Open standards in media and entertainment spur innovation in film, TV, and games

Aligning to open standards and common technologies minimizes fragmented pipelines and siloed workflows that can impede effective collaboration.

Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

A scene from Pixar's Coco

Diana Colella

October 31, 2023

min read

Back in the 1970s, Sony introduced Betamax to the consumer video market. It was a high-quality format with superior resolution compared to its lower-cost competitor, VHS. But Beta tapes worked only on Sony systems, which required consumers to purchase its expensive machines. Meanwhile, VHS tapes could be played on any VCR. Beta was Sony’s proprietary model while VHS was the open standard. Guess which format was more successful?

This is playing out again in the media and entertainment (M&E) industry today with software. Companies that are creating proprietary software and tools are starting to lose out to companies that instead allow for the flexibility of open standards.

For too long, M&E companies have been operating in a proprietary world, careful to safeguard trade secrets. But this has led to siloed workflows, inefficient pipelines, and locked data, which is especially challenging when multiple vendors come together to work on a project. With the industry facing a seemingly insatiable demand for content, open standards are necessary to allow artists to reach their full creative potential and deliver the quality that audiences want in their entertainment.

Open standards versus open source

The terms open standards and open source are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct concepts. Open standards are industry-established guidelines for democratizing software across applications and platforms; they aim to facilitate interoperability and the creation of extensible file formats and technologies.

Open source is a method for developing and implementing those standards, promoting collaboration and flexibility in the process. Open source serves as a convenient means to reach a consensus on the implementation of a standard, as it is software with accessible source code that can be inspected, modified, and improved by anyone. However an important distinction is that open standards can be implemented in open-source software, but not every open standard is associated with software.

It takes a village

An animator sits at a computer workstation, designing a character
Aligning to open standards and common technologies minimizes fragmented pipelines and siloed workflows that can impede effective collaboration.

For decades, the production of films and games has been guided by the mantra, “this is how we’ve always done things”—and the technology, processes, and systems are different for each company. This mentality has resulted in fragmented pipelines and siloed workflows, making it impossible for studios to easily collaborate and share data when working together on a project. But aligning the industry to open standards can benefit everyone: When a community aligns on how to use a common technology, it improves workflows and supports industry-wide growth.

Establishing and guiding open standards is a collective effort by a consortium of stakeholders and industry leaders. In M&E, Autodesk is a founding member of the Academy Software Foundation (ASWF), an organization that develops a legal framework and governance around multiple open-source projects such as MaterialX, a tool for rich surface and material creation and rendering; and Open Timeline IO, an open-source API for editorial sequencing. This joint effort creates a system of checks and balances to ensure software is high quality, is being routinely tested, and works on all platforms.

Collaborations like these are making strides in targeted open standards and open-source solutions: OpenPBR, jointly developed by Autodesk and Adobe, is an open-source shading model that provides creatives with a more artist-friendly bridge from one software environment to another. And since Autodesk open-sourced its media-review and playback software as OpenRV, its code contributions, along with DNEG’s xStudio and Sony Pictures Imageworks’ itview, have shaped the Open Review Initiative, the ASWF’s sandbox project to build a unified, open-source toolset for playback, review, and approval.

Recently, Autodesk partnered with Pixar, Adobe, Apple, NVIDIA, and the Joint Development Foundation to form AOUSD, the Alliance for Open Universal Scene Description. Pixar introduced Universal Scene Description (USD) in 2016, and in 2023, AOUSD is codifying it and creating an official standard: OpenUSD. It’s taking USD—a technology that enables the interoperability of tools and the exchange of 3D data to create rich, layered visuals—and advocating for it to become an official standard. Just think of the complex set of the Land of the Dead in Pixar’s Coco: Every element you see is a USD asset.

USD is extremely powerful and flexible, and for years, studios have been using it in different ways, so software pipelines haven’t always been truly interoperable. The goal of the alliance is to document and standardize the use of USD to help everyone in the industry build more interoperable software and pipelines. With OpenUSD formalized in this way, artists can focus on using their favorite tools for the creative task at hand—and not worry about the underlying details.

The benefits of formalizing open standards

A digital twin building model takes shape onscreen
USD is used in digital twins in architecture, engineering, and construction.

The rise of open standards is imperative for the adoption of cloud-based platforms, such as Flow, Autodesk’s industry cloud for M&E. Whether it’s a game, television series, or film, media projects are the work of multiple contributors. With everyone working on open tools in the cloud, information is easily exchanged in real time, accelerating projects and fueling collaboration. Creators can simultaneously work on the same character without having to convert their piece of the project into another format.

Open standards also preserve data that could otherwise get lost in the inefficiency of a fragmented pipeline. Media projects are increasingly complex and can create huge data sets, often petabytes of data. Handling that complexity requires standardization. Without standards, data can make a production unmanageable. Being able to work in a cloud-based, nonlinear environment without downloading and converting files before handing them off ultimately reduces data loss and streamlines the production process.

Open standards also enable better cross-industry collaboration. USD is already being used in other industries, such as for digital twins in architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC). Imagine in the future, designing an architectural model in Autodesk Revit that could then be used in the backdrop of a game or the virtual set of a movie. A world of open standards will lead to greater collaboration, more creators, and connected data to facilitate faster workflows and more efficient pipelines.

A future of innovation

From games to episodic to film, it’s clear the demand for new content is huge. Companies have an incredible opportunity to meet that demand by developing more content and creating new ways to engage audiences, such as pushing the boundaries of augmented and virtual reality.

When companies work together to develop and advocate for open standards, everybody becomes an equal player. Smaller companies often have a hard time keeping up with the big studios that tend to set the rules of play in the industry. Open standards reduce the barrier to entry, giving everyone a chance to contribute and collaborate in the creative landscape and bring more ideas to the table.

It’s incredible to watch the work of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of artists come together in one cohesive narrative. It’s one reason I love watching movies with my family! With the amazing technology available today, animation and visual effects are better than they’ve ever been—and they’re only going to get better as open standards and open-source software help accelerate innovation in media and entertainment.

Diana Colella

About Diana Colella

Diana Colella is executive vice president of Autodesk’s Media & Entertainment vertical solutions group. In this role, she manages product, strategy, and execution for the company’s portfolio servicing the film, TV, and games industries. Colella has been with Autodesk for more than 20 years occupying a range of leadership roles, including head of product management and worldwide support. She has extensive experience in strategically transforming business models, creating new product offerings and optimizing processes on a global scale. She is the executive sponsor of the Autodesk Women’s Network. Before joining Autodesk, Colella worked at KPMG. She holds a Master of Business Administration from McGill – HEC University in Montreal, Canada. She earned a Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting from Concordia University in Montreal and is a Certified Public Accountant.

Recommended for you