Figuring out how Warner Bros. Discovery can pick the best technology to manage its massive production pipeline is what Renard T. Jenkins and his team do. Back in late March, I spoke with Jenkins, who presented the opening keynote at Streaming Media East, about how those choices have changedin the past few years, his thoughts on machine learning (ML)/artificial intelligence (AI), and the unique demands of leading technology teams.
Nadine Krefetz: What do you do?
Renard T. Jenkins: I’m senior vice president of production integration and creative technology services for Warner Bros. Discovery. My focus is on production technology for features, animation, and episodic television. I often tell people that the best way to describe what my team and I do is that we sit between productions and the studios, and our job is to make technology accessible and transparent.
Krefetz: Which groups do you work with?
Jenkins: My stakeholders are the executives at Warner Bros. Discovery who run our physical production, studios, design, visual effects, and animation, as well as our episodic television production departments.
Krefetz: What’s most important to these stakeholders?
Jenkins: I think the most important thing is how we can help them do their jobs more efficiently and to create consistency within their workflows. If you think about animation, it’s a really intense creative process. For us, being able to look at this and say, “Hey, is there a way for us to automate some of that?” is one thing that we can offer them. It’s really about pushing the limits of what the technology can do, but it also requires really thinking responsibly about how we utilize innovation.
Krefetz: What management or leadership skills are important when it comes to people who are very strong technically?
Jenkins: Personally, I believe that technology leadership is a unique skill. Often, the subject matter experts are promoted into positions of
management or leadership simply because they are the most technically gifted person in the room. They are not always given the opportunity to learn how to be managers. That becomes a bone of contention for the individuals that they are charged to lead.
I believe when you’re looking for technology leaders, you must approach every issue with curiosity rather than coming in and thinking that you know the answer because you’re the subject matter expert.
When you’re leading a team, what you’re doing is looking for the best way to solve that problem that will meet the least amount of resistance within your team and will cause the least amount of disruption to your projects. As a tech leader, you’re not trying to solve for just the immediate problem that you see; you’re trying to establish a way of operating so that you don’t see problems return or grow larger.
The goal is to figure out how you can grow each member in the direction that is going to be best for them, the business, and the project. To do this, you need to meet people where they are and then carry them where you want them to go so that you can eventually take your hands off and allow them to grow and do all of the wonderful stuff that they’re capable of doing.
A lot of us in the technology world are introverts, and we tend to feel most comfortable if we are working in a space we control. When we’re put in a space where we don’t necessarily control every aspect of it, that creates anxiety and stress.
As a leader of technology, you need to ask, “How do I make an individual feel comfortable within this collaborative? How do I actually build in a space where extroverts can participate in the conversation as well without creating chaos?”
If you’re going to lead a technology team, you have to have an understanding of the business organization, project life span, and people, as well as also staying on top of all of the current technology. You need to work with your peers and have conversations with vendors who are creating a lot of this technology.
Krefetz: Like any tech leader, you have to compete with other companies for the best staff. What can you do to make that easier?
Jenkins: Competition generally breeds innovative thought. With technology companies, what’s happening right now is that they got into the media space, and they created a sort of a groundswell, and they’ve also created a
democratization of content creation through the tools that they’ve put out in the world. A few years ago, if you wanted to make a high-quality film, you couldn’t necessarily do that using the phone in your pocket.
I still believe that if you have a good culture, if you have a good product, and if you’re really leaning in on what you can do with technology, you’re going to attract the best talent because they want to be on the cutting edge with you.
They want to be at the front end. They want to innovate, they want to move the ball down the field technologically.
Krefetz: What things are you doing differently now than you were 5 or 10 years ago?
Jenkins: A lot of our older processes were well-planned and are still used, but we’ve become more efficient through the use of something that was in its early stages 10 years ago, but is now ubiquitous: wireless video monitoring.
The servers that we have today are far superior to the ones we had a few years ago, and they’re much more efficient in what they let us collect and how we deliver that to some of our hubs that are not on location with our productions.
Another example of changes in our processes is advancements in how we handle dailies. This is one of those processes that’s still changing now. The pandemic made it necessary to work in a remote capacity while on film sets and to put together workflows that allowed us to be able to stream secure content all over the globe and into the homes or other locales where our stakeholders were quarantined. Those needs accelerated the acceptance of new tech and production processes like secure cloud storage and delivery.
Krefetz: What should media industry technologists be thinking about in 2023–2024?
Jenkins: Machine learning and artificial intelligence are now coming into their own. This means we need to re-evaluate how we use them. We need to stop thinking of automation as the main output of machine learning and artificial intelligence for content production.
For instance, you can now use neurotechnology to get instant feedback on how individuals interact with content, and then you can actually take that data and use it with artificial intelligence to create art that can affect human emotions and human behavior. We should be asking ourselves, “How do we use that for good?”
You have to think about ML/AI along the lines of Kaizen: Machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to allow us to operate in a state of constant improvement. Using artificial intelligence creates more efficient processes and enables work that actually manages itself and continuously looks for ways to become more and more efficient.
Instead of just saying, “Hey, I’ve written a script, I’ve modeled this, and now this machine is going to do the mundane tasks that I don’t want to do,” we should be asking, “How far can we push this in a logical manner that will be helpful to our industry?” We also need to think about the concerns that our content creators have in regard to how we use AI/ML. We need to make sure that their voices are heard as well.
Krefetz: AI/ML is already in use at content companies in certain areas. Are there other areas in which it isn’t widely deployed yet where you believe it will be really important?
Jenkins: I tend to favor the animation process and the visual effects process. But the area where I believe it’s going to have the biggest effect is the creation, through artificial intelligence, of a more efficient way to deliver and stream content, whether we’re securely streaming it from the postproduction room into a colorist suite or something else of that nature. Or if we are looking at the most efficient process to stream interactive content out to millions of people simultaneously.
Krefetz: Do you prefer build or buy?
Jenkins: My preference on build versus buy is whatever fits your project. If you have a solution that is off the shelf and ready to go, and you can actually plug that into your processes and your productions, I believe in buying it.
But if you’re really pushing the limits of what off-the-shelf solutions can actually do, then you’re going to have to build. I start by looking for the closest thing that I can actually buy, and then I speak with the vendor to get a better understanding of how they customize to fit your needs. I make sure that the customization is a part of the actual product. The one thing that I never want to do again in my career is to customize something to the point where it’s no longer being supported by the vendor who actually builds it.
Hopefully, if you’re doing that kind of development for a vendor, they’re also giving you some sort of discount on what you’re paying them, because in most cases, they’re going to look at those changes you made and say, “Wow, you’re not the only one who needs this,” and then turn it into a product.
Krefetz: I guess that’s the danger of having it integrated into the product's main features—then everybody has it.
Jenkins: I don’t look at that as a danger. I look at it as contributing to the collective needs of the industry.
Krefetz: How do you choose between SaaS and on-prem solutions?
Jenkins: I can only speak for me, but the way I think about it is, what tools are available to me to get the job done? If the right tool is a SaaS solution, I want to investigate. How does it operate? How consistent is it? How secure is it? How much does it cost? What’s the run rate for daily volume, and what’s the run rate at peak?
Then I budget somewhere between daily and peak performance, and that’s where I’ll make my determination whether or not it’s actually worth it. Because what you’ll find is that sometimes when you’re building an on-prem solution that will last you 5 years, you have to take into account all of the people, all of the support, all of the hardware, all of the actual locations where it’s going to be. All of these factors have to come into your thought process when you’re deciding whether or not it really is the most cost-effective way to do it.
If I believe the SaaS solution would be slightly cheaper, I would probably build, because I have more control over it, and I can design to what I actually need.
Krefetz: How do you build for scaling?
Jenkins: My thought process about building to scale is never build to scale. I believe in over-building so that no matter how much the volume actually increases, I’m able to accommodate it within the infrastructure that I have in front of me. Maybe 7 years ago, I was saying that every gateway into my facility needed to be 100 gigs. At the time, most people were saying, “Nah, you can get away with 25.” In one sense, they were right: We could get away with 25 if we were building for our normal volume. But what I was designing for was peak.
I always think that you should be building for peak and beyond, so that you never get into a situation where you run out of capabilities. For example, if we’re working on postproduction and we’re going to have seven films go through postproduction in the next year, we’re not going to build seven postproduction suites. We’re going to build 35. That will create efficiency and allow us to move much faster, which in turn allows us to be able to do more than seven films, allowing the company to see a cost savings.
We would overbuild that pipeline to ensure that we could accommodate anything that may come our way. Now, that can sometimes be very costly on the front end, but you will see cost savings.
Krefetz: What are you working on at SMPTE?
Jenkins: As president of SMPTE, I’m focused on making sure that the society is moving forward and that we are open to all of the technology that is coming out. We’re working with some of the tech companies and some of the inventors, manufacturers, and vendors to adopt standards that will help foster interoperability.
We’re also exposing younger individuals to this side of the industry because it’s a wonderful place to explore and be creative. Most people, when they think of “creative,” think of the art that is the outcome of a lot of this work. What they don’t always think about is the science that’s behind it that helps the artists to actually create the art.
Krefetz: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about?
Jenkins: I believe streaming media has pushed our industry to move a lot faster and to think about how we deliver to customers differently. I also think that it has opened up doors for individuals to be more innovative on a daily basis. In the past, when we were building broadcast systems, it was a major investment, and you didn’t want to have to make that major investment more than maybe once every 10 to 15 years. With streaming technology, there is a constant need to improve in order to accommodate new codecs, new file formats, and new compression methods.
I want to constantly put my teams in a position where they can be continuously innovating and looking for how we can actually use these tools in a manner for which they were not originally designed. That, for us, is where true integration begins: when we start looking at these tools and saying, “I know that it was designed to do X, but I’d like to see if it can do Y.” Then we come up with a way for it to actually do that. As a technology leader, you want to put that kind of thought in the hands of really talented people and allow them to come up with some amazing products and services.