Like many in post, I have spent weeks in a WFH (work from home) mode. Although I’m back in the office now on a limited basis, part of those weeks included studying the various webinars covering remote post workflows. Not as a solution for now, but to see what worked and what didn’t for the “next time.”
It was interesting to watch some of the comments from executives involved in network production groups and running multi-site, global post companies. While many offered good suggestions, I also heard a few statements about having to settle for something that was “good enough” under the circumstances. Maybe it wasn’t meant the way it sounded to me, but to characterize cutting in Premiere Pro and delivering ProRes masters as something they had to “settle for” struck me as just a bit snobbish. My apologies if I took it the wrong way.
A look back
The image at the top (click to expand) is a facility that I helped design and build and that I worked out of for over a dozen years. This was Century III, the resident post facility at Universal Studios Florida – back in the “Hollywood east” days of the 1990s. Not every post house of the day was this fancy and as equipped, but it represented the general state-of-the-art for that time. During its operation, we worked with 1″, D1, D2, Digital Betacam, and eventually some HD. But along the way, traditional linear post gave way to cheaper non-linear suites. We evolved with that trend and the last construction project was to repurpose one of the linear suites into a high-end Avid Symphony finishing suite.
All things come to an end and 2002 saw Century III’s demise. In part, because of the economic aftermath following September 11th, but also changes in the general film climate in Florida. That was also a time when dramatic and comedic filmed series gave way to many non-scripted, “reality” TV series.
I became a freelancer/independent contractor that year and about a year or so later was cutting and finishing an Animal Planet series. We cut and finished with four, networked Avid workstations spread across two apartments. There we covered all post, except the final audio mix. It was readily obvious to me that this was up to 160 hours/week of post that was no longer being done at an established facility. And that it was a trend that would accelerate, not go away.
It’s going on two decades now since that shift. In that time I’ve worked out of my home studio (picture circa 2011), my laptop on site, and within other production companies and facilities. Under various conditions, I’ve cut, finished, and delivered commercials, network shows, trade-show presentations, themed attraction projects, and feature films and documentaries. I’ve cut and graded with Final Cut Pro (“legacy” and X), Premiere Pro, Media Composer/Symphony, AvidDS, Color, Resolve, and others. The final delivered files have all passed rigid QC. It’s a given to me that you don’t need a state-of-the-art facility to do good work – IF you know what you are doing – and IF you can trust your gear in a way that you can generate predictable results. So I have to challenge the assumptions, when I hear “good enough.”
Predictable results – ah, there’s the rub. Colorists swear by the necessity for rooms with the proper neutral paint job and very expensive, calibrated displays. Yet, now many are working from home in ad hoc grading rooms. Many took home their super-expensive Sonys, but others are also using high-end LG, Flanders, or the new Apple XDR to grade by. And guess what? Somehow it all works. Would a calibrated grading environment be better? Sure, I’m not saying that it wouldn’t – simply that you can deliver quality without one when needed.
I’ve often asked clients to evaluate an in-progress grade using an Apple iPad, simply because they display good, consistent results. It’s like audio mixers who use the old Auratone cube speakers. Both devices are intended to be a “lowest common denominator.” If it looks or sounds good there, then that will translate reasonably well to other consumer devices. For grading I would still like to have the client present at the end for a final pass. Color is subjective and it’s essential that you are looking at the same display in the same room to make sure everyone is talking the same language.
I need to point out that I’m generally talking about finishing for streaming, the web, and/or broadcast with a stereo mix. When it comes to specialized venues, like theatrical presentations and custom attractions (theme parks or museums), the mixing and grading almost always has to be completed in properly designed suites/theaters/mix stages (motion pictures) or on-site (special venues). For example, if you mix a motion picture for theatrical display, you need a properly certified 5.1, 7.1, or Dolby Atmos environment. Otherwise, it’s largely a guessing game. The same for picture projection, which differs from TV and the web in terms of brightness, gamma, and color space. In these two instances, it’s highly unlikely that anyone working out of their house is going to have an acceptable set-up.
The new normal
So where do we go from here? What is the “new normal?” Once some level of normal has returned, I do believe a lot of post will go back to the way it was before. But, not all. Think of the various videoconference-style (Skype, Zoom, etc) shows you’ve been watching these weeks. Obviously, these were produced that way out of necessity. But, guess what! Quite a few are downright entertaining, which says to me that this format isn’t going away. It will become another way to produce a show that viewers like. Just as GoPros and drones have become a standard part of the production lexicon, the same will be true of iPhones and even direct Zoom or Skype feeds. Viewers are now comfortable with it.
At a time when the manufacturers have been trying to cram HDR and 8K down our throats, we suddenly find that something entirely different is more important. This will change not only production, but also post. Of course, many editors have already been working from home or ad hoc cutting rooms prior to this; but editing is a collaborative art working with other creatives.
All situations aren’t equal though. I’ve typically worked without a client sitting over my shoulder for years. Review-and-approval services like Frame.io have become standard tools in my workflow. Although not quite as efficient as haven’t a client right there, it still can be very effective. That’s common in my workflows, but has likely become a new way of working over these past two months for editors and colorists who never worked that way prior to Covid-19.
Where does “good enough” fit in? If cutting in Media Composer and delivering DNxHR has been your norm within a facility, then using editors working from home may require a shift in thinking. For example, is cutting in Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro X and then delivering ProResHQ (or higher) an acceptable alternative? There simply is no quality compromise, regardless of what some may believe, but it may require a shift in workflow or thinking.
Security may be harder to overcome. In studio or network-controlled features and TV series, security is tight, making WFH situations dicey. However, the truth of the matter is that the lowest common denominator may be more dangerous than a hacker. Think about the unscrupulous person somewhere in the chain who has access to files. Or someone with a smartphone camera recording a screen. In the end, do you or don’t you have employees and/or freelancers that you can trust? Frame.io is addressing some of these security questions with personalized screeners. Nevertheless, such issues need to be addressed and in some case, loosened.
Another item to consider is what are your freelancers using to cut or grade with? Do they have an adequate workstation with the right software, plug-ins, and fonts? Or does the company need to supply that? What about monitoring? All of these are items to explore with your staff and freelancers.
The hardest nut to crack is if you need access to a home base. Sure you can “sneakernet” drives between editors. You can transfer large files over the internet on a limited basis. These both come with a hit in efficiency. For example, my current work situation requires ongoing access to high-res, native media stored on QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish NAS systems – an aggregate of about 3/4PB of potential storage. Fortunately, we have a policy of archiving all completed projects onto removable drives, even while still storing the projects on the NAS systems for as long as possible. In preparation for our WFH mode, I brought home about 40 archive drives (about 150TB of media) as a best guess of everything I might need to work on from home. Two other editors took home a small RAID each for projects that they were working on.
Going forward, what have I learned? The bottom line is – I don’t know. We can easily work from home and deliver high-quality work. To me that’s a given and has been for a while. In fact, if you are running a loaded 5K iMac, iMac Pro, or 16″ MacBook Pro, then you already have a better workstation than most suites still running 10-year-old “cheese grater” or 7-year-old “trash can” Mac Pros. Toss in a fast Thunderbolt or USB3.0 RAID and ProRes or DNxHR media becomes a breeze. Clearly this “good enough” scenario will deliver comparable results to a “blessed” edit suite.
Unfortunately, if you can’t stay completely self-contained, then the scenarios involve someone being at the home base. In larger facilities this still requires IT personnel or assistant editors to go into the office. Even if you are an editor cutting from home with proxy files, someone has to go into the office to conform the camera originals and create deliverables. This tends to make a mockery out of stringent WFH restrictions.
If the world truly has changed forever, as many believe, and remote work will be how the majority of post-production operates going forward, then it certainly changes the complexion of what a facility will look like. Why invest in a large SAN/NAS storage solution? Why invest in a fleet of new Mac Pros? There’s no need, because the facility footprint can be much smaller. Just make sure your employees/freelancers have adequate hardware to do your work.
The alternative is fast, direct access over the internet to your actual shared storage. Technically, you can access files in a number of ways. None of them are particularly efficient. The best systems involve expense, like Teradici products or the HP RGS feature. However, if you have an IT hiccup or a power outage, you are back in the same boat. The “holy grail” for many is to have all media in the cloud and to edit directly from the cloud. That to me is still a total pipe dream and will be for a while for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to say that all of these ideas present insurmountable hurdles, but they aren’t cheaper – nor more secure – than being on premises. At least not yet.
The good news is that our experience over the past few months has spurred interest in new ways of working that will incentivize development. And maybe – just maybe – instead of fretting about the infrastructure to support 8K, we’ll find better, faster, more efficient ways to work with high-quality media at a distance.
©2020 Oliver Peters