How Hollywood is reshaping Big Data visualization

Hollywood, Hollywood sign, Hollywood reshaping Big DataHollywood storytelling is reshaping the world Big Data. We’ve heard plenty about Big Data changing business, but here is an interesting angle on how the Hollywood business is reshaping Big Data. One great example comes by way of Tableau, the data visualization platform. They have been stocking up on film industry veterans to reach their goal of storytelling with data, starting with Pat Hanrahan. He’s one of Tableau’s three co-founders, and one of the founding employees of Pixar. Hanrahan just won his third Academy Award this year. Adding to this all star lineup, Tableau recently hired a couple of smart people from Lucasfilm.

Dave Story, the former Lucasfilm CTO, recently joined Tableau’s Menlo Park office as VP of Mobile and Strategic Growth. Story was a Tableau customer during his time at Lucasfilm, and a friend of Hanrahan’s during their time in the computer animation industry. In his role at Tableau, Story will be applying his background in animation and film technology to guide Tableau’s mobile analytics and data storytelling efforts.

We recently sat down with Story to hear more about Hollywood’s influence in reshaping the Big Data industry.


How is data visualization helping on the Hollywood side of motion pictures?

Hollywood, like most industries, has more data at its fingertips for decision-making purposes than ever before, and the right visualization of that data is making analytics easier and faster. But data visualization also requires working with experts like psychologists and graphic designers to actually understand how people process what they are seeing — something that is especially relevant in a visual industry like Hollywood.

Specifically, big budget movies have been doing more and more “pre-visualization” of complex scenes and effects. Witness movies like Avengers, Gravity, and Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, where pre-visualization saved millions of dollars. Now those same companies are doing visualizations of their data as well…with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake on a single blockbuster, Hollywood needs to use visual tools like Tableau to understand its data and make better decisions.


As a company rooted in a graphics background, what is the biggest challenge in shifting to a more data-focused agenda?

Dave Story VP of Mobile and Strategic Growth Tableau

Dave Story, VP of Mobile and Strategic Growth at Tableau. Source: LinkedIn

You’ve put your finger right on one of Tableau’s breakthrough innovations. Tableau was founded on both graphics and data innovation, actually, and one of our core innovations, VizQL, is a “visual query language” which allows the visual specification of queries. This is what enables Tableau to let everyday users simply drag-and-drop data elements to create an unmatched array of visualizations, and never have to think about how the data is getting pulled from databases, spreadsheets, or Big Data sources like Hadoop.

So the intersection of graphics and data is less of a challenge for us, and more of a natural evolution and set of partnerships, as we enable users to drill into the ever-growing variety of data sources. After all, data is the oil of the 21st century; data lubricates and fuels our economy.

We’re approaching data from an artistic, designer-focused perspective, which puts Tableau in a unique position to embrace a large, growing, game-changing opportunity. That’s because computer graphics has always been a resource-limited area. Phil Hubbard, Senior Software Engineer, for example, has a foundation rooted in graphics … but he is ultimately applying his skills towards data visualization development. That really sets Tableau apart and allows us to better help users drill into data, surface knowledge from that data, and then harness the power of that knowledge in new ways.


Share an example of data application in Hollywood that would surprise the common moviegoer.

Take my former company, Lucasfilm. A single blockbuster movie’s special effects at a company like Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic can involve thousands of artists and hundreds of engineers, working around the clock in six to ten countries. Tracking all those hours across many companies requires surprisingly large and complex software packages, and there are probably as many individual software systems for tracking that information, as there are credits for the stars in a that movie! A year before any blockbuster ever gets greenlit and shot, there are previsualizations of not just the complex sequences, but also of the costs and data flows for all the pixels that will ever get put on a movie screen.

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Where does the bulk of the data-related research go: pre-production, during production, or post-production? Where do you see more data-related research happening in the next 2-3 years?

data protection backup hand holding bubbleOn a basic level, some Hollywood companies are analyzing things like social media sentiment and past productions to help narrow down the best ways to market, cast and produce films, and even the attempt to predict what will be popular with respective audiences.

But entertainment companies have always had data – the trouble is that much of it has been backwards-looking. So one big recent development is the fact that, across the entertainment industry, folks have more data and can look at it in real-time. Take Tableau customer Sveriges Television (SVT), for example. SVT is the largest television channel in Sweden. The company’s audience research team meets with countless show producers who want to know more about the audience for their show and their competition in the time slot on other channels. Instead of pulling up a pre-made PowerPoint like they used, SVT can instead present live data straight from Tableau, and answer questions on the fly. This new level of insight and access is becoming increasingly common in Hollywood as well.


Special effects and data are not something that one assumes go together. Why are the hires from Lucasfilm a big deal on the data side?

Pat, Phil, and I consistently apply our backgrounds in animation and film technology to guide Tableau’s offerings down a path that doesn’t forget data’s goal: Telling a story. While the influx of raw data is amazing, it’s useless in isolation. That’s precisely the reason our mission focuses on not just seeing, but understanding that data. Special effects are the same way. Sure, effects and computer-generated imagery can be cool or impressive in isolation … but they are best when used to enhance the actual story a movie is telling. After all, movies really are storytelling vessels — and even a film with the most mind-blowing special effects will fall flat if the story itself is not compelling.


What trends do you predict for Big Data related to Hollywood in the next 12 months?

Smarter use of data. Across the entertainment industry, companies are piling up more and more data across more and more channels. But the true breakthroughs come when that data can be easily applied to make better decisions. That’s already happening in the music and gaming worlds, and it won’t be long until it happens even more in Hollywood. Tableau customer LightBox, for example, was able to track every single event for every player in every game of Zynga smash Starhawk to understand why the game was so successful. Pandora has long used data to serve up tailored radio stations and tailored ads to over 200 million listeners, but a solution like Tableau allows it to visualize that data across the organization, increasing access and effectiveness. Expect similar progressions in Hollywood.

Mobile becomes the primary experience: In general, the trend is towards mobile business intelligence becoming the primary experience, not just the occasional experience. But in a fast-paced world like Hollywood, where decision-makers are often scattered, on-set and so on, the demand for access to information within the natural flow of their day — not just back at their desks – will be especially noticeable.

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