In my previous post I reviewed the new Blackmagic Cloud Store Mini. (Click here for the full article.) Blackmagic Design has a track record of being disruptive with cool new ideas and products. Their cloud storage line is no exception. I am less interested in the Blackmagic Cloud, as I’m not a fan of either the Resolve database format for projects nor parking your projects in the cloud. However, the storage products don’t require the Blackmagic Cloud and that opens up a number of possibilities.
I’ve worked with shared storage (SAN and NAS) products going back to Avid’s first fiber channel MediaShare. Blackmagic’s Cloud Store and Mini are light years ahead of those early units. Yet the multi-user workflows developed back then are still in play today. This is especially true if you are a facility owner with a handful of workstations all connected over a network to the same storage pool. It’s also true if you are an editorial team working together on a feature film. Both are workgroups that can easily be serviced by one of the Cloud Store or Cloud Store Mini storage products.
Building the workgroup
I’m a fan of simplicity. Today’s edit suites don’t need all the gadgets that they’ve had in the past. Less is often more. Let’s envision four workstations running either Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Resolve may be part of the mix, but not for collaborative editing. I’ll leave that discussion for another day. Mac-based, of course, but by personal preference since the storage also works with Windows. With those parameters, what would you buy?
For a fixed facility, the Mac Studio is a no-brainer. The Mac Pro makes no sense to me for most editorial work nor for most grading or audio mixing. A loaded M1 Max with a 1TB or 2TB internal drive is plenty. This unit already includes a built-in 10G Ethernet port. If the budget can’t handle four of those, then a loaded M1 Mac mini is another option. Just make sure to add the 10G upgrade.
What if the team needs to more portable, such as for on-site editing? In that case, go for one of the MacBook Pros instead. Since these do not include Ethernet ports, you’ll need add a Sonnet Solo 10G (Thunderbolt 3 to 10G Ethernet) converter for each computer in order to get 10G speeds.
This team is using 10G Ethernet. If you opt for the Cloud Store Mini 8TB drive, then you’ll need to integrate a standard 10G Ethernet switch to connect the four workstations with the Mini over a 10G network. There are a range of options, but at a minimum the switch will require that five or more ports supports 10G. There are many small combo switches on the market with both 1G and 10G ports. It’s easy to misread and think you have enough ports and then find out that most are only 1G.
In this hypothetical scenario, if you only have four workstations and are using the larger Cloud Store, then a switch isn’t needed, since the Cloud Store already has a 4-port 10G switch built in. And finally, you’ll need enough Cat 6 Ethernet cable for the cable runs between rooms. If any run exceeds 100 feet or passes alongside a lot of electrical wiring, then you may want to consider Cat 7 cable.
Now that we’ve built out the body of the facility or workgroup, what about its heart? Blackmagic Design offers CloudStore with 20TB, 80TB, or 320TB capacities, and Cloud Store Mini with 8TB.
The type of work being done will determine which one is the best fit. For example, if you work with high-resolution media and commonly edit with native camera files, then you’re going to need as big of a unit as you can afford. On the other hand, if most of the media is smaller or you generally edit with proxy files, then the Mini with 8TB might be plenty. Remember that you can always add a large Thunderbolt array (Promise, OWC, etc) with spinning drives at a very reasonable cost as a local drive on one of the stations.
A feature film might have a large Thunderbolt storage tower connected to one of the workstations. It would hold all of the original camera media. Those files would be transcoded to proxy media located on the Mini 8TB. All four workstations would be able to edit with the common proxy files, because the Mini is shared storage. When the cut is locked and it’s time to finish, the unit with the Thunderbolt tower would relink to the original camera media for grading and output.
There are many variations of these scenarios. It’s just a few ways that Blackmagic’s cloud storage products can be used to build powerful workgroups with a very light footprint. However, a key part of this innovation is the ease of putting such a system together.
Holiday time is a joyous affair, but it’s also the time of the year when retailers roll out their specials and cyber-deals. In these past almost-two years, many editors have spent a significant time cutting from home. Many have been working with ad hoc set-ups, like spreading a laptop and drives across the dining room table. If that’s you, maybe now is the time to create a more comfortable and productive editing environment.
I’ve discussed the minimalist approach in the pastand that’s what I’m revisiting in this post. The objective is to set up a powerful room built for modern workflows, but with a light footprint. My goal is a comfortable cutting room, not a high-end grading or mixing suite. For example, with editing in mind, you don’t necessarily need a large video reference display and AJA or Blackmagic Design i/o hardware. You can if you want to, but it’s not essential.
I’m going to describe a layout designed around a laptop with an external display. While you could certainly go with a workstation, the laptops offer you mobility, should you need to move the project to the location. Modern laptops, like the new 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pros have more than enough horsepower to compete with most desktop system. However, if mobility is less important and you still want the latest Apple hardware, then a Mac mini or a 24″ iMac might best fit the bill. Currently these use the entry-level M1 chip. While offering plenty of power for most users, you might want to wait until 2022 before committing, since more powerful versions are expected. After a couple of years running an older 15″ MacBook Pro plus a Dell display, I reconfigured my home cutting room around a 27″ Intel iMac. This best matches my current needs, since I rarely work on-location anymore.
Since I typically work with Macs, I’m going to focus on them here. If you prefer Windows PCs, then simply substitute your favorite – maybe a Dell, HP, or even a custom Puget Systems machine. If you are purchasing a new Mac with an Apple Silicon M1 integrated SoC, then make sure the hardware and software you add is compatible with the M1 chipset, as well as the latest macOS. While I have tried to make selections that are compatible, I don’t have personal experience with each and every item, so do your own research before you buy. My whole point here is to spark some ideas that may help you hone in on just the right room layout and tools for you.
Click the embedded links that appear throughout this post for more specific product information.
Most modern residential buildings have adequate power in the normal outlets to power your gear. However, I would highly recommend bringing in an electrician to wire dedicated circuits just for your computer and accessories. After all, you don’t want your RAID on the same circuit as the kitchen microwave or toaster. In addition, add an uninterruptible power supply, like an APC Smart-UPSor CyberPower Systems UPS. A single floor unit (1500-220VA) will be sufficient to provide power through momentary black-outs, as well as provide some voltage regulation. Also include a few standard power strips.
The chair and desk will be the most important purchases over time. Whether you prefer to sit, stand, or mix it up is a personal choice. I like large flat table surfaces in the 3′ x 6′ range. To cover the bases look at something like a Jarvis Bamboo Standing Desk. Make sure you pick an adjustable height model with electrical control and add the option of cable trays for neater cable management. Your sit/stand preference will dictate whether you need a standard office chair or stool. I’m a fan of the Herman Miller Aeron and Mirra 2 models for their quality and durability, but X-Chair or similar gaming chair is also a high-quality alternative.
Finally, the acoustic wall treatments. You may have enough furnishings and irregular surfaces in the room already to sufficiently kill sound reflections. If not, a good solution will be sound panels that can be mounted on the walls, like color-coordinated kits from Acoustical Solutions.
Computer and peripherals
As I stated up top, this room is designed around a laptop with an external display. My top laptop pick right now is Apple’s 16″ MacBook Pro with the M1 Max chip. Get the 10-core (CPU) / 32-core (GPU) model with 64GB RAM and a 1TB internal drive. Except for the drive, this is maxed out, so it should be ready for anything you toss at it. Some will prefer the 14″ MacBook Pro, which is smaller yet offers similar power. (Although some have noted that the “notch” is more intrusive on the 14″ models.)
If you prefer a matched dual-display layout, instead of using the laptop screen as a second display, then you may want to consider a pair of the LG UltraFine 4K models. Remember to add AppleCare to any of the products purchased from Apple. Yes, it’s an “insurance” policy, but I have actually had to use it in the past with an older Apple laptop. I was glad I had it then.
The type and capacity of required storage will depend on the projects you tackle. If you work with many projects or a lot of media, then I would recommend two RAID choices. The Promise RAIDs are tried and true, so the Pegasus32 R4, R6, or R8 models stand out. Another interesting option is OWC’s Thunderbay Flex 8, because you can mix both SSD/NVMe and spinning drives in the same enclosure. The enclosure also adds some expansion capability.
Because you never have enough ports, look at the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock. This may or may not be necessary if you purchase the Thunderbay Flex 8, as that unit already adds some additional ports. But you may need both.
I archive all client projects onto removable drives. If you work with such raw drives, make sure to get a fast drive dock, such as the OWC Drive Dock USB-C. This is handy not only for archiving, but if the dock and drive are fast enough, you can also edit directly from it, should quick revisions be required in the future. For media, my current choice is Seagate’s Ironwolf Pro line. Regardless of brand or capacity, select drives that run at 7200 RPM or faster, carry a 5-year limited warranty, and are rated for NAS use.
While I think you can do without an external video monitor in this type of room, I do believe you need good audio monitoring. I’m not a fan of working and mixing 100% of the time using only headphones, so speakers and an audio interface are important. How invested you are in audio gear is going to depend on whether you want to be able to work in stereo only or also surround. While I think you can adequately mix and master (for TV and the web) simple stereo projects in this environment, I don’t recommend that for surround. The intent is purely monitoring while editing, using either an LCR or a 5.1 configuration.
If the interface uses macOS core audio, then it should be compatible. However, if a separate software driver is used, then make sure that it will work with the M1 Macs and the latest macOS version. If you use powered speakers, then you can design the room without an external audio mixer, unless you prefer to add one.
Powered speakers eliminate the need for additional amps, wiring, a mixer, etc. This fits with the minimalist ethos. There are plenty of great speakers to choose from, but it’s a highly subjective choice. My top picks include Genelec, ADAM Audio, PreSonus, KRK, and M-Audio. Obviously for stereo, you’ll only need a pair of speakers; but for a 5.1 surround, you’ll need to purchase five matched speakers, plus a subwoofer. I also recommend speaker stands or risers – especially for any speaker sitting on the desk. This isolates vibration between the speaker and the desk and elevates the cones to the right height for your ears. I currently use speaker ISO-Stands from isoAcoustics.
I’m not going to dwell on the choice of editing software (NLE). The options are all good and what you use will depend on preference or business/project requirements. I’m talking about Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, or DaVinci Resolve. Of course, you can also toss in Lightworks and Media 100. Of these, Premiere Pro, FCP, and Resolve will be the most up-to-date with Mac compatibility. If your needs are simple, then you are probably fine using the tools as they come. But if your needs are more advanced or you are required to interchange projects with users who are running other NLEs, then you’ll have to augment the NLE with third-party tools.
Final Cut Pro users who exchange files with Premiere Pro editors or send sequences to a mixer using Pro Tools will need to invest in interchange products from Intelligent Assistance, XMiL, and/or Marquis Broadcast. These are available through the Apple App Store.
Like video, most of these NLEs have a solid selection of built-in audio effect/filter plug-ins. Nevertheless, often a third-party tool might handle tough sound situations in a better manner. One area is audio clean-up. My three top choices include the Accusonus ERA bundle, Klevgrand Brusfri, and iZotope RX. The first two offer good real-time performance and work well applied to clips or tracks. RX does include some real-time plug-ins, but you are better off using the standalone application that’s part of the RX bundle.
To wrap it up, don’t forget about some other useful tools. Even through you may use Photoshop, it’s still a good investment to add Pixelmator Pro and Affinity Photo. Each offers some graphics capabilities that Photoshop doesn’t. For example, Photoshop no longer supports certain font types as editable text within .PSD files. However, Affinity Photo can edit these, which helps with legacy files.
You are probably using either Apple Compressor or Adobe Media Encoder to batch-encode camera footage, generate files for review, and create web deliverables. Yet, there are still formats that these skip. One solution is the free (donation requested) Shutter Encoder. Two other applications in my video player toolkit include the free VLC – an all-purpose media player – and Telestream Switch. The latter is a bit pricey, but is my go-to application for detailed video analysis and QC. It can also transcode single video files when needed. Finally, if you do a lot of work with batches of files, Better Rename is one of my most-used applications.
OK, there you have the round-up to build a powerful, yet minimalist cutting room from the ground up. Remember that minimalist does not mean cheap. Heck, I’d venture to guess that if you max out this list, you might be pushing $35K. This is an investment in your business and future, so bite off what makes sense now and leave the rest for later. In any case, enjoy the holidays and maybe this rundown will give you some ideas as to what to put on the wishlist for Santa!
Storage is the heart of a modern post-production facility. The size and type of storage you pick can greatly impact the efficiency of the facility. Surprisingly the concerns and requirements around a storage network aren’t all that different, regardless of whether you’re a large or smaller post facility.
I recently spoke with industry veterans at Molinare in London and Republic Editorial in Dallas about how they’ve addressed storage needs.
High-end Mac users waited six years for Apple to release its successor to the cylindrical 2013 Mac Pro. That’s a unit that was derided by some and was ideal for others. Its unique shape earned the nickname of the “trash can.” Love it or hate it that Mac Pro lacked the ability to expand and grow with the times. Nevertheless, many are still in daily service and being used to crank out great wok.
The 2019 Mac Pro revitalized Apple’s tower configuration – dubbed the “cheese grater” design. If you want expandability, this one has it in spades. But at a premium price that puts it way above the cost of a decked out 2013 Mac Pro. Unfortunately for many users, this leaves a gap in the product line – both in features and in price range.
Another option would be the Mac Mini, which is closest to the unit that best fits this void. It recently got a slight bump up in specs, but it’s missing 8-core CPU options and an advanced graphics card. The best 6-core configuration might actually be a serviceable computer, but I would imagine effects requiring GPU acceleration will be hampered by the Intel UHD 630 built-in graphics. The Mini does tick a lot of the boxes, including wi-fi, Bluetooth, four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, HDMI 2.0, two USB 3.0 ports, plus Ethernet and headphone jacks.
I’ve tested both the previous Mac Mini iteration (with and w/o eGPU) and the latest 16″ MacBook Pro. Both were capable Macs, but the 16″ truly shines. I find it hard to believe that Apple couldn’t have created a Mac Mini with the same electronics as the loaded 16″ MacBook Pro. After all, once you remove the better speaker system, keyboard, and battery from the lower case of the laptop, you have about the same amount of “guts” as that of the Mac Mini. I think you could make the same calculation with the iMac electronics. Even if the Mini case needed to be a bit taller, I don’t see why this wouldn’t be technically possible.
Here’s a hypothetical Mac Mini spec (similar to the MacBook Pro) that could be a true sweet spot:
Such a configuration would likely be in the range of $3,000 – $5,000 based on the BTO options of the current Mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro. Of course, if you bump the internal SSD from 1TB to the higher capacities, the total price will go up. In my opinion, it should be easy for Apple to supply such a version without significant re-engineering. I recognize that if you went with a Xeon-based configuration, like the iMac Pros, then the task would be a bit more challenging, in part due to power demands and airflow. Naturally, an even higher-spec’ed Mac like this in the $5,000 – $10,000 range would also be appealing, but that would likely be a bridge too far for Apple.
What I ultimately want is a reasonably powerful Mac without being forced to also purchase an Apple display as this isn’t always the best option. But I want that without spending as much as on a car to get there. I understand that such a unit wouldn’t have the ability to add more cards, but then neither do the iMacs and MacBook Pros. So I really don’t see this as a huge issue. I feel that this configuration would be an instant success with many editors. Plug in the display and storage of your choice and Bob’s your uncle.
I’m not optimistic. Maybe Apple has run the calculation that such a version would rob sales from the 2019 Mac Pro or iMac Pros. Or maybe they simply view the Mini as fitting into a narrow range of server and home computing use cases. Whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that there is a huge gap in the product line that could be served by a Mac Mini with specs such as these.
On the other hand, Apple’s virtual WWDC is just around the corner, so we can always hope!
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 personnelor 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.