Central and West Florida Film & Video Production Spotlight, Part I

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In a word – diversification – best describes the strategies being applied by area production and post professionals. Diversity in projects and new technology keep Orlando, Tampa and the surrounding communities hopping with productions that include reality television, independent feature films, infomercials and, of course, television commercials.

 

The Metro Orlando Film and Entertainment Commission has relaunched its website (www.filmorlando.com) with new features, such as a section where people can “list their property” for locations. This should be great for producers like Philadelphia-based Banyan Productions, which last year shot the entire series of Trading Spaces Home Free in this region, choosing eight metro Orlando couples to compete for a new home. In addition, Banyan also taped several episodes of the regular hit series Trading Spaces, as well as another series, Perfect Proposal, in and around central Florida. It’s not all about reality TV, though. Part of the Film Commission’s website redesign includes an Industry Resource section powered by ProductionHub.com for up-to-date information on industry jobs, events and seminars.

 

Central Florida continues to be a favorite of film producers. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions shot for several days in Orlando and neighboring counties for the upcoming ABC movie-of-the-week, Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Halle Berry. This was a two-year effort in location scouting and permitting and about fifty local crew members were hired for the production. Central Florida made the national spotlight at the past Oscars, when Charlize Theron picked up the Best Actress win for her portrayal of convicted killer Aileen Wornos in Monster. As a central Florida story, Monster required such key locations as the Seminole County Courthouse, the Diamond Motel in Kissimmee, Fun World and general shots in downtown Orlando.

 

About seventy-five percent of the crew was local, including Stephen F. Campbell, an area film and television director of photography, who served as the “A” camera operator on Monster. Steve commented, “For me the most amazing part of the experience was while I was watching Charlize’s performance through the lens, it was mesmerizing to see her portray the character of Aileen Wornos. We would do a take and I would say to writer/director Patty Jenkins, ‘she’s become that woman!’ We were able to provide the LA-based production team with a central Florida-based, technically and creatively inspired crew that is on par with any in the country.  Along with being the ‘A’ operator on the show, the opportunity to DP for a few days allowed me to work very closely with Oscar winner Charlize Theron, director Patty Jenkins and to have a creative participation on an Academy Award winning picture.”

 

Local production companies have been staying the course to grow their business. HB Production Services is now in its eighth year offering a mix of production, post and marketing savvy. HB Production Services, together with producer/director Joseph P. Torina of Torina Media, Inc., has produced eight infomercial projects which are currently airing in over twenty markets throughout North America each week. For these clients, the team develops the script, shoots “real people” segments all over the country and keeps two newly installed Avid Media Composer Adrenaline bays busy fine-tuning the finished stories. According to Harry Brockman, president of HB Production Services, this is balanced out with post and fulfillment for over 250 commercial spots. These are posted in HB’s linear editing suite, which has proven to hold its value, because of the real-time compositing and short turnaround required.

 

i.d.e.a.s. at the Disney-MGM Studios is moving beyond the traditional boundaries of commercials and entertainment television. In the past year they produced Courage, Colorado, a show that is part marketing, part reality TV. Greg Galloway, VP of Entertainment for i.d.e.a.s., tells me that, “Courage Colorado – two thirty-minute episodes, shot entirely in high definition – is part of a new reality-based program designed to help fulfill the dreams of a family or group of friends each week by taking them on an adventure in Colorado. The first two episodes starred the Van Eerden family from Greensboro, North Carolina, who visited various Colorado adventure spots during the ten days of production. The family participated in activities ranging from an authentic cattle drive to whitewater rafting to rock climbing. Courage Colorado was produced by i.d.e.a.s. in association with Orlando-based Skydog Productions, the marketing firms of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell and PRACO (Colorado Springs). The two episodes aired numerous times over the past two months on the Outdoor Life Network.”

 

Speaking of outdoors, Florida is host to many major water sports competitions and leisure activities. Capitalizing on this is World Productions, the television division of Winter Park-based World Publications, publishers of such magazine titles as Waterski magazine. Headed up by executive producer Ken Kavanaugh, World Productions currently produces Sport Fishing Magazine (Outdoor Life Network), Hook The Future (Fox Sports Net) and the Mastercraft Pro Wakeboard Tour TV series for ESPN. World handles full location production and post on these projects and also makes its facilities available for hire to outside clients.

 

The commercial world continues to rebound. John Dussling, GM at longtime central Florida production company Florida Film & Tape, reports the spot business has been quite strong in the last year. “We produced a series of commercials for Valencia Community College in conjunction with VCC’s Marketing Department. In their own words, the students’ passion for their studies was a key to the success of the commercials. With the PUSH agency, we produced several Addy Award-winning commercials for Florida Citrus Sports to promote Orlando’s two major college football bowl games: the Tangerine Bowl and the Citrus Bowl. The humorous theme, Right In Your Own Backyard, featured a football-dressed character and a tangerine-clad character swinging on a swing set; bouncing on a trampoline; and running through a lawn sprinkler …right in your own backyard.”

 

Alphawolf Entertainment, another stalwart of the Orlando commercial scene, saw quite a few changes this year, including moving into a new location within the Celebration community and an official name change from Alphawolf Entertainment to imageROCKS. As if this wasn’t enough, executive producer Jim DeRusha and producer/director Jack Tinsley have been quite busy with spots for The Golf Channel, Orlando Utilities Commission, Florida Lottery, Hasbro, Mississippi Development and Hughes Supply. Disney has been a traditional client of DeRusha’s and this year saw the production of various promos and interstitials to promote the new EPCOT attraction, Mission Space. These have included working with a number of celebrities like Tiger Woods, Buz Aldrin, Roger Clemens and Pudge Rodriquez.

 

Several companies either expanding or on the move are Gate Seven Creative Studios, Digitec and Eagle Productions. Along with moving literally across the street, Digitec has also upgraded audio and video post facilities, added another DVD authoring station and expanded interactive services to support their new customized software and hardware product offerings. These new services include online instructional design, with an emphasis on game-based learning, with or without Digitec’s Knowledge Direct WEB software product (an easy-to-use learning management system).  Content design and development services support Digitec’s V-Wall product, an array of  flat-panel video monitors that can display up to sixteen synchronized channels of video and audio.

 

Eagle has upgraded its new facilities to include a full Adobe-based video suite with Premiere Pro editing and Encore DVD authoring. They’ve recently produced 275 science videos as part of series of DVDs for a New York educational publishing company. In an innovative use of the web, Eagle used Flash Communication Server and Flash to make near-real-time client approvals feasible during the shooting stage of the production.

 

Gate Seven upgraded both Avid Media Composer suites and added a third Avid Symphony system. In addition they’ve entered into an in-house partnership with AniMill to offer design, animation and effects services. Business for Gate Seven has been brisk with spot work for Universal’s Revenge of the Mummy – the Ride campaign, promos for Sunshine Network and a series of vignettes for the Speed Channel.

 

The past year has been busy for Kent Vanderberg, president of Elite Film + Video (formerly Elite Digital Video). The new name reflects the fact that in the past year film has increasingly been their production format, along with video. Last November Kent directed a corporate image film for Virginia-based Computer Science Corporation, picking up a Gold Addy for the effort. Along with a heavy schedule of presentations for Siemens Medical Solutions and events at Disney, Kent had a chance to return to his first love, live concert events.  Seven cameras and 24-track audio covered the onstage action during a wild night at Ybor City’s Twilight Club, where performances by The Verve Pipe’s Brian VanderArk and New Orleans-based Cowboy Mouth rocked the house. Both bands are negotiating the release of concert DVDs from the material.

 

22A Productions has found success in handling projects outside of the US. As an in-house production management team that is part of the Universal Studios Production Group, 22A, headed by Charlie Krestul, coordinates and produces various internal and external jobs. These have included a 3D film based on Sesame Street for Universal Japan, producing commercials for Wet & Wild and various outside commercials. When I say outside, I mean that! The 22A management team has recently produced international commercials for Praxis and Chocomel in Australia and Missing Witness in Africa.

 

One of west central Florida’s largest media facilities, Tampa Digital Studios, has seen projects increase four-fold during the past year. Notable projects include commercials and direct response spots for Sam Seltzer’s Steakhouse, Florida Digital Technologies, Kuhn Volkswagen and others. Tampa Digital Studios has moved towards CD-ROM and DVD production as a substitute for VHS duplication. Specific projects handled by Tampa Digital include a paint ball DVD by Focus TV and Workouts For Women Inc. In response to the rising film and video production taking place in the Tampa Bay area, Tampa Digital Studios has added two new Avid editing suites and expanded its graphics and animation department, now providing clients with 3D and 2D motion graphics. The new capabilities were used to create the 15-second opening graphics package for six one-hour special programs of American Muscle Car, aired weekly on the Speed Channel.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Create magazine

Compression Tips For The Web

One of the many new disciplines editors have to know is how to properly compress and encode video for presentations on the Internet or as part of CD-ROMs. Often this may be for demo reels or client approval copies, but it could also be for final presentations within PowerPoint, Director or another presentation application. The objective is to get the encoded program down to the smallest file size yet maintain as much of the original quality as possible.

 

Everyone has their own pet software or player format to recommend, but the truth of the matter is that it is unlikely that you will encode your video into a format that absolutely everyone can read without the need to download an additional player that they might have to install. The most common player formats include QuickTime, Windows Media, Real Player, Flash and the embedded media player that AOL bundles into their own software. Within each of these, there are also codec and size options that vary depending on how current a version you are targeting.

 

Modern formats, such as MPEG 4, Windows Media 9, QuickTime with Sorenson 3 and others may look great, but they frequently only run on the newest versions of these players. If your client has an older Windows 98 PC or an OS 9 Mac, it’s doubtful that they can play the latest and greatest software. You should also be aware that not all encoded results are equal. Some formats look awesome at standard medium-to-large video sizes, but don’t look good at all when you get down to a really small window size. The opposite is also true. Here are some guidelines that will let you target the largest possible audience.

 

Size and frame rate

 

The first thing to tackle when encoding for the web is the image size and frame rate. Standard definition video is 720 x 486 (480 for DV) pixels (rectangular aspect), which equates to a web size of 640 x 480 pixels (square aspect). This is considered a “large” window size for most web pages. Scaling the image down reduces the file size, so commonly used smaller sizes are 320 x 240 (“medium”), 192 x 144 and 160 x 120 (“small”). These sizes aren’t absolute. For instance, if your finished program is letterboxed, why waste file size on the black top and bottom bars? If your encoding software permits cropping, you could export these files in other sizes, such as 300 x 200 or 160 x 90 pixels. Another way to reduce the file size is to reduce the frame rate. Video runs at 29.97 fps but due to the progressive display and refresh rates of computer CRTs and flat panels, there is often little harm done in cutting this down to 15 fps or sometimes even 10 fps or lower.

 

Reducing the image size and frame rate is a matter of juggling the reduction of file size with playback that is still easily viewed and doesn’t lose the message you are trying to convey. If you are encoding for a CD-ROM instead of the web, then size is less of an issue. Here you may wish to maintain the full frame rate (29.97) so that your motion stays fluid, as long as most CPU speeds can support the size and rate you choose. For instance, a 320 x 240 file should play fine on most machines with a 200 MHz or faster CPU; however, if this same file is playing back from within another application, like an HTML page displayed in a web browser or PowerPoint, some CPU overhead will be lost to this host program. This means that the same file which plays fine outside of the host application, might tend to drop frames when playing back inside of another application.

 

Formats and players

 

There are a lot of conflicting opinions on this subject, but I tend to go for what is a common denominator and provides quality playback. For this reason, I tend to stick with formats like QuickTime (Photo-JPEG codec), Windows Media 7 and Real Player. MPEG 1 and 4 are supposed to be playable on nearly everything, but I haven’t found that to be true. I love the way Sorenson 3 (QuickTime) looks, but it requires QuickTime 5 or newer. If you encode in one of the previous three I mentioned, which are somewhat older, odds are that nearly any machine out there will be able to play these files or will be able to download a simple player in that format that works on a wide range of Mac and Windows PCs. Although Photo-JPEG is generally not considered a playback codec, the advance of CPU speeds lets these files play quite fluidly and the codec lends itself to controllable encoding – meaning, less voodoo to get a good image.

 

If you are putting a file up for anyone to see, like a demo reel, then you will probably have to create a version in each of these three player formats. If you are encoding for a single client and you know what they can play, then only one version is needed. As an example, a typical :30 commercial encoded with QuickTime (Photo-JPEG at about 50% quality) at a size of 320 x 240 (29.97 fps) will yield a file size of around 10 to 15MB. This is fine for approval quality, but a bit large when you multiply that for a longer demo reel on your website. Cutting down the image size and frame rate and using a lossier codec, will let you squeeze a demo reel of several minutes into that same space.

 

Interlacing and filtering

 

Interlaced video doesn’t look good on computer displays and doesn’t compress efficiently. Some programs let you export single fields only or let you apply de-interlacing filters. I recommend you use one of these options to get better results especially when there is a lot of motion. The one caveat is text. De-interlacing often trashes graphics and text, since half the visual information is tossed out. Generally, you get a better web look if your footage is based on a single-field export. Additionally, some encoding applications include noise reduction and image correction filters. I tend to stay away from these, but a touch of noise reduction won’t hurt. This will prefilter the image prior to compressing, which often results in better-looking and more efficient compression. Adding filters lengthens the encode time, so if you need a fast turnaround, you will probably want to disable any filters.

 

Constant versus variable bit-rate encoding

 

Like encoding for DVDs, many compression applications permit you to choose and adjust settings for constant (one-pass) and variable (one or two-pass) bit-rate encoding. I prefer constant bit-rate encoding because variable bit-rate often makes fades and dissolves look quite “blocky”. Constant also gives you a better look when transitioning between static graphics or frames and motion. The downside is that you will have to use a lower average rate to get comparable results in file size. Not all codecs give you this option, but when they do, it will often take a bit of trial-and-error to determine which rates look best and to decide how often to place keyframes (usually a slider in the software or a number value).

 

Audio

 

Remember that audio is a major component of your program. You can cut done your video by quite a lot, but at some point audio is taking up even more space than the video and needs to be compressed as well. Tackle this in several ways. First, change your stereo audio to a single track of mono audio. The difference is minor and often stereo channels don’t seem to encode well, introducing all sorts of phase errors. Next, drop your sampling rate. You probably edited the show using a rate of 44.1 or 48 kHz. On most programs, you can successfully drop this to 22 kHz without really affecting the sound quality heard on most computer speakers. Do not drop the bit-depth. Reducing the bit-depth from 16-bit (typical) to 8-bit will create some very undesirable audio. Finally, add compression. Most codecs include some typical audio compression schemes, which all players can decode. A compression ratio of 4:1 is common and hardly noticed.

 

Software

 

Choosing the best application to encode/compress your footage gets down to learning curve, comfort factor, speed, preference and whether you are on a Mac or PC. Not all applications give you equal quality results with the same codec, though. You can encode using the internal export functions of most NLEs or choose from a wide range of applications, including Apple QuickTime Player Pro, Apple Compressor, Discreet Cleaner, Canopus Procoder, Sorenson Squeeze, Ligos, Windows Media encoder and many others.

 

When you encode a file, you may also choose to make it streaming or downloadable. Selecting progressive encoding will make the file downloadable, which is generally what you want for a demo reel or a client approval copy. If you want to ensure that the person’s browser will permit a download, wrap the file in an archive (data compression) format like .sit or .zip using WinZip or Stuffit. This forces the viewer to either open the file or save it on their local hard drive.

 

As with most things, it helps to read the book and spend some time experimenting when you’re not under the gun. This will let you decide which codec and encoding application gives you the best results based on need and the target audience.

 

© 2004 Oliver Peters

New Business Models

This industry used to be so easy to figure out. Employment was either in broadcasting, in a large corporate video department or at a large, full-service, state-of-the-art post-production facility. Industry pundits often blame the events of September 11 or the success of Apple’s Final Cut Pro for the demise of video facilities, but these are simply events, which coincided with the inevitable. Before – when most production and post was done on film – the tools were relatively cheap and the investment was in talent. Then – starting in the early 1970’s – we went on a 30-year-long tangent of technology – much like a junkie on a binge. Facilities purchased gear and promoted themselves based on having the biggest, best, newest and costliest gear. Now we are on the other slope of that same bell curve and the tools are once again cheap and the cost is in the talent.

 

When I started editing in 1976, my facility employer in Jacksonville was able to charge $260/hour for two-inch linear editing, which was a tad cheaper than the prevailing South Florida, “big city” rate of $275. Most facility owners would love to get that rate today, even if the dollars were even! Today’s equipment is cheaper to own and operate and hourly rates reflect that fact. It is easier to make a profit if you opened shop today, than if you had opened five years ago and were still paying leases for that older, more expenses equipment investment. Those are simply the business facts of today’s video economy, so how do people continue to make this their livelihood? As I see it, these are the four business models for the next decade.

 

1. Facilities

 

What I would consider the traditional facility is one with a large investment in advanced technology. For the moment this would include high-definition post-production, film-to-tape transfer and electronic film finishing (digital intermediates). As HD gear gets cheaper, though, that portion of the model is also quickly going to disappear. These sorts of facilities will only exist in major markets and will only make money with investments that cannot be easily or inexpensively duplicated on the desktop. Film transfer and high-data-throughput DI work will continue to require large capital investments and these facilities will be able to hang on to a small niche at the uppermost part of the industry. On the other hand, this same level of capital investment in standard post – the proverbial million-dollar edit suites – can no longer be maintained for standard commercial, corporate or even entertainment post.

 

2. Boutiques

 

The small post house has become the current “facility” model. Typically boutiques are small post houses set up in offices or even homes. They are characterized by a few nonlinear edit suites, a small audio suite and maybe a graphics/animation suite. This model is much like that of a graphic design studio, but in the past, video facilities like this were small “project studios” built around a single project or person. Now the boutique tends to be the norm outside of most major markets – running lean and trying to be a survivor. Most boutiques keep their core staff low and rely on freelance editors and designers or contract workers to get the work done in peak times. Since many boutiques are founded and operated by the principal partners who are still active participants in the daily operations, quality service is usually a goal that is more important than owning state-of-the-art technology. Equipment upgrades are made when a project can pay for it, rather than by the cycle of obsolescence promoted by any specific manufacturer.

 

3. Corporate / Broadcast

 

I really see these as the same thing. Both corporate video departments and broadcast outlets (networks, stations, cable, satellite) are institutions that are owned by large corporations, usually have a fixed staff and make equipment purchases based on a schedule of approved capital expenditures. If you can get a job here, the environment tends to be stable (though downsizing is always a threat), but the video gear is generally not as current as the state-of-the-art within the industry. It simply takes longer to get such budgets approved, so in the corporate or broadcast world, it is impossible to respond to the needs of a specific production, by just going out and purchasing gear to get the job done. On the other hand, when money is approved, it can frequently have a sizeable budget with enough money to get the installation done right.

 

Broadcasters are a growth opportunity for many video manufacturers. Worldwide, TV stations are only at the beginning of the conversion from tape to digital technology and tapeless infrastructures. Even if most TV stations stay in standard definition rather than HD, their outlay for new equipment will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is to this market sector that companies like Avid will turn for sales of their most expensive gear. Stations are used to paying higher capital costs, because they would rather pay up front and get ongoing corporate support than to be nickel-and-dimed with annual incremental upgrades.

 

4. Independent / Entrepreneur

 

This last category is one in which many editors have landed in this new millennium. It is also one that is the likeliest future for new people entering the world of post. Being an independent contractor can take several forms. The obvious is the “gun for hire”. The freelancer who is called in by a facility to handle the overflow or get a specific job out the door on time. Often freelancers settle into one place as if they were staff. To keep costs lower (especially because of the cost of benefits, like paid insurance), many employers choose to leave such employees in an independent status, even though their hourly rate might seem higher than true fulltime employees. These are the so-called “permalancers”.

 

Another independent’s operating model is the “preditor” – producer/editor. The preditor is more than just the jockey behind the controls. He/she books and supervises editing and other sessions, like voice-over recordings, and helps the client with the logistics of getting all the production done (other than any actual shooting). Although this is viewed by many as a new phenomenon, it is actually how most respected commercial film editors worked years before. They not only edited, but controlled every aspect of post, finishing and delivery.

 

Many independents choose the entrepreneurial route. They purchase some gear, like an edit system, and work out of their house or place it inside another facility. In the latter case, arrangements are made to split revenues so both sides profit. This often gives facilities a chance to expand without any capital outlay beyond the necessary space, power and amenities.

 

The post production business model has come full circle. This is a service business and not a technology business. Companies and individuals who learn to adapt to this will survive and even prosper in these interesting times.

 

© 2004 Oliver Peters

Be a Student of the Business

In order to be at the top of your game in this business, you have to be willing to constantly invest time in learning new things. Put in the effort and do some research, because tons of valuable resources are at your fingertips. Some like web sites and trade magazines are generally free, while others, like books, manuals and tutorials might cost a few bucks. In any case, there’s plenty from which to pick and choose.

 

Let’s start with trade magazines. I write for Videography, but I also get more than a dozen other audio, music, video and computer trade publications. Many are published by the same parent publishing companies, but most have independent editorial staffs, so you do get a diverse range of articles and product reviews. Now, I don’t read them all cover-to-cover, but I do scan every one for some new tidbit of information or production technique that I find interesting. Many of the trades offer free subscriptions to anyone associated with the industry that they service. In fact, if you get a free subscription to one, you will often also get copies each month of some of the other titles published by that same group.

 

Here are my recommendations of the ones that I think are worthwhile. For film and video production: Videography, DV, Millimeter, Post and Video Systems. For audio mixing: Mix and EQ. I’m sure there are others worth adding to the list, but it really gets down to personal preference. If you like to delve into the technical side, then the SMPTE Journal and American Cinematographer are quite good, but you will have to join or purchase a subscription to receive these.

 

The web is another great free resource. Most of the magazines maintain companion web sites that often feature expanded articles or coverage not included in the hard copy magazine. These sites are often updated with more timely press releases and other news information within the industry. Generally, these sites can be found under the magazine’s name plus .com, without any effort at all.

 

While we’re surfing the web, don’t forget that many companies include support pages with troubleshooting information, white papers on procedures and even technical documents and equipment manuals. Some manufacturers who offer such items include Avid, Quantel and discreet. You might have to hunt a bit on these sites for the right support page, but you’ll also often find forums with input and questions from fellow users. Sony even maintains several specific sites for their HD, DVCAM and editing products. Point your browser to  http://www.sonyusadvcam.com, http://www.sonyusacinealta.com, http://www.sonympeg-imx.com, and http://www.sonyxpri.com. If your main focus is film, then go to Kodak and peruse the wealth of documents on the professional motion picture portion of their company site.

 

Some of the other web resources include special web-based industry services and forums, like Digital Media Network, 2-pop, 2-popHD and Creative Cow. Several well-known system developers also maintain helpful personal sites, including Michael E. Phillip’s 24p.com and Alan Stewart’s zerocut.com

 

If you’d rather get your education between hard covers, check out the many books on subjects like editing, color-correction and more. Nearly all of these titles can be found online at Amazon. Most are published either by CMP Books or Focal Press. If you want to know more about the art of editing, one of the best books is Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye (Siman-James Press). Most of the current editors work with some type of nonlinear editing system, so for a little background and insight, check out Nonlinear4 (Michael Rubin), Nonlinear Editing (Bryce Button), Digital Nonlinear Editing (Thomas A. Ohanian) or Digital Filmmaking – The Changing Art and Craft of Motion Pictures (Michael E. Phillips, Thomas A. Ohanian).

 

If your need is for more detailed information, how about Steve Bayes’ Avid Handbook or Color-Correction for Digital Video (Steve Hullfish, Jaime Fowler). There are also plenty of instructions for effects and graphics, like Boris Visual Effects for Editors (Tim Wilson) and Creating Motion Graphics with After Effects (Trish & Chris Meyer). One of the best that I’ve read for Photoshop is Photoshop for Nonlinear Editors (Richard Harrington). If you work a lot with QuickTime and other media formats that involve compression techniques, how about Ben Waggoner’s Compression for Great Digital Video. If audio post is your thing, then you might want to investigate Audio Post-Production for Digital Video (Jay Rose). And last but not least, for the producers in the crowd, let me suggest Pre-Production Planning for Video, Film and Multimedia (Steve R. Cartwright).

 

So whether you are an editor, designer, mixer or producer, there’s something for you. A simple search through the web or through these publications will provide a wealth of knowledge for years to come – all at very little cost.

 

© 2003 Oliver Peters