The Last Mile and Your Film

When telecom companies talk about the development cost for networks, the term “the last mile” is used to describe the final leg of getting a signal from the nearest distribution point to your house. This is the costliest per-unit expense, compared with the rest of the network. Independent film producers have a similar issue when they try to sell their title to a distributor. That’s because most distribution deals require some firm deliverables that often impact independents with a serious financial hit at the last stage of the production.


The RED camera has whetted many a wannabe’s appetite for feature-level 4K post on the desktop. It’s amazing to read the number of forum posts by people appalled at the cost of things like 2K DIs, not to mention real work at the 4K level. Often there are laughable responses, such as, “Oh don’t worry about that. The distributor will pay for it.” Give me a break! I’m not here to burst any bubbles, but quite frankly all distributors will present you with a list of things that are expected of you. If you don’t have these, you will be expected to produce them and the additional cost comes out of YOUR pocket. So the distributor only “pays for it” in the sense that your cost to produce additional deliverables comes off the top of any payments made to you to acquire the film or show.


Unfortunately many deals simply don’t pay a lot of money. Getting your film on HBO or to have a 20-country international distribution deal probably won’t make a big dent in paying back the investors. The following is a description of some of the costs you can expect to pay before a distributor is going to handle your film.


Film finishing


Let’s assume you shot on 35mm negative and edited to a standard def videotape master using letterboxed, one-light film transfers. This looked great and helped you sell the film, but now your distributor wants film elements and a theatrical release print. This will dictate a traditional film finish, including negative cutting, opticals, timed answer prints and film sound. If you kept proper track of all the film keycode numbers during the edit and generated film lists, then an experienced negative cutter will be able to match your electronic cut without difficulty. Cutting negative typically costs about $7/cut, so a standard 90 minute feature with about 1,000 picture edits will cost about $7,000 just for negative cutting services. In addition, all visual and motion effects, opening titles and closing credits have to be created as film opticals, which are intercut with the camera negative. If it’s a single-strand cut – meaning all shots are on one reel instead of checkerboarded onto A/B-rolls – then fades and dissolves count as effects. $10,000 is a good starting point for a minimum number of effects and titles.


Next, your cut negative must be color-timed (same as color correction or color grading) at a lab to create a timed answer print. Sometimes this takes more than one attempt to get right, so it’s best to work a deal for multi-pass timing. A lab will give you a certain number of answer prints for a fixed rate if you purchase multi-pass timing. Finally your audio mix must be transferred and optically printed so that you end up with sync sound on your film prints. If you require more that a handful of prints, there may be additional line item expenses for interpositives and internegatives. Depending on the sort of deals you can work with labs and other suppliers, basic film finishing will can run between $40,000 and $100,000.


Digital intermediates


High-resolution electronic post has ushered in the DI alternative to film finishing. Starting at the same point as our previous example, you will have to return to the camera negative. Instead of cutting negative, selected takes are scanned (at 2K or 4K resolution) as files or transferred to HD videotape. The video (or files) will be assembled (“conformed”) to match your Edit Decision List and color graded. There are no opticals, since effects can be handled digitally and all audio tracks can be married to the same master along with the picture. The color corrected, synced output will then be mastered to high-def videotape or as files that are sent on to be recorded back to film. This process can cost anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000.


Some projects stop at an HD master, if the intent is the video market; but, you may still need film materials for a theatrical release. Contrary to popular belief, digital cinema projection is not the norm and probably won’t be anytime soon. To get a 35mm release print, your master will need to be recorded back to 35mm negative for printing. Although you may have done very elaborate color grading for your HD master, there is no real guarantee that this look is going to perfectly translate to film. So make sure you budget some lab color timing to trim up the video corrections to match the film world.  It’s not as expensive as a full film finish, but expect to pay $40,000 to $80,000 on top of the HD or DI finishing charges you have already incurred. So it’s pretty easy to see why digital finishing on a Hollywood blockbuster typically starts at around $250,000.


High definition mastering


Many indie filmmakers shoot with digital cameras or shoot film and get inexpensive transfers to an HD format. All further post is digital, using low cost tools instead of full blown DI gear. The intent may be video or film, but if film, then this would be considered a “poor man’s DI”. With the right tools and monitoring in the hands of an experienced editor/colorist, many directors using this approach can get a result similar to a true DI. Desktop tools like Apple Color, Avid Symphony or even the built-in correction capabilities of Apple Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro/After Effects have been used with great success in producing good looking masters that were printed to film.


If you ended up with a locked cut based on SD downconversions of your HD camera masters, then it still isn’t a free ride back to the HD master. You still need to assemble the HD version of the cut (“conforming”, “online editing”, “uprezzing”) and perform a color grading pass. Often the uprez process involves making sure an offline edit done with 29.97 content is still frame-accurate and in sync when you go back to a 23.98 (24fps) timeline. A 90 minute feature typically takes 1-2 weeks to properly turn around an offline edit into a color-graded HD master. This work should be done in a professional facility with the right decks and monitoring capabilities. A low cost facility is going to charge $150-$450/hour for the suite with a qualified editor/colorist. In other words, if you get a deal at $300/hour, then you might pay $24,000 (plus stock and taxes) for that high-quality, color-corrected HD master, but people have also been known to get a good product for under $10,000, as well.




Video is only half the battle. The sure sign of a low-budget production is the attention to detail in sound. Audio post for a feature involves dialogue clean-up and editing, ADR/looping (replacing bad location recordings), sound effects editing, Foley (live sound effects) recording and editing, music scoring and a final mix. Many indie directors try to do this all by themselves “in the box”. If you want better sound, then have a specialist tackle this and allocate as much budget for sound post as possible. Two weeks to a month isn’t unreasonable for just a clean-up pass on the work you’ve done yourself. If you are starting from scratch, then budget several weeks (to months) for EACH of the categories listed above, AFTER the picture is locked. Typical rates (with an audio editor/mixer) are going to be in the $150/hour range for most small studio operations.


Distributors typically require mixes to be completed in “stems” and include “fully filled international” versions. Mixing in stems means that the final dialogue, sound effects and music tracks are broken out into separate mixed stereo or surround tracks. For stereo, this would be six tracks – three sets of L+R tracks for dialogue, effects and music. In a proper mix, you should be able to combine the stems at a unity setting for all tracks and end up with a composite mix that sounds normal. Some distributors ask for a domestic mix and M&E (music and effects) tracks – i.e. with and without dialogue in the mix. By mixing in stems, it is easy to combine the tracks in different ways to meet the deliverable requirements.


Stems are easy to achieve simply by how you organize your mix, but “fully filled international” tracks require more work. This is also called “150% Foley”. These terms mean that any production effects recorded on location and heard under dialogue lines, like a door closing or a cup being set on the table, must also be re-recorded as Foley effects. When the dialogue tracks are muted during foreign language audio production, the appropriate sound effects will now still exist and can be mixed back into the new foreign mix.




One of your biggest headaches can be the music. It is always best to use original music or license royalty free cues. If at all possible, NEVER use popular music. Editors often use temp music during the creative edit and the director and producers fall in love with these selections. So much so, that no one can bear to part with the temp music and it has to be purchased. This becomes very expensive if the tracks are commercial pop tunes. One innovative alternative is to purchase music from an unsigned, independent band and incorporate that into your production. TV shows and films have been doing that for a while now. IF you are dealing directly with the owners of the music, then you can inexpensively add some unique music touches to your project.


Some music companies (both record labels and production music houses) offer reduced license fees for film festival presentation rights. Once you cut a distribution deal, however, it literally becomes time to pay the piper – often accompanied by sticker shock. Be sure that you properly cover the copyright and the ownership of music publishing rights with your music resources. The owner of the music publishing rights often earns residual income independent of film sales, based on broadcast fees paid into funds by associations like BMI and ASCAP. Many producers will encourage composers to retain these rights as a way of negotiating lower up-front music production fees for the film. With the right film, such a deal can be quite lucrative for the composer. When you sell a film to a distribution, you will have to make sure you are covered for any additional broadcast licensing fees. Not every broadcast outlet pays into these funds. If not, you may be required to pay additional fees for broadcasting rights.


Video deliverables


Having a single HD master is not sufficient to satisfy most distributors. If you have a 1080p/23.98 master on HD-D5, HDCAM or HDCAM-SR tape, you will probably also need a 1080i/59.94 (interlaced with pulldown inserted) air master, since no network broadcasts 24fps content as native 24p. You will also need various NTSC and PAL Digital Betacam copies. Often you’ll need six SD masters – one of each standard in letterbox 16×9, center-cut (cropped) 4×3 and full height anamorphic (squeezed) 4×3 configurations. Standards conversion (such as for PAL) and any extra post work to pan-and-scan the 4×3 copies comes out of your pocket. Distributors will also want “textless” masters or at least textless elements. If you have opening titles and closing credits over picture, you will need to provide those portions of the movie without any titles or text to facilitate replacement of the text in another language or font.


Depending on the distributor, the master must be supplied in the specified format (HD-D5, HDCAM or HDCAM-SR) and your audio tracks will need to be broken out in a certain configuration. Some simply want a stereo mix and a stereo M&E, while others want eight or more tracks in various combinations. Others require separate audio master tapes, such as a DA-88, to accompany the video masters.


As if this long list weren’t enough, most distribution deals ask for literally boxes of substantiating information, covering talent and music contracts/clearances, script, the editor’s notes and the editing project files. If you don’t have these handy and must generate or organize them after the fact, manpower (time and money) will need to be applied. This might also include legal fees if you have an attorney involved to represent you. Part of any final expense is “error and omissions” insurance. That’s an insurance policy designed to covered the production should someone decide to sue because of something that was unknown, not properly researched or forgotten. Examples might include similar scripts by other authors, people in shots that weren’t cleared and so on. You will have to show evidence that you have such a policy or must buy it to satisfy most distributors.


All the items I’ve mentioned are reasonable costs involved in every production, but are easily overlooked or simply not known by the first-time filmmaker. Starting your next production knowing which items to expect will keep you out of trouble and within budget for that “last mile”.


© 2008 Oliver Peters

Avid vs. FCP – Market Dominance?

You see a lot of these arguments on the web. “My NLE can beat up your NLE.” Invariably any discussion of Avid or Apple marketing among a group of editors degenerates into childish platform wars. From the outside this must sound as stupid as two bubbas arguing over the best truck – Ford or Chevy. All of the debaters seem to share the attitude that “I know the truth and if I could only get this moron to realize what I’m saying, they’d see the light and change their wicked ways.” It comes from a belief that one single company CAN dominate the market to the exclusion of all others and users will be satisfied. I personally don’t believe that’s true. Historically, any dominant company only held that position for a few short years.


A history lesson


Linear and nonlinear electronic editing owe their start to CMX. The early nonlinear efforts were premature, but the linear byproduct took off and dominated post in the late 70s and 80s. There were others, but CMX was king of the linear hill until giving up some market share to ISC/Grass Valley, Sony and Axial. Modern nonlinear seriously took hold in the 90s, but the market had its large niches. Avid, Media 100 and EMC2 for spot offline, Avid and Lightworks for film and CMX, Grass Valley, Sony and Axial linear systems for online finishing. Around the same time that uncompressed NLEs came into being (first Quantel and Softimage – then Avid), Avid became the dominant force in all of these niches. Although there were still many other players (Media 100, Quantel, Axial, Immix, etc.), Avid overshadowed all the rest. Just before the Millennium, Final Cut Pro hit the market, was purchased by Apple and has come to be the first serious challenge to Avid’s market dominance in years.


FCP’s detractors are fond of saying that Apple looses money on FCP as a loss leader to sell Apple hardware – or that FCP grew because most of the users pirated the software. They point to these as reasons for FCP’s quick adoption rate. In 2008, Apple announced that licensed users of Final Cut (combining all owners of Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Studio and Final Cut Express software) passed the 1,000,000 mark. If many FCP users really have pirated their software, then that simply means the number of actual users far exceeds 1,000,000. Certainly all don’t have the latest version and most probably aren’t editors cutting spots, TV shows or films. It’s likely that many of these 1,000,000 are event, church and educational videographers along with quite a few hobbyists. I would consider most of these users at least as “professional” as most of the users of Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Liquid or Xpress DV/Pro. If at least half of the known user base bought upgrades at several hundred dollars, then this still positions Apple with a couple of hundred million dollars of income to put into ProApps product development. Not bad for a software product.


The real users


I’ve encountered many new editors, such as film students whom I’ve taught at the community college level. If FCP is being used by the proverbial “kid editing in his bedroom”, then this would be the group doing it. In fact, I find that often their NLE experience (legal or otherwise) is just as likely to be Adobe or Avid as it is Apple. Given that Mac market share continues to hover in the single-digit range, simple percentages would push the break in the direction of PC software – NOT Final Cut Pro. Most of the professional FCP users I run into are, in fact, former Avid editors or users of other systems, who changed to FCP at a point when they needed to upgrade or because their previous NLE vendors went out of business and it was time to move on. Why was this change made to FCP? Well, the obvious answer is cost, but that’s far too simplistic.


Final Cut Pro is often said to be an 80/20 solution – 80% of the features (of a system like Avid, in theory) at 20% of the cost. The actual percentages are irrelevant, but the sentiment implies that purchasers are willing to put up with some missing features if they can get the job done at a far lower cost. I don’t completely disagree with the cost argument, but it’s not limited to Apple. When Final Cut came out, it was inherently a resolution-independent editor, but without any hardware support. It would have never been anything other than a DV-based editor if hardware companies like Digital Voodoo, Pinnacle and Matrox hadn’t introduced companion products.


Adding a Digital Voodoo card to early versions of FCP wasn’t terribly stable, but it allowed you to get into uncompressed editing for far less that the competing Avid Symphony. At the time, many editors argued that the image quality was better out of the Digital Voodoo cards. When Pinnacle introduced CineWave, it was the first time you could post uncompressed HD for a total workstation cost of well under $100,000 at a time when the next cheapest thing was Avid DS at over $300,000. AJA and Blackmagic Design quickly joined the mix of Final Cut Pro hardware vendors. Up until now, Avid has been late in answering every one of these challenges, leaving many owners of older Avid systems to simply conclude that Final Cut Pro (with an AJA or BMD card) was the only way they could get into any sort of HD editing and survive on the tighter budgets that their clients were offering them.


The better editor


As I said, I’m not completely sold on the 80/20 argument. Another way to look at it is found in blogger Robert Cringely’s “The Five Percent Solution”. His premise is that a new product only has to be 5% better than the previous product in order to replace it in the minds and hearts of users. According to Cringley, a 5% improvement is good enough to force that shift. Of course, most Avid loyalists will argue that Avid is clearly better than FCP, but I’ve used both for years at this point and I don’t agree. Avid’s strong points are the robustness of media management, very responsive editing dynamics and advanced performance. Final Cut’s strengths are its easy timeline editing functions, the ability to mix many media types due to the QuickTime architecture and the embrace of third party hardware. You can certainly tally even more points on each side, but the value any of these has to your personal editing style and system demands is going to vary with every editor.


Each application has numerous features that I feel are clearly lacking in the other, but for me, there’s enough that I like about FCP to feel that the “five percent solution” argument applies. In my own market, most of the facilities have shifted to FCP. I know many former Avid editors who have shifted to FCP. Most acknowledge that the performance of the Media Composer 3.0 is clearly superior to FCP, yet none are interested in going back to Avid. Clearly they see at least 5% that is better, as well.


Market share


I started by talking about market dominance. I believe that Avid will continue to be a strong player for years to come. They appear to be better off in every way (financial situation, product offerings and general company “smarts”) than CMX in the close of the linear era. I just don’t believe that they will be the one and only NLE vendor. More likely the mix will be spread across market and business niches. Historically, this has been true for cameras, VTRs, telecines and other professional video products. There’s simply no reason why one company SHOULD be the only force in the market. Over the years we’ve seen many shifts in market leaderships. Think RCA, Ampex, Sony, Ikegami, Rank and others.


Here’s what I see in the crystal ball …  Final Cut will continue to make the greatest inroads in markets outside of New York, Los Angeles and other media capitols. It will be the NLE of choice in production companies and small editorial boutiques. Avid will continue to be dominant in broadcast – especially hard news. I think the corporate and event world is up for grabs – probably split between all companies, with the biggest percentage falling to Adobe. Film cutting is going to be Avid for now, but with a shift to Final Cut as older editors retire and the assistants fill their shoes. Digital film finishing (DI) is going to be the world of Quantel, daVinci and Autodesk, shared with newcomers like Assimilate, Digital Vision and Filmlight.


None of this is good or bad. It’s simply the way it is. Innovation can come from all sides. Diversity and competition breed innovation. Don’t shrink from it! Embrace it!


© 2008 Oliver Peters

Edit Suite Design, Part II


In February 2009, the United Sates will flip the switch and make the full transition into the era of digital television transmission. Although this doesn’t mandate high definition, for many, Digital TV equals HDTV and are upgrading accordingly, even in the face of challenged capital budgets.


I’ve developed six spreadsheets designed to quickly budget your next HD edit suite expansion. These are broken down into A, B and C groups comparing three different budget ranges for the two leading professional edit system applications: Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro. Don’t take this as a pricing “shoot out”. Avid Media Composer is cross-platform, so it’s simply easier to use this type of metric as a comparison. In fact, you can substitute a Windows workstation running Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 with Matrox Axio and the numbers wouldn’t change very much.


Plus there’s a homework assignment. To get the most out of these comparisons, download my Excel spreadsheets and support information HERE. The products selected are my own personal preference based on working solutions I use every day at numerous facilities. Feel free to play with the numbers in different ways that fit your likes and dislikes, so if you’d rather plug in Blackmagic Design’s products in place of those from AJA, then by all means go ahead. The spreadsheets are mainly a framework to get you started and make sure that nothing essential is left out.


Looking at the Numbers



Even my lowest priced category might still look high to some, but these solutions are designed as cost-effective, realistic answers for the broadcaster, boutique post house or other type of pro user – not the video amateur working out of his bedroom. This is what it takes to equip a professional editing suite, taking into consideration such underestimated supporting items as racks, monitoring, furniture and acoustic treatment. These are mid-2008 figures from retail (Apple, Avid) and street price (B&H Photo, Sweetwater, Markertek, etc.) sources. Generally, shipping and sales taxes are not included, so adjust accordingly and as they say, your mileage may vary.


There are no videotape recorders in these spreadsheets. That need is dependent on your market and business model. Individual VTRs can range from a few thousand to over $100K, depending on whether you work in HDV or HDCAM-SR. If you shoot tapeless (Panasonic P2, Sony EX1, XDCAM-HD, RED, etc.) and deliver in some file-based fashion, then you won’t need any VTRs at all. But if you occasionally rent a high-end deck to lay off a master, I’ve designed the rack configurations to accommodate easy connection.


The Heart of the Suite


The engine of our packages is either Apple Final Cut Studio 2 or Avid Media Composer 3.0. Apple offers a suite of software, but Media Composer also includes advanced effects (Avid FX and BCC plug-ins), encoding (Sorenson Squeeze) and Avid DVD authoring. Avid’s new DX hardware or AJA and Matrox on the FCP side cover the high-quality analog and digital I/O that professionals require.  Only Mojo SDI doesn’t support HD capture and output, but it’s the only Avid product that fits into this lower budget category. It will display HD content as preview-quality, downconverted SD video, so it is possible to use Mojo SDI in an HD environment, when your acquisition is file or FireWire-based. Both Mojo DX and Mojo SDI are light on their professional analog connections, so these packages include additional AJA mini-converters to cover that front.


The Mac Pro configurations start with an 8-core fire-breather straight from the Apple Store and work down to something a bit more reasonable for the average user. No software package is complete without some Adobe products. Photoshop is a “must” in my book, so in our A groups you’ll find Adobe CS3 Production Premium for Photoshop, After Effects, Encore DVD and Flash Professional. Each budget has an added amount for miscellaneous software to cover your favorite filter packages and other necessities.


Storage is the Achilles heel of any edit suite. All these solutions offer RAID5 or 6 level protection, with Fibre Channel in the top group and eSATA in the middle and low-range budgets. Shop around for the best storage options, but solutions like 1st Design, CalDigit and G-Technology are battle-tested and proven performers in demanding HD post environment.


HD today means working with and trusting plasma or LCD monitors. None of these budgets will support the top-of-the-line HD CRTs (which are being phased out anyway), so I’ve plugged in the most reasonable LCD choices. I like Panasonic at the top end, because of the built-in waveform monitor and 1:1 pixel display option, however, JVC also makes a highly regarded LCD in a similar price range. The big difference is that JVC displays darker, richer black levels and looks closer to a CRT image than many other LCD panels. If you want to go for something better, then you can move up to TV Logic, CineTal or eCinema Systems.




Edit suites don’t build themselves. Any prudent budget needs to factor the installation cost – typically estimated as a percentage of the total equipment cost. Large system integrators usually figure this at 15%. For our purposes, I’ve rated these at 10% (A), 12.5% (B) and 15% (C). Any value-added engineering design (such as acoustical studio design, HVAC or electrical engineering) would naturally be an added expense.


Top 10 HD Suite Design Tips


1. Chair – Possibly the most important purchase in the suite. Your back will thank you after a 12-hour session if you’ve sprung for the Herman Miller Aeron. If you have a smaller budget, check the local office supply store or decor vendors like Ikea. Don’t approach this like my friend, who laughed and said, “Chair! Doesn’t the equipment come in cardboard boxes?”


2. Console – A video console surface is like a typing surface, so don’t make it too tall. The top of the table should be between 26” and 29” high off the floor. No taller. Make sure the console is large enough for monitors, keyboard, mixer and an audio control surface, not to mention scripts and a cup of coffee!


3. Eyeline – I hate consoles with bridges and losing them will save you money. Proper ergonomics means that you should be looking slightly down at the computer displays. When sitting up straight with your head level, your eyes should be looking directly at the top bezel of your computer displays. A bridge makes you look slightly up at the monitors and by the end of the day you’ll notice significant neck and shoulder tenseness.


4. Audio – Edit bay mixing today is done “in the box” and not through the mixer on the desk. They provide monitor routing and easy control of speaker volume. Low cost Behringer gear is more than up to the task. I plugged Mackie equipment into my higher budgets as a preference, but remember that you’ll be a lot less distraught is you spill a soda into a $330 Behringer XENYX than a $1400 Mackie Onyx!


5. Video Monitors – Modern LCD production monitors nearly rival CRTs in reproducing SD images, however I still feel the need to have at least one CRT around. This is your best way to check interlace issues. LCD panels are at their optimum with progressive, HD content and production grade monitors in an affordable range are going to be under 30”. If you need to “wow” clients with a big screen, you’ll have to find a decent looking consumer display in the 32” or larger size at your local retailer. That’s in addition to – not instead of – the better production monitors.


6. Client – Don’t forget the client! This means having at least a small client seating or working area. If you have space for a small desk, even better. Essentials are phone and Internet. Many places offer a secure, wireless Internet connection for their clients. Some even supply basic client computers, like a Mac Mini or a low cost generic PC.


7. Space – A smaller edit suite will work for you if your clients typically aren’t present during the entire session. A 12’ x 15’ suite is an acceptable size when racks and VTRs are in another room. I wouldn’t want it any smaller, but certainly larger is nice. Up to 15’ x 20’ still feels comfortable without being intimidating.


8. Acoustic design – Modest acoustic treatment kits are included in my estimates, but that’s simply to make a typical, office-style room less “live” by dampening acoustic reflections. If you really need a recording studio-class environment, then bring in a professional designer, like John Storyk, Russ Berger or Lawrence P. Swist. If you’re reading this article in earnest, you’re probably more in the “DIY” frame of mind. In that case, the Web comes to your rescue. Acoustic product vendors, like Auralex, offer many tips and white papers on basic studio design and even provide free room analysis online. Some design firms include simplified floor plans of their showcase installations, which are a great place to gain ideas about wall angles, room dimensions and console placement.


9. Equipment racks – I’ve included racks with patching, monitoring and uninterruptible power supplies. The assumption is that you will add your own choice of rented or permanent VTRs. Even if you only rent occasionally, you need a place to hook them up and view the content separate from the suite itself. If you decide to place the computer in the racks, rather than in the suite, you may need to extend the DVI and keyboard USB cables. I haven’t included fancy Gefen extenders, but these aren’t necessary if your room layout permits the racks to be on the other side of a wall from the edit console. Simply cut a pass-through hole for cables and you’ll be fine with longer cables.


10. Local resources – Before you commit to that super-cheap online purchase, check with your local reseller or system integrator for a quote. They are competing for your dollar against the online choices and even the local retail Apple Stores offer slight discounts to their small business customers. Many markets have at least one or two qualified freelance engineers that specialize in system integration, facility wiring and general support. Find the best local resources for you and support them, because when you really need them, they’ll still be in business!


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

Edit Suite Design, Part I

Note: This article was originally written in 2003.


NLE suites have followed a trend started in music – becoming the “project studios” of the video world. Like their audio counterparts, NLE suite designs run the gambit from world-class installations to a rack full of gear in a spare bedroom. Five factors must be taken into consideration to properly design an NLE suite: space, acoustics, ergonomics, power and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning).


I asked two pros for a little input. John Storyk (Walters-Storyk Design Group, New York) is a renowned architect who specializes in audio studios and media facilities. He has designed more than 1500 facilities for over 30 years, starting with Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. Most recently he designed several rooms for WNET (New York). Bob Zelin (Rescue 1, Orlando) is an electrical engineer who has made video engineering his life’s passion. Zelin has built almost 1000 post-production suites, including most of the Avid rooms in Manhattan and Orlando.


Avoiding the pitfalls


As an architect, John Storyk faces the challenges of acoustics and space on a daily basis. Edit suites end up in lofts, offices, warehouses and any other place you can imagine. John gave me some pointers to avoid some of the pitfalls these spaces can present.  “We are designers, so we always prefer to be involved in the design process as early as possible. More mistakes take place in the earliest stages of design than you can imagine. Even in a low-budget project, correct decisions should and can be made that could have large acoustic and economic implications.  Architectural and programmatic requirements of the room should always be solved first. Good seating, non-glare lighting, correct location of doors (for instance, not in the rear center of the room), correct amount of glass, daylight control, quiet air conditioning, etc. are some of the items that need to be accounted for. These are ‘married’ to good acoustic design to create a successful edit suite.  Boundaries between video and audio post-production suites are overlapping, so more edit rooms include audio recording and mixing capabilities. Even ‘scratch-track’ audio is expected to be an accurate representation of what will be heard at the end of the project. “


John offered some tips to aid in site selection:


Height – try to get a space with extra height. This will come back to aid you in HVAC ductwork, as well as lighting and acoustics. Low frequency control in small rooms is the key.


Try to avoid wood structures.  These are tough to isolate – they are relatively lightweight (most of the time).  Usually it is better to locate in a building that has concrete slabs of some sort.


You have a better chance of making a quiet room if you locate in a quiet site.  Don’t choose a warehouse location that is directly adjacent to a manufacturing tenant!


If there is a choice of sites, choose the one that is a slab-on-grade location (ground floor – concrete on earth). This is usually going to result in better (and more economic) isolation, as well as low frequency control.


Since equipment is a huge noise generator inside the room, John adds, “Try to put the noisy equipment out of the room. In some instances the creation of a central machine room solves the problem. When this is not possible, a machine closet will work.  Watch out for HVAC in those areas.  Separate rooms or closets for equipment also allow you to direct more of the HVAC to these spaces in a fashion that does not have to pay that much attention to system noise (since the rooms are noisy to begin with). This will usually save money – and, of course, create a quieter edit suite.”


Don’t forget the equipment


Bob Zelin offered these insights on some of the changes he has seen. “Modern NLE, audio and graphics suites do not suffer the problems that were incurred in ‘the old days’.  Power requirements, cooling, physical space, etc. are no longer the great concern, as when conventional machine rooms were required to house multiple one-inch VTRs and racks of video electronics. Today, in smaller installations without a central machine room (housing racks of equipment for multiple suites), everything runs on simple desktop computers, that use conventional office power and existing building HVAC. The best types of installations are like the world-class facilities that John has built.  My clients want to have the same performance, but spend less money to accomplish the same end result.  Although, I have been fortunate to build some beautiful facilities, I have also had to build facilities where the machine room had no air conditioning and operated at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The client finally took my advice to spend the money on proper air conditioning when the equipment started to fail due to overheating!”


Bob went on to explain some of the typical equipment selections that go into the rooms he designs. “The most common mistake is that people do not think about their infrastructure because these items are not billable, yet they are all critical in making a properly working system – and a facility or boutique that is presentable and comfortable for their clients. The best way to learn about building edit suites, is to observe the existing edit suites of your competitors. Certain ‘standards’ have been created, simply because of the enormous popularity of these products.  Items such as Sony PVM-20M4U monitors, Mackie mixers, Sigma blackburst generators and Sony UVW-1800 Betacam-SP VTRs have all become extremely popular because they are seen everywhere. Often these are ‘standards’ because they are the most cost-effective piece of equipment for the job. Items that are often left out of the installation are essentials like audio distribution amplifiers, waveform monitors and vectorscopes.”




Part of designing a successful suite is dealing with the issues of ergonomics and client areas. The room has to work for the operator, as well as the client. According to John Storyk, “Get a great chair – you can’t beat that. Try not to have furniture any higher than thirty-six inches. This will acoustically block the speakers.  The suite should have great lighting. Task lighting works the best.  Watch out for glare. Lots of edit rooms like natural daylight, which is nice, but it can be a liability.  The best place for a daytime view is (believe it or not) towards the front of a room.” Bob Zelin is a strong advocate for pre-fab consoles. “The first thing I tell people who want to build a beautiful facility is to consider a console from a company like Forecast Consoles, which make the ‘same old equipment’ look fantastic.”


The editor’s POV


I’ve also built a few editing suites in my time and have had to work in countless others, so I’ll offer some of my own insights.


Console ergonomics. I prefer consoles with plenty of desk space around the keyboard. Keep the monitors twenty inches or more away from the editor so that there is plenty of space for scripts, a coffee cup, notes, etc. You see a lot of consoles with monitors on top of a bridge. This places your eyeline at higher than a horizontal plane when you are looking at information at the top of the screen – causing neck strain. Go for something that places the monitor on a flat desk surface, or – even better – somewhat recessed into the console surface.


Client space. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to keep the client from encroaching on the editor’s space. Client consoles don’t often achieve this and U-shaped editor’s consoles seem to cause the opposite effect. The last room I built had a convex, semi-circular editor’s desk (the radius turned away from the editor). The producer/client desk was on a riser and featured a separate set of LCD monitors that were duplicates of the editor’s displays. The editor had a broadcast-quality, twenty-inch color monitor, plus there was a 16×9 flat panel screen mounted in the wall for viewing by the clients seated on the back sofa. Client phones and Internet access completed the package. This gave clients a comfortable and separate working space, yet they didn’t feel the need to “be in the editor’s lap”, just to follow along on the timeline or look at bin information on the screen.


Power conditioning. I firmly believe in using UPS systems like those from APC or Tripplite. Get a beefy one – not a general office version – and make sure you keep a good battery in it. This is more important for power conditioning than electrical failure. Electrical current in most places tends to fluctuate frequency, which causes file corruption on hard drives and premature shortening of the lifespan of your media drives.


Room noise. Computers, drives and VTRs generate noise. A modern Mac or PC is pretty quiet, but often NLE manufacturers, who use internal PCI cards, have to add fan kits to keep these machines cool. You can remove your computers and drives to a central machine room by using Gefen or Extron products to extend your keyboards and monitors. If the computer has to be in the room with you, maybe a computer enclosure, like those from Raxxess are of interest. Media drive arrays are the main noise offender, so you might consider fibre channel drives, which can be located a considerable distance from the computer.


According to Storyk, “The good news is that surface-applied acoustic products, such as pre-fab diffusors and acoustic absorption have become increasingly available over the past five years and (more good news) have gone down in price! More interestingly, progress has been made in relatively thin and inexpensive low frequency treatments.” The web offers plenty of resources for the do-it-yourselfer. There are tons of slick photos and floor plans to be seen on the home pages of many outstanding facilities. This is a good starting place to get inspiration for your layout. Then bring in the pros and turn your dreams into reality.


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

The Dark Knight


The Dark Knight, film’s most recent telling of the Batman saga, is bound to be a summer blockbuster. Unlike the campy 1960s TV series or even Tim Burton’s highly stylized vision of Batman, director Christopher Nolan has crafted a much grittier film that stays true to the Frank Miller graphic novel characterization of the caped crusader. This is the second Batman film directed and co-written by Nolan, but it is also another reunion of sorts, bringing together an experienced team that includes Nolan and his brother Jonathan (screenplay), Wally Pfister (director of photography), Lee Smith (film editor) and, of course, actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine – all of whom have worked together on the last three films, including Batman Begins and The Prestige.




IMAX is not an afterthought with the release of The Dark Knight. Simultaneous wide release of the film in both 35mm and IMAX theaters was always in the plan, adding a layer of complexity for both the production and post folks from the beginning. I started off my conversation with the film’s editor Lee Smith on this point. According to Smith, “Chris [Nolan] had always wanted to work in the IMAX format, because it offers such stunning image quality. It’s still too cost-prohibitive to shoot full movies like this in IMAX. The cameras tend to be noisy. I don’t believe anyone has found a way to properly ‘blimp’ an IMAX camera. So Chris settled on shooting four major action scenes natively on IMAX negative. IMAX shots are typically slow sequences with largely stationary cameras, but in order to shoot these scenes as we would with 35mm, we had to do some things that have never been done before with an IMAX camera. This included some Steadicam work and even a couple of handheld shots! We may have been the first film to ever do this!”


Shooting on IMAX posed some serious post-production issues, too. Smith continued, “Chris really likes the look of film and the photochemical finishing process instead of a DI, so our post followed the traditional route, except for the IMAX negative, of course. Our goal was to keep the IMAX in its native format for the IMAX screenings. For the 35mm prints, the IMAX shots were digitally scanned and recorded to 35mm negative that was cut together with the 35mm camera negative. IMAX does this by scanning their 65mm negative at 8K resolution. Effects within the IMAX scenes were handled at 8K, as well. These shots were then reduced to 4K resolution and recorded out to 35mm film. You also have to go in the other direction for the IMAX release. For these, the cut 35mm negative was color-timed at the lab [instead of a DI], producing an interpositive of the 35mm portions of the film. This went to IMAX, who used DMR – an IMAX-proprietary digital process – to ‘blow up’ the 35mm to the IMAX format. These scenes were then intercut with the IMAX camera negative. So, digital processes were used for the two format conversions, but each set of release prints was created by cutting the negative and timing the shots in a traditional manner.”



A variety of aspects


On the face of it, this seems pretty straightforward, but the 35mm shots were filmed in anamorphic 2.35:1, while an IMAX camera exposes images horizontally on 65mm negative using a 1.44:1 aspect ratio. Director Nolan opted to let the IMAX release change image aspect ratio between the widescreen look of the 35mm shots and full screen when the scenes cut to the four action sequences filmed in IMAX, thus adding more impact to these scenes. The different versions all had to be tracked in Smith’s Avid. “We had to be careful with the IMAX shots and how they would appear in the 35mm release. So I used a matte to represent the portion of the frame that would be cropped. I had both aspect ratios set up on different video tracks, so I could quickly flip between seeing what would be shown in the IMAX versus the 35mm release. With visual effects, this might be as many as fourteen video tracks for all the variations. The IMAX frames were ‘center-cut’ for the 35mm release, so all of these shots had to be repositioned to make sure the essential part of the image wouldn’t be cropped out. Out of 500 IMAX shots, all but one worked out. In that case, we were fortunate that the scene was one of the few IMAX set-ups that also had 35mm coverage, so we were able to replace that one shot with the 35mm negative. This all gets a little mind-numbing trying to make sure everything is properly tracked. I was able to rely on my first assistant John Lee to keep this all straight. We also had the luxury of a month of preproduction to work out the logistics between these two formats.”


The Joker


An unfortunate element of this film is the untimely death of Heath Ledger, who appears as arch-villain The Joker, in what is his last complete performance on film. Ledger takes the character in a completely different direction than the Jack Nicholson version. Nicholson played the role more as the quiet, but calculating, evil clown, whereas Ledger’s adaptation is one of a very scary psychopath. We touched on this on our conversation and Smith pointed out that, “Heath was one of the nicest actors I’ve known. We worked on a small Australian indie film called Two Hands years ago. As an editor, you don’t really get to know the actors, but when I received the Oscar nomination for Master and Commander, Heath come up to me and gave me a big hug. It was delightful to have him on this film and whenever he was in a scene it made watching dailies a real treat. Fortunately for the production, all of his scenes were completed. We didn’t need any ADR from him and Chris almost never shoots any pick-ups, because he’s so well organized.”



Sound and music


Lee Smith is like a small handful of other film editors, such as Walter Murch, who have spent much of their early years in sound editorial. Smith elaborated, “I started out as an assistant editor and went back and forth between sound and picture. In Australia, work is more stop and start and I learned that if I worked with both, I was consistently employed. Other editors who seemed to concentrate on one or the other weren’t working as much. I never really saw a big difference between the two and as a picture editor I work heavily with sound. I produce a very dense soundtrack in the Avid to make the screenings as full as possible. I will ask for elements from the sound department and get any effects or music elements that I need. I also make use of wild tracks. If there’s camera noise in a shot, I’ll ask for wild lines to be recorded on set and will cut those in to make the scene work.”


The Dark Knight and Batman Begins both used James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer for the score, so I was able to pull from music created for the earlier Batman film as a temp score, while cutting The Dark Knight. They were also working in parallel, so we would get current scores for scenes as the cutting progressed. This was an exception, because it’s really unusual to have temp music that perfectly fits the right mood for the particular film that you are working on. In the past, I’ve cut in a lot of temp music from other sources. That’s a bit of a danger when the director falls in love with it and ends up having to buy the music used for the temp. Lately, I’ve started to make my first cuts without any temp music at all. Music can sometimes be a crutch to prop up a weak scene and you have a tendency to cut a sequence at a more languid pace when music is there. Of course, this doesn’t work because you’d end up with a five hour long first cut that no one could watch. Cutting without music is a more brutal way to build a scene, but it forces you to cut tighter and find ways to make the scene work on its own. If it works then, music and effects will only bring it up to the next level.”



Editing styles and technology


The editorial team for The Dark Knight used eight Avid Media Composers connected to Avid Unity shared storage to service the needs of Smith, his assistants and three visual effects editors. These were older Meridien-based systems working in Avid’s 14:1 standard definition resolution. Smith explained that, “We had discussed working in HD, but these older systems are very rock-solid. With a movie of this complexity, I didn’t want to throw in additional variables, like a new system or new software. I’m interested in working in HD, because we use projectors in the cutting room, but then you also have to telecine the negative to HD. We were using workprint, because there’s still concern for risking the negative in the telecine process. Doing an HD transfer of the workprint isn’t as good as coming from the negative, so it negates the advantages of HD a little … but maybe on the next film.”


“I really like working on nonlinear systems and would never want to go back to the Moviolas and Kems that I started on. On the other hand, I cut pretty much the same way as I did on film, so I haven’t used some of the advanced Avid features, like ScriptSync. I still think in conventional film terms and typically don’t rely on digital tricks, like a ‘blow-up’ or an ‘invisible’ split-screen, to fix an editing challenge. You should always cut for a reason and in my case, I fixate on the story. There’s always a way to cut a scene so that it works and moves the story along. You just have to look for the right options and modern NLE’s make it possible to do just that. After all, you have instant access to a million feet of film, right at your fingertips!”


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)