NAB 2013 Distilled

df_nab2013_1Another year – another NAB exhibition. A lot of fun stuff to see. Plenty of innovation and advances, but no single “shocker” like last year’s introduction of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Here are some observations based on this past week in Las Vegas.

4K

Yes, 4K was all over. I was a bit surprised that many of the pieces for a complete end-to-end solution are in place. The term 4K refers to the horizontal pixel width of the image, but two common specs are used – the DCI (film) standard of 4096 and the UltraHD (aka QuadHD) standard of 3840. Both are “4K”. Forgotten in the discussion is frame rate. Many displays were showing higher frame rates, such as 4K at 60fps. 120fps is also being discussed.

4K (and higher) cameras were there from Canon, Sony, RED, JVC, GoPro and now Blackmagic Design. Stereo3D was there, too, in pockets; but, it’s all but dead (again). 4K, though, will have legs. The TV sets and distribution methods are coming into position and this is a nonintrusive experience for the viewer. SD to HD was an obvious “in your face” difference. 4K is noticeably better, but not as much as SD to HD. More like 720p versus 1080p. This means that consumer prices will have to continue to drop (as they will) for 4K to really catch hold, except for special venue applications. Right now, it’s pretty obvious how gorgeous 4K is when standing a few feet away from an 84” screen, but few folks can afford that yet.

Interestingly enough, you can even do live 4K broadcasts, using 4K cameras and production products from Astro Designs. This will have value in live venues like sporting events and large corporate meetings. A new factor – “region of interest” – comes into play. This means you can shoot 4K and then scale/crop the portion of the image that interests you. Naturally there was also 8K by NHK and also Quantel. Both have been on the forefront of HD and then 4K. Quantel was demonstrating 8K (downsampled to a 4K monitor) just to show their systems have the headroom for the future.

ARRI did not have a 4K camera, but the 4 x 3 sensor of the ALEXA XT model features 2880 x 2160 photosites. When you use an anamorphic 2:1 lens and record ARRIRAW, you effectively end up with an unsqueezed image of 5760 x 2160 pixels. Downsample that to a widescreen 2.4:1 image inside a 4096 DCI frame and you have visually similar results as with a Sony or RED camera delivering in 4K. This was demonstrated in the booth and the results were quite pleasing. The ALEXA looked a bit softer than comparable displays at the Sony and RED booths, but most cinematographers would probably opt for the ARRI image, since it appears a lot closer to the look of scanned film at 4K. Part of this is inherent with ARRI’s sensor array, which includes optical filtering in-camera. Sony was showing clips from the upcoming Oblivion feature film, which was shot with an F65. To many attendees these clips looked almost too crisp.

In practical terms, most commercial, corporate, television or indie film users of 4K cameras want an easy workflow. If that’s your goal, then the best “true” 4K paths are to shoot with the Canon C500 or the Sony F55. The C500 can be paired with the (now shipping) AJA KiPro Quad to record 4K ProRes files. The Sony records in the XAVC codec (a variant of AVC-Intra). Both are ready to edit (importer plug-ins may be required) without conversions.

You can also record ARRI 2K ProRes in an ALEXA or use one of the various raw workflows (RED, Canon, Blackmagic, Sony, ARRI). Raw is nice, but adds extra steps to the process – often with little benefit over log-profile recording to an encoded file format.

Edit systems

With the shake-up that Apple’s introduction of Final Cut Pro X has brought to the market, brand dominance has been up for grabs. Apple wasn’t officially at the show, but did have some off-site presence, as well as a few staffers at demo pods. For example, they were showing the XAVC integration in an area of the Sony booth. FCP X was well-represented as part of other displays all over the floor. An interesting metric I noticed, was that all press covering the show on video, were cutting their reports on laptops using FCP X. That is a sweet spot for use of the application. No new FCP X news (beyond the features released with 10.0.8) was announced.

Adobe is currently the most aggressive in trying to earn the hearts of editors. The “next” versions of Premiere Pro, SpeedGrade, Audition and After Effects have a ton of features that respond to customer requests and will speed workflows. Adobe’s main stage demos were packed and the general consensus of most editors discussing a move away from FCP 7 (and even Avid) was a move to Adobe. In early press, Adobe mentioned working with the Coen brothers, who have committed to cutting their next film with Premiere.

The big push was for Adobe Anywhere – their answer for cloud-based editing. Although a very interesting product, it will compete in the same space as Quantel Qtube and Avid Interplay Sphere. These are enterprise solutions that require servers, storage, software and support. While it’s an interesting technology, it will tend to be of more interest to larger news operations and educational facilities than smaller post shops.

Avid came on with Media Composer 7 at a new price, with Symphony as an add-on option to Media Composer. The biggest features were the ability to edit with larger-than-HD video sources (output is still limited to HD), LUT support, improved media management of AMA files and background transcoding using managed folders (watch folders). In addition, Pro Tools goes to 11, with a new video engine – it can natively run Avid sequences from AAF imports – and faster-than-real-time bounce. The MC background transcode and the PT11 bounce will be time savers for Avid users and that translates into money saved.

Avid Interplay Sphere (announced last year) now works on Macs, but its main benefit is remote editing for stations that have invested in Interplay solutions. Avid is also bundling packages of ISIS storage, Interplay asset management and seats of Media Composer at even lower price points. Although still premium solutions, they are finally in a range that may be attractive to some small edit facilities and broadcasters, given that it includes installation and support.

The other NLE players include Avid DS (not shown), Quantel Pablo Rio, Autodesk Smoke 2013, Grass Valley EDIUS, Sony Vegas, Media 100 (not shown) and Lightworks. Most of these have no bearing in my market. Smoke 2013 is getting traction. Autodesk is working to get user feedback to improve the application, as it moves deeper into a market segment that is new to them. EditShare is forging ahead with Lightworks on the Mac. It looked pretty solid at the show, but expect something that’s ready for users towards the end of the year. It’s got the film credits to back it up, so a free (or near free) Mac version should shake things up even further.

One interesting addition to the market is DaVinci Resolve 10 gaining editing features. Right now the editing bells-and-whistles are still rudimentary, though all of the standard functions are there. Plus there are titles, speed changes with optical flow and a plug-in API (OpenFX). You can already apply GenArts Sapphire filters to your clips. These are applied in the color correction timeline as nodes, rather than effects added to an editing timeline. This means the Sapphire filters can be baked into any clip renders. The positioning of Resolve 10 is as an online editing tool. That means conforming, titling and trims/tweaks after grading. You now have even greater editing capabilities at the grading stage without having to return to an NLE. Ultimately the best synergy will be between FCP X and Resolve. Together the two apps make for a very interesting package and Apple seems to be working closely with Blackmagic Design to make this happen. Ironically the editing mode page looks a lot like FCP X would have looked with tracks and dual viewers.

Final thoughts

I was reading John Buck’s Timeline on the plane. Even though we think of the linear days as having been dominated by CMX, the reality was that there were many systems, including Mach One, Epic, ISC, Strassner, Convergence, Datatron, Sony, RCA and Ampex. In Hollywood, the TV industry was split among them, which is why a common interchange standard of the EDL was developed. For awhile, Avid became the dominant tool in the nonlinear era, but the truth is that hasn’t always been the norm – nor should it be. The design dilemma of engineering versus creative was a factor from the beginning of video editing. Should a system be simple enough that producers, directors and non-technical editors can run it? Sound familiar?

When I look at the show I am struck at how one makes their buying choices. To use the dreaded car analogy, FCP X is the sports car and Avid is the truck. But the sports car is a temperamental Ferrari that does some things very well , but isn’t appropriate for others. The truck is a Tundra with all the built-in, office-on-the-road niceties.

If I were a facility manager, making a purchase for a large scale facility, it would probably still be Avid. It’s the safe bet – the “you don’t get fired for buying IBM” bet. Their innovations at the show were conservative, but meet the practical needs of their current customers. There simply is no other system with a proven track record across all types of productions that scales from one user to massive installations. But offering conservative innovation isn’t a growth strategy. You don’t get new users that way. Media Composer has become truly complex in ways that only veteran users can accept and that has to change fast.

Apple FCP X is the wild card, of course. Apple is playing the long game looking for the next generation of users. If FCP X weren’t an Apple product, it would receive the same level of attention as Vegas Pro, at best. Also a great tool with a passionate user base, but nothing that has the potential of dominating market share. The trouble is Apple gets in its own way due to corporate secrecy. I’ve been using FCP X for awhile and it certainly is a professional product. But to use it effectively, you have to change your workflow. In a multi-editor, multi-production facility, this means changing a lot of practices and retraining staff. It also means augmenting the software with a host of other applications to fix the short-comings.

Broadening the appeal of FCP X beyond the one-man-band operations may be tough for that reason. It’s too non-standard and no one has any idea of where it’s headed. On the other hand, as an editor who’s willing to deal with new challenges, I like the fast, creative cutting performance of FCP X. This makes it a great offline editing tool in my book. I find a “start in X, finish in Resolve” approach quite intriguing.

Right now, Adobe feels like the horse to beat. They have the ear of the users and an outreach reminiscent of when Apple was in the early FCP “legacy” era. Adobe is working hard to build a community and the interoperability between applications is the best in the industry. They are only hampered by the past indifference towards Premiere that many pro users have. But that seems to be changing, with many new converts. Although Premiere Pro “next” feels like FCP 7.5, that appears to be what users really want. The direction, at least, feels right. Apple may have been “skating to where the puck will be”, but it could be that no one is following or the puck simply wasn’t going there in the first place.

For an additional look – click over to my article for CreativePlanetNetwork – DV magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Editing in 2013

df_edit2013

Undoubtedly this year will continue the trend of fractured market share for edit systems. If you tally up every system in general use, your professional choices include NLE systems from Adobe, Apple, Avid, Autodesk, Boris/Media 100, Dayang, Editshare/Lightworks, Grass Valley, SGO, Sony and Quantel. In most US markets, the split in market dominance boils down to an Adobe/Apple/Avid split. In many cases, the leader is still the now-defunct Final Cut Pro 7. Even Apple is stuck competing with itself.

By mid-2013, Final Cut Pro X will have hit its two-year anniversary. The screams of “iMovie Pro” have generally died down. Even the most diehard critics grudgingly admit that it offers many professional features. Although I don’t see it taking off in great numbers within the pro editor community during 2013, I do believe that there’s a “silent minority” of users who are testing it for their own use or as an island within a larger facility. I say “silent”, because many of these folks simply are not the sort that post to forums – or haven’t yet, for fear of getting sucked into the typical pro-con arguments that invariably ensue.

There have been four typical responses to X from FCP “legacy” users: 1) adopt FCP X; 2) stick with FCP 5/6/7; 3) move/return to Media Composer; or 4) move to Premiere Pro. Maybe a few jumped platforms, too, as well as pursued PC options, like EDIUS, Vegas Pro or Avid DS. In my market (central Florida), folks have been sticking with FCP 7 in the interim. Many will start moving to Premiere Pro. That seems to be the most common trend that I see. A few going to Media Composer and a handful with FCP X. As far as I know, I’m the only pro editor in town who has used FCP X on real gigs. I’ve encouraged a few others to at least test the waters. In major markets, like New York or Los Angeles, I think Avid will be the biggest beneficiary of this shift.

A new wild card is Autodesk Smoke 2013. At $3500 for the software-only Mac version, I suspect it will still be too rich for the blood for most editors. FCP X’s $300 price tag (for multiple machines!) is unfortunately viewed as the “new normal”. However, if your editorial focus is advanced finishing, then Smoke may be the system for you. I think it will find its way into shops with multiple edit stations. These owners are likely to add a seat of Smoke to augment the rest of their services.

All of this points to the fact that most editors are reluctant to change. FCP 1-7 was successful because it adopted an editing paradigm that was not that far removed from that of its competitors. FCP X is a different story. It requires work to unlearn and relearn what you know about how an editing application is supposed to work. That’s scary for editors who had begun their pro career within the last decade and only know FCP “legacy”. I’ve cut (on paying gigs) with well over a dozen different linear and nonlinear edit systems. If you add review systems and ones where I supervised, but wasn’t “in the seat” myself, that count is closer to two dozen. I’ve gone through at least three major editing paradigms shifts. If this disruption scares you, because it’s the first one you’ve encountered, then hold onto your hat. It’s going to get worse from here!

Here are some “crystal ball” thoughts for the coming year.

Many users will continue to try to stick with older versions of Final Cut Pro. As Mac OS continues to evolve and as more complex media formats arrive, it will become increasingly difficult to use this old 32-bit application and be efficient. I still find FCP 7 quite versatile, but I’ve just had it with out-of-memory errors and other performance issues that are now quite commonplace.

As folks migrate to an “FCP replacement”, that will most likely be Adobe Premiere Pro CS6. Expect the next version to be out later this year. Adobe has done a good job of listening to customers and I think you’ll see even more substantive improvements to Premiere Pro in this next version. You’ll also see the launch of Adobe Anywhere, which is a platform for collaborative editing. Adobe hasn’t announced specifics as to what will be required on the server side, but Anywhere will be an interesting option for enterprise users.

I don’t see major changes for Avid this year. People like to speculate that they are the next “victim” of Blackmagic Design’s annual buying spree, but I don’t see this as a reality yet (if ever). Although still running a negative balance sheet, Avid has cash in the bank and solid sales. It’s a company dedicated to the needs of pro users, so there is no stream of  consumer products cash flow to deepen their pockets. On the plus side, the products are solid and work in ways that pro users expect and are comfortable with.

Avid Media Composer is the most complex editing program there is (in terms of code), so it’s very impressive that Avid was able to move it to 64-bit with as few problems as there have been. This also means it’s hard to completely change the application. Users expect functional continuity and that cannot be sacrificed. In spite of that, new features like Smart Tool and AMA have kept Media Composer, Symphony and NewsCutter relevant for modern file-based workflows. 2013 will likely still be slow and steady for Avid, but hopefully items like resolution-independence are on the radar.

Autodesk is going to make a big push with Smoke 2013. Their biggest target with this product is the user who has heavy involvement with multiple applications to finish his/her work (like Premiere Pro + Photoshop + After Effects w/plug-ins). Smoke 2013 is designed to do all of these functions in a single application. It is also targeted at other competing finishing systems, like Avid DS. Customers now have two similar products – one on each main editing platform – and at similar (sub $10K) price points. I do think some users will try Smoke in the belief that it’s the hypothetical “FCP 8”. Those users will be disappointed. On the other hand, if you buy it for the purpose intended, then it’s the right tool for the job – conforming and advanced finishing.

This brings us to Apple Final Cut Pro X. I see pockets of use in 2013. Lots of individual users – the “one-man band” director/videographer/editor operations. Also some broadcasters (news and promos), corporate producers and event videographers. You will see some shows adopt it for post, but I think those will be in the minority. It’s important to realize that FCP X’s architecture is ideal for the direction some broadcasters want to take their infrastructure. If you want to post in 1080p/59.94 or 2K or 4K, then Final Cut Pro X is ideally suited for this challenge – more so than just about any other application.

Although Apple is less focused on the publicity gained from high-profile users, like film editors – they would certainly love to have another Cold Mountain moment. Walter Murch’s use of Final Cut on that and subsequent films gave the software some valuable street cred. Having a receptive editor and production company (like the Coen brothers or David Fincher) on the right film – at the point that the software is right AND the production is at an early enough stage – is a matter of timing. 2013 might be the year we see that. If that’s the case, it won’t affect sales volume for FCP X much, but it will change many pro users’ attitudes towards the software. Of course, don’t be surprised if Adobe gets there first!

2013 will be another fun year. More splintering of the applications in use. If you are a freelancer, then you need to know as many of them as possible. Just as 3D animators aren’t really wedded to a single animation application – relying instead on a toolkit of several – so, too, will it be for editors.

Read Scott Simmons’ blog for another take on 2013 prognostications. 

©2013 Oliver Peters

The NLE that wouldn’t die

It’s been 18 months since Apple launched Final Cut Pro X and the debate over it continues to rage without let-up. Apple likely has good sales numbers to deem it a success, but if you look around the professional world, with a few exceptions, there has been little or no adoption. Yes, some editors are dabbling with it to see where Apple is headed with it – and yes, some independent editors are using it for demanding projects, including commercials, corporate videos and TV shows. By comparison, though, look at what facilities and broadcasters are using – or what skills are required for job openings – and you’ll see a general scarceness of FCP X.

Let’s compare this to the launch of the original Final Cut Pro (or “legacy”) over 12 years ago. In a similar fashion, FCP was the stealth tool that attracted individual users. The obvious benefit was price. At that time a fully decked out Avid Media Composer was a turnkey system costing over $100K. FCP was available as software for only $999. Of course, what gets lost in that measure, is the Avid price included computer, monitors, wiring, broadcast i/o hardware and storage. All of this would have to be added to the FCP side and in some cases, wasn’t even possible with FCP. In the beginning it was limited to DV and FireWire only. But there were some key advantages it introduced at the start, over Avid systems. These included blend modes, easy in-timeline editing, After Effects-style effects and a media architecture built upon the open, extensible and ubiquitous QuickTime foundation. Over the years, a lot was added to make FCP a powerful system, but at its core, all the building blocks were in place from the beginning.

When uncompressed SD and next HD became the must-have items, Avid was slow to respond. Apple’s partners were able to take advantage of the hardware abstraction layer to add codecs and drivers, which expanded FCP’s capabilities. Vendors like Digital Voodoo, Aurora Video Systems and Pinnacle made it possible to edit something other than DV. Users have them to thank – more so than Apple – for growing FCP into a professional tool. When FCP 5 and 6 rolled around, the Final Cut world was pretty set, with major markets set to shift to FCP as the dominant NLE. HD, color correction and XML interchange had all been added and the package was expanded with an ecosystem of surrounding applications. By the time of the launch of the last Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) in 2009, Apple’s NLE seemed unstoppable. Unfortunately FCP 7 wasn’t as feature-packed as many had expected. Along with reticence to chuck recently purchased PowerMac G5 computers, a number of owners simply stayed with FCP 5 and/or FCP 6.

When Apple discusses the number of licensees, you have to parse how they define the actual purchases. While there are undoubtedly plenty of FCP X owners, the interpretation of sales is that more seats of FCP X have been sold than of FCP 7. Unfortunately it’s hard to know what that really means. Since it’s a comparison to FCP 7 – and not every FCP 1-6 owner upgraded to 7 – it could very well be that the X number isn’t all that large. Even though Apple EOL’ed (end of life) Final Cut Studio with the launch of FCP X, it continued to sell new seats of the software through its direct sales and reseller channels. In fact, Apple seems to still have it available if you call the correct 800 line. When Apple says it has sold more of X than of 7, is it counting the total sales (including those made after the launch) or only before? An interesting statistic would be the number of seats of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) sold since the launch of FCP X as compared to before. We’ll never know, but it might actually be a larger number. All I know is that the system integrators I personally know, who have a long history of selling and servicing FCP-based editing suites, continue to install NEW FCP 7 rooms!

Like most drastic product changes, once you get over the shock of the new version, you quickly realize that your old version didn’t instantly stop working the day the new version launched. In the case of FCP 7, it continues to be a workhorse, albeit the 32-bit architecture is pretty creaky. Toss a lot of ProRes 4444 at it and you are in for a painful experience. There has been a lot of dissatisfaction with FCP X among facility owners, because it simply changes much of the existing workflows. There are additional apps and utilities to fill the gap, but many of these constitute workarounds compared to what could be done inside FCP 7.

Many owners have looked at alternatives. These include Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer/Symphony, Media 100 and Autodesk Smoke 2013. If they are so irritated at Apple as to move over to Windows hardware, then the possibilities expand to include Avid DS, Grass Valley Edius and Sony Vegas. Several of these manufacturers have introduced cross-grade promotional deals to entice FCP “legacy” owners to make the switch. Avid and Adobe have benefited the most in this transition. Editors who were happy with Avid in the past – or work in a market where Avid dominates – have migrated back to Media Composer. Editors who were hoping for the hypothetical FCP 8 are often making Adobe Premiere (and the Production Premium bundle) their next NLE of choice. But ironically, many owners and users are simply doing nothing and continuing with FCP 7 or even upgrading from FCP 6 to FCP 7.

Why is it that FCP 7 isn’t already long gone or on the way out by now? Obviously the fact that change comes slowly is one answer, but I believe it’s more than that. When FCP 1.0 came on the scene, its interface and operational methodology fit into the existing NLE designs. It was like a “baby Avid” with parts of Media 100 and After Effects dropped in. If you cut on a Media Composer, the transition to FCP was pretty simple. Working with QuickTime made it easy to run on most personal machines without extra hardware.  Because of its relatively open nature and reliance in industry-standard interchange formats (many of which were added over time), FCP could easily swap data with other applications using EDLs, OMFs, text-based log files and XML. Facilities built workflows around these capabilities.

FCP X, on the other hand, introduced a completely new editing paradigm that not only changed how you work, but even the accepted nomenclature of editing. Furthermore, the UI design even did things like reverse the behavior of some keystrokes from how similar functions had been triggered in FCP 7. In short, forget everything you know about editing or using other editing software if you want to become proficient with FCP X. That’s a viable concept for students who may be the professional editors of the future. Or, for non-fulltime editors who occasionally have to edit and finish professional-level productions as one small part of their job. Unfortunately, it’s not a good approach if you want to make FCP X the ubiquitous NLE in established professional video environments, like post houses, broadcasters and large enterprise users.

After all, if I’m a facility manager and you can’t show me a compelling reason why this is better and why it won’t require a complete internal upheaval, then why should I change? In most shops, overall workflow is far more important than the specific features of any individual application. Gone are the differences in cost, so it’s difficult to make a compelling argument based on ROI. You can no longer make the (false) argument of 1999 that FCP will only cost you 1% of the cost of an Avid. Or use the bogus $50K edit suite ad that followed a few years later.

Which brings us to the present. I started on Avid systems as the first NLE where I was in the driver’s seat. I’ve literally cut on dozens of edit systems, but for me, Final Cut Pro “legacy” fit my style and preferences best. I would have loved a 64-bit version with a cleaned-up user interface, but that’s not what FCP X delivers. It’s also not exactly where Premiere Pro CS6 is today. I deal with projects from the outside – either sent to me or at shops where I freelance. Apple FCP 7 and Avid Media Composer continue to be what I run into and what is requested.

Over the past few months I’ve done quite a few complex jobs on FCP X, when I’ve had the ability to control the decision. Yet, I cannot get through any complex workflow without touching parts of Final Cut Studio (“legacy”) to get the job done. FCP X seems to excel at small projects where speed trumps precision and interoperability. It’s also great for individual owner-operators who intend to do everything inside FCP X. But for complex projects with integrated workflows, FCP 7 is still decidedly better.

As was the case with early FCP, where most of the editing design was there at the start, I now feel that with the FCP X 10.0.6 update, most of its editing design is also in place. It may never become the tool that marches on to dominate the market. FCP “legacy” had that chance and Apple walked away from it. It’s dubious that lightning will strike twice, but 18 months is simply too short of a timeframe in which to say anything that definitive. All I know is that for now, FCP 7 continues as the preferred NLE for many, with Media Composer a close second. Most editors, like old dogs, aren’t too eager to learn new tricks. At least that’s what I conclude, based on my own ear-to-the-ground analysis. Check back this time next year to see if that’s still the case. For now, I see the industry continuing to live in a very fractured, multi-NLE environment.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Film Budgeting Basics

New filmmakers tackling their first indie feature will obviously ask, “What is this film going cost to produce?” The answer to this – like many of these questions – is, “It depends.” The cost of making a film is directly related to the resources needed and the time required for each resource. That often has little to do with the time involved in actually filming the scenes.

A friend of mine, after directing his first feature, was fond of saying, “The total time of saying the words ‘roll, action, cut, print’ was probably less than an hour; but, it took me two years prior to that to have the privilege.” Cost is almost never related to return. I’ve often told budding filmmakers to consider long and hard what they are doing. They could instead take the same amount of money and throw themselves the biggest party of their life. After all the effort of making the film, you might actually have more to show for it from the party. Film returns tend to follow other media success percentages, where typically 15% are successful and 85% fail (or at least don’t make a financial return). Understanding how to maximum the value on the screen is integral to budgeting a feature film.

I often work in the realm of indie features, which includes dramatic productions and documentaries. Each of these two categories tends to break into cost tiers like these:

Dramatic films

$0 – $50,000

$200,000

$500,000

$1,000,000-$2,000,000

Over $2,000,000

Documentaries

$0 – $30,000

$50,000

$300,000-$1,500,000

Over $1,500,000

Money is always tight within these ranges. Once you get over $2,000,000, you tend to have a bit more breathing room and the ability to tackle issues by adding more resources to the equation. Production is related to time and that varies greatly between scripted films and documentaries, where the story is often evolving over time and out of the director’s control. Here is a typical rule-of-thumb timeline for the production of each.

Dramatic films – timeline

1 year to secure rights and funding

2 months of casting, scouting, preparation

1 month readying actual production logistics

2-5 weeks of production (stage and location)

8-20 weeks of picture editorial

8-20 weeks sound editorial and scoring (usually starts after picture is “locked”)

1-2 weeks of picture finish/conform/grade

1-2 weeks of audio mix (re-recording mix)

1 week to finalize all deliverables

Documentaries – timeline

The timeframe up to the start of editorial differs with every project and is an unknown.

8-60 weeks of picture editorial

8-20 weeks sound editorial and scoring (usually starts after picture is “locked”)

1-2 weeks of picture finish/conform/grade

1-2 weeks of audio mix (re-recording mix)

1 week to finalize all deliverables

__________________________________________________________

Clearly any of these categories can take longer, but in the indie/low-budget field, indecision and letting things drag out will destroy the viability of the project. You don’t have the luxury of studio film timeframes. This is where a savvy line producer, unit manager and production manager (often the same person on small films) can make or break the budget. Here are some cost variables to consider.

Cost variables that need to be evaluated and balanced

Union versus non-union.

More days of shooting versus fewer, but longer days, with overtime pay.

The size of the cast and the experience level of the actors.

Allotting adequate (non-filmed) rehearsal time.

The number of script pages (a shorter script means a less costly production).

Accurate timing of scene descriptions to determine how much production time is required for each scene.

The number of locations and location changes/distances.

Period drama versus a contemporary story.

Stage and sets versus shooting at real locations.

The number of make-up and wardrobe changes.

A production location with local crews and facilities versus bringing in resources from the outside.

Film versus digital photography.

The number of cameras.

The amount of gear (dollies, cranes, etc.).

Cost-saving tips

Investigate opportunities to partner with regional film schools.

Using a director of photography who is his own camera operator and who can supply his own cameras and lenses.

Using a location mixer with his own gear.

Using an editor with his own gear.

Eliminate the needs for an elaborate “video village” and possibly reduce the need for a DIT (if you have savvy camera assistants).

Negotiate lower equipment rental costs based on fewer days per week.

Negotiate local resources for food, lodging, travel and craft services.

Explore alternatives to stages, such as empty warehouses.

Explore unsigned local musical artists for songs, scores, etc.

Hold one or more days of production in reserve (to fix “gaps” discovered during editing), in order to shoot inserts, B-roll, transitional shots, the opening title, etc.

Errors that will drive up cost

The film is too short or too long (ideal is a first cut that’s about 10% longer than target, so it can be trimmed back).

Unforeseen or poorly executed visual effects.

Judgment calls made on location to “save” time/effort on a rushed day.

Allowing the actors too much freedom to ad lib and improvise, as well as play with props.

Indecision in the edit.

Changing the edit after the cut is “locked”.

Using stock images or popular music without making provisions in advance for clearance and budgeting.

Cost-saving items that AREN’T

Failing to shoot a complete master shot as part of the coverage on complex scenes.

Using two or more camera throughout the entire production.

Letting actors ad lib in lieu of adequate rehearsal.

Not hiring a script supervisor/continuity person.

Using blue/green-screen effects for driving shots.

Relying on low-light cameras instead of proper lighting.

Extensive use of the “video village” on set.

Limiting the amount of footage sent to the editors (send them everything, not only “circle takes”).

Short-changing the importance of the role of the data wrangler.

Not allowing adequate time or resources for proper data management.

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For reference, I put together two sample budgets a year ago, as part of a presentation at Digital Video Expo in Pasadena. It’s available for download here in Numbers, Excel and PDF versions. Feel free to manipulate the spreadsheets for your own production to see how they stack up. I break down a film/DI and a digital photography budget. As you can see, going with 35mm film adds about $175K more to the budget, largely due to stock, processing and DI costs. In a major studio feature, the difference in formats is inconsequential, but not in the million dollar indie range. I have not included a “film-out”, which will add $75-$200K.

The budget I developed, with the help of a number of experienced unit managers, represents a fairly typical, non-union, indie film. It includes most of the cost for crew, cast, production and post, but does not include such items as the cost of the script, props, sets, production office rentals, hotels, insurance, creative fees and others. As a rule-of-thumb, I’ve factored gear and stage rentals as 3-day weeks. This means you get seven days of use, but are only charged for three. In the past year, I’ve heard rates as low as 1.5-day weeks, but I don’t think you can plan on that being the norm. A 3-day or 4-day week is customary.

Many states offer film production incentives, designed to entice producers to shoot a project in that state. Often local investment money and economic incentives will attract producers to a particular locale. That’s great if the state has good local crew and production resources, but if not, then you’ll have to bring in more from the outside. This adds cost for travel and lodging, some of which an enterprising producer can negotiate for trade in the form of a credit on the film. There’s no guarantee of that, though, and as it’s such a variable, this is a cost item that must be evaluated with each individual production.

Remember that post production work has to occur in some physical place. Audio post is typically done in a studio owned or rented by the audio engineer. That’s not the case for editors. If you hire a freelance film editor, you will also need to factor in the cost of the editing system, as well as a rental office in which to house the operation. Some editors can supply that as a package deal and others don’t.

Naturally, a savvy line producer can find ways to bring this budget even lower. I work a lot with the Valencia College Film Technology Program in Orlando. Over the years they have partnered with many producers to complete Hollywood-grade features. I’m not talking student films, but rather name directors and actors working alongside students and working pros to put out films destined for theatrical distribution. The films produced there often place a level of production value on the screen that’s as much as twice the actual out-of-pocket cost of production and post. All thanks to the resources and services the program has to offer.

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Most new producers have a good handle on the production phase, but post is a total black hole. As a consequence, post often gets short-changed in the budgeting process. Unfortunately, some producers try to figure out their post production costs at the point when everything is in the can, but almost all of the money has been spent. That’s in spite of the fact that post generally takes much more time than the period allotted to location and stage photography. In order to properly understand the post side of things, here are the workflows for four finishing scenarios.

Film – traditional post

Shoot on location with film – 1,000ft. of 35mm = about 10 minutes of unedited footage.

Process the negative at the lab and do a “best light” transfer to videotape or a hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates a cut list for the negative cutter.

The negative cutter conforms the negative (physical splices).

All visual effects are added as optical effects.

Lab color timing is performed and answer prints are generated for review.

Film deliverables are generated.

Film – DI (digital intermediate) post

Shoot on location with film – 1,000ft. of 35mm = about 10 minutes of unedited footage.

Process the negative at the lab and do a “best light” transfer to videotape or a hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Selected shots are retransferred (or scanned), conformed and graded.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

Digital production – camera raw photography

Shoot on location with a digital camera that records in a raw file format to a card or hard drive.

The footage is converted into a viewable form for the editors.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Camera raw files are conformed and color graded in a process similar to a DI.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

Digital production – tape or file-based (not raw) photography

Shoot on location with a digital camera and recorded to tape or as files to a card or hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Camera files are conformed and color graded.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

In some cases, the editing format and the system is of a level to be considered final quality and the same editor can do both the creative edit and finishing.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

As these workflows show, a lot goes into post beyond simply editing and mixing the film. These elements take time and determine the level of polish you present to your audience. The sample budgets I’ve compiled aren’t intended to cause sticker shock. It’s clear that getting the tally to $1 Million doesn’t take very much and that’s a pretty realistic range for a small film. Granted, I’ve worked on films done for $150,000 that looked like a lot more, but it takes a lot of work to get there. And often leaning hard on the good graces of the crew and resources you use.

For comparison, here’s an example at The Smoking Gun that’s purported to be the working budget for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village under the working title of The Woods. It doesn’t really matter whether it is or it isn’t the actual budget. The numbers are in line with this type of studio film, which makes it a good exercise in seeing how one can spend $70 Million on a film.

Whether you play in the studio or the independent film arena, it’s important to understand how to translate the vision of the script in a way that correlates to time and money. Once that becomes second nature, you are on your way to becoming a producer that puts the most production value on the screen for the audiences to appreciate.

©2012 Oliver Peters

The race to the bottom

Whenever a group of established professionals in the business gets together, they bemoan the “race to the bottom”. That’s the concept that simpler, more inexpensive tools result in the lowering of quality. The prevailing attitude is that now “anyone can do it” so no one “values the craft”. Editors complain about what low-cost editing software like Final Cut Pro has done to facilities. Directors of photography complain about the Canon 5D or the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and how these are killing quality production. Colorists complain about the impact of free color grading tools, like DaVinci Resolve Lite on their ability to earn a living.

I’m sure this is echoed in other industries. Whether you are talking about multitrack audio decks versus Pro Tools, or vinyl records versus CDs versus iTunes, or the work of a talented machinist compared to “fab labs” and 3D printing – the theme (and fear) is the same. That is, that these trends bring more users into the field and I/we/my company will go out-of-business. I won’t argue the result, because disruptive technologies do displace workers and do change the dynamics of cost. In fact, at my first paid editing gig after college in the mid-70s, the company billed $275/hour for editing time. That was with three quad VTRs, a switcher and audio mixer, edit controller and two black-and-white title card cameras. All analogue, no character generator, no digital video effects manipulation (ADO, K-scope, A-53, etc.). Bare bones. Today, you’d be hard pressed to pay more than $175/hour for most NLE suites with editor. That’s a room with an order-of-magnitude more features than the typical mid-70s edit suite, for a lot less. And that’s not even accounting for the change in the value of money over four decades!

I view the technology of our business as more of a bell curve than a slide down from the top. When film production and post was the norm, the cost of the tools was relatively cheap. Yes, a film camera and Moviola or KEM were expensive, precision mechanical products, but they were within the grasp of a sole entrepreneur to own. With the introduction and expansion of video production and post, the industry diverted to a three-decades-long love of the next biggest-baddest box. In the heyday of the linear digital suite, a decked-out room was a million-dollar investment. Facilities marketed themselves based on the hardware, rather than the talent at the controls.

Then we started moving down from the top of the curve and many of those same facilities never survived. That “race to the bottom” started with Avid, Lightworks, Media 100 and EMC2, who introduced digital NLEs that were built around affordable, desktop systems. As expensive as they were at the time, they were significantly less costly than the linear suite of the day or even other first-generation nonlinear systems. One of the early NLEs that was used extensively in episodic television offline editing was the Ediflex. It used 12 industrial-grade VHS decks to mimic random access. You could only lease them in Los Angeles, but being in Orlando, the post house I was with considered the purchase of four systems. The asking price was $250K each, so we continued leasing. Ultimately the company went belly-up and the four systems we were leasing weren’t worth the shipping cost and so ultimately ended up on the scrap heap. The Ediflex was done in by the success of the desktop NLEs, like Avid, which ushered in widespread nonlinear post. Following the technology advances of all other computing and software trends, quality improved, cost dropped, operation was easier and performance and capacity became better. Final Cut Pro was simply a new stop on this ride.

Many of my fellow editors equate software complexity with professional. Maybe it’s a macho thing. If software takes an effort to understand and use, it must be inherently better than one which is simpler, even though the end result might be identical. Yet, all professional software developers are embracing simpler UIs that feature more unified controls, presets and templates. It’s not just the post industry. As I can attest from meetings I’ve attended, this is the over-riding software development direction taken in other fields, too, such as the engineering and CAD products from Autodesk, Solidworks and similar companies. Software can be both easy and deep (when needed) and that’s a design direction across-the-board. This is enabled by the fact that the under-the-hood processes required for the hidden magic are easy to run on most modern, off-the-shelf desktop and laptop computers. They finally have the necessary horsepower.

As tools get cheaper and easier to use, pros fret that the proverbial “YouTubers” and the “editor in his bedroom” will put them out of business. And yes, ease of use and low cost-of-entry do mean that there’s more competition. It also means that your clients will often decide to tackle the post on a job by themselves. All of this is true, but it’s the nature of technological change. We’ve seen it before in desktop publishing and photography. Some folks went out of business and some embraced the change and figured out how to thrive. After all, FCP X at $299 benefits the working pro just as much as the up-and-comer. This is especially true considering that FCP X is well-suited for the next wave of technology change in post – namely 2K and 4K frame sizes and higher frame rates, such as 1080p/59.94.

In most cases (though, unfortunately not in all) – the cream will rise to the top. The Canon 5D and RED One are good examples. These cameras lowered the needed investment to shoot high-end footage. In the hands of a talented DP, each camera can yield superb results. Likewise, in the hands of a wannabe who hasn’t learned the basics, they can also produce crap. Why? Simply put, the basics are still the most important. Lighting, lens selection, camera movement, focus, art direction, etc. These all contribute to the difference between art and junk. Believe it or not, most clients actually can see the difference. Sometimes they don’t know why. Sometimes they don’t need the difference. Sometimes they don’t want to pay for the difference. That’s why we as professionals need to continue to educate clients on the value that we bring to the project and NOT the value that our tools bring.

This isn’t always an easy sell, but it’s what makes good writers, directors, record producers, musicians and others successful. Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or Eric Johnson would sound as good on any guitar they played. A movie cut by Walter Murch, Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter or Pietro Scalia would be just as good, regardless of the edit software at their disposal.

© 2012 Oliver Peters