customized with the addition of a second microprocessor, with 1 GB of RAM and an Intense 3-D Wildcat 4110 Pro video card; a Sony DCRVX2000 Mini-DV camcorder with accompanying Audio Technica AT835B microphone; portable lighting kits; a UV camera filter; an Alesis studio 12R mixer/microphone preamplifier; Plextor Ultra Plex DVD drives; a Kramer video/audio distributor; a Fostex personal monitor 6301B; an Altec Lansing computer speaker system; a JVC mono/hi-fi/super VHS video cassette recorder; five JVC Pro-Cision 19-micron head VHS videotape recorders; and a JVC S-VHS ET pro series Mini-DV and S-VHS videocassette recorder.

Video production/editing software installed includes: Adobe Premiere 6.0, Vegas Audio (digital audio production) and Matrox DigiSuite (utilities and compression). Audio production equipment includes: Peavey PVM22 microphones; Audio Technica AT831B lapel microphones; a Shure powered field mixer; boom microphone stands, headphones and 25' microphone cables.

3-D Graphics Workstation. The 3-D graphics rendering station in the studio features two Dell Dimension 8100s with a 48-speed CD-ROM drive and a 32-speed CD-RW drive. Software loaded on this workstation includes 3-D Studio Max (Release 4).

Other Components. Printing and scanning needs for the studio are handled by a high-quality, networked 1200 dpi Xerox Phaser 790 DP color printer and an Art Expression 1600 dpi scanner. To accomplish quick turnaround in CD duplication, the studio also features a Disc Makers four-CD duplicator.

Studio Supplies. Buying in bulk is generally the most cost-effective way to manage a production facility. The studio is well stocked with blank CD-Rs with jewel cases, BBT-90 VHS videotapes, Sony Mini-DV tapes and TDK S-VHS videotapes.

Staffing Considerations

Advanced hardware and software is worthless without a knowledgeable, skilled staff. In the first year of funding, one of the authors received a quarter-time release from teaching responsibilities to manage and develop the studio. Part of this responsibility included locating skilled undergraduate students to staff the studio. Competent workers were found by contacting professors in several departments at IUP, including the College of Education's communications media department, the College of Fine Arts' art department, the College of Natural Science and Mathematics' computer science department, and within TST itself. In addition, some studio staff members were found by contacting students taking TST classes.

Knowledge and skills required to staff the studio included computer troubleshooting skills; video production and editing; LAN installation and management; Web site design and management; computer graphics design; desktop publishing; 3-D graphics rendering; and multimedia authoring. The staff works an average of 10 to 20 hours per week with schedules staggered to keep the studio operational five days per week during the regular semester. Staff members made significant contributions to the success of the studio by researching hardware components and software for each workstation; collaborating on studio projects; and providing demonstrations to faculty and others. Current projects include an informational video series about the studio, careers in technology and the logo development for ECOB&IT.

With the studio still in its infancy, projected uses for the studio include providing faculty with an opportunity to use multimedia in course enhancement, and providing TST majors with a means to learn about multimedia careers in areas outside the normal scope of their program of study. In addition, the studio will expose public school faculty and students to new technologies with a long-range view toward possible careers in technology. It will also provide small-business professionals with exposure to multimedia applications for the development and enhancement of high-quality, commercial Web sites. Finally, it is anticipated that the studio's staff will provide training courses to faculty, K-12 educators and small-business professionals on specific applications utilized in the studio to use in their professional endeavors.

The Next Step

Applying multimedia and the Internet to a wide variety of business and educational environments creates a challenge to institutions of higher education to ensure that faculty and students have the knowledge and skills to use the technology. Implementing a digital production studio requires a great deal of planning, research, teamwork and time. One of the most important considerations in deciding to take on a project like the studio is the administration's commitment to the importance of technology in education. Successfully developing an advanced digital production studio requires support from administration, including deans, provosts and college presidents. IUP's administration demonstrates a continuing commitment to technological advancements and innovation. Evidence of this commitment can be found in both the dedication of matching funds for the Link-to-Learn grant, as well as public statements of a commitment to excellence in technology training and education for IUP's students.

The next step is to begin production. Several multimedia design and development models exist. Generally, most models include three stages: planning, design and development. Designing multimedia is more complicated in terms of management, due to the number of people required and the increased number of steps involved to produce a final product. Multimedia production teams can also be quite large. Therefore, good interpersonal communication skills, as well as technical know-how, are required to produce a product cost-effectively and in the time required by the client. Good project management is also essential to avoid cost overruns and project delays.

Another important consideration is whether you can put together a team of professionals who are both knowledgeable and personally committed to the process of planning, funding, developing and implementing a production facility. A key component to teamwork is communication. Studio project coordinators understand the importance of good communication skills when interacting with studio staff to produce quality projects within required time constraints. Likewise, the staff must possess good communication skills to work with the studio coordinator and outside vendors to solve problems with hardware and software conflicts that arise when putting together a new facility. Clearly, an effective, well-designed multimedia product is not a one-man show.

References

"Digital Workflow, Defined." 2000. Folio: The Magazine for Magazine Management, 120-21.

Furber, Rob. 2000. "The Big Picture," Marketing Week. 23 (43): 51-55.

Intel Corp. 2001. "Processor Hall of Fame - What is Moore's Law?" Online: www.intel.com/research/silicon/mooreslaw.htm.

Ohio State Department of Education, Columbus and Ohio Board of Regents. 2000. "Ohio Information Technology Competency Profile." Online: www.itworks-ohio.org/ITCOMP.htm.

Pennsylvania Department of Education, Harrisburg. 2001. "Link-to-Learn Guide." Online: www.LZL.org.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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