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Early Adopter

Over the past decade there has been a shift in post-production and Ramy Katrib has been at the center of that change. Katrib, 44, detected early on the direction post-production was going: toward content being stored and edited on digital files, now common place at Hollywood studios, production houses and post-production firms. “Everyone and their grandma are in the arena because there is opportunity,” said Katrib, who spoke to the Business Journal from his office in the Cahuenga Pass. Founded in 1999, DigitalFilm Tree offers much more than just post-production services for television series and feature films. The company developed a video- and photo-sharing software that has been used by the creative teams of “Modern Family,” “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “Cougar Town.” It also consults with clients in and out of the entertainment industry on creating technology infrastructure. A native of Lebanon, Katrib came to the United States at age 5 and grew up in Loma Linda in a family filled with medical professionals. While his family may not fully understand what he does, they like his work.“My mom doesn’t still try to convince me to be a dentist,” Katrib added. “With this going on as long as it has, she’s cool with it.” Question: So how did the transition to digital post work go for you? Answer: We actually are one of the few companies that didn’t have to deal with the digital transition. We are mostly known for having co-started it. DigitalFilm Tree started 14 years ago and the reason we started was because of the transition from the physical world – celluloid, tape – to files or what they call data-based, data-centric workflows. How did that change take place? What we did is take the desktop computer, an Apple G3 with the first-ever implementation of FireWire (a high-speed connection for real-time data transfer). We transferred film to (digital video) tape and we digitized the tape through FireWire and a Mac. We edited it … and we cut the negative, and low and behold it worked. That was in 1998. We realized this was going to be a big deal and that is why I started the company. What role has DigitalFilm Tree played since then? The best way to describe our experience is we played a role in co-mingling IT discipline with traditional post-production discipline. Even four or five years ago IT hadn’t taken over the industry. Today, IT literally has taken over the industry and no one opposes it anymore. No one says, “It’s just a fad or a one-off occurrence.” Was there resistance? Big time resistance. When we started in 2001, 2002, our biggest success was on the show “Scrubs.” So we started telling people we can use this $3,000 computer and do professional things. We thought everyone would dig it. Not only were there not a lot of takers, there were people that were actually angry that we were even proposing this type of workflow. Why was that? It was kind of radical to propose something where you can do professional-type operations with a desktop computer and with IT equipment. In full candor, using computers and servers to do professional things mostly failed in the early years. Where was the resistance coming from? It came from the studios, it was coming from production companies, it was coming from editors and it was coming from line producers, co-producers. We were fortunate because we formed relationships with people in all those roles that were hip to something that was different. In our industry there has been a faction that wants to be on the edge. They have thick skin; they don’t mind being a guinea pig trying something new. What contributed to this transition taking place? The thing that really spurred on the digital transition was the (2011) tsunami in Japan. When the tsunami happened it destroyed two manufacturing plants for Sony that made HDcam SR tape. So overnight there was a worldwide shortage of this tape. That is the de facto container for television and even features films. Everyone had to find alternatives for storing their negatives. The tsunami accelerated the digital transition. What do you see taking place in the industry these days? The biggest notable things that are happening right now in our industry is the rate of change. It really is something to behold. When we start a project we create a workflow, or process for how we do it, and we are changing that process now on a weekly basis. Training and education is a way of life. Not just for our own staff but for our clients. Do you have an example of how that is happening? We have a couple of clients where we provide them something that doesn’t even have a term yet. I call it self-post. Essentially, we take what we are here and build a microcosm of it. Then we plop it down where they want it. We build a color room in their environment, we build a visual effects component, an online room and a dailies room – and it is all integrated. We take what we are and build it wherever it is needed. How else is technology changing post-production? The other big thing is cloud computing. For our post industry, the cloud is going to have a big impact. We’ve done a lot of research and development in the area of cloud computing and post-production because we think, just like self-post, it will be a big part of the future. If you think about it, it’s the evolution of this digital, file-based momentum that’s been happening the last 14 years. Instead of holding onto your files, I’m going to shoot it to a server – the cloud – and then other people can access it. You can connect people all over the place to one location. Is it a challenge to keep up and how do you deal with that? It’s not a challenge; it’s a way of life. We grew up that way. We don’t know any better. What do you think it is about your background that makes you interested in getting ahead of the curve? Like many people in this industry when I was making those discoveries in 1997, 1998 it was because I was making a film. When you make a film more often than not you don’t have any money. You have to be scrappy and figure out how to shoot it, edit it and finish it. It was my motivation to make my film that led to the discoveries in terms of technology. What was the movie about? There were two of them. Believe it or not, one of them we are now just releasing after 14 years. It is called “Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood.” It’s on (Mardik Martin) the dude who wrote “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull” and “New York, New York.” He did the rock-and-roll documentary “The Last Waltz.” He was Marty Scorsese’s friend back at NYU and they became famous by doing those New York indie films. I did a biography that went on and on and on. We just got a distribution deal and we are going through the process of insuring it. What has this meant for you personally? Has it changed your work schedule any? If anything I work fewer hours than I did in the early years. We were pretty much all alone; we didn’t have colleagues. There was no community. When we were trying to pitch and provide data-centric, file-based services and workflows there was no one around. Those were long days … easily 16 to 18 hours days, many overnighters. In the early days we’d sleep at the shop. And today? I would definitely say we do less hours today and as a result I have more of a life. I got married in the last two years. When you are around as long as we have there are more relationships now, there are more colleagues, more friends. It’s more fun as a result. Is your wife in the entertainment industry? Yes. Sometimes she works more hours than I do. She is the animation producer for “The Simpsons.” You come from a family in the medical profession. Are there similarities between that and what you do? You have crises; you have to triage a situation. Oftentimes you have to perform surgery. Then you have to stitch things up. You have to connect things. If you sever a muscle or an artery, you have to connect them. We are constantly connecting things. In many ways it is very similar to the medical community. The only difference is the medical community is to me more important because they are saving lives. We are just entertaining people. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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