June 20, 2022

Where do we put stuff?

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The importance of managing your digital assets

In the creative sector, assets are everything. It is the way ideas become concrete elements, even if these elements are not tangible. Texts, photographs, videos, vector files, 3D geometries, textures, shaders, sounds, music, color palettes, brushes, patterns. Intangible assets are the ingredients for the creation of deliverables, and the patrimony of any player in the creative sector. 

As a rule of thumb, creative workflows deal with raw files, intermediate files to elaborate those raw files, and final deliverables, that are the result of the combination of one or more raw and intermediate files. Pretty similar to a cooking recipe, with the difference that these assets are nowadays mostly digital.

The world of creative assets is so vast that it seems really hard to find a method to organize them. As a matter of fact, each discipline has its own method, and also each organization that makes use of assets has a different method altogether. There’s a technique in pedagogy that states that, when exposed to different examples, our brains start to recognize the underlying patterns and structures underneath those examples. Let’s dig into the more classical scenarios. 

Videomaker

Videomakers, a very broad term born around 10-15 years ago with the commoditization of video production, are a sort of one-man-band that cover different roles the best they can. Usually they have short turnaround projects, with a few days of filming, that they have to ingest and save for later editing. In bigger projects, they might have to collaborate with other colleagues and film with more than one camera. During the editing phase they have to place texts and music overlaying their videos. There are at least 4 different types of creative and media assets that they need to manage: videos, images, text and sounds. 

Graphic designer

Graphic designers are an interesting case. They evolved in two main branches: the digital, where their deliverables need to be optimized for different intangible supports, like video or interactive, and the more classic designers that still have a strong connection with the tangible world (paper, billboards, etc). Besides all the phases of draft, layout, proofing, etc they have a final test by printing and trying in real life the look and feel of their deliverables. Graphic designers deal with texts, vector files, palettes, images, 3d files, patterns, brushes, and textures. In the tangible world, mostly with samples of paper, cardboard, printed colors, embossing, etc.

Photographer

Photographers deal with a good amount of assets each day. They either work on single assignments with a fast cycle, or they work on long projects with certain continuity. Some photographers deal with stock photography, as a second source of revenue. They need to store, backup, and organize great amounts of files, medium sized mostly. Then they need to process and elaborate these files and create a final deliverable. 

Company with media department

A company with a media department engages with all the above. The biggest ones either have an employee for each role, or they outsource activities like photography and video production, and create the deliverables inhouse (if they don’t outsource everything). The smaller companies usually have a one man band that must do a little bit of everything. Many give their non creative employees the task of producing content (videos, photographies, etc), which makes things harder to organize. Sometimes creative assets are crowdsourced, and there’s no gatekeeper, so there’s no logic among the work of different departments. 

Bonus example: Research facility that needs to document activities. 

Since we work with the scientific community a lot, we noticed that actually the scientific world has an enormous amount of creative assets handling. Usually a researcher creates results that are represented in a graphical way. These can be still images, videos, vector diagrams, vector illustrations, and even sounds. These assets usually are underestimated. 

The creative world now has dozens of new roles, more connected to development, 3D creation, sound design, and different assets generation. No matter what assets you deal with, conserving them safely and reachable is a common need. There are very simple pointers to start thinking about a storage strategy.

Understand your volume

The first thing you need to understand in order to start organizing your assets is what’s the volume of data you’re dealing with. How big are the files we’re using in our everyday workflow? 

The answer to this question will define the best storage and organization strategy. There are many other questions that help to refine that answer: 

  • Do you work on projects that are more ephemeral, and therefore don’t need to be archived? 
  • Do your projects involve traveling or most of the activities happen in the office/studio? 
  • What’s the average size of a project on your hard drive once it’s finished? 
  • Do you reutilize assets in future projects that you created for previous ones? 
  • What’s the most prevalent type of media? Texts, video, audio, images, geometries, simulations? What’s the percentage of each media in a project? 

Once you answer these questions you will have the right information to make your choice. Now let’s get into the different types of media storage available in the market and understand the different advantages and disadvantages of each one. 

When it comes to deciding how to store material, the technologies are endless and also the solutions. So the main factor will be how much are we willing/able to spend. 

The biggest price variable is, of course, volume. The bigger the files we need to store, the more expensive the system will be.

Redundancy

The second variable is redundancy. There’s no flawless system, so everything breaks sooner or later. Redundancy helps us prevent critical failure that will make us lose data. That means that the media will have one or several copies in order to avoid this loss. This factors into costs.

Reliability is another important factor. The quality of the support that you use, its maintenance and how much we can trust it. No system is flawless, redundancy then becomes the real metric combined with quality.

Then comes Confidentiality. That is the capability to restrict access to assets only to selected people. The more control we have into it, the more expensive a system will become.

In the long run you will soon come to the conclusion that, whatever you do, you need to come to compromises. The main compromise is between confidentiality, privacy, and reliability.

Prepare for the future.

Cloud vs Local

The first main difference you will find today is the broad availability of cloud services. Back in the day, this wasn’t even an option. Today this is a no brainer for any type of organization. Cloud services are delocalized all over the world. That means that your information is not physically in your computer (necessarily), but instead is mainly hosted across different servers around the world. 

The cloud

Cloud services are services provided by third parties on a subscription and/or volume/traffic basis, that pretty much stores your assets in a server with a very strong redundancy and privacy structure. For many, this is the best solution combining reliability and privacy. The problem is that you need a good/constant and many times fast access to the internet, since your assets are delocalized from your terminal. That means that you bottleneck to the speed of your internet connection. Depending on where you live, this can become a dealbreaker. Most cloud systems allow you to have an offline copy synchronized to your terminal, and that’s a temporary solution, but also means that while that connection is not available, there’s only one copy of your data. 

In terms of ease of use and accessibility, Cloud seems like the best possible solution to store your data. But cloud solutions come at a cost, especially for those dealing with huge amounts of data, so for many it is still prohibitive.

The alternative, of course, is local storage. And there are many options. Let’s dive into them.

Local storage

There are several types of storage, divisible into Disks, Memories and Tapes. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. The main variables for the local storage supports are speed, volume and safety.

SSD memories (solid state drive) are the fastest but the most expensive. They are meant mostly to deliver content fast, but they are not recommended for archiving. For traveling temporarily though, they are a great solution, safer than HDDs.

LTO (Linear Tape Open) tapes are the safest, but slow and require a reader (drive) unlike other drives. They are the best archival solution for great volumes of data that won’t be used immediately. 

The HDD (hard disk drive) is the cheapest, but the most insecure. Since they are mechanical, they can be prone to break, which makes them somewhat unreliable on their own. To overcome these problems, different systems to combine hard drives were developed.

RAID drives

RAIDs or redundancy systems use several hard drives to either create redundancy or to rise the speed of the system.

According to the RAID level, these disks can add their capacity and speed without adding redundancy, as in RAID 0. In RAID 1, only two disks are usually configured, which are twin copies and the transfer and capacity is then equal to only one disk. It is implemented in small boxes of only two discs. In RAID 5, 4 or more disks are usually configured, where the last disk is not counted within the capacity and transfer of the logical volume that makes up the RAID as it is responsible for redundancy. There is also RAID 6 that assigns an additional redundancy disk as extra security, which is very useful in the event of a disk failure. 

NAS drives

NAS drives are similar to RAID drives, with the adding of network access. A common access to a RAID structure via network cable, or even the internet, is the closest we come to a cloud service of our own. They are an excellent solution for collaborating with medium to large files in an office for example.

In a nutshell

Each creative discipline is different, but all have the same need: protect the result of hours and hours of work. There’s no perfect system to do it, but rather a balance between costs and safety. This balance should be a decision based on your activity rather than something that just happened on the go, and it’s the cornerstone of a digital workflow. The rest of your methods and processes will rely heavily on this structure. 

Solutions can be combined in order to create better redundancy and safety, or even to synchronize assets remotely for collaboration. 

It is also the first thing you need to solve in order to avoid unpleasant surprises or accidents. It can happen to anyone. It’s quite famous the story of how Pixar’s Toy Story 2 almost got lost forever for a computer mistake. Even if that was a huge blunder, the “almost” part is thanks to redundancy, and a certain method to store and backup the movie. So never underestimate the importance of this part of your creative workflow.

In the next article we will get into how to organize our creative assets in our storage solution.

Pablo Apiolazza

Pablo Apiolazza

Creative director / Filmmaker

 I have over 20 years of transversal experience in VFX, production, and postproduction of film and digital, managing remote teams and projects internationally

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