The Final Cut Studio centric facility

Back in the day, the last large mainstream facility that I helped design, install and manage was geared towards episodic TV series post. We had several dedicated linear bays, DaVinci film transfer, graphics/VFX and audio mixing suites. This was a powerful (but expensive) combination for the time, however, it lacked the versatility to change the dedicated function of any of these rooms into something else. If you needed more edit bays or 2 film transfer suites for a short period of time, there was no way to do that other than simply shuffling clients around or running extra shifts. It kept our operations folks quite busy adjusting the schedule.

Fast forward to this century. Although nonlinear software has changed the facility paradigm, I’m not too sure that many facility managers aren’t still operating their rooms as if they only served one function. One of the biggest benefits of the Final Cut Studio bundle of applications, is that it truly replicates all the parts of most facility service offerings: edit (Final Cut Pro), audio editing/mixing (Soundtrack Pro), color grading (Color), motion graphics (Motion) and compression/web/authoring (Compressor, DVD Studio Pro). Apple has done this better than its competitors, making it easy to stay within the Apple/Final Cut ecosystem. Adobe’s Creative Suite comes closest, but Soundbooth isn’t as strong as Soundtrack Pro and there is no equivalent to Color. Avid’s bundle is strong for editing, but the rest of the apps are designed to augment Media Composer without providing equal strengths in other areas.

Optimizing the boutique

Lets take a look at a typical small-to-medium boutique facility with five installed post production suites. In a scenario where each of these workstations is equipped with Final Cut Studio, any of the rooms can be dedicated to any of the functions of the Studio bundle. If you need 5 edit bays on Monday, then 5 mixing suites on Tuesday and finally 5 color grading suites on Wednesday, it’s simply a matter of which application you launch at any given time. In short, the scheduling department has no problem reassigning the functions of these rooms in a flexible manner, based on the five core roles of Final Cut Studio – edit, sound, color, motion graphics and compression/authoring.

Of course, I’m ignoring several impediments to making this work out in the real world. First off, I’m assuming you will actually use these applications for the intended tasks. Pro Tools is still the preferred DAW in most markets and After Effects tends to be the “go to” motion graphics tool over Motion. I’m not going to argue those points, except to say that in the right hands, both Soundtrack Pro and Motion are viable applications that can be used to turn out excellent work. There’s no reason to spend extra money and effort adding Pro Tools or After Effects into the equation. The second issue is manpower and training. Most editors are not good at all of these tools. Depending on your market, this can be fixed through freelance support and/or additional operator training. I’m not saying that your current roster permits you to properly staff 5 color grading suites, merely that the software and facility configuration can take advantage of this versatility if you can make it work for you.

That brings us to the main point, which is how to best optimize your facility to achieve such a “musical chairs” approach. The first key in my mind is shared storage. There are lots of ways to solve the storage issue, with a variety of solutions including Facilis Technology (Terrablock) and EditShare on one end and Maxx Digital’s Final Share on the other. In keeping with the Apple theme of this article, the optimum solution (budget-permitting) would be Apple’s Xsan networking software and Active Storage arrays. Xsan requires a professional installation to make sure it is set up right, but from first hand experience, I can attest to the fact that it’s extremely easy for the user, once installed. You can move among rooms and access projects and media without issue. Editing in Suite A on Monday, mixing in Suite B on Tuesday and grading in Suite C on Wednesday – all from the same project – is a breeze with Xsan.

Don’t forget the rest of the room. The reason a mixing or color grading suite tends to be built as a single purpose room is because of accessories like custom control panels, monitoring and acoustic treatment. Many of these items have come down in price and I would offer that these features can be cost-effectively added to the design of all of the suites. For example, I’m a fan of control surfaces – partial to panels from Mackie and Euphonix for mixing. It’s not terribly expensive to add small-footprint panels like Euphonix’s MC Mix and MC Color or the Tangent Devices Wave to all five of the suites in our example. Furthermore, decent audio, video and tech monitoring should be a given, no matter what. If you add it all up, I would suggest that each suite can be equipped with good monitoring, panels and an acoustic kit for approximately $10K – $15K per room. Now that may sound high to some, but the linear facility I described at the outset came with Sony BVM-1910 monitors and a set of Tektronix scopes in every room – far greater expense than $10K/room!

I do recognize that may be a big number to many, so lets see how to offset the cost. First off, when I recommend a Final Cut workstation to folks, I usually suggest a KONA3 or KONA LHi capture card. Our hypothetical boutique don’t necessarily need a high-powered card like this in every room. For example, if most of the work through the facility is file-based, using tapeless acquisition – and delivery rarely involves tape – then each of these stations only need be equipped with a card that provides good, but low cost output. This can be easily handled by one of the entry level Blackmagic Design cards or one of the Matrox MXO2 products. In other words, save on the workstation capture card and spend it on the panels, monitors, etc.  Another item that fits neatly into this scenario is Telestream’s Pipeline. This is a high-quality I/O device, like a KONA or Blackmagic card, but unlike these, is accessed over a LAN. As such, you can share a Pipeline among these five suites for the occasional ingest or output to/from videotape decks.

How to augment the bundle

What’s missing in this picture? First off you need to evaluate your use of plug-ins and fonts. In order to be able to easily move projects among workstations and applications, you need to make sure that all have the same plug-ins and fonts installed. Since we have five bays in our example, it’s probably unlikely that most owners are going to buy five sets of several expensive plug-in packages. I recommend that you limit this to one comprehensive package and buy it for all stations. Then augment those with a selection of many of the free Final Cut filters available on the web.

The next item would be productivity tools, like Microsoft Office. Editors frequently have to access scripts, schedules and other client materials at their workstation. These tend to be in Word or Excel formats. The home edition of Office isn’t that expensive and does the trick, but alternatives include Apple’s iWork, TextEdit (included) or NeoOffice (free). Remember, you’ll want this on each workstation.

The last big issue is Photoshop. I find that almost every project I touch makes use of Adobe Photoshop. Unfortunately it’s become pretty pricey, so I can see where a facility would be reticent to install a seat on every workstation. There are a number of alternatives in various price ranges to consider. This depends on whether you need actual graphic design, compositing,  photo manipulation or other features. Don’t forget that a lot of this editorial graphics prep can be done in Motion. Other options include GraphicConverter, Photoshop Elements, Pixelmator and Corel Painter. If you only need photo tools, then of course there’s iPhoto, Aperture or Lightroom. In addition, iWork’s applications also include some built-in image editing tools.

Variations on a theme

Maybe you want to set up one dedicated design station, because you have a talented staff artist and don’t want to tie up an edit bay fulltime. Or maybe you need to log a lot of footage and again view this as a task that can be done outside of the suite. This is the scenario where an iMac might be the ideal station. Systems for either of these situations could connect to the media pool using Ethernet instead of fibre channel. Our graphics station might have a full installation of Adobe’s Creative Suite so that the artist can use After Effects, Illustrator, In Design and more.

In the example of the logging station, the Final Cut ecosystem comes to our aid. First off, the Telestream Pipeline includes separate capture utilities, so an iMac could be used to capture media to the Xsan media pool, without the need to install a seat of Final Cut Studio on that machine. Secondly Digital Heaven’s MovieLogger was specifically designed for this need. A story editor can use MovieLogger to open and review QuickTime files without Final Cut. Markers and description may be added and exported as XML documents. Once imported into Final Cut, the media and master clips, complete with marker information, are available to the editor. Additional useful tools to study include those from Video Toolshed, XMiL and Assisted Editing.

The last variation to discuss is the “hero” room. Granted that’s the opposite of how I started this article, but many facilities still structure their pipeline like a funnel. One central high-end “finishing” suite as the gateway for the completed project, including color correction and visual effects. The reasons may be cost, personnel strengths or a client whizz-bang factor. It’s a scenario that makes Autodesk’s Smoke on the Mac attractive to Final Cut Studio facilities. A lot of pixels have been spilled discussing the relative merits of the product and its price. Although $15K for Smoke (plus a $2K/yr subscription) is high in typical Apple terms, remember that you wouldn’t spend as much on the other 4 or 5 rooms. Since a “hero” room wouldn’t follow the same “musical chairs” approach I described earlier, you probably wouldn’t buy panels, capture cards and high-quality monitors in each of the other bays. These rooms would be centered around rough-cutting, not finishing, therefore no need to invest $10K-$15K/room for accessories. That leaves you money to invest in Smoke.

As a former facility manager, I can appreciate that Final Cut Studio is the first software product mix that optimizes what can be done in the boutique post operation. It’s this level of versatility that continues to make Final Cut attractive and a hard act to beat.

©2010 Oliver Peters